Scots police bosses slammed over 'secret society' board

Image caption,
Scottish Police Authority bosses were given a grilling by MSPs at Holyrood

MSPs have strongly criticised Scottish Police Authority (SPA) bosses over transparency and governance.

Holyrood's public audit committee quizzed SPA management over claims of a "secret society" on its board and meetings held behind closed doors.

One MSP told bosses that "it's not the Kremlin you're running", while another asked if the group was fit for purpose.

SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan insisted the body had made "substantial" progress over the last year.

The Scottish government has now asked Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) to speed up its investigation of transparency within the authority.

The chief inspector, Derek Penman, will now deliver his report within a month rather than later this year.

A new governance framework was agreed by the SPA board after a review by Mr Flanagan, commissioned by the justice secretary, which led to some committee meetings being held in private and board papers only being made available on the day of the meeting.

Mr Flanagan came under fire after he admitted he did not pass on a letter from the police watchdog questioning governance arrangements to other SPA board members.

Concerns were also raised over the handling of the resignation of one board member, who quit amid a row over meetings being held behind closed doors.

Image caption,
Alex Neil told SPA bosses "it's not the Kremlin you are running"

SNP MSP Alex Neil told Mr Flanagan that "it's not the Kremlin you are running", saying the issue of the letter from HM Inspector of Constabulary in Scotland Derek Penman raised questions over whether "decisions are being effectively made in private and nodded through in public".

He said "surely to goodness" the letter should have gone to every board member, saying not to pass it on "breaches every rule in the book".

He said: "We have this secret society inside the board...deciding on transparency of governance and the whole thing is done without public knowledge, without people out there being able to hold this board to account, because this is all done deliberately behind closed doors to undermine the very principles of transparency and accountability that the review the cabinet secretary set up was designed to address."

'Culture of secrecy'

Other members were also very critical of Mr Flanagan, with Labour's Monica Lennon questioning whether he was a "control freak" who didn't seem to accept there were problems with the system and who treated other board members like "infants".

Labour's Jackie Baillie said there was a "culture of secrecy" within the SPA, while Tory member Ross Thomson said there seemed to be "convenient collective amnesia" and suggested the organisation was "not fit for purpose".

Image caption,
A number of members of the public audit committee were very critical of SPA bosses

He also questioned whether Mr Flanagan had considered his position, to which the chairman replied: "I believe that I am doing an effective job."

On his failure to share the letter, he said the issues had been "well trailed" and were "well known", saying he "didn't think it was necessary to circulate the letter itself". He also denied that he did not acknowledge problems within the SPA, saying concerns had been "discussed fully" and "understood and noted".

Addressing the issue of whether the SPA was fit for purpose, he said: "I think we've made a number of substantial movements within the last 12 months based on the governance review.

"I think we are becoming more effective, I think it is important that we recognise that there is already a high and significant degree of openness through the public board meetings that we have which are second to none in terms of public bodies in Scotland.

"In terms of progress, [the 2026 policing strategy] represents the first time that we have had a clear direction of travel for policing in Scotland.

"I think we are on a journey. Is it perfect? No, it's not perfect, but I think in the last 12 months or so there have been significant steps forward.

"I think we need to make sure that the board meetings aren't perfunctory or rubber-stamping, I think we need to have open discussion at those board meetings."

'Utmost importance'

Justice Secretary Michael Matheson later confirmed that a request had been made to HMICS to bring forward its transparency investigation.

Mr Matheson said: "Openness and transparency are of the utmost importance to a public body such as the SPA so I welcome the proposed changes to their approach to committee meetings.

"However, given the level of interest in these matters I am seeking further assurance that all that can be done is being done.

"That is why I have written to HMICS asking them to bring forward part of their planned statutory inspection into the operation of the authority, scheduled for later this year, which relates to transparency. I look forward to receiving their findings in due course."

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