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Willie Rennie speech to Police Federation conference

April 1, 2015 1:48 PM
Originally published by Scottish Liberal Democrats

Willie Rennie MSP's speech to the Scottish Police Federation conference 2015:

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today; for giving me the chance to listen to your experiences and your hopes for the future.

I would like to start by thanking you. For the work that you do to protect my constituents and people across Scotland.

You routinely put the needs of the public before your own. Each time you go on shift you're prepared to respond to the unexpected. Disturbing and traumatic incidents. Situations the rest of us hope that we never encounter.

The last year has also seen officers support national and international events. You secured the safety of 1.3 million spectators at the Commonwealth Games. Tens of thousands more at the Ryder Cup. And you helped ensure the independence referendum was the peaceful democratic experience of our lifetime.

As the Federation says, it is a job like no other.

Of course we will disagree on some issues. However, I don't believe that debate is ever indicative of a lack of respect or support for officers and staff. In fact, it demonstrates quite the opposite. Anything less would be doing you a disservice.

It won't be news to you that Scottish Liberal Democrats were the only party to consistently oppose the abolition of local services in favour of a single national force.

We argued then that a national police force risked being over-sized, over-centralised and less responsive to the needs and circumstances of the communities it serves.

I am sorry to say these problems and more have beset the national force.

It has been a turbulent two years.

The Federation deserves credit for speaking up effectively throughout this time about needless targets, challenging work environments and changes to your personal entitlements and conditions.

And the impact is clear from policing patterns.

Tried and tested local policies have been axed in favour of top-down policing practices.

In Edinburgh, a specialist local unit dealing with housebreakings was disbanded. There was a 40% increase in incidents.

Eventually, Police Scotland set up a brand new dedicated housebreaking taskforce but the damage was already done.

There is still considerable doubt that a uniform, Scotland-wide policy on armed policing can be sensitive and proportionate to local circumstances and risks.

And the use of stop and search has also been distorted by the use of centralised numbers, targets and diktats.

An apparent 19,000% rise in the use of the tactic in Dumfries and Galloway during year one of Police Scotland is surely testament to that.

An unhealthy targets culture and a one-size-fits all approach take their toll on police personnel too.

I don't think it is any coincidence the number of police officers taking stress-related sick leave has risen by more than a quarter since the establishment of the national force.

Such examples of good work being interrupted or undone are common. Best practice has been squandered and experience overlooked. Local discretion has been eroded because senior officers don't seem to trust you to know your communities.

What is worse, you are frequently being asked to do jobs that you were not trained for.

The Scottish Government and Police Scotland deny backfilling is occurring to any great extent. "There is no policy" we are told. But that is not the reality on the ground.

You have every right to be frustrated because you have been let down.

You have been let down by the Scottish Government. It took its eye off the ball during one of the largest mergers in public sector history.

It forced through fundamentally flawed legislation to create the national force. Then it ceased to be a priority.

This government is focused elsewhere rather than using the powers it has to do the serious job of sorting out the sorry mess it created.

And you have also been let down by the ineffective Scottish Police Authority. It has struggled to find its role and cope with the pace of change.

The body, which is supposed to scrutinise the national force's practices and performance, lacks clout and is constantly playing catch-up.

It is supposed to help you to do your jobs as effectively as possible, but it has failed to live up to that task.

The Chair of the SPA told my colleague Alison McInnes that it only tends to ask questions and make recommendations after policies have been rolled-out - after the flaws have become apparent. It needs to be much more proactive.

We need to have confidence that decisions are rooted in the evidence of what works locally.

We need to have confidence that decisions aren't based on political dogma, or quick fixes designed to boost figures.

And we need to have confidence that officers, staff and the public will be protected from poor decisions - that they won't have ill-judged policies foisted upon them.

There is unprecedented secrecy about what is really happening behind closed doors at police headquarters or even on our streets.

Local communities feel like they no longer have a say over how they are policed. Resources and decision making powers have been sucked to the centre.

There is one aspect that alarms me probably more than most. That is the issue of trust and integrity.

It is essential that Police Scotland retains the trust of people across Scotland, trust that you have worked so hard to build.

But I'm afraid that the integrity and trust in the leadership of Police Scotland is on the line.

Too often we have been told one thing only for us to discover that this is untrue.

ACC Mawson told Parliament that non statutory stop and search for under 12s would end. Not true.

The Chief Constable told Parliament that he had been forced by the information commissioner to release inaccurate statistics. Not true.

A senior officer told parliament that only eighteen children under the age of 12 had been stopped and searched. Not true.

The Chief Constable said no guns would be carried by officers on routine duties. Not true.

And he said there was no target-driven culture. Again, not true.

I would have thought that being straight with people in Scotland would be an important principle for the leadership of Police Scotland.

It cannot be easy when you are seeking to build relationships with the communities you serve when your superiors have such a cavalier attitude towards the facts.

It is now time for the Chief Constable to change the culture and change his ways.