The Justice Secretary may duck and dive but the buck stops with him

The Justice Secretary may duck and dive but the buck stops with him

by Liam Kerr
article from Monday 4, December, 2017

LAST WEEK’S NEWS was dominated by allegations that have been made against senior Police Scotland officers, leading to a number of suspensions. I was asked by various outlets to comment on this but declined to address the substance of the claims; a live investigation is ongoing and we do not yet know the full picture.

What I was prepared to say, however, is that the response from the current Justice Secretary was wanting. On Saturday morning I was asked to speak on Good Morning Scotland. In the introduction, the presenter made clear that the Scottish Government had been asked to comment and put forward a representative - but refused.

I fear this is part of a wider malaise in which the justice secretary repeatedly fails to take responsibility for his portfolio and address the issues that seem to be coming thick and fast at the top of the single police force.

Nowhere was this more obvious than during the passage of the legislation which allowed the SNP to begin abolishing the British Transport Police in Scotland. Despite introducing the Bill to Parliament, Mr Matheson (pictured) was nowhere to be found, leaving his subordinate minister Humza Yousaf MSP take all the heat.

Whilst The Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill states, very clearly, that Mr Matheson is the Minister responsible for introducing the bill, it has been Yousaf who has been left to defend the Bill from a barrage of criticism in Parliamentary committees and debates.

The Cabinet Secretary doesn’t tend to answer questions anyway. No answers were forthcoming when he was quizzed about one of the most important problems with the railway police merger – how will crucial track safety training be delivered to the thousands of officers who have no experience of policing the railway? Sidestepping the issue, he answered drily that ‘that will be an operational matter for Police Scotland’.

And that’s not all: the justice secretary completely ignored a parliamentary question about falling fire safety and inspector numbers. Only a few weeks ago my colleague Maurice Corry asked him:

“According to figures collected by the Fire Brigades Union, the number of fire safety officers and inspectors has fallen from 102 in 2013 to 90 in 2017, which is a 12 per cent drop in four years. Can the cabinet secretary assure members that he plans to reverse that trend?”

In response, the full answer was ‘how the staffing complement is configured in the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is a matter for the chief officer.’ No acknowledgement of the alarming trend and no mention of what he’s going to do about it.

In June this year Gordon Lindhurst MSP made a laudable effort to probe the minister on police response times in Edinburgh. He was rebuffed with the reply: ‘the member should take it up directly with the local commander.’

West of Scotland MSP Maurice Golden collided with the very same stonewall when he tried to pin Matheson down about metal theft and other environmental crimes. There’s a simple principle that politicians who take the decisions should have to answer for them. But that is not what is happening here.

And it’s all the more concerning considering that he has been happy to intervene and take credit where it suits.

Indeed, earlier this year, the justice secretary gave a statement to Parliament in which he revealed that he had overruled the Chief Constable on cutting police officer numbers. A ministerial intervention in what is supposedly an ‘operational matter’. We can only conclude that our current justice secretary is happy to get hands-on when there’s a chance of a good headline but is less inclined to get hands dirty when it comes to tackling the challenges faced by Scottish policing and fire services.

The other trick of course – when all else fails – is to claim to have no knowledge of what he’s asked about.

Back in 2015 when Police Scotland was led by the somewhat controversial Chief Constable Stephen House, it was reported that the top cop had said he could “pull together an option that would completely balance the budget” but he questioned whether it would be “politically acceptable” to the Scottish Government. One MSP had the temerity to ask the justice secretary what these supposed budget plans were and why they weren’t politically acceptable to him. His answers then were just as vague as they are now. Mr Matheson’s answer, in full, was ‘To be frank, the member would have to ask the Chief Constable, as he has not shared that information with me.’

In short, these are six incidents where Mr Matheson has either refused to take responsibility for his portfolio, ignored questions, or denied any knowledge of information. That’s not good enough.

Last Wednesday, the justice secretary had a chance to be straight with the Scottish people. The Chief Constable is on special leave following bullying complaints, and four other senior officers have been suspended following criminal and misconduct allegations. These are extraordinary circumstances.

Instead, in response to my questioning in the Chamber, it was ‘nothing to see here, move along’ and no answers on whether major investigations have been affected or when we can expect to return to a sense of normality. Worse, despite acknowledging that across the Chamber there is significant opposition to the political project to abolish the British Transport Police, the Justice Secretary refused, even in this time of upheaval, to review whether the project should go ahead.

The brave men and women of our police service deserve better. It is vital that they have complete confidence in their leadership and I hope that Susan deacon, the new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, will bring some welcome clarity to the situation.

But the responsibility to address the state that Police Scotland finds itself in lies squarely with the justice secretary and not even sustained wriggling will get him off the hook.

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