Shambles of police watchdog without teeth… or a bark

IF you had any doubts about the SNP’s controversial amalgamation of Scotland’s eight police forces, fret no longer — yesterday brought good news.

You might have been rightly worried that the single service was facing a financial deficit of nearly £200million.

And you might have been concerned about plunging frontline morale, the closure of police stations and an increase in some violent and sexual offences.

But yesterday it emerged that, contrary to all available evidence, the single force had ‘met its annual objectives and continued to deliver a service to a high quality and consistency’.

Forget your natural concern about a sharp drop in the detection rate for sexual offences, because there has been a ‘strong continuing performance in solving crimes’.

Sighs of relief all round, then, because until now Scottish policing looked a bit, well, chaotic, particularly when you consider the breakdown of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

It was set up to hold top brass to account but has endured a torrid time in recent months, with its chairman Andrew Flanagan quitting last week amid allegations of bullying — and running the watchdog like the Kremlin.

But wait a second — this glowing appraisal of Scottish policing, in a hefty 104-page report, was produced by the SPA — with a foreword by one Andrew Flanagan.

He says the SPA board has in fact ‘strengthened its stewardship of policing’ over the last year — stewardship was so good, in fact, that Mr Flanagan had to, er, quit.

Indeed, all of those quotes which paint such a positive picture of Police Scotland were from the SPA chairman, who says he will attempt to stay in post until a successor is found.

Pressure had been building for months on Mr Flanagan to go, amid public criticism from MSPs who said they had no confidence in his continued tenure.

Whistleblower Moi Ali accused Mr Flanagan of effectively bullying her out her position as an SPA board member after she had the temerity to criticise the organisation’s secrecy culture — with key meetings held in private and vital documentation suppressed by Mr Flanagan.

You might have thought, against this backdrop, that the chairman would have had the decency to go now — he does have a recently-appointed deputy, after all.

And he is unlikely to starve: Mr Flanagan has other quango jobs for which he receives a total of £75,000 a year.

He candidly admitted to MSPs that one of the reasons he took his eye off the ball at the SPA was that he was simply too busy with his other positions.

In post but not in charge?: Andrew Flanagan

Instead of clearing his desk, however, Mr Flanagan has published a report that is akin to Stalinist propaganda — airbrushing out a series of failings on the part of the police service — and on Thursday he will chair an SPA public boarding meeting.

So, business as usual: a dysfunctional quango proclaims its confidence in policing just days after its discredited chairman quit because of a haemorrhaging of political confidence in his leadership.

How can anyone trust a word of Mr Flanagan’s vacuous report if everyone (including him) believes he can no longer be trusted to do the job?

It is a surreal turn of events in the relatively short, four-year history of the SPA, but the entire episode mirrors the wider story of Scottish policing since 2013: the loss of public confidence in an institution of huge importance.

In May, Miss Ali publicly gave evidence about her experience to MSPs, who believed her account, and launched an all-out assault on Mr Flanagan.

Mr Flanagan didn’t help matters by apologising to Miss Ali only about an hour before a parliamentary committee probing the fiasco — and only after she had threatened to launch legal action against the SPA.

In the midst of the political firestorm, one SPA board member, SNP councillor Graham Houston, even criticised the ‘appalling’ conduct of Holyrood’s public audit committee, which had earlier complained about Mr Flanagan’s ‘inappropriate’ behaviour.

Mr Flanagan is believed to have quit after learning of the content of a forthcoming report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS), which is thought to contain a devastating analysis of the SPA’s poor performance.

In reality, the writing was on the wall long before then — and it was ignored by Mr Flanagan, who was previously at the helm of Scottish Media Group (in this role, he once sacked DJ Chris Evans after the presenter went AWOL on a drinking spree).

For former chartered accountant Mr Flanagan, policing was a ‘people-driven business’ which was too reliant on costly manpower (officers) and the ‘fixed estate’ (police stations).

He was hired in September 2015 to bring stability to the organisation after his predecessor, Vic Emery, was forced out by an internal revolt — Mr Emery now chairs Zero Waste Scotland, a taxpayer-funded environmental charity.

Miss Ali recently alleged that Mr Emery, former head of Edinburgh’s calamitous trams project, had called her a ‘one-trick diversity pony’ during a job appraisal.

This was said to be a description of her by HMICS boss Derek Penman — a claim Mr Penman strongly denied. Mr Emery has not commented and it seems all records have been shredded.

When Mr Flanagan was appointed, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson said ‘recent incidents have knocked confidence in policing and it is vital we address that’.

All of this matters because the SPA is meant to be guiding the police service through financial turmoil, and leading it into a new future as part of a process known as ‘Policing 2026’.

This is aimed at mapping the future of policing over the next decade — and will lead to the loss of up to 400 officers.

Indeed, the final report on Policing 2026 will be submitted to the Scottish Government soon and will be discussed at the SPA meeting on Thursday — chaired by Mr Flanagan. Just the man to spearhead such vital reform…

But really this saga — which has turned police scrutiny into a laughing-stock — is about political cowardice.

The truth is that Mr Matheson could have put Mr Flanagan out of his misery before now.

But he didn’t act, because he feared it would be politically damaging to the SNP prior to the General Election.

It was also convenient for low-profile Mr Matheson to leave Mr Flanagan and the SPA to soak up public and political criticism of policing.

The creation of the single force was a botched political experiment by the Nationalists — but they have never had the courage to admit their mistake.

Mr Matheson’s decision to let the Flanagan farce drag on for months must have been approved by Nicola Sturgeon, who knew a reminder of her Government’s shambolic police reform would be electorally damaging.

Yet again, the SNP has cynically put party political advantage ahead of the robust scrutiny of policing — and in the process has done irreparable damage to the reputation of our most prized public service.