Chapter Thirteen - Scrutiny by local authority local scrutiny committees of complaints against the police
13.1 Section 45 (Local authority role in policing) of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 requires local police commanders to provide the local authority with such "statistical information on complaints made about the Police Service in, or the policing of, its area" as the local authority may "reasonably require". In my preliminary report I invited further views on a number of specific issues including the role of local scrutiny committees in relation to police complaints. The Review wrote to all Police Conveners of the local scrutiny committees seeking their views on:
- how the local scrutiny committee operates in their local authority;
- the quality of the statistical information provided to members by the local divisional commander;
- the effectiveness of the arrangements in place for scrutinising Police Scotland's complaint handling, identifying trends and responding to local issues; and
- any changes and improvements that could be made.
13.2 Eight committees responded to that letter providing a range of detail on how the arrangements operate in their council areas. To supplement that evidence, the Review also wrote to the Chief Constable. All thirteen divisional commanders were consulted on the four questions raised and Police Scotland responded collectively.
13.3 How local scrutiny committees are structured and operate in each local authority area varies depending on the size of the authority and the extent to which they involve other partner organisations. The divisional commanders at chief superintendent level attend the relevant meetings and are responsible for providing information about their division or local authority area.
13.4 The COSLA Police Scrutiny Conveners' Forum was established by COSLA in 2016. In August 2020 the SPA's Policing Performance Committee considered a paper on local scrutiny that described the Forum's purpose and set out in an appendix each council's local scrutiny arrangements:
"It was set up to enhance the ability of elected members to have a meaningful role in the governance and scrutiny of policing in Scotland, and provide a mechanism for elected members to provide input into national policy issues and broader policing matters that have an impact on local communities. The Forum comprises all local authority scrutiny conveners or the equivalent political lead for police scrutiny at local authority level, supported by relevant senior officials, with additional participation from Police Scotland senior officers, the Scottish Police Authority Board and Executive Team, and Scottish Government officials."
13.5 The SPA told the review that they recognise the potential value of developing a shared evidence base on what is working well in local scrutiny, where best practice lies, and where improvement could be fostered and that there was now an opportunity through the establishment of the new SPA Policing Performance Committee, with COSLA participation, to monitor how local scrutiny is working.
Quality of information
13.6 In terms of the quality of the statistical information provided to local scrutiny committees by the divisional commander, the information provided by divisions is supplied by the Analysis and Performance Unit (APU) and/or Professional Standards Department (PSD) and generally details the number of complaints in the relevant area, the number of complaints per 10,000 incidents, and the total number of allegations (one complaint may include more than one allegation) recorded including on‑duty, off‑duty and quality of service.
13.7 The commanders identified the benefits of sharing the data as: ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting standards of professional behaviour, enhancing confidence in Police Scotland, allowing them to be questioned by committee members and providing an opportunity to identify issues which may not only relate to policing.
13.8 One committee explained that their local divisional commander presents a detailed performance report on a quarterly basis, aligned to the priorities for the area. This is complemented by narrative content which describes activity and performance over the period.
13.9 Another committee stated that, in general, members of the committee were satisfied in respect of the statistical information provided by the local divisional commander. At all their committee meetings there is the opportunity to discuss the presented statistics and any particular trends with the local divisional and area commanders. Where additional information has been requested this has been provided either at the meeting, or directly to the elected member following the meeting or at a subsequent meeting. Police Scotland have also presented spotlight reports on two occasions giving greater insight into a particular issue relevant to the area where elected members have raised concerns. The committee was satisfied that the relationship as a community planning and community safety partner is such that Police Scotland do respond to local needs. There was a concern expressed about the role that local scrutiny committees can play when an issue contained within the local police plan is delivered by a national department within Police Scotland.
13.10 One committee confirmed that they received an infographic‑style police report that included a broad range of statistical information including complaints. This committee also noted that both the divisional commander and local area commander had always been happy to discuss any complaints with members collectively and individually.
13.11 Another committee reported that in previous returns to the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) as part of the SPA's annual review of policing, their Council had asked for more detailed information in respect of complaints against the police at a local level, and that consequently the quality of statistical information provided to their local scrutiny committee had improved over time to cover various complaint categories broken down by off-duty and on-duty allegations.
13.12 One committee stated that police complaints had never specifically been included in quarterly updates until recently. The divisional commander had reviewed the format of the information supplied in consultation with council officers and police complaints data is now included. Any questions that arise from police updates have always been followed up with more detailed information from Police Scotland.
13.13 One committee stated that the value of reviewing complaints data locally would be enhanced where it could be read alongside comparable national statistics.
Changes or improvements
13.14 In respect of any improvements that could be made to the effectiveness of how the arrangements operate or to the information provided, one committee told the Review that there could be 13 styles of report presented across the 32 local authorities because divisional boundaries did not always correspond to local authority boundaries. Its view was that utilising the COSLA Police Scrutiny Convenors Forum to consider good or best practice would be beneficial in determining how information is presented and what roles local scrutiny committees could play; ultimately any changes or improvements should be flexible enough to meet the needs of local scrutiny arrangements.
13.15 One elected member who gave separate evidence to the Review suggested that there might be merit in having dedicated single‑item local scrutiny committee meetings on complaints, or an obligation to discuss complaints, or a discussion across local scrutiny committees on a regional basis with members of the Police Scotland Force Executive in attendance.
13.16 Another committee thought that local elected members would benefit from having a better understanding of the role of the SPA in managing and determining complaints against senior officers and the role and functions of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC). Having regular updates, particularly from PIRC, would help develop that understanding.
13.17 This committee also stated that the information presented was limited to quantitative data and qualitative information would be useful. It would be helpful to receive information on what organisational learning had been derived from complaints, how complaints had resulted in changes to systems or processes and where operational practice had been strengthened.
13.18 The local scrutiny committees of councils provide an opportunity for public scrutiny of the quality of service provided by Police Scotland in the 13 local divisions. There is scope for this mechanism to be more effective and improved in order to ensure appropriate accountability. The key to this is the provision of accessible and meaningful information by the local divisional commander and effective questioning and discussion of trends by elected members.
13.19 In their evidence to the Review, senior members of the press described a loss of value in this scrutiny process post-police reform in 2013 and a missed opportunity in relation to accountability through complaints information. This is a valuable form of local scrutiny and there is evidence that it may have diminished in the years since 2013.
13.20 I am grateful to the local scrutiny committees and to Police Scotland for their responses on this subject. Those responses suggest that practice and levels of interest in police complaints is variable. That is to be expected but I would encourage elected members to consider what enhanced police complaints information might indicate about general public confidence in the police as well as the experience of specific communities. Complaints about the police service is an area for local scrutiny that is specifically provided for in the primary legislation and that could be developed further where the committees, partnerships or boards have the appetite, time and resource.
13.21 It is somewhat surprising that committees are not asking for more information about the nature and the profile of complaints to inform their perspective on the character of complaints against the police and trends in their local authority area. The level of detail of information that they generally have access to is in contrast to the more detailed information provided to the SPA Complaints and Conduct Committee by Police Scotland's Professional Standards Department in its published quarterly performance report. The regional breakdown of information contained in that report would be valuable to elected members and should also be provided to local scrutiny committees.
13.22 I recommend that local scrutiny committees should consider, in consultation with Police Scotland's local divisional commanders and the COSLA Police Scrutiny Convenors Forum, what further complaints information or discussion would assist their scrutiny of the police.
13.23 Recommendation: Local scrutiny committees should consider, in consultation with Police Scotland's local divisional commanders and the COSLA Police Scrutiny Convenors Forum, what further complaints information or discussion would assist their scrutiny of the police.