Police Scotland in need of restructuring says Scottish Lib Dem leader

William Rennie says recent scandals show the current system is not fit for purpose

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The Independent Online

Police Scotland needs to be restructured so that public faith in the force can be restored following a series of scandals, according to the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Willie Rennie said a series of scandals, such as the fatal M9 crash that left a man dead and his partner dying in a ditch for three days despite an emergency call alerting police shortly after the accident, proved the current structure was not fit for for purpose.

Police Scotland was created in 2013 following the merging of the country's eight county forces. The SNP said the change had to be made to save more than a £1bn due to Westminster-led austerity cuts.

The unified force has been embroiled in several scandals in recent months over the deployment of armed police on the streets, a stop and search policy that at one point saw police in Scotland stopping five times the number of people than in London and the death of 88-year-old dementia sufferer Janet McKay who went missing last month. She was found dead several days after a novice police officer forgot to pass on details of a sighting.

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William Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats

Attacks on the force came to a head in August after officers took three days to respond to a motorway crash report. When they finally arrived at the scene John Yuill was already dead and mother-of-two Lamara Bell, 25, was conscious but she later died in hospital. The scandal led to Chief Constable Sir Stephen House resigning but Mr Rennie said more than a change of leader is needed.

"The status quo can't remain, it's got to change," he told the I from his Holyrood office. "We have to install democracy back into the police by giving an element of local control by councils into what happens. Now there is a token element of control by councils but in reality it means nothing."

He said there was a "direct link" between the M9 deaths and the SNP's decision to centralise the force.

"The SNP have been damaged by the M9 crash because it is symbolic of the deeper rooted problems that exist within Police Scotland. They are wholly responsible for the events that have unfolded. It's harsh to say, but it's true."

Mr Rennie, MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, said a recent Highlands council vote against local police carrying guns on the streets of Inverness, which was ignored by the force, highlighted a serious problem.

"If local accountability meant anything that should have changed police policy but it didn't."

Mr Rennie said his plan for change would avoid "wholesale restructuring" and that he was but advocating a return to pre-2013 eight forces structure due to the "trauma" he believes the force endured when Police Scotland was created two years ago.

Westminster austerity demands were given as the reason behind the reorganisation but Mr Rennie said little, if any, taxpayers' money had been saved as a result.

"I've seen no evidence of saving £1.1bn [the SNP] said they were going to save through reorganisation."

The Scottish Lib Dem leader said cuts to civilian staff would have happened anyway. "The reality is centralisation has probably cost us more than it has saved and certainly led to inefficiency within Police Scotland."

Mr Rennie said staff have been left "demoralised" by the loss of around 1,500 civilian staff that have seen the number of police call centre reduced from 10 to just four. The Lib Dem leader said he had raised the call centres issue with Nicola Sturgeon in Parliament prior to the M9 crash but that the First Minister had dismissed his concerns. 

Sir Stephen had blamed an experienced sergeant for failing to log the call. Vic Emery, Chairman of the Scottish Police Authority also created in 2013 to oversee the force, has also stepped down. 

Mr Rennie said "significant improvement" could take place following the ongoing Police Investigations Review Commission (PIRC) inquiry into the M9 crash and Her Majesty's Inspectorate's report into the call handling facility, but only if a further inquiry was launched into "the whole operation including the target culture".

He said:"It wouldn't be all the problems solved because it wIll take some time to undo the damage that has been done but I can see big changes coming if we just instigate those measures."

Mr Rennie acknowledged that crime rates had fallen in Scotland but so had the effectiveness of police.

"Just imagine where we could have been if we had a police force as effective as it was before 2013. We could have an even better and safer Scotland."

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