Euan McColm: Sturgeon gets to grips with justice

THERE’S a trump card ­government ministers can play when they’re under pressure about police performance. Written on it in bold letters are the words “it’s an ­operational matter”.

THERE’S a trump card ­government ministers can play when they’re under pressure about police performance. Written on it in bold letters are the words “it’s an ­operational matter”.

Backed into a corner and short of an explanation about something officers may have done or some failing in the system, the minister will explain that he or she is powerless to act. The independence of the police, you see, means that whatever is upsetting the public is an operational matter.



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Former, and much unlamented, ­justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was an inveterate player of this ­particular card. When it emerged last year that Police Scotland had begun routinely deploying armed officers on patrol, MacAskill came under huge pressure. How could this have happened without either consultation with or the consent of the public? Was the newly formed national police force a law unto itself?

MacAskill’s response to growing public disquiet about officers carrying handguns was poor; so poor, in fact, that it appears to have been a factor in Nicola Sturgeon’s decision, upon being installed as First Minister, to thank him for his efforts before showing him the door.

Facing demands for an explanation for Police Scotland’s sudden, culture-shifting decision to arm beat officers, MacAskill wriggled and squirmed. Decisions on the use of resources, including armed police officers were, he said, clearly a matter for the Chief Constable of Police Scotland.

In fact, this wasn’t clearly the case at all. Yes, Chief Constable Sir Stephen House must have the authority to make decisions he feels are ­necessary but he is not a law unto himself. The Scottish Police Authority (so far, a pitiful excuse for a “watchdog”) should ensure constant checks and balances on the force and its management while the Cabinet ­secretary for justice is perfectly entitled to make clear to the chief constable that policing fails when it loses the confidence of the public.

MacAskill’s dependence on the “operational matters” card was a cop-out. If you want proof, you need look no further than Thursday’s First Minister’s Question Time when Sturgeon made it quite clear that she doesn’t feel any reticence about telling House what, precisely, is what.

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson had raised the issue of police ­stopping and searching hundreds of children below the age of 12. Last year, Police Scotland stopped and searched 159 kids aged just nine or under. In ­London, meanwhile, which has millions more people and a far greater problem with violent youth crime, the number was just 19. Davidson was on cracking form but if she’d hoped to skewer the First Minister, she was to be disappointed. Sturgeon not only immediately conceded that there was a problem but told Davidson that the police authority had asked Police Scotland to provide a full ­explanation.

After thanking Davidson for raising what she considered an important issue, the First Minister revealed that she had spoken to the chief constable about it and could advise parliament that House was actively considering whether the practice of consensual (and, as Davidson wondered, can a child be expected to understand his or her rights when it comes to consenting to a search?) should come to an end.

To those who know House best, this was a quite the moment.

While justice secretary, MacAskill worked especially closely with House. It was MacAskill who oversaw the creation of the single police force and the appointment of House, who had previously run the Strathclyde force. Those who observed that relationship at close quarters were in no doubt that House was the dominant figure (“He was always more alpha than Kenny but, then, he’s more ­alpha than most men,” as one source put it).

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When MacAskill played the operational matters card, it may have been less about respect for the chief constable’s authority and more about his unwillingness to challenge House.

Sturgeon, it seems clear, has no such qualms.

The recently appointed justice ­secretary Michael Matheson was ­given an early cut on this matter. Sturgeon believes that, after concerns about armed officers slid into a growing scandal about the number of ­children being searched, she had to stamp her authority on things. Matheson was equally absent earlier in the week, when the First Minister announced the end of automatic early release for prisoners jailed for more than four years.

Sturgeon last week recognised that MacAskill’s legacy isn’t great. Under his watch, public confidence in the police was allowed to wane. He was a second rater in a hugely important role and in the end it was clear to all that he was hopelessly out of his depth. Anyone remember his extra­ordinary allegation that perfectly ­legitimate concerns about a proposal to scrap the need for corroboration in criminal cases represented part of a unionist conspiracy?

It’s a measure of Sturgeon’s deft touch that she managed to appear last week in charge of two key areas of justice which appeal to particularly different sensibilities. In laying down the law to Police Scotland on stop and search, the First Minister plays to the liberal-minded voter while, by ending automatic early release for serious criminals, she has something for the more conservative-minded voter, too.

Friends of the First Minister say her responses on these issues indicate a new approach. Where Alex Salmond would defend the indefensible against opposition attacks, Sturgeon is ­prepared to change long-held positions where she believes it makes ­political sense.

Michael Matheson should prepare himself for enduring spare-part ­status while Sturgeon satisfies herself that the government’s positions on justice matters are correct.

But the First Minister may not find the road ahead entirely smooth.

House was used to MacAskill playing the operational-matters card but Sturgeon has just let the chief constable know she holds all the aces. And, as someone who knows him very well indeed put it to me, he’s unlikely to quietly accept that for long. «