26 January 2014

Holding the Police to Account

I see from the date of my previous entry that it has been lamentably long since my last post. One of my new year resolutions was to ensure I got back to posting more frequently so here goes......

As some one who spent 5 years looking after Community Safety policy at the council I had, and hope to continue to have, a very close working relationship with the Edinburgh Police. 

In that time we slashed crime and antisocial behaviour, launched the first Hate Crime strategy in Scotland and rolled out various far reaching reforms in partnership working.

Friday saw the first meeting of the Councils new Police and Fire Scrutiny committee. This committee is supposed to return us to some semblance of local accountability of Police Scotland. 

In the past there were eight regional police authorities with boards holding each of the chief constables to account. Now we have one Chief Constable accountable to a national police board and to the national Justice Minister.

In the 11 months since the local accountability element was scrapped we have seen various national priorities rolled out at the expense of initiatives aimed at addressing local issues   such as high housebreaking rates.

This was reflected in the performance report up on Friday which showed an extraordinary rise in housebreakings since the specialist team addressing the problem in Edinburgh was wound up. It also showed a significant drop in detection rates.

On cross examining the local Divisional Commander I asked who took the decision and what consultation there had been. His answer was it was the executive of Police Scotland and was somewhat waffley on consultation. It was evident that this, as on a number of other  areas of police operations, had not taken into account local circumstances and local opinion.

I am pleased to say that following pressure over the autumn period from Edinburgh Lib Dem MP Mike Crockart the police have now reversed their unwise decision to wind up the housebreaking team. 

It is clear though that the Board of Police Scotland cannot scrutinise 32 councils policing to the extent that is needed. Nor can it be right that a Justice Minister interferes with policing (though the fear of many liberals is that that will happen sooner or later) and certainly not locally.  

We still have discussions around closing of police counters to have and these will prove equally difficult. In my area we are to have our local counter closed at our modern, purpose built, police station and people will be expected to go to the Drumbrae Library hub. 

The Hub, as readers of this blog will know, was built by the last, Lib Dem led, administration  to fulfil the need for a library in the area but also to have co-located services. I was delighted when the police decided to have a few officers located there. It was never intended to be a substitute for a police station.

One of the problems is what police counters are used for. I do not think it is appropriate for criminals and others to pitch up to a library to sign in as a condition of their probation or community sentence. I do question whether, like the winding up of the  housebreaking teams, this has not been thought through properly. 

Friday also included a lot of discussion surrounding stop and search with a Nationalist councillor, a former Met Inspector, really putting the boot in over the sharp increase in numbers of Edinburgh residents at being searched. 

Clearly there is a need for more local scrutiny - the number and types of things seemingly sneaked through in the early days of Police Scotland is concerning - Friday was a useful start but the Police and Fire Committee will need to be on their toes to protect the advances made in local policing in Edinburgh over the years.

3 June 2013

Church and State...or not!

Today, so far, has been about religion. The councils petitions committee has been considering petitions for and against religious observance in non denominational schools.

We had well argued cases on all sides of the divide ranging from the secular society's view that they should allow religious education, but not observance, even if it included all faiths and humanists, to a very woolly stance taken by the Church of Scotland representative that most of the committee  struggled to understand.

In France and the USA you have political and public traditions which carefully and clearly separate church and state but the UK is not like that. Here there has been a long standing Christian tradition (and indeed a long standing but less voluble humanist tradition too). 

The Scottish Parliament has a moment of reflection for all faiths and none bringing in leaders of each community including humanist celebrants  in turn to  speak to MSP's.

I personally favour that diverse approach.

My memory dredged up one incident relating to religion in schools immortalised by the late Matt McGinn.


Very funny and well worth a listen!

2 June 2013

A Mighty Fine Day!

A rare sunny day. I finally managed to get use out if my new Panama hat!

An early afternoon visit to the Meadows Festival followed by a radiant lunch at Petite Paris.

I came to the conclusion that Creme brûlée was reason number 366 for France being the optimum nation state.

De Gaulles exasperated question "How do you govern a country with 365 cheeses" tells you what the first 375 are!

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1 June 2013

Family Fun Day

I turned up a little early to help set up the Corstorphine Youth Centres Fun day.

This is the snap of the Old Parish Church whose yard is cohosting the event.

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11 May 2013

New direction

An Update

Much has happened since I last posted. At a UK level we have seen the death of Margaret Thatcher and the reaction to that, the surge in the local elections for UKIP and the Tories massive over-reaction to the threat posed by them.

On  a personal level there have also been a lot going on. My friend and colleague SNP Councillor Tom Buchanan sadly passed away at the  age of only 56 following a lengthy battle with a brain tumour.

Tom was a very highly regarded chair of Economic Development in the council who did so much to keep the worst of the impact of  recession from Edinburgh.  He was a very warm and supportive friend and simply a joy to be around. The possessor of the type of charisma that draws you to the person on entering a crowded room. He was very funny with an impish sense of humour and also very supportive, a gentleman of the old school. He is much missed.

Other things happening in life in the city include my appointment as Chair of the Care Inspectorate, the body which oversees the registration and inspection of care homes and a range of care, housing support and criminal justice social work services.

This is a big role for me but I seem to have been blessed again, as I was in Edinburgh, with a strong management team with whom I am looking forward to developing a long and productive relationship. I am really excited about this new direction and I am looking forward to working with our team and other partners towards our shared goal of improving the quality of care across Scotland.

112th time lucky?

Here we go again. In two weeks time I will be off to Hampden for the second cup final in a  row. Last year was a great day out until the footie actually started then it went south  - dramatically!

Hibs, in spite of everything, are back in the final having been three goals down at half time in the semis. I am resisting the temptation to ask if this is an omen; asking  "is our name on the cup" this year? I do so because I have done that every year since I can remember and it hasn't happened. We got really close in 1980 (three cup final  matches against Rangers where we were better but finally lost to a spectacular own goal - a diving header in the last minute of extra time. 

The other reason I am not confident is that we are facing Celtic and they never give anything away. That is not to say they are unbeatable and we are one team who can pull it off  but we will have our work cut out for us.

8 March 2013

Speaking Up for Tenants

Visiting some of the new Council Housing we built when in administration

I am a fervent believer in the partisan political system and in the notion muted by the Whig Edmund Burke that you "hang together you hang separately". You cannot get coherent change in a political system without organised political movements and that means learning how to compromise.

I have been a Liberal Party member from 1985 and from 1989 a Liberal Democrat and for the last almost 19 years have served that great party as an elected local councillor.

The changes to Housing benefit which are shortly to take effect have severely tested that loyalty. While I can and will defend most of our policies, often with gusto, this is a change which has been ill thought out and is indefensible.

To resolve a largely London based problem the Government has taken a sledge hammer to crack a nut. By docking the housing benefit of claimants who have a spare room in Scotland, where the norm has been to build two bedroom social housing and where there are too few 1 bedroom flats to move into, is making poor people poorer. I didn't join a party which is proud of its role as founder of the Welfare State to be nasty to the destitute. 

I have campaigned personally on this issue and pointed out its flaws to two Chief Secretaries to the Treasury,  our pensions minister and the Deputy PM. I do not understand how none of these smart guys can see what we are letting ourselves in for.

My good friend Robert Brown, former MSP for Glasgow has crafted an emergency motion on this issue to be put to our party conference in Dundee next weekend. 

I hope that the conference committee will allow debate on this and I hope to speak at the debate on this issue.