THE Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC) has published her report containing a series of findings and recommendations following an audit of the Scottish Police Authority’s (SPA) procedures for the handling of complaints about senior police officers, SPA staff and SPA Board members.
The Commissioner has a statutory duty to ensure that the SPA’s complaint handling procedures are efficient, effective and carried out in an independent manner.
This is the third audit of the SPA’s complaint handling processes, which the Commissioner has carried out since May 2014.
This audit considered a number of areas around complaint handling, including how the SPA assessed which complaints fell within its remit and how the SPA determined whether they should be dealt with as complaints or allegations of misconduct.
The audit also scrutinised how long it took the SPA to deal with complaints and the level of enquiries it undertook when dealing with ‘relevant complaints.’ (For definition please see Notes to Editors)
The audit also considered the level of training provided to the SPA’s Complaints Department.
The audit report published today (29 December 2017) examined all complaints received, progressed and concluded by the SPA between 1 April 2015 and 31 March 2017 which the Complaints Department assessed fell within its remit.
It also examined a sample of 20% of complaints/enquiries which the SPA assessed fell out with its remit.
Commissioner Kate Frame said:
“The audit has highlighted a number of deficiencies within the SPA’s current complaint handling practices.
“Decisions on complaints were made which lacked clarity and transparency and in many cases there was insufficient explanation to demonstrate how the decision was reached.
“The average time taken by the SPA to conclude complaints and preliminary misconduct assessments was excessive and disproportionate, as was the emphasis placed on members of the public by the SPA to produce evidence in support of their complaint.
“To provide greater clarity for SPA staff on how complaints should be assessed and handled, I recommend that the SPA’s internal guidance should be revised.
“Furthermore, I consider that the SPA requires to put in place guidance on how complaints which it assesses to be ‘whistleblowing’ should be progressed.
“I also recommend that the SPA should introduce robust quality assurance procedures for all aspects of its complaints handling to ensure that complaints are dealt with appropriately and progressed in the correct manner.”
The audit examined the content of the latest version of the SPA’s internal guidance document for handling complaints about senior police officers, SPA staff and Board members.
It identified that whilst the guidance document required the SPA to record receipt of correspondence relating to incidents of whistleblowing, no further action was then required in terms of the document. The audit also found that the document did not provide definitive timescales in which SPA staff were required to handle complaints or undertake preliminary assessments of misconduct allegations.
In general terms, the audit found that the document was difficult to follow and did not provide clear guidance on how SPA staff should progress the different categories of complaints that fall within its remit.
Of the 48 complaints which the SPA considered fell within its remit, the audit found that 30 were about senior officers (of the rank of Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) and above), 14 were about SPA staff and 4 were about the SPA Board.
In relation to complaints about senior officers, the audit assessed that 16 fell within the definition of a ‘relevant complaint’ and that in the vast majority of these cases no consensus was reached nor attempt made by the SPA to agree the nature of the complaints to be investigated, with the complainer.
The audit found that in the vast majority of these cases, the files did not contain evidence that the SPA’s Complaints Department had made sufficient enquiries and that there was insufficient information in the final correspondence from the Complaints Department to complainers about what evidence had been gathered and how their final decision was reached.
Finally, the audit found that none of the 16 ‘relevant complaints’ about senior officers were upheld by the SPA during the period covered by the audit.
The audit also examined the SPA’s handling of misconduct allegations against senior police officers; defined in the document as an allegation or complaint about a senior police officer (For full definition see Notes to Editors).
It assessed that the SPA received 14 complaints about senior officers during the period, which should have been progressed as potential misconduct allegations.
The audit noted that only seven of these cases were referred to the SPA’s Complaints and Conduct Committee for assessment and that of those seven, the Committee assessed that only one, if proved, would amount to misconduct or gross misconduct, resulting in its referral to the PIRC for investigation.
Of the seven not referred to the Committee, the audit found that the SPA deemed one to be abandoned due to the lack of co-operation by the complainer; two were delayed pending criminal proceedings or parallel misconduct proceedings against the senior officer; one was referred to Police Scotland to deal with and three were not presented to the Committee as the Complaints Department determined that the complainers did not provide sufficient evidence to prove or substantiate the allegations.
The audit found that the average time taken by the Complaints Department to conclude the handling of misconduct allegations about senior officers was 210 days and that there was a lack of clarity in the SPA’s guidance document in distinguishing between the applicable processes to be followed in the initial handling of misconduct allegations and ‘relevant complaints’.
In relation to complaints about SPA staff, the audit examined 14 complaints. In four of these, the complaints were upheld; three were not upheld; in five, the files were closed before a decision was taken on whether or not the complaints were upheld and two of the complaints were referred to Police Scotland for investigation.
The audit also examined four complaints about SPA Board members and found that no definitive decision was reached by the SPA on whether any of the complaints were upheld or not upheld.
The audit also examined a sample of 67 complaints which the SPA had considered to be outwith its remit. It was found that four of these complaints were incorrectly assessed. The audit noted that if that level of incorrect assessment was projected across the entire 335 complaints assessed by the SPA as outwith its remit, during the period considered by the audit, it was possible that up to 19 complaints from members of the public had been incorrectly assessed by the SPA and not progressed.
The audit found that there has been little relevant training provided to the SPA’s Complaints Department.
The Commissioner has made a series of recommendations to improve the SPA’s complaint handling:
Procedures) to clarify the different processes which require to be followed when
dealing with (i) ‘relevant complaints’; (ii) misconduct allegations about senior officers;
(iii) complaints about SPA staff and (iv) complaints about the SPA Board and
thereafter adhere to these processes.
to assess and determine whether a complaint is a (i) ‘relevant complaint’; (ii)
misconduct allegation about senior officers; (iii) complaint about SPA staff or (iv)
complaint about the SPA Board and thereafter adhere to these processes.
Additionally, a robust and documented quality assurance process should be
introduced to underpin the assessment process.
Procedures) to introduce timescales for the handling of (i) ‘relevant complaints’; (ii)
misconduct allegations about senior officers; (iii) complaints about SPA staff and (iv)
complaints about the SPA Board and thereafter adhere to these timescales.
(known as the Complaint Handling Procedures) which requires agreement of Heads of
Complaint with complainers.
Police Service of Scotland (Senior Officers) (Conduct) Regulations 2013 in respect
of all aspects of allegations of misconduct about senior officers and amend its
guidance document (known as the Complaints Handling Procedures) to reflect this.
assessment of misconduct allegations. The panel should hold experience and
knowledge of the relevant statutory provisions, Conduct Regulations, Performance
Regulations and Police Scotland’s Grievance Procedures. In accordance with the
current governance structure the decision and the reasoning of the panel should be
presented to the Complaint and Conduct Committee/CEO for approval.
Procedures) to remove the burden of proof before the matter is progressed.
ensure that the SPA’s Complaints Department conduct a thorough enquiry.
to all complaint handling matters.
procedures for dealing with contacts assessed as ‘whistleblowing’.
final response to complainers about SPA staff, to ensure consistency.
handling of complaints made about the SPA Board, Chief Officer and Chair.
Notes to Editors:
A “relevant complaint” is defined in Section 34 of the Police, Public Order and Criminal
Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 as an expression of dissatisfaction about an act or omission by
the SPA, Police Service or by a person who, at the time of the act or omission, was a person
serving with the police. It goes on to say that an act or omission need not be one occurring
in the course of person’s duty, employment or appointment in order to fall within the
definition of a ‘“relevant complaint”’. The Act provides that those who can make a “relevant
complaint” are : a) a member of the public who claims to be the person in relation to whom
the act or omission took place; b) a member of the public who claims to have been
adversely affected by the act or omission; c) a member of the public who claims to have
witnessed an act or omission; or d) a person acting on behalf of a person falling within
definitions a) to c). However section 34 (3) stipulates that a ‘“relevant complaint”’ does not
include a statement made by a person who has served or is serving with the police, about
the terms and conditions of their service with the police, or any statement which includes an
allegation of criminality.
A misconduct allegation is defined in the document as an allegation or complaint about a
senior officer which amounts to a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour as
detailed in Schedule 1 of the Police Service of Scotland (Conduct) (Senior Officers)