Scotland politics

Police Scotland denies whistleblowing concerns

Police Scotland officers Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Scotland's 17,000 police officers made 29 formal complaints against the force last year

Police Scotland has insisted that rules requiring officers to declare contact with journalists or politicians are not intended to deter whistleblowers.

Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has claimed the guidelines were designed to silence internal critics.

But Police Scotland said the measures were intended to protect the integrity of officers and the force.

The Scottish government said it was an operational matter for the police.

But a spokeswoman said it was "right that all public services recognise the importance of engaging with MSPs, journalists as well as other key stakeholders".

She added: "We also believe that it's important staff are provided with a safe space to discuss any concerns and promote an open and transparent reporting culture across all levels of the service."

Anti-corruption strategy

The guidance is contained in a 19-page document which instructs police officers on "notifiable associations" - organisations and groups of people which they must declare any contact with.

It forms part of the force's anti-corruption strategy, and is designed to "protect the information, assets and reputation of Police Scotland".

Listed among the categories are known and suspected criminals, journalists and "members of any political party where the membership involves playing an active part in politics".

Under the rules, officers would need to declare any meetings, friendships and partnerships, "intimacy" or shared membership of groups, organisations and societies, as well as any contact through social media or other online platforms.

The guidance is compulsory for all police officers and special constables, who are warned that any failure to comply could result in misconduct proceedings being brought against them.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Willie Rennie said police whistleblowers had helped to highlight serious issues with the force in the past

Ch Supt Alan Speirs, head of professional standards at Police Scotland, said the guidelines did not "prohibit or limit associations" but were "designed to allow any potential risk to be assessed".

He added: "Associations are clearly defined as instances which has the potential to compromise an individual, an operation, Police Scotland or members within our local communities.

"This should not be misrepresented as an attack on police officers or police staff or stop them from raising legitimate concerns. This policy should not be confused with our guidance to officers on whistleblowing."

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) said the guidelines were in line with those used by other forces across the UK.

A spokeswoman said: "The SPA recognises the importance of having an environment where individuals feel confident and have the opportunity to come forward and raise concerns.

"The board recently approved a formal Whistleblowing Policy which provides a range of opportunities to raise concerns directly with the organisation or through an online confidential Integrity Matters reporting system."

'Hailed not silenced'

However Mr Rennie claimed the declaration of media and political contacts was designed to "snuff out such contacts rather than to aid transparency", and argued that whistleblowers should be "hailed not silenced".

The Lib Dem leader said it was "because of principled police officers and staff members that we got to bottom of the deep rooted flaws in Scotland's police service".

He highlighted issues such as the M9 crash, the "chaos" in police control rooms, the back filling of civilian roles by police officers and the routine arming of officers on patrol as issues which had been exposed "in part through the assistance of police staff and officers who cared about the future of the police service".

Mr Rennie added: "The justice secretary and Scottish Police Authority should intervene to ensure that the police hierarchy are not free to silence internal critics."

Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation - which represents rank and file officers - was quoted by the Sunday Herald newspaper at the weekend as saying it was important that the force had "adequate policies to protect itself and its officers from potential risk".

But he added: "Any policy that equates contact with elected parliamentarians and journalists with contact with criminals is deeply worrying.

"It risks being seen as an attempt to silence dissent that would not be out of place in a banana republic."

Mr Steele expressed concern about Police Scotland's internal grievance procedures last week after figures released under Freedom of Information laws showed the country's 17,000 police officers made only 29 formal complaints last year.

Describing the figure - which was double that for the previous year - as worryingly low, Mr Steele said it suggested a "lack a confidence in the force's procedures to resolve issues" and that "rather than take the process on, many officers resign themselves to tolerate their lot".