Parking: another fine mess about devolution

In a federal system of government, residual powers are generally defined as belonging to authorities that are smaller than the federal government – such as the States in the USA or the Länder in Germany.  The UK has the opposite arrangement – all powers are assumed to reside in Parliament unless there has been a specific delegation to the contrary.

The Scotsman has twice this weekend reported on problems facing a proposal  to stop cars parking on pavements.  The Responsible Parking Bill has taken more than two years to wend its way through the Scottish Parliament, but despite widespread support  it seems to have stalled.  There were initial objections raised about whether the Scottish Parliament had the power to act about parking, but it has passed other legislation on disabled person’s badges, and on that basis it could reasonably be argued that there isn’t really a problem about legislative competence.  The subsequent discussions have focused on other issues – the cost of enforcement, the dissolution of Scotland’s traffic warden service by Police Scotland, and the burden on local authorities.

Except, it seems, that there is a problem.  The Scotland Act 1998 reserves a range of powers, and among the powers it reserves is the scope of the 1988 Road Traffic Act.  When that Act was originally passed, it made parking on pavements illegal.  The provision (section 19A) lasted three years, before the government of the day gave it up: too difficult, too expensive.  So what are the powers that are reserved to Westminster?  The common-sense view ought to be that the powers that were reserved were the powers in force at the time of the Scotland Act, not powers that were previously defined and repealed  – in which case there is really no problem of legislative competence. If the reports are correct, however, that does not seem to be how the Scottish Parliament’s lawyers see it.  They have apparently argued that as the Scottish Parliament doesn’t have delegated powers related to parking, but local authorities do, the bill could only proceed by instructing local authorities to use the powers they have, which are derived from Westminster legislation.

English local authorities have a general power to promote welfare.  Scottish local authorities don’t, because their power derives from the Scottish Parliament, which is subject to reserved powers.  We seem to be again in the situation where the Scottish Parliament has been accorded fewer powers than an English local authority.

Stealing to survive?

Although crime rates in general have been falling, there has been a surge in shoplifting locally. The Dundee Courier reports: ‘Police Scotland’s Fife Division has reported a 37% rise in theft by shoplifting from shops across the region compared to last year. Officers believe many people are stealing just to survive.’

The link is difficult to prove, of course; a study would need to link convictions with benefit status. In the early 1970s, the ‘four week rule’ imposed sanctions indefinitely for people who failed to get straight back to work in areas deemed to be of high employment. In Scrounging on the welfare (1974) Molly Meacher found that about a third of the people who had benefit stopped had been convicted of their first criminal offence shortly afterwards. Now that we have lengthy, fixed term sanctions in place, there have to be concerns that something similar may be happening.

"An historic culture of chasing targets"

I’m in the process of updating my textbook on Social Policy. Today I was putting together material on targets and performance indicators, when along came a prime specimen.

The report on Kent Police by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary provides a remarkable insight into the impact of targets on administrative practice. Some crimes are easier to resolve than others, so Kent Police had developed a practice of making sure that the easy crimes got the attention. They put the effort into clearing up cases of shoplifting and cannabis use, and recorded ‘no crime’ for some more difficult problems, including crimes of violence, burglary and rape. The Inspectors attribute this to ‘an historic culture of chasing targets’.

Later this week I’ll be looking at corruption and abuse of power, but of course I can’t expect anything new to happen there.

Dividing up the single police force

When the Scottish Government announced the plans to merge Scotland’s eight police forces into one, they complained: “Scotland can no longer afford to do things eight times over.” (There have been, actually, more than eight services – there was also the nuclear police, the transport police and the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency). In parliament, however, a requirement was made to have plans for all the 32 local authorities, and today it’s been announced that there will be 14 policy authority areas, replacing the previous eight. So the main effect of a single police service is not to reduce the number of service divisions, but to centralise control.

Taser happy

It has been reported that police in Lancashire tasered a blind man by mistake. He was carrying a white stick and it was taken for a samurai sword.

I’ve followed this sort of case for a time, largely because I’ve undertaken previous work on complaints for HMICS (the Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland) and the Police Complaints Commissoner for Scotland. The main organisation dealing with these issues in the US is the National Association for Citizen Oversight of Law Enforcement, or NACOLE; they regularly report issues of this kind from the US. So, before Taser use in the UK became widespread, there were reports from NACOLE of a UCLA student tasered for refusing to leave the library, a great-grandmother tasered for arguing with a traffic policeman, and a deaf man tasered because he’d stayed too long in a store’s toilet and failed to come out when the shout of “police” was made. Given the track record, it was all too predictable that there’d be similar incidents in the UK as we took up the same technology.

Complaints against the police are generally levied against individual officers; there is a presumption that the officer who uses inappropriate force is individually at fault, and the complaint is routinely framed in these terms. This has things the wrong way about. The complaints that members of the public have about the conduct of officers are almost always complaints about the service, and it is never open to an individual member of the public to act against an individual officer. The problems stem from policy decisions, and it will only be through policy that adequate safeguards and controls can be developed.

Scottish travellers

Gypsy/travellers are the minority group most discriminated against in Scotland. In a report published today by the Scottish Parliament, the Equalities Committee describes the findings as ‘deeply shocking’ and describes its reaction as ‘horrified’ and ‘appalled’. The work I do doesn’t often bring me into direct contact with travellers, but I did do some work in Aberdeenshire in 2004 which gave me the opportunity to talk directly with travellers about their situation. One of the women said what it’s like: “you’re a floor they can dance on.” The travellers talked about rampant racism, discrimination in services, harassment and lack of protection by the police – “we’re just a puckle of tinkers to them”. It’s good to see some public attention, but depressing to see so little progress.