Whoever wins the Holyrood election in May, we are now guaranteed reform of Scotland’s police service and it would seem inevitable that the eight forces will become one. Scottish Labour announced at its conference in Oban in October that it favoured a move to a single, national police force and the SNP intends to make a similar announcement next week.
Funnily enough, the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) and in particular, the current eight Chief Constables are not fans.
It would be easy to dismiss their concerns out of hand: turkeys, after all, are unlikely to vote for Christmas. A single force means a single Chief Constable and P45s for seven of them. Accordingly, they must be removed from any decision making role in the reform process, but their views are still important.
They are right, for example, to warn of the potential risk of politicisation inherent in a single police force and Chief Constable reporting solely to the Cabinet Secretary for Justice. But this could be mitigated by creating a national police board. There are eight local ones already, consisting almost exclusively of local councillors. Reform would actually allow for broader representation on a national authority, including lay and even, service representatives.
Their scepticism of the perceived savings from amalgamation, estimated at £194 million by the Scottish Policing Board (see, it exists already), is justified. If local links are to be maintained – and indeed, if we are to witness greater devolution rather than increased centralisation – some form of local operational management and accountability will be necessary. There might be much less streamlining than initially envisaged. Logically, savings from a reduction in high ranking officers should be put into more posts on the ground and on the frontline, as well as into specialist roles. However, the savings on duplicated backroom functions and control rooms could be considerable.
Moreover, it is inappropriate and precipitate to consider police reform as a standalone exercise. Reviewing the structure of our entire public sector, making it fit for a 21st Century purpose and population, is long overdue: nothing should be considered or undertaken in isolation. Which is why the SNP’s trailed announcement is so curious, given that it pre-empts the findings of the Christie Commission on public reform which it set up. What is the point of setting up such a Commission if the Government is going to rule out anything it suggests before it suggests it? Or as happened with the Independent Budget Review (IBR) dismiss most of its proposals once made.
But change will also deliver gains, and ACPOS knows this, even if it is unwilling to elucidate at this stage. When so many of the threats to our safety are increasingly “national” and criminals are able to organise and operate across force boundaries, we need a more strategic approach to policing. This has already been proved by the establishment of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency.
Dumfries and Galloway provides a good example of why we need to extend this approach. Stranraer and Cairnryan are ferry ports providing key entry to Northern Ireland and thereafter, Ireland. Rumours abounded at the height of the Troubles of the ports’ role in weapons smuggling and they are still obvious channels for illegal people, weapons, goods and drugs smuggling. But for years the small force has had to fund from its everyday operational grant – with some limited financial support from Scottish Government – its ports unit which has effective responsibility for a national and international entry point onto the Scottish mainland. Similarly, the fire service in that region has limited capacity for offshore firefighting, despite the risk to life presented by ferries carrying thousands of people across open water day in, day out, because it cannot secure additional funding for such a service. And all because the ferry route is deemed to be to another part of the UK rather than another “country”.
A single police force would not change this overnight, but Dumfries and Galloway has largely been left to argue the case for additional UK and Scottish Government resources alone. A single police force – indeed, a single, national authority for emergency services – would be much better placed to take a strategic view of the country’s requirements and lobby for appropriate resourcing much more effectively.
Reform presents other opportunities. It is assumed that cutting the number of police and fire control rooms – and why do we currently have separate ones in each of the force and service areas presently? – would result in concentration in the central belt. A national control room would require to be centred well, centrally. Why? The burd doubts the efficacy or indeed, efficiency of creating one control room but sensitive, thoughtful change could result in possibly three regional control centres. And locating them in rural areas or areas of longterm economic blight could be exactly the kind of joined up policy action much talked about.
The route to police and indeed, public sector structural reform is likely to be a long and bumpy one. But the political suitcases are already packed. Brandishing threats at the outset to “robustly challenge” any merger plan are unhelpful. Our serving Chief Constables would do well to remember that they are first and foremost, public servants who are required to act in the best interests of the public who incidentally, pay for their wages. Otherwise, they could find themselves, rather embarrassingly, barred from the journey.