The previous SNP Scottish Government wasn’t overly fond of taking unpopular decisions; the early signs from this administration are mixed, with many lamenting its failure to get a grip on public service reform and tell us which of the recommendations from its Beveridge report and Christie Commission it might be inclined to agree with. But there is one area where the Scottish Government is spoiling for a fight – police force reform.
Already well trailed, we are likely to see it announced – the Burd would prefer in the Parliament and not through the media – that the Scottish Government is minded to cut the number of police forces in Scotland from eight to one. This eight is slightly misleading because in recent years we have already seen the growth of single nationwide police bodies including the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, the Scottish Police Services Authority and Forensic Services, as well as the Scottish Police College which has aye been.
No one will be surprised; indeed, there might well be an outbreak of previously unknown co-operation between the SNP and Labour. Only the Lib Dems are likely to stamp their foot in furious opposition.
But despite parliamentary approval, the SNP Government will have a fight on its hands, and the burd considers it legitimate to ask on whose mandate is it taking forward this proposal?
It does not come from the findings of its consultation on the Future of Policing in Scotland, conducted in February this year. Of the 219 responses received, only 22 supported a single force (10%), 59 supported maintaining the existing eight forces but with increased collaboration, 45 supported a “rationalised regional model” (in plain language, fewer forces but no one willing to say how many). However, 77 declined to give a view because of the lack of detailed evidence and information. But in terms of those who did state a view, a clear majority of individuals and organisations (not all of them police forces and local authorities) favour more than one force.
It certainly does not come from local authorities, who through COSLA, have been vociferous in their opposition. Part of this is motivated by their desire to keep policing local and by fear that a national police force will leave vast tracts of rural Scotland in particular, without adequate and appropriate policing. Part of it frankly is motivated by their own role – councillors need to think about this less in terms of a threat to local government and actually produce a solution that could unite everyone concerned with this issue in opposition to the single force proposal. The consultation shows that there are many out there waiting to be persuaded to get behind the “right model”.
The SNP might claim it has the mandate from this May and point to its overall majority of seats gained in the election. But the SNP’s manifesto did not state that they would reduce the number of police forces from eight to one. This is what was offered:
Scotland currently has eight police forces, each with their own bureaucracy, PR departments and management. This is an unsustainable situation in the face of unprecedented Westminster cuts. In order to maintain the increased visible police presence we will reduce the number of police forces in Scotland. However, we will ensure that Scottish policing remains receptive and accountable to the varied and diverse communities they serve.
So, a commitment to reduce but also to maintain local policing. Yet, few respondents to its own consultation believed that could be achieved with a single police force. Folk might have voted for the SNP in May knowing that a reduction in the number of forces was coming but it would have been interesting to gauge the reaction if the SNP had been honest enough to state plainly what many suspected was its intention all along.
It is also not clear if it has a mandate from its members for this policy. Shifting from local to national policing, for this is what is being proposed, is a fundamental reform which really rubs against the grain of the SNP’s approach to governance, that of making Scotland better and of localism. As was stated in the manifesto, the shift to a national police force is not about making Scotland better – the evidence is split on that, at best – but about saving money. And the direction of travel, of centralising power is utterly at odds with policies like the Concordat which devolves power and responsibility to local government. Stephen Noon, the key policy supremo in the party, has made no secret of his commitment to community empowerment.
Considering all this, it would be right to expect that the SNP body politic has had a say in coming to this position? Actually, no. No motion to any conference or National Council and attempts to get it on to this autumn’s conference agenda were rebuffed. For, it is fair to say, that not every SNP member supports this policy, many are in fact vehemently opposed, and we may well see SNP local government leaders standing up to their national government on this one. Just as soon as they are all safely selected to stand again next May, you understand.
No mandate, then, from SNP members, from local government, from respondents to its own consultation, and only a general nod in the direction of some sort of reform from the population at large. Police bodies, senior officers and the rank and file are split but frankly, they have all had far too much to say publicly about this political matter. The increasing propensity for the police to try and shape public opinion on policy matters has to be curtailed, breaching as it does the fundamental principle of policing in Scotland, that of policing by the consent of the population. In other words, they are supposed to do what we tell them to do.
Yet here we are, facing proposals for a single police force, that are likely to be voted through with a huge majority in the Scottish Parliament. I can see arguments for and against all the proposals frankly and probably find myself in the category of those wanting more evidence about what works and what doesn’t. I am struck by the Danish model while realising the limits of its application to a much larger land masse and sparser population. It is such a fundamental shift though it behoves us all to take a position… eventually. So here’s your chance: