How many police forces does Scotland need?

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:

21 thoughts on “How many police forces does Scotland need?

  1. Pingback: An Gharda Síochána na hAlban? « An Sionnach Fionn

  2. A friend of mine pointed out that London has only one police force. Why Scotland should have 8 I don’t know. It must lead to bureacracy, misunderstanding, inefficiency and a breakdown in communication across Scotland.

    I may well be wrong and I’d be interested to hear a police officer’s view.

    • London has 3 police forces I think – still is a City of London force, the Met and Thames Valley covers Greater London. But your premise is right.

  3. If there is to be only one police force, there must be a strong independent complaints system, or there will be no credibility. Perhaps an all party P{olice Complaints commitee icluding councillors and MSPs.

  4. One point that isn’t mentioned in this article is the lack of financial justification for the argument that a single force would reduce cost.

    The SNP has on many occasions stated that there is no escaping the need to reduce unnecessary cost, and to many people there is an assumption that reducing eight forces to one would automatically reduce cost, but the report used as a basis for justifying savings also explicitly says that the majority of the savings can be obtained without changing the number of forces and there is a lots of historic evidence to suggest that centralisation could even increase cost.

    I’ve put a bit more detail in some recent blogs here: http://stuartroebuck.blogspot.com/2011/08/single-police-force-in-scotland-single.html

  5. While I am a supporter of the SNP, I am concerned about the direction in which this moves the country. When the Conservatives went around abolishing the metropolitan boroughs in England in the mid-80s’ people rightly expressed concerns about an attack on local democracy and stressed the importance of local democracy in acting as a balance on the centralisation of power at a national level. With the coming of the Scottish Parliament we have, thankfully, seen the development of a new power at the national level in Scotland. While I very much welcome this, I also believe that care must be taken that we don’t centralise too much power at that level.

    I’m not altogether clear on what is driving this – and has already been pointed out the mandate is not altogether clear.

  6. Off topic but, well, I think it is important and relevant.

    We are led to believe that both the UKs MI5 and the US CIA have both rendered folk to Lybia. To a regieme we allegedly detest.

    Would someone tell me how that works?

    I don’t know about you, but I find it disgusting. It makes me more interested than ever in the release of anything that the Scottish Government has on the Megrahi affair.

    I suspect we have been lied to by our betters, y’know MI5 and such.

  7. 4 (NSEW) Regions in one body.

  8. The idea of a single police force kind of concerns me.

    In the sense of who guards the guards?

    Say we get independence and our police take a Birmingham 6 approach to terrorism. How do we investigate a force that has a monopoly on policing? it is a tad optimistic to assume that all police decisions for evermore will be perfect.

    I always think, when I’m stuck with a conundrum like this: what do the Scandanavians do?

    • You absolutely get to the crux of it – it amounts to the politicisation of the police. Because if it’s a national force, then it becomes accountable to government. the current regime for policing the police is ineffectual but the risks for political interference and for even less accountability and transparency are very real.

      • Dear burdzeyeview,

        This thread is all a bit odd.

        the current regime for policing the police is ineffectual but the risks for political interference and for even less accountability and transparency are very real.

        I don’t think anyone, anywhere has ever agreed with me before.

  9. One, but not with its HQ in Edinburgh or Glasgow please. And while they’re at reorganising things, have a look at better integrating emergency services across the board. New York City is interesting in that the Fire Department also runs – perhaps “coordinates” would be closer to the truth – paramedic and emergency medical services, apparently very successfully. A unified fire, rescue, paramedic and emergency medical service might be worthing think about, once the police have served as guinea pigs for local accountability and management issues..

    • Yep not a bad idea. There is definitely no need for multiple control rooms all over the country… but again no need to centralise them in the central belt. We could have three covering all services, one based Dundee or slightly more northerly, one based Kilmarnock and one based in Dumfries, all of which need the jobs

    • That is an interesting point Angus. You could perhaps chuck in the Coastguard, Air/Sea Rescue and Mountain Rescue. Perhaps there would be sensible economies of scale or even more accurate resourcing to need.

  10. There is no essential contradiction between one police force and local policing – it all depends on how you structure and organise it. What is clear though is that with 8 forces we have 8 differnet ways of doing things and 8 different ways of spending money. Crime does not organise itself neatly in that way. Reducing from 8 to 3 or more is just plain daft in my view since what you then get are 3 or heaven help us, even more larger fiefdoms fighting with each other and none of the savings in support cost [which are potentially significant]. I commend the Government for doing this radically – unlike previous ones who bottled it and, for example, fudged the issue of criminal justice services at a local level to give us the costly and almost totally, ineffective additional bureacratic tier of Criminal Justice Authorities – which just kind of ‘launder’ the money between SG and local authorities who keep on doing what they have always done…………..

    • The biggest issue I have with maintaining separate forces, as with local authorities etc, is that they all have different systems – police all record crime differently, and many do not record equality issues at all, despite them all having statutory functions in this regard. Data is hard to gather never mind compare. So yes absolutely support what you say.

  11. I can see the benefits of having separate city forces too, as well as the three area forces. Hi from Helen

  12. The answer to the question is “one”. Just as we would be better served by one national Health Board which would guarantee parity of treatment across the nation.
    There is of course absoluely no reason why a single police force could not devolve a lot of its operational matters to local subdivisions so the whole debate is bogus

  13. I feel there should be three forces, one for Highland, one for South West coast and one South East coast

    • I think quite a few folk support that option with city forces for Edinburgh and Glasgow too. It really is an interesting question!

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