HOW should we define the term “frontline policing”? To the man or woman in the street, it would probably be summed up as the visible presence of police officers in our communities, giving us a tangible sense of reassurance that our safety and security is being looked after.
When the single Scottish police force, Police Scotland, was created on 1 April this year, the assurances given by government ministers and senior officers was that there would be no diminution of frontline policing.
Of course, it was accepted that backroom functions would be merged and that this would produce savings for the public purse. But the clear message was that the changes to the way we are policed would be largely positive, in the form of more highly specialised – and therefore more effective – centralised units in specific types of crime-fighting.
What are we to make, therefore, of the news that scores of police stations around Scotland are to close to the public and others see reductions in hours?
The police say that they have carried out studies of how the front counter service is used, and that the new set-up is based on results of when and where the service is used and will provide greater value for money.
However, when the force was set up, the government made it absolutely clear that it expected there to be savings from the police budget. Chief Constable Sir Stephen House is looking to take £60 million from his budget. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these service changes are largely driven by that need to cut costs.
So the question that goes to the heart of this is: Are these cuts a reduction in frontline policing, or does the freeing-up of officers give them more time to spend on the streets actually tackling crime? And that depends on where you think the front line is.
As we have seen today there is good news to be celebrated on the policing front. New figures have revealed that homicides are at a historic low and that fits with the general trend of crime dropping in recent years.
Safety is important to the public and it is good to know that when experts like the police believe safety might be compromised then they make their views known to parliament, as they did yesterday. It would be wise for MSPs to consider those views carefully.
But one of the question marks about the single national force was how – and to whom – it would be accountable. The set up is now in place; time will tell if accountability is there.
However, ultimately the police force is not accountable to politicians but the public. It is the public the police serve, doing a difficult and often dangerous job. A criticism in the past has been over a withdrawal of police officers out and about in the community. That one of the first contractions the new force makes is in an important interface with the public is bound to raise concern. As the police know, perception is vital.
Ditch this ill-conceived tax now
Once again the courts have struck a blow against the UK government’s pernicious bedroom tax. The latest victory chalked up by Scottish legal campaigners backs the right of a couple – one of whom has a severe disability – to be entitled to have separate bedrooms without being financially penalised for this.
The campaigners – in particular Mike Dailly, principal solicitor of Govan Law Centre – should be congratulated on their success, which further undermines the bedroom tax’s credibility.
When does the Westminster coalition government reach the point that John Major’s administration reached in 1991 with the poll tax, and accept that the bedroom tax is not worth the candle? This cannot come too quickly, whether by reason of a change of heart or simple political expediency.
The longer ministers continue to defend the bedroom tax, the more it undermines the credibility of their wider range of welfare reforms. This is the real danger for the coalition.
No-one doubts that some reform of the welfare system is required. But this Conservative-led government has gone about it with an apparent carelessness about the consequences for some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
Some of the government’s reforms are welcome simplifications of an arcane and confusing system. Other elements – such as a cap on benefits at the level of the average wage – enjoy fairly wide public support.
But the political success of welfare reform is fatally undermined by the bedroom tax, which must go down in history as the most ill-conceived, poorly-researched piece of public policy in recent times. The Tories have no feel for this, and it shows. They should cut their losses, and soon.