Alison Payne: Single police force needn’t be centralised

Police Scotland need not be a centralised force. Picture: John Devlin
Police Scotland need not be a centralised force. Picture: John Devlin
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The creation of Police Scotland was a mistake. Enforced centralisation of services usually is and this was no exception. Indeed, Reform Scotland felt that, even with the previous eight territorial forces, local variations in needs and priorities were inadequately reflected.

As a result, we have welcomed the emphasis placed on localism and accountability within the draft strategic police priorities for Scotland, on which the Scottish Government is consulting. However, there is little explanation of how the current structure of a single police force, under the direction of one chief constable, can be flexible enough to allow the different policing priorities and circumstances around the country to be taken into account.

As Steve Allen, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders, has commented, it brought together different leaderships styles and resulted in misunderstandings. For example, under the previous structure, the policing of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow was very different. Lothian and Borders adopted a pragmatic approach, while Strathclyde executed zero tolerance. However, following centralisation these approaches clashed, which led to sauna raids in Edinburgh. Reform Scotland makes no judgment on right and wrong; we merely highlight it as an example of the problems caused by centralisation.

However, while we may disagree with the current single force structure, we also recognise that there is no appetite for further wholesale police reform. Therefore, we responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation setting out ways we feel localism can be re-injected back into policing in Scotland. A single police force does not need to be a centralised one.

We have two easily achievable policy suggestions for the government to adopt as part of its review. The first is about funding. Local authorities used to fund 50 per cent of the police, but centralisation removed this requirement. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”, and if local authorities are to have any meaningful input into policing in Scotland they must contribute toward the cost of policing. If local authorities have no control over the purse strings then it will be difficult for councils to adopt differing policies towards policing, or have a meaningful input into policy direction. As a result, there needs to be a change back to the old system of a roughly a 50/50 split in funding between local authorities and the Scottish Government.

Secondly, we want to see more local governance. The Scottish Police Authority is basically a quango with members appointed by the Scottish Government and this blurs transparency and accountability. Rather than the government nominating all members, the membership should be a split between local government and central government appointees to reflect the split in funding. To ensure the need for diversity and flexibility is accommodated by a single police force, it would be necessary to have a representative from each local authority.

However, there is also a final recommendation we made to the Scottish Government. The SNP manifesto included a commitment to “review the roles and responsibilities of local authorities”. Reform Scotland believes reforms to local authorities need to be made ahead of reforming police governance – the horse must be put before the cart, otherwise there is a danger of needing to review and reform police and council relations once again.

lAlison Payne is research director at Reform Scotland