Chris Marshall: Police warning over budget cuts

Listening to Kenny MacAskill you would think everyone is fine at Police Scotland. Picture: Julie Bull
Listening to Kenny MacAskill you would think everyone is fine at Police Scotland. Picture: Julie Bull
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TO LISTEN to Scotland’s justice secretary and his oft-repeated assertion that crime is at a 40-year low, you would think everything is running smoothly within Police Scotland.

Indeed figures released last week show officer numbers remain around 1,000 higher than when Kenny MacAskill and his SNP colleagues came to power in 2007 – a key manifesto pledge.

But the police force is not immune to the public sector squeeze.

Nor should we forget that it was budgetary pressures which caused the country’s eight legacy forces to be merged in the first place, bringing Police Scotland into existence.

In its submission on the Scottish Government’s draft budget, Police Scotland notes that more than 90 per cent of its £1 billion annual budget for 2014-15 was spent on staff costs, and required overall savings of £68.2 million to be made.

The force is committed to maintaining officer numbers above the 17,000-mark and will not make compulsory redundancies. However, it notes that, in order to achieve this, it will be required to make “difficult choices” about the service it provides.

For its part, the Scottish Police Federation, a staff association, warned the force will continue to be “stretched” in the coming year, particularly when policing major public events.

The SPF didn’t pull its punches when it warned that any change to police officers’ terms and conditions, as has happened in England and Wales, would be met with the “fiercest possible opposition” and would be considered a “flagrant betrayal”.

There were huge levels of frustration within the force in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games about shift patterns being redrawn and leave cancelled.

The chief constable, Sir Stephen House, has assured the police watchdog that the Games was a “once in a lifetime” event, and it is unlikely that similar pressures will be brought to bear in the near future.

So it is worrying that the SPF is already making noises about the force struggling with the demands of events scheduled to take place next year, despite officer numbers being maintained.

One suggestion which perhaps explain why this is happening is that officers are being pulled off frontline duties to cover for backroom staff who have been let go.

According to figures dug out by the Scottish Tories, the number of support staff has fallen by 2,056 since 2010.

With cumulative savings of £1.1bn to be found by 2026, it may be the effects of the cost-cutting are only beginning to bite.