ALEX Salmond has announced the biggest shake-up of Scotland's police for a generation with plans to reduce the number of forces as the savage cuts in public spending approach.
• Alex Salmond accepts the applause of SNP politicians and activists after his conference speech, in which he vowed to put 'policemen first' in the face of spending cuts Picture: Ian Rutherford
The SNP leader said he would take action that would cut administration costs but maintain the number of police officers on the beat.
In a speech to the SNP conference in Perth, Mr Salmond said he would put "bobbies before boundaries". He did not indicate the scale of the reduction, but The Scotsman understands ministers are looking at cutting Scotland's eight police forces to three or four.
There are no plans to merge Strathclyde, Tayside, Fife Constabulary, Northern Constabulary, Lothian and Borders, Dumfries and Galloway, Central and Grampian into a single force.
Senior police figures, including Stephen House, the Strathclyde Chief Constable, have called for the introduction of one police force covering the whole of Scotland.
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The First Minister said the country was facing "the most ferocious series of cuts in our lifetimes" and pointed out that a quarter of the 1.4 billion police budget was spent on administration.
"We have eight forces in Scotland, one of which covers almost half of the population," he said.
"In times like these we must protect the frontline and so I make this pledge. If it comes down to a choice between bobbies on the beat and the boundaries of police authorities, then it's simple. It's policemen first – safety first – communities first – bobbies before boundaries."
The announcement was given a cautious welcome by police officers' organisations, who underlined the importance of making sure the proposal did not compromise operational policing.
David O'Connor, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said: "We've been lobbying the justice secretary and the Scottish Government for some time to have a strategic review of policing.
"We believe the eight-force model is not sustainable. I understand there is now a Scottish Government working group looking at policing structures.
"We need to develop a sustainable policing model that serves Scotland, not just in the immediate future, but the next few decades.
"We would simply ask that all options be considered and we choose the best to fit with the primary priority of frontline operational policing."
Assistant Chief Constable Cliff Anderson, general secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, said the police budget would be slashed by between 16 to 25 per cent in the next parliamentary term.
He said forces were looking to work together, but warned the "provision of responsive, accountable and accessible policing services is non-negotiable".
Les Gray, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, said: "We are willing to discuss mergers and amalgamations.
"However, there needs to be a proper business case to show it's viable in relation to finance and the service it provides to people in Scotland. We need a business case rather than a wish list."
In a rousing 35-minute speech delivered to 1,100 SNP delegates in Perth Concert Hall yesterday, Mr Salmond closed the party's October conference by mounting a withering attack on Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray and his shadow Cabinet.
The SNP leader did not mention Mr Gray by name, but denounced the Labour leader as the "invisible man" as he sought to turn next year's election into a personality contest.
And he signalled the start of a highly personal campaign that will see the SNP portray the election as a straight fight between the leaders of Scotland's largest parties.
Mr Salmond referred to a poll which suggests only 9 per cent of Scots recognised Labour's Scottish leader and compared that with the profile of his Cabinet and their leading performers, such as John Swinney and Nicola Sturgeon.
"I am reminded of a newspaper article some years ago that praised John, Nicola and the team under the title 'The Magnificent Seven'," Mr Salmond said. "I was thinking what film title would work for Labour's Holyrood team – 'The Night of the Living Dead?'"
He added: "And as to their leader? It has to be 'The Invisible Man'. In tough times the nation needs clear leadership and a positive future. I stand before you offering just that."
It was a speech with Mr Salmond's eye firmly on next year's election and was laden with announcements. In addition to his promise to cut the number of police forces, Mr Salmond said he had persuaded Nobel Laureate economist Joe Stiglitz to join Scotland's Council of Economic Advisers. Campbell Christie, the former STUC leader, will chair a commission looking at how the public sector should respond to the economic crisis.
The next pay round will see ministers making sure every Scottish Government wage packet will meet the new living wage target of 7.15 an hour – a measure that should benefit 6,000 people and cost less than 3 million.
Finally, Mr Salmond said the SNP government would publish a paper on how Scotland can maximise opportunities in the renewable energy sector.
On the constitution, Mr Salmond appeared to concede the popular perception of Scottish independence was not gaining public support when he said he was fighting "not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion". And he argued that when faced with Westminster's spending cuts, independence should be thought of as the constitutional change, which had to be delivered for economic and social progress.
"The powers I wish for us all are powers to protect us all. This is not an arcane question removed from the people. It is the people, you and me and how we protect our society and grow our economy," Mr Salmond said.
"That is what I mean by independence. I fight not for flags and anthems, but fairness and compassion. I fight for a generation not burdened by the mistakes of this one."
Mr Salmond's remarks on independence were in keeping with the SNP's plan to maintain a "social union" with England that would see the Queen still recognised as head of state in Scotland and the pound remaining the currency north of the Border.
Labour last night hit back, with Mr Gray saying: "Alex Salmond is a failed First Minister and out of touch with ordinary people. Their priority is jobs, his is independence. He is stuck in the past and has run out of steam."