THE head of Scotland’s new national police service has warned that he cannot guarantee police stations will be saved from closure as the single force is gripped by a funding gap of tens of millions of pounds.
• New police chief says closure of stations would be ‘toxic thing to do’
• Stephen House addressing Holyrood justice committee
Stephen House, in his first appearance before MSPs since taking over as chief constable of the Police Service of Scotland, said he could not give an “absolute assurance” on station closures, which he admitted would be a “toxic thing to do”.
He told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee that he would “try to avoid” any closures as he was pressed on the issue by Labour MSP Jenny Marra.
However, Mr House went onto say that Scotland’s newly merged police force was facing a funding gap of about £70 million, but said that the “tight” budgetary pressure was “livable with”.
He went onto say that the bulk of savings would be made through non staff areas, but that any redundances of civilian staff were likely to be voluntary.
Mr House, who was handed the top job in Scotland’s police service after the eight forces were merged, went onto say that using officers to cover the tasks of civilian staff such as back officer work was a “bad thing” that “should be avoided.”
He said: “We will not be seeking to close police stations. It’s a matter of huge public confidence and it would be a toxic thing to do.”
However, when Mr House, a former Strathclyde police chief constable, was asked by Ms Marra to rule out any closures he said that he could not give the Labour MSP any guarantees on the issue.
Ms Marra asked “Can you give us an assurance that there will be no closures of police stations” as she attacked the government’s funding plans for the police as “unrealistic.”
Mr House said: “One option is to look at the police estate, but will be prioritising non operational buildings.
“We will not be seeking to close police station. It’s a matter of huge public confidence and it would be a toxic thing to do.
“I can’t give an absolute assurance as it may be that as one of the eight forces that they do something about a very small building. We will try to avoid any police station closures.”
Mr House went on to criticise using police officers to carry out civilian work, a process known as “backfilling”, which he insisted was not widespread within Scotland’s national police force.
He said: “Backfilling is a bad thing and should be avoided. There may be a individual and isolated cases, but it’s not something I’d support.”
Mr House admitted that some civilian staff could be made redundant, although he said the level of police officer would not be reduced in line with Scottish government policy.
He said “There are proposals that civilian staff will have to go to make savings and it’s accepted that a level of that is inevitable.
“I don’t see that we’ll need to get to compulsory redundancies, as I think there will be quiet an uptake of voluntary redundancies.
“I’m looking at a gap in the budget at the moment of about £70 million, but I think it’s a challenge we can meet.
“It’s tight, but it’s livable with.. I believe the budget can be achieved.
“In the first place we’ll look at no staff savings.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have protected – and will continue to protect – front line police numbers, and the 1,000 extra officers we have delivered which have helped reduce crime to a 37-year low, while the fear of crime has also fallen. The location of police stations is rightly an operational decision for the police and not one for Ministers.”