Chris Marshall: Time to face the elephant in the numbers room

For an area of the public sector seemingly undergoing a financial crisis, Scottish policing has made a number of big-money signings of late.

Justice Minister, Michael Matheson (right) with Police Scotland Chief Constable, Phil Gormley. Picture: Michael Gillen

Fresh from the appointment of consultants Deloitte to carry out a review of policing by the Scottish Police Authority, Police Scotland this week announced the recruitment of its new “top civilian”.

David Page, a former army officer who has held senior roles at Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Life, will take up the most senior civilian role ever created in Scottish policing, earning a salary of £173,010.

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Mr Page’s unenviable task involves leading “transformational change” and creating a “sustainable operating model” for a police force struggling to find savings totalling £1.1 billion by 2026.

Scottish policing could certainly use some expertise.

Since the formation of Police Scotland in 2013, the force has concentrated on maintaining as best it can the service offered by the eight legacy forces it succeeded.

But while significant savings have also been achieved, it is only now the force is turning to the long-term financial viability of the service.

And that means finally acknowledging the elephant in the room – officer numbers.

Last week the Tories issued a press release saying the Scottish Government had dropped its “strongest hint yet” that the long-term commitment on police numbers is to be shelved.

It followed a non-committal answer to a parliamentary question by justice secretary Michael Matheson.

But the observant will have noticed that the “strongest hint yet” actually came in the SNP’s own Holyrood manifesto where the pledge was conspicuous by its absence.

Since coming to power in 2007, the Nationalists have kept officer numbers 1,000 higher than the 16,234-strong force they inherited.

But in the run-up to May’s election, senior figures in Police Scotland began making noises about being given more “flexibility” over how the force manages its £1.1bn annual budget.

The implication is that senior officers want the Scottish Government to drop its long-term commitment on officer numbers, giving them more control of the staffing budget, which accounts for 90 per cent of the force’s costs.

But while the manifesto commitment was dropped, the SNP has never explicitly confirmed its policy on officer numbers, knowing that to do so would hand an opportunity to its political rivals.

That has led to a great deal of uncertainty, not to mention speculation about the future size of the force.

The waters were further muddied by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who responded to concerns about the national force by saying she expected officer numbers to be maintained.

It now looks increasingly likely that police numbers will remain largely static for the current financial year before the chief constable is slowly handed more power to decide the size and make-up of his force in years to come.

The Scottish Government is in a difficult position as it has regularly made a virtue of officer numbers, comparing Police Scotland to forces in England and Wales which have seen major cutbacks within their ranks.

Sooner or later, however, Scotland deserves an honest debate about the future of its police.