Leaders: Police must get priorities right

WHEN Scotland’s eight regional police forces were merged into a single national force in April, there were a number of reassurances sought and given. Prominent among these was that the local aspect of policing would not be lost.

While increased centralisation of specialist crimefighting functions would ensure the whole of the country benefitted from more professional and joined-up policing, communities would still be able to influence local policing the way they used to under the previous system. Local police officers would be accountable to local political representatives on local issues. These assurances were accepted in good faith. The question now, after a co-ordinated series of raids on massage parlours across Edinburgh involving 150 officers from the new national force, is whether Police Scotland has been as good as its word.

It remains to be seen what the raids uncovered. Obviously, the personal safety and wellbeing of women working in these saunas is the primary concern, and any intervention that can be demonstrated to have improved their welfare is to be welcomed. However a charity, Scot-Pep, working with sex workers says the raids have been an unsettling experience for these women. The organisation questions the official justification for the raids, that they were aimed at ensuring the safety of women working there. A spokesperson asked: “Is it safe to instil fear amongst sex workers of police and social services?”

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Would such a large-scale raid have been carried out by the old Lothian & Borders force under the previous regime? It seems unlikely. Why? Because there has been a long-standing consensus within Edinburgh – encompassing the city ­council, its elected parliamentarians, local communities and ­organisations representing sex workers – about the capital’s attitude to prostitution. Saunas have existed cheek by jowl with some of the most exclusive residential areas in Scotland for decades. The common view – albeit a tacit one – was that it was better for prostitution to be carried out in a semi-licensed form in saunas than to have scores of prostitutes on the streets. There was also a widespread acknowledgment that this was also safer for the prostitutes themselves. This has been the way in Scotland’s capital city for many years. And yet a decision seems to have been taken at some level in Police Scotland to disrupt this consensus.

In Glasgow the position is very different. The authorities in Scotland’s largest city have taken a less liberal view of prostitution. That is their right. The question many people are now asking is whether the Glasgow attitude to such matters has been co-opted as Police Scotland’s national view. National ­policing does not always mean one-size-fits-all policing. There is an important distinction to be made here. While serious crime must be prosecuted with equal vigour everywhere, different communities will put greater or lesser emphasis on different aspects of policing – for example where particular areas are blighted by particular forms of anti-social behaviour. It is the police’s job to respond to these different priorities, not impose a blanket conformity across the entire Scottish nation, from Castlemilk to Caithness.

Cities and towns across Scotland will have cause to look at these Edinburgh raids and ponder what message they send about Police Scotland’s attitude to local sensibilities. And ­senior officers in the new national force have some searching ­questions to answer.

A taboo too far

IT MAY not rank as the most dangerous idea to be discussed at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Edinburgh this week, but that it is there on the agenda at all says volumes about how controversial the subject has become. Patting a child on the back to bestow praise, or hugging him or her to provide comfort, has indeed become almost taboo unless that child is your own. It has happened in an overly febrile climate stoked by the numerous cases of child sexual abuse that have emerged in recent years; tensions have been ratcheted higher recently by cases such as the Jimmy Savile scandal. Yet that leaves adults who come into regular contact with children, particularly on a professional basis, and who know the value of physical contact in that context, alarmed and concerned about what is ­acceptable.

That there are no official guidelines on acceptability ­reveals how difficult it is to provide hard-and-fast rules but, as ­Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie points out in our report on the front page today, the “pendulum of safety” has, to most people, swung too far. A common sense approach is needed to bring the balance back into kilter before fear exerts too great an influence over what is right and natural to the loss of future generations.