Chris Marshall: Pledge on police numbers looking ripe for revision

Amid the hype surrounding the SNP's manifesto launch last week, much of the actual detail got lost. But as far as Police Scotland is concerned, it is what was omitted from the document which could prove to be as important as what was included.

Picture: John Devlin

For alongside commitments on tackling domestic abuse and the prison population, there was a distinct absence of a commitment on police numbers.

Since a 2007 manifesto pledge, the SNP has delivered on its commitment to provide an extra 1,000 police officers.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The party regularly draws links between the policy and the fact that recorded crime is at a 41-year low, even if that link is questionable at best.

In a section of the 2016 manifesto entitled “Strengthening the Police”, the party said it was vital that frontline policing remained “strong”.But it said the changing nature of crime meant the police force needed the “right mix and number of staff for the future”. There was no mention of 1,000 extra officers.

That was interpreted as a change in tack, even if the SNP has not officially confirmed that the policy on officer numbers has been dropped.

Critics might accuse the SNP of reneging on their earlier commitment. But it is from the police service itself that pressure has come for the target to be dropped.

Speaking to the media during his first few days in the job earlier this year, Chief Constable Phil Gormley called for a “grown-up” conversation about how his cash-strapped force tackles crime.

The national force is required to make savings of £1.1 billion by 2026 and must cut its cloth accordingly. Increased autonomy over staffing – which accounts for around 90 per cent of Police Scotland’s budget – will be welcomed from a financial point of view.

But backing away from a fixed target on officer numbers also makes sense from an operational point of view.

Speaking last year, Niven Rennie, president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, said the commitment on officer numbers had become a source of frustration for senior officers.

He called for the adherence to a fixed target to be removed, allowing the force itself to better balance its workforce and decide where it spends its money.

Only then would it be able to prioritise for the demands of cybercrime and business fraud, two areas where offences often go unreported.

It’s perhaps too early to tell how Police Scotland might begin to look after May’s election.

But it does appear the party likely to make up Scotland’s next government has listened to the concerns raised by the force.

There was, however, one commitment on policing in the 2016 manifesto.

Following the controversy surrounding armed policing, the SNP confirmed officers will not be “routinely armed”. The manifesto says the situation remains “under review” by the chief constable in line with the threats faced by his officers.

The debate over armed policing has moved on from the controversy which caused so much difficulty for then Chief Constable Sir Stephen House.

Terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have led to questions over whether Police Scotland has enough firearms capability. We can expect the issue to be revisited at some point after the election.