Kenny MacAskill: Cuts in England show Police Scotland was good idea

Police Scotland's travails have raised questions about the service's structure. Despite its recent troubles though it's important to bear in mind that on a daily basis outstanding work is still delivered by those who serve in it.

It is normal across Europe for smaller countries like Scotland to have a single police force.  Picture: Getty Images
It is normal across Europe for smaller countries like Scotland to have a single police force. Picture: Getty Images

My successor as Justice Secretary has been required to make a statement in Parliament which is right and proper. He’s also right not to rush to judgement but to allow due process to be followed before taking any action. There’s a new chair arriving at the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and the current acting Chief Constable is settling in. That allows greater stability and time for them to review the situation. Thereafter, any proposed changes can be implemented.

Changes there will be, as sensible proposals to give Parliament a greater say in the selection of the SPA have widespread support. Moreover, the acting Chief has made some minor changes and added some personnel. Beyond that, though, things remain much as they were. Which makes it very much appear that the fundamental issues have been human error, personalities and a culture rather than the structure of the service itself.

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But, it’s appropriate to consider where we are now and how we got here before deciding where we go thereafter. The single service came in on 1 April 2013. I was in office and responsible for it. It was necessary then and remains so now. This is no doubt why there are few voices, if any, calling for the abolition of the single service, simply enhancements to it. Every organisation needs reviewed and improvements can always be made.

The reason for the single service’s creation was to make a virtue out of a necessity. Austerity was upon us and public services were threatened. Changes needed made and especially an end to duplication, otherwise cuts would be severe. If we didn’t lose a few Chiefs we’d certainly lose a lot more rank and file.

Moreover, it would allow the best possible service to be provided nationally, rather than a patchwork system in which only some areas had dogs or helicopters, never mind the resources to deal with serious incidents or even just policy on domestic abuse, whilst others didn’t or struggled.

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Without change, the pressures experienced by the single service would be like nothing to the cuts being imposed upon smaller forces such as Fife or Dumfries and Galloway. A glance over the Border shows what the impact without reform would’ve been. More officers have been lost there than serve in all of Scotland. Not just smaller forces but larger metropolitan ones are implementing severe cuts in service. So, not changing wasn’t an option.

But, what to change to? Examples worldwide were looked at. Single services are quite normal in smaller European countries, not just across in Northern Ireland. Consideration was given to a regional model of three or four forces. But, the savings made were very limited and would have been offset by the cost of change. Never mind the practicalities of where to draw the lines for constabularies – was everything north of the Forth to be one service and where locate it?

The most cogent argument against this was made from Finland, which had moved from many services down to regional forces and then on to a single service. Their advice was clear, if you’re going to change then change once or you’ll end up doing it all again. Hence it was to a single service where savings could be made and national services provided.

The structure of the service to scrutinise the police moved from regional police boards to the SPA at national level and scrutiny panels at council level. Those remembering the so-called halcyon days forget that regional supervision could be extremely weak – two councillors flying in from the islands to Inverness once a month was hardly local accountability.

Moreover, the establishment of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) moved investigations into the police from other forces – even neighbouring ones – to a separate agency. Of course, many who serve in that are former officers, but that’ll change as skills develop. In the interim, they’re the ones with the necessary talents and their integrity should be respected.

Finally, some lamented the old constabularies but forgot that they had only arrived in the 1970s. Prior to that it wasn’t just the City of Edinburgh and Glasgow Police but even Scottish North-East Counties (SNECC) and no one was demanding the restoration of more than 30 local forces.

Has it worked out? Yes and no. Troubles there have been but human error can’t be legislated against and the actions of individuals in office likewise. Challenges have increased as terrorism, cyber crime and historic sexual abuse have drained resources from other frontline areas. Moreover, despite the long overdue exemption from VAT financial, problems still remain. Projected savings from an IT system that needed an overhaul have fallen through, although in that the police are no different from NHS 24 or major private companies.

So, what went wrong? There are difficulties in every major reorganisation and Police Scotland is one of the largest. The Chief Constable is required to keep a tight ship to ensure the necessary integration, not just of practical issues like cap badges but policies like domestic abuse.

Andrew Flanagan came in to chair the SPA and seemed to think it was a business rather than a service. Management dictat is not policing by consent. It was a failure and his selection as Chief Constable, Phil Gormley, hasn’t worked out either.

So, where now? The new chair, Susan Deacon, can change the culture and the current acting chief, Iain Livingstone, should be appointed to the post permanently. They can loosen the grip at local level though will still need to keep a tight grip of the purse strings. Challenges remain with more being asked of the same number of officers.

Human error might still happen but Police Scotland can get back to the day and night job of keeping Scotland safe. A service that they actually do remarkably well.