Ministers have come under fire over the “direction and control” they exert over Scotland’s police force, with claims that criticism of the service has been “stifled” at top levels.
There are now calls for stronger safeguards to prevent the force being treated as a “political football” as concerns over the centralisation of police and fire services in Scotland are raised before MSPs next week.
Frontline officers have been taken “out of local communities”, which has limited the prospects for preventing crime. Cuts to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) have also raised questions over its performance.
The new single forces, Police Scotland and SFRS, were established five years ago with the aim of providing economies of scale to protect emergency services from the worst of hardline spending cuts.
But a reduction in staff numbers has been badly managed, Holyrood’s justice committee has been warned, with the impact now being felt in communities across Scotland.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU), trade union Unison’s Police Scotland branch and the Scottish Police Federation will be among groups giving evidence before the committee next week on the impact of the reforms.
Former justice secretary Michael Matheson was accused of “interfering” in operational issues when the Scottish Police Authority reversed a decision to reinstate the embattled former Police Constable Phil Gormley after meetings with the minister.
Ministers also have final approval over key appointments like the Chief Constable and head of the police authority, prompting concerns from Unison about the power being yielded by politicians in Scottish policing.
“We challenge and question to what extent ministerial control and direction is exercised in relation to officer numbers, workforce mix, appointments and spending as these impact and influence operational decision making,” Unison states in a submission to MSPs.
“The will of leaders and individuals has shaped the culture and direction of the service to this point and will continue to do so.
“It is our view that challenges and criticism of the service has been stifled and there are limited pathways to pursue complaints and concerns about the operation of the service for police staff.” The scrutiny role of Holyrood’s justice sub-committee should be expanded to address “some of the concerns about policing being used as a “political football”, Unison adds. The loss of many experienced staff during the SFRS overhaul is also criticised by the union.
“We believe significant damage has been done due to the loss of invaluable, skilled police staff with experience and expertise, which jeopardises future transformation,” the union says.
Unison said any cost savings had been “more than offset by the consequences of poorly managed restructure”. The centralised structures of the new regime runs counter to the principles of localism, the group argues.
“Police officers have been taken out of communities and this has limited opportunities for greater prevention and collaborative work,” it adds.
“The funding crisis in local government means that partnership roles are disappearing, having funding withdrawn with neither partner able to continue the arrangement.” The creation of the national fire service has also prompted criticism from the FBU, which says pledges that jobs and capability would be protected have not been met.
“We feel that firefighters and the people of Scotland have been let down,” the union states in a submission.
“The FBU challenges the assertion that the creation of a single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has been an unambiguous ‘good’ for Scotland.”
After years of falling fires and fire deaths, the past five years have seen a plateau, according to the union.
The total incidents and fires attended has also remained “static”, while firefighters now attend similar levels of false alarms and more non-fire incidents.
There has also been “little or no improvement” in accidental fires or non-fire incidents.
The FBU said it could not countenance what appeared to be a “mantra” from senior managers the SFRS always had “the right resources in the right place at the right time”.
There has been 781 full-time posts lost among full-time and retained firefighters, as well as control room staff.
“That in itself is an indictment of the single service,” the union submission states.
The prospect of more staff reductions under reform plans unveiled by the first service earlier this year has also sparked fears concerns over the impact on services.
Concerns have been raised by the Retained Firefighters Union (RFU), which represents firefighters in mainly rural areas who work largely “on call”.
The union states the national fire service has become “an extension” of the former Strathclyde Force. “The geographical focus has been to the detriment of other areas across the country, with some operational staff feeling isolated within the organisation,” they warn in a submission.
“The perception is that standards have dropped both in terms of training and equipment provisions. When this is challenged by our members, the common response is that current circumstances are due to budget restraints.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Operational decisions remain a matter for Police Scotland and the Chief Constable.
“We look forward to continuing our engagement in the justice committee’s work to review police and fire reform.
“We have submitted written evidence outlining the key benefits which have been delivered as a result of our programme of police and fire reform and over the coming weeks we will give careful consideration to the range of views which have been expressed by other partners.”