Ian Swanson: Fuzzy logic in debate on future policing

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As the plans for a single Scottish police force are unveiled, Political Editor Ian Swanson looks at what the changes will mean

SUPPORTERS say it’s the only way to protect and improve policing in Scotland in an age of austerity. Critics claim it paves the way for political interference in enforcement of the law.

The move to a single police force covering the whole of Scotland is presented on the one hand as a sensible way of coping with cuts, reducing duplication and giving all forces equal access to specialist resources such as firearms teams or flood rescue.

From another point of view, it is a dangerous centralisation of power and an unnecessary upheaval which also threatens hundreds of jobs among civilian police staff.

But the change is going ahead. The SNP government, which published the Bill for a single police force last week, has a majority in the Scottish Parliament and both Labour and the Tories support the move anyway.

The new Scottish Police Authority (SPA) is expected to be appointed towards the end of this year and it will then appoint the new chief constable – widely expected to be Strathclyde’s Stephen House – early next year, with the new force scheduled to be up and running as early as April 2013, though there have been warnings it will take about five years for the current eight forces to become fully integrated.

No location has yet been chosen for the new all-Scotland police headquarters, though Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has made clear he wants it to be the police college at Tulliallan, near Alloa.

It will be up to the SPA and the new chief constable to decide. But Mr MacAskill did go as far as ruling out Edinburgh or Glasgow.

Iain Whyte, convener of the Lothian and Borders Police board, hopes that will be reconsidered. “I would argue there is merit in having the overall headquarters in Edinburgh, given the seat of government is here.”

Councillor Whyte also has concerns about the local input into policing under the new system. At the moment, individual police boards such as Lothian and Borders appoint their own chief constable and control the budget.

Under the new arrangements, the Scottish Parliament will approve the budget for the SPA – consisting of between seven and 11 members appointed by ministers “on the basis of relevant skills and expertise” and subject to the code on public appointments – will oversee the Police Service of Scotland, as the force will be known, and hold the chief constable to account.

The Bill says there will be local commanders for each of Scotland’s 32 council areas, though in some cases one commander might be in charge of two smaller areas.

These commanders – whose rank will vary – will be required to draw up a policing plan for the area, setting out priorities and objectives, which councils will be asked to approve.

The commander will also have a duty to “provide information and reports to the local authority to enable it to effectively scrutinise and monitor performance and service delivery”.

The Scottish Government says all this means more councillors will be involved in overseeing policing than under the current system, where only the one in eight councillors who are members of a police board get involved.

The Bill declares as one of its objectives the strengthening of the connection between the police service and local communities, but says it will be up to councils to decide the best mechanism for this. Local policing committees are seen as the most likely approach. But Cllr Whyte says the Bill leaves many key issues unclear. “It talks about councils approving local policing plans, but it doesn’t tell us what happens if they decide not to,” he says.

“And it’s rather vague about what will be presented to local policing committees. It talks about the policing plan and mentions performance and statistics on complaints. All that needs testing and it will depend to some extent on the discussion the Scottish Parliament has around the Bill as it goes through. There is talk about councillors being involved, but I’m not sure how deeply they will be involved.”

He says members of the current police board spend a lot of time on sub-committees looking at performance and complaints.

“I wonder whether these local committees, perhaps dealing with fire issues as well, will have the time and the people with energy to get into the detail which boards currently do.”

Lothians MSP and Conservative justice spokesman David McLetchie is more outspoken in his criticism.

“The accountability arrangements in this Bill are totally inadequate,” he says. “Instead of having police boards with power to oversee or scrutinise their local forces we will have talking- shop committees.”

Liberal Democrats, who oppose a single force, have branded the move “a huge power grab by Kenny MacAskill”. However, the Justice Secretary and his colleagues insist the new force will be independent, with no operational control from ministers but subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The government puts the cost of reorganisation at £137 million, but says the move to a single force will save an estimated £1.4m over the next 15 years.

Cllr Whyte says: “The government is obviously intent on pressing ahead.

“Locally, we have to make the best of that and make sure the new system is the best it can be.

“I’m confident the police service can adjust - they have shown over the years they can adapt to change.

“But I just hope we can retain the local input and community policing we have had in Lothian and Borders over the past few years.”