Police Scotland officers are “run ragged” and can no longer be expected to attend “minor” incidents such as vandalism, the former justice secretary has claimed.
Kenny MacAskill said budget pressures mean “some things can no longer be provided” and suggested activities like stewarding of some major events may need to be completely handed over to private security companies.
Mr MacAskill, who oversaw the creation of Police Scotland as justice secretary from 200714, also said police cannot continue to be the frontline agency in dealing with mental health issues, and called on NHS Scotland to “step up”.
The budget shortfall at Scotland’s national police force was put at £200 million in January, with Auditor General saying its finances were “in crisis”. Mr MacAskill said there was a “huge hole in the budget and funding isn’t increasing to keep pace”, despite the Scottish Government protecting Police Scotland’s budget.
“The country’s population has increased and more importantly pressures on officers have mounted,” Mr MacAskill writes in a column for The Scotsman’s sister publication i today. “Terrorism, cyber crime and historic sexual abuse now take up a huge amount of police resources.
“No wonder response officers are run ragged and there are fewer community officers.
“What has to change is what both politicians and the public expect officers to do. There cannot be more of everything.
The former justice secretary goes on to say: “These new pressures mean that some things can no longer be provided. The priority has to be keeping people safe and investigating serious crime.
“Expecting an officer to attend incidents of minor vandalism where there are no eye witnesses can no longer be justified. An e-mail acknowledgement for the insurance company will have to suffice.
“Private security has already taken over some aspects of policing and such services will also be needed in other areas like cyber protection or stewarding roles.”
Mr MacAskill adds: “Mental health remains the biggest drain on police resources, yet officers aren’t trained for it. Why is it for the police to calm a distressed individual?
“The NHS has to step up to the mark except when there’s a threat to safety.”
Pressure to deliver savings has been blamed for low morale among Police Scotland officers and staff, with financial difficulties compounded by a leadership crisis that has seen Chief Constable Phil Gormley and several other senior officers step aside or be suspended over separate investigations into their conduct.
The chairman of the Scottish Police Authority, Andrew Flanagan also resigned in June.
Rows over police funding have seen union leaders publish images of water-damaged police station interview suites and patrol cars that are “held together with duct tape”.
Officers have been told not to empty bins in order to save on bin bags, and have been forced to buy light bulbs for work premises, it has been claimed.
The Scottish Government has maintained officer numbers, but the decision has put additional pressure on backroom staff and other resources. Police Scotland’s budget has also been protected in real-terms.
Following calls from the Scottish Government and an intervention by Scottish Conservative MPs, Chancellor Philip Hammond announced that a VAT exemption for locally-run public services would be extended to Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, saving them a combined £35 million per year.
The two organisations have lost £140m to the taxman since 2013, when they became liable for VAT.
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “Kenny MacAskill didn’t seem to care too much about these issues when he was justice secretary.
“But these remain severe warnings, and the SNP would do very well to take them on board.”
In 2015, Mr Gormley’s predecessor Stephen House sparked anger by saying it was a waste of time for police to attend minor burglaries.
In January, Police Scotland revealed that 80 per cent of call-outs do not result in any crime being recorded. Officers attended 900,000 incidents in 2016 where no crime was committed, according to official figures.
Many of these relate to missing people and mental health cases, with a study finding that officers spend four hours and 20 minutes on average dealing with each case of self-harm or attempted suicide.