Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why a single police force for Scotland is a really bad idea

I have absolutely no doubt that if Scotland's police forces, and other public services for that matter, combined some of their administrative functions, like payroll for example, and it might save money. That would be a good thing. However, merging Scotland's 8 police forces into one single force, as suggested by Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, is a very scary idea.

Such a force would be run by a chief constable, who would be report to the Justice Secretary. Concentrating the power for law enforcement in the whole country in the hands of these two people is just plain wrong, and open to abuse in the future. Also, when you have more senior police officers on an equal footing, they can contribute to debate on that basis. I've found it useful to see Chief Constables give their view on issues like drugs, like when Humberside Chief Constable Tom Hillis suggested that our current drugs laws are not working. The Police is a pretty hierarchical organisation. Cutting the number of people who can contribute to the debate to just one is not an enlightening move.  And if you have just one individual in charge, how do you make sure that that person has the backing of the whole force, and is not just the favoured son of the Justice Secretary?

Policing issues in Glasgow are completely different from policing issues in Helmsdale, or Stornoway, or Lerwick, or Elgin, or Pitlochry or Peebles. I am not convinced that a single force could properly serve these diverse communities properly. My concerns are magnified when I see that the Chief Constables of Lothian and Strathclyde are all for it and those who covers the most remote communities in Scotland, like Grampian and Northern, are against it. I suspect that they worry that their most remote stations, where the local bobby is an integral part of the local community would be shut down and resources shifted to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

And then you might have a situation where the Chief Constable for Scotland decides that tasers are to be issued to all officers. Now, I don't agree with that at the best of times, but to force that on the local highland bobby, or community, would be so wrong.

I don't see how a single Scottish force can properly serve the varying needs of the country's different communities and I am very concerned at the rush to centralise.

I'm glad to see that again it's Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Robert Brown, who also led the opposition to the SNP's quadrupling of pre-charge detention last year, who's pointing out the flaws in this plan, saying:

"Liberal Democrats will fight any move towards a single police force in Scotland.
“It is hugely disappointing but unsurprising that the Cabinet Secretary presented his plans for a single police force and fire board without giving the slightest indication of what savings and benefits Scotland would gain as a result.
“Liberal Democrats are not persuaded that a creation of a single police force will save any significant amount of money.
“Communities will instead suffer as local accountability is eroded and local police services damaged.
“Centralised bureaucrats will be given far too much say over how local policing decisions are made without being aware of local problems and issues.
“We are still waiting for a clear reason to be given by any of the supporters on why moving towards a single Scottish police force will improve policing or make Scottish streets safer.
“The idea of a single Scottish police service is bad for democracy, bad for local communities and bad for local policing.”


Douglas McLellan said...

I have to confess that I am totally ambivalent to this idea. The arguments for and against this idea seem balanced to me.

The police chief that deals with rural hamlets in the Borders is the same police chief that deals with Wester Hailes. It can take two hours to drive from one edge of Lothian & Borders area to another. This is not really local as I understand it. If we can get local policing with this structure (an we do with local police doing local work) then nothing changes moving to a national body.

And it is the same for many police forces in Scotland. Central are small and D&G are not much bigger (but a least are co-terminus with the Health Board and LA).

As a nation we are probably over-governed with Cllrs, MSPs, List MSPs, MPs, MEPs etc. Add to that multiple Health Boards/CHPs, multiple Police Boards etc and the case for some rationalisation looks appealing.

Alister said...

I am not sure why you are so adamantly opposed to a single police force. I would agree with Douglas McLellan. Especially when Scandinavian countries all seem to have a single police force. As does New Zealand. While each of the states of Australia has a single force. This must be worth looking at seriously as opposed to your instant dismissal.

Dan Falchikov said...

Well said Caron. And it would bound to be much more expensive than what we have at the moment.

Here's my take:

Fred said...

Hi Caron - I'm an SNP member and I have to say I'm extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a single police force for Scotland, and I'm sure there are many others in the party who will also feel the same. In all the recent coverage I haven't really see anything in this other than it being a cost cutting exercise and I feel that the long term financial savings of a single force as opposed to merging into 3 or 4 forces could have been overstated.

For the fire brigades I have no objections to merging them into a single all-Scotland service, but given the special law enforcing place the police have in our society it's absolutely vital that police are accountable to the communities they serve, which is exactly what a monolithic single centralised state police force would not be.

Apart from the fact that vital resources could be removed from rural areas, especially in the North of Scotland where I live, and the removal of local accountability, I can see the idea of a single force being started with all sorts of good intentions, which could be abused at some point in the future. This would be a permanent change for all time and who is to say that at some point in the future we might have a justice secretary who may interfere too much in police affairs? Police operational matters should not be affected by the whim of the government of the day, and with a single force there is a very real risk this could happen.

The police should be there to serve the community, not be an instrument of the state, and this is what I'm worried a single police force could become. Public confidence and trust in the police would go down and I just think it's a path we should think very carefully about before we go down.

I would almost go as far as saying there is something slightly Orwellian in the idea, but maybe that it just me being over cautious. The fact that the most enthusiastic cheer leaders for the idea have been Richard Baker, Iain Gray and Andy Kerr should have been setting all sorts of alarm bells off at the very moment the idea was first proposed!!!

But joking aside, there should be a clear distinction between those who make the laws and those who enforce them, and a single police force could see those boundaries become rather blurred.

Another concern I have is that after any allegations of misconduct in the police there is always an investigation carried out by another police force. With a single force what would happen then? We surely can't have police forces investigating themselves.

My preferred option all along has been to have 3 or 4 forces, probably 3 given the need to save money, perhaps one North force (eg. Northern / Grampian / Tayside) one East (Fife / Lothian & Borders / Central) one West (Strathclyde / Dumfries & Galloway).

I hope the outcome of the consultation exercise will give the chance to have this real debate, both with the general public and within the SNP over this issue, and hopefully the idea of a single force is not the done deal with Kenny MacAskill the papers seem to be making it out as just now.

Anonymous said...

One aspect which sadly isn't being discussed, is the thrifty housekeeping by some smaller Forces who have managed (not easily)to build up a cash reserve (millions£)for hard times and investment by good management, as compared to the larger Forces who are poised on bankruptcy (easy to get bailed out if you are called Strathclyde)and see a "national force" as a solution. The money belongs to the residents of the areas where these savings were made but watch as the millions are "grabbed" to bail out mismanaged Forces in the central belt who have more cops than they can afford to pay and no way of getting rid of them to balance the books.
The argument that local policing will be enhanced by a national Force rather disappointingly fails to give credit to Forces who already provide autonomy in budgets and local priorities to the local commanders in their areas - yes, strangely enough history will show that Northern Constabulary led the rest of Scotland in devolving budgets and decision-making. Small means agile and capable of adapting more regularly to change and not subject to the same internal resistance within the monolithic giants in the south who use their weight to ensure they get their way as often as possible.
Lets have a little bit more education before we have the open and frank debate and hopefully that will encourage a little more honesty from those who should know better (but don't) at Holyrood. I'm not opposed to any of the options on offer. I want to see some honest information which will allow me to decide which is genuinely in the best interests of my community, my family and me, in that order. I hope the final report from the Sustainable Policing Group will provide that information for all but their track record in a very rushed, inaccurate and clearly flawed interim report directed by politicians, does not allow much grounds for optimism....
So far, and I am genuinely apolitical, the only sensible position I have heard has been from Danny Alexander but sadly overall performance across the board suggests he and others in any position of influence for the debate may be subject to a serious challenge in the next election. The psychics in Scottish Labour - they can make their mind up without even seeing any evidence of savings or merger costs and have apparently decided already that one Force is the way forward, regardless of what the evidence might say. Brilliant....Wouldn't want them on a jury.
The structure of policing in Scotland should be co-terminous with Local Authorities and other public agencies. 32 local authorities is not sustainable but has always been in the "too hard to fix" box...until now?? Fix that first and then look at the proper structure for police and Fire Brigade, Teaching and other services to see what best fits....Any other way is simply back to front and not logical....
North Cop


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