The voices raised against the idea of a single police force for Scotland are getting louder.
Writing in The Herald today, the former justice minister Jim Wallace expresses his strong opposition to the idea on the grounds, among others, that it would lead to greater political control of policing. Later this week thousands of ordinary police officers are also expected to support a motion against a single force at The Scottish Police Federation’s conference in Aviemore.
These are not voices that can be easily shouted down. Not only was Mr Wallace Scotland’s justice minister for four years, it would be unwise of anyone who supports the idea of a single force to put their fingers in their ears when so many officers express their concern. However, their opposition does not change what has been obvious for some time: the status quo of eight forces is untenable. The question now is how far the reform must go; should we reduce the forces to three or one?
At a time when savings must be found in all public services, one of the strongest arguments for a single force has become the potential savings to be made. Clearly, if eight chief constables, their deputies and their offices are reduced to one, costs will be reduced but estimates of how much would be saved in total vary between £150m and £200m a year. Another factor to take into account is how much the merger would cost - one suggestion is £92m. These estimates have come largely from parties that have taken sides on the issue and the figures have been called into question. An independent estimate is needed.
Mr Wallace’s other main plank of opposition is perhaps more concerning. He says a single force would reduce a healthy range of police voices into a narrow one that could be influenced by Government and certainly looking to the example of the Met and its former commissioner Ian Blair is not encouraging. This has been a constant concern about plans for a single force and its proponents have failed to rebut it. They must.
What the supporters of a single force must also deal with is the concern that by reducing the number of forces we will also be reducing local accountability. Officers in some more rural areas seem particularly concerned about this and that’s understandable: if the heart of a single force is in Glasgow or Edinburgh, it would only be natural for officers in Galloway or Stornoway to feel that they were out in the extremities. However, there is no logical reason why some internal structure within a single force, perhaps linked to local council areas, could maintain this connection. It is also important to reflect in any decision on reform the kind of police work that might benefit from more central control: internet offences, fraud, drug crime. The cross-Scotland cooperation that exists in these areas in the form of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency demonstrates the need for it.
There are some other realities about the need for reform that have not been reflected in the opposition to a single force. Tavish Scott, the leader of the Scottish Lib Dems, says the police must understand the communities they serve and that Lerwick is not the same as Glasgow. This is true, but the same could be said of Strathclyde Police which covers busy urban areas as well as rural island communities. The discrepancy between Strathclyde, which serves 2.3million people, and a force such as Dumfries and Galloway whose total area has a population smaller than many of Scotland’s cities, also needs addressing. There is no longer any logic to the shape and size of these forces.
Whether the final destination of this process is a single force is not yet certain but we have progressed beyond the point where collaboration between the forces can be good enough. What we must decide soon is whether one single force or three forces offer the best solution. In making this choice, the voices of those police officers in Aviemore must be pivotal, but they are not the only voices that are important. The priority of many Scots is visible policing and the First Minister Alex Salmond has said he wants to put bobbies before boundaries. Whichever option for reform can deliver this is the one we must choose.
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