Lord Edmund-Davies has a lot to answer for. The late judge chaired the police inquiry committee that in 1979 recommended a massive 45% pay rise for officers, with future awards linked to non-manual awards outside the public sector.
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The heads of Scotland's police boards and this country's chief constables met yesterday to mull over the implications. They are fairly dire. In the present financial year, 549 officers are due to retire, rising to 748 next year. The combined additional cost to police budgets across Scotland is estimated at £59m. There is some respite thereafter, with fewer expected retirals than last year causing a £15m reduction in the budgeted trend figure. While the longer term projections might be better, there is no getting away from the fact that, without extra cash, there will be funding gaps in the short term that can be filled only by taking money from other parts of existing budgets.
How this could be achieved without damaging front-line policing is not clear. Whether it could be done, politically, without causing that sort of damage is unimaginable, given the SNP government's commitment to recruit 1000 extra front-line police officers to tackle crime and make communities safer. Equally, Strathclyde Police force's plans to create an extra 600 community police posts, at a cost of £20m, flies in the face of any robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul measure that would undermine the drive to put more officers into communities.
So much for the problem. Solving it without the law of unintended consequences kicking in, embarrassing ministers in the process, is a different matter entirely. Police officers belong to one of the five public-sector unfunded pension schemes that depend on government money and employee contributions to pay out cash. The government (strictly, the taxpayer) can bail these schemes out in a crisis. Many taxpayers work in the private sector and are experiencing deteriorating pension scheme terms. Will the general taxpayer be willing to support a bail-out when they are contributing more to a diminishing number of company schemes?
It is worth pointing out that many officers retire at a relatively young age and are able to secure other employment. Will ministers be prepared to provide the sums required by police chiefs and boards? Implementing the recommendations put forward by Lord Edmund-Davies created a recruitment boom, the reverberations of which are resounding now. Tough choices lie ahead for ministers. Ear plugs are not a viable option.