BARELY half of the country’s police officers are classified as working on the “frontline”, according to internal single force figures.

Around 8,700 officers were judged to be “operational” earlier this year, a statistic that raises questions about how many of the 17,000 police hailed by the Scottish Government actually work on the beat.

Unison, a trade union that represents police civilian staff, said officers are backfilling jobs vacated by their members.

The SNP Government’s flagship justice policy is to maintain 1,000 more officers than the 16,000 level set in 2007, when Labour and the Liberal Democrats shared power.

The current figure, 17,261, includes 14 police divisions around the country, specialist and operational support and central functions.

It also covers officers who are on long-term sick leave, attending Scottish Police College training, and anyone seconded to the Government, the Scottish Police Authority and elsewhere.

Michael Matheson, the Justice Secretary, has championed the policy and contrasted it unfavourably with officer reductions south of the border.

“Police numbers in England and Wales have already fallen by over 15,000 since 2007 to their lowest level since 2001, and, according to HMIC, are expected to drop by a further 7,400 by March 2018," he has said.

In public, Police Scotland calculates officer numbers by combining the local, regional and national resources available to divisions such as Glasgow or Edinburgh.

A breakdown of "frontline" officers is not published, but the Sunday Herald can reveal these statistics were produced earlier this year.

Around 8,700 officers were deemed frontline and operational in the fourteen divisions, which cover the Borders to the Highlands. This amounts to just over half of the Matheson total.

It is understood the frontline total came to around 10,300 after some officers from outside the fourteen divisions were added.

The figure means there is a gap of around 7,000 when compared to the 17,261 number talked about by Ministers.

However, the 10,300 excludes the hundreds of officers at the ranks of chief inspector and above, as well as some police working in national units. Around 180 officers are also suspended or on restricted duties.

The shortfall has raised further questions about how many officers are directly serving communities and whether they have been redeployed to jobs once fulfilled by civilian staff.

The Government – its critics argue - has maintained officer numbers only by slashing over 1000 police staff jobs.

In a briefing to MSPs, Unison representatives claimed Police Scotland was responsible for two types of backfilling.

The first was where officers directly carried out the functions of civilian staff whose jobs had been axed, or where vacancies have not been filled.

The union also warned of ‘indirect’ backfilling where elements of civilian jobs were being subsumed into officer duties.

A survey of their members revealed that 49% of those polled believed that parts of their roles were being undertaken by officers.

Union sources said police officers are working in human resources, custody, control rooms, front counters and on controversial IT projects like i6.

Gerry Crawley, a Unison organiser, said: "There must be an open and honest debate and review over police officer numbers. Police officers should be doing the job they are paid to do and support staff should be doing their jobs and it should not be police officers who are back filling vital support staff roles. It is essential, for best value for the public of Scotland, that there is a balanced police workforce".

Dr Kath Murray, a criminal justice researcher at Edinburgh University, said the force’s public data was not good enough: “Whilst police force strength statistics are published quarterly, the numbers are not broken down in a meaningful way. The net result is that officer strength in Scotland cannot be openly scrutinised or analysed. Putting aside whether the figures reported today by the Sunday Herald are accurate, the larger point is that it’s not possible to have an informed debate on the merits or otherwise of a flagship Scottish Government policy. There is a lack of transparency."

Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “The SNP is duping the public into believing there are more than 17,000 police officers on the frontline, when clearly this is not the case. We know it’s common for frontline officers to backfill in administrative roles."

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes said: "We know that officers have been taken off the beat for control room shifts and to perform other jobs that previously were covered by civilian staff. These figures suggest that despite the SNP's boasts, thousands of officers are working at desks rather than in the community."

Graeme Pearson, the Scottish Labour Justice spokesman and a former senior police officer, said: "The figures mirror the facts we receive from officers and staff, though its impossible to get a frank response from Police Scotland. Too many police officers are sitting in offices instead of out in their communities."

A Police Scotland spokesperson did not comment on the figures, but sent a link to a document containing the force’s public statistics, adding: “These are the figures we recognise and publish quarterly, with a full breakdown of where officers are.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "Recorded crime is at a 41-year low with violent crime down 55 per cent since 2006-07. This Government's commitment to maintain police officer numbers above 17,234 has been met in every quarter of this administration.

"Police officer numbers continue to exceed targets and demonstrates that through working in partnership with Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority we continue to exceed the commitment we gave to the people of Scotland to deliver 1,000 additional officers."