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20 January 2011

Scotland: A combined force?

The SNP's flagship manifesto promise to increase the number of police officers on Scotland's streets has seen policing placed high on the party's agenda throughout its three-and-a-half years in government. As the next election fast approaches, the issue is again likely to play a prominent role in the debate but will be combined with a much broader and significant discussion about the entire restructuring of the forces.    

Currently, there are eight police forces in Scotland with around 17,000 serving officers. The Government estimates that 25 per cent of the policing budget is spent on headquarters. The debate over police force mergers has therefore gathered pace in the face of the predicted £1 billion cut in the annual government budget. In response to this the Scottish Government last year formed a representative sub-group of the Scottish police board. This group, drawing on input from senior police officers, confirmed that the status quo was no longer tenable. The Government therefore plans to take the conclusions from this group into consideration as they develop a much wider public consultation and conversation about the future of the Scottish police forces. This conversation is likely to become a key component of the election campaign.  

The Government will consult over three possible options: the continuation of eight police services but with enhanced and directive collaboration; a regional structure with fewer boards; and a single Scottish police force. With the fire and ambulance services being reviewed at the same time, some quarters have called for the creation of a single "blue light service", incorporating the three emergency services. For various reasons this option was very quickly discounted by the Government. For each alternative, the main criteria for discussion centre on reducing costs, providing appropriate accountability and enhancement of service.  

The SNP Government is most strongly in favour of the single police force option. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said in Parliament this month: "The savings can be significant, which is necessary in these financial times. Such a model can also provide a better service locally, devolving more decision-making control to local commanders who know and account to their local communities."  

But the Government has been politically wary to commit to the idea too quickly and therefore be seen to have simply trailed the heels of Labour and the Conservatives who already back a single Force. Instead, the Government insists that they are only trying to help us - as Mr MacAskill says - "decide as a country on the structures of our police and fire and rescue services to meet the challenges of the 21st century". 

Issues over public accountability remain the biggest deterrent to greater centralisation and it is upon this subject that the Liberal Democrats argue against a single Force. Robert Brown, the Lib Dem justice spokesman, claimed that communities would suffer "as local accountability is eroded" and local police services "damaged". The Association of Chief Police Officers for Scotland has also voiced its strong concern over plans to combine the forces, warning they would "robustly challenge" any proposals that would seriously hit police numbers and were not in the best interests of local policing. 

The Church might not think they have much to contribute to this ongoing conversation and consultation. But the extremely successful partnership of the local church and local police forces through the Street Pastors initiative is just one example of how any changes could have a significant impact for local churches working within their communities.