The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on the future policing of Scotland, with a strong steer that they favour a national police force.
The ministerial foreword has the usual political spin about 1000 extra officers, with no mention of Police staffs who deliver a wide range of essential services. Sadly, this is the Cabinet Secretary yet again giving the appearance that he is rooted in 1970's policing.
The current structure of police boards is simply an historical legacy from the last local government reorganisation with huge differences in geography and population. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to look at the structure - but is a national force the way ahead?
The main driver is clearly cost savings, "to ensure that resources are focused where they matter – on frontline policing and the needs of communities", to quote the Cabinet Secretary. Fine rhetoric, but the claimed savings have been questioned by a broad group of people who understand policing, 'fanciful' by others. The cost of change will be huge and the transactional costs of running national systems will be significant.
Another driver is national accountability. Ministers get lots of grief, but have limited levers to do anything about the issues they have to answer to Parliament for. In my experience most ministers in any government start their term of office in favour of decentralisation and end up wanting to run the service themselves. And here is the big concern. How do you run a national police force without political control over operational issues? There are some international models, but they don't easily fit into our constitutional culture.
There is a huge emphasis in the consultation on strengthening local accountability. We even had the Cabinet Secretary in Arran yesterday claiming this was a model of local policing the rest Scotland should follow. Now Arran is a lovely place, but hardly representative of Scotland as a whole. Those of us who have worked with the police for many years would recognise a highly centralised, hierarchical management culture. Not one that has much time for local flexibility of the type envisaged in the consultation paper. Any councillor will tell you that their community police officer is great, but they are always being redeployed elsewhere by direction from senior officers.
The other police management culture is what I would describe as 'initiativeitus'. If knife crime goes up then the managerial reaction is to set up an 'initiative', staffed by a special team that often draws officers and staff from community policing. A similar problem is the performance management systems. Lots of data collection and targets that every police officer and staff knows how to game with. It is frankly hard to see how this ingrained management culture is going to allow the space for local accountability.
Proposals for a national police force, or for that matter a national fire and rescue service, need to be viewed in the context of the wider review of public service delivery. It is hard to see how the vertical integration of a single service fits in with the need for integration at local level to achieve common outcomes. Reducing crime is not the sole preserve of the police, it requires community action joining up a range of services.
I am not offering any conclusions either way, but at this stage there are some big difficult questions for the supporters of a national force to answer.