I was in Parliament yesterday for the justice debate on police staff cuts. The debate was on a Scottish Labour motion that called on “the Scottish Government to undertake an independent audit of cuts implemented or planned to civilian posts and report the outcome to the Parliament.”
1000 police staff posts have already gone and up to 3000 more are planned to go following the introduction of the new national police force. As a consequence police officers are already being taken off operational duties to cover these posts. If we carry on this way up to 2000 police officers could be spending all or part of their time doing jobs they are not qualified to do, at twice the cost.
As the madness of this policy has been pointed out to the Scottish Government by just about every police organisation, why do they persist in digging this deep hole?
The SNP came up with a manifesto commitment to put 1000 extra police officers on the beat. Fine populist line and actually could have been achieved without employing any additional officers. Just take the legions of police officers who are already doing police staff jobs and put them back into operational roles. But no, instead they then turned the extra 1000 posts into a mantra of 17234 police officers in Scotland. Even this, in the budgetary circumstances of the time, could have been managed. Grossly inefficient, but probably doable.
The problem is they have stuck with this into the new national force and slapped on a huge savings target based on a dodgy outline business plan. The full business plan won’t even be ready until the Bill is passed. This means you can’t make savings from the 75% of the budget spent on police officers, you have to make almost all the savings from the 15% of the budget that pays for police staffs.
SNP MSP’s yesterday were very keen to talk about what’s happening in England. Yes, we all agree that the Westminster cuts are wrong and that probably applies to policing cuts in England as well. Although it has to be said that English forces have a better track record on modernising staffing structures than most Scottish forces. The ‘traditions and cultures’ as one MSP put it are not an excuse for one Scottish force having a third of its staff civilianised (equivalent to England) and another only a quarter. Some cultures are outdated or just wrong and need to be challenged.
If there is a comparison with England it is in the approach of the PM to the economy. “I am not for turning”, even when circumstances change, could equally be applied to the Scottish Government on this issue. Even the Defence Secretary changed course on carrier aircraft, “when the facts changed”. The facts, budget and national police force have changed here - so that should be the cue for a change of policy.
The rapid programme of de-civilianisation in Scotland is not always understood by those outside the police family. So let me illustrate with a recent story told to me, not by a UNISON Steward, but by a senior detective. He was involved in a fraud investigation and he asked for a forensic accountant and a clerk to help with the number crunching that is essential in a fraud case. None were available and instead he was sent a sergeant and a constable. He explained the task and returned the following day to find the two officers sitting in front of a computer with a pad of paper and a calculator. When he asked why they weren’t using a spreadsheet, they explained that they didn’t know how to do that. This simple data entry task would have been done by a civilian clerk in a fraction of the time and at less than half the salary. Not to mention the small matter of getting a successful conviction.
The issue boils down to the concept of Best Value as included in the Police & Fire Reform Bill. The Justice Committee report quotes my key argument on this point:
“260. A large number of witnesses believe that there needs to be a balanced workforce, with duties being undertaken by the most appropriate person regardless of whether that be a police officer or a civilian member of staff.214 Mr Watson said—
“In five or six years, we will be sitting round a table like this with Audit Scotland, who will say that the situation is ridiculous because we are paying police officers, at great cost, to do jobs that they are not qualified to do. We should not wait until then. Let us take the opportunity of the establishment of a new police force to consider the right balance between police officers and civilians.”
The Cabinet Secretary didn’t even bother to explain yesterday in his summing up why he was opposed to an independent audit. He knows full well what it would find. When the facts change, clever politicians change with them.