Today the Scottish Parliament concluded its consideration of the Police and Fire Reform Bill. The Bill centralises police and fire services in Scotland, removing them from local authority control. While many of the concerns also apply to fire, it is the policing elements that have been the most controversial.
The Bill seeks to retain some element of local democratic accountability through local
police plans. However, as the new Scottish Police Authority and Chief Constable have the power of direction, this is likely to be little more than cosmetic due to the command and control culture of a uniformed service. Britain has, for good reason, a history of local policing. This structure gives a government minister very considerable powers to influence and direct policing in Scotland. I am not alone in regarding this as an unwelcome constitutional development. Local authorities will also reflect on the removal of more powers from local democratic control and the growing centralising tendency of this government.
The main, arguably only justification for centralisation is cost saving. As Audit Scotland has warned, savings from public service reorganisation are far from guaranteed. MSPs today voted for the Bill without seeing the full business plan, a quite remarkable omission given this is the minister's raison d'être for change.
The issue of VAT liability illustrates both the finance and the accountability issues. Despite the assurances given in the Policy Memorandum to the Bill, the Treasury made it clear from the outset that if you organise police and fire in this way you lose s33 exemptions. As a consequence Scotland is going to give the Teasury a £30-40m handout every year. If the new services had been organised as a joint board then this could have been avoided. But of course there would be less ministerial control. A very expensive way of shifting power to the centre.
Also on finance, a recurring theme during the Bill's progress has been maintaining the artificial target for police officers, resulting in the loss of up to 3,000 police staff roles. Hundreds of police officers are already being taken off the street to back fill police staff jobs and this will rise further once the budget cuts kick in. This cannot possibly meet the best value provisions in the Bill. UNISON supports a balanced, modern police team, with the right skills and expertise for an effective police force. We need the skills of police staffs to enable police officers to do the job the public wants them to do, where they want them to do it – that is fighting crime, out on the streets. The new force should be able to set a balanced police staffing structure free from political direction on police officer numbers.
I also believe this crazy policy will lead to the future privatisation of police services, despite the broad assurances given by the Cabinet Secretary. A clause in the Bill is specifically designed to facilitate the appointment of private contractors as police staffs. As I warned in evidence to the Justice Committee, it is inevitable that Audit Scotland will question the employment of police officers in civilian roles, at up to twice the cost, under best value provisions. As the new force is politically directed to maintain police officer numbers, the only way of squaring the circle is by the privatisation of significant police functions including custody and 999 calls. Again irrespective of best value considerations.
So, overall a bad day for policing in Scotland and I predict one we will come to regret.