Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Ross Martin: May the national force be with us

Published in the Scotsman 12/1/11

If we are to move towards a single Scottish police service, then let us also strengthen local accountability

IN CASE of emergency, centralise! Merge eight into one. Create a single Scottish Police Force. The clarion call rings out. Save cash. Cut red tape. Never mind the thin blue line. These are siren voices rather than the sound of emergency assistance, rallying to the country's call in a time of national economic need. This blunt proposal is ill thought out, ill-judged and ill-timed.

This is a lazy call for cost efficiency. A proposition with evidence more scantily clad than the cast of the Sheridan show trial. Well-thought out change to Scotland's police service, along with the rest of the public service family, should have been a priority for the emerging Scottish Parliament. It wasn't. It never has been.

Tough decisions need strong political leadership. Constructive, sustainable change demands mature political debate, public reflection and professional refinement. What we are now all witness to is a belated rush to reform as the money well, out of which our MSPs have been drinking to excess, dries up. This game-changer demands a fresh policy tonic.

The tight fiscal discipline of the new UK coalition government is at last focusing MSP minds on the need to manage the demand for public services, rather than casually turning on the tap of ever-increasing supply. This driver for change should at least be welcomed, but the primacy of price over value should be much more rigorously interrogated.

Public-service reform can't be a slave to cost efficiency. Quality of provision and a desire to improve must drive any real reform, if the changes that are made to vital public services are to be publicly supported and economically sustainable. Public services should be exactly what they say on the tin. Public and a service. Scotland's police are an integral part of the family, serving the public.

The need for change is of course recognised all across the service, from Police Boards, to chief constables, through the managerial and supervisory ranks and even among Robert Peel's newest recruits. The patchwork of provision that was designed to mirror the former regional councils, long since gone, is simply not fit to walk the modern-day beat.

The role and function of Scotland's police service has changed dramatically since their last major review, undertaken well before the Scottish Parliament reconvened.

We hear precious little from our MSPs on how these differing demands should be reflected in training, in responsibilities, or in the design and delivery of this most vital of public services. Instead, we hear an uninspiring argument about numbers.

There is no policy debate about the primary role of police officers in protecting our communities, preventing or detecting crime. There are no ideas to test the value of feet on the street, rather than simply accepting a supply side case for yet more
men and women in uniform. There is no political discussion regarding the relative value in roles of police officers, for example as security guards around football matches or as nursemaids for drunken teenagers staggering out of irresponsible night clubs.

Instead of fighting about the site, style and cost of a new building for themselves, our first crop of MSPs should have been constructing their ideas for rebuilding the fine institutions that are our public services. England forged ahead with Police Community Support Officers, we never even debated an expansion of the fine Scottish tradition of Special Constables.

Local government was force fed a diet of school closures and the health service tasted the bitter pill of hospital rationalisation. There was no such structural change forced upon our outdated structure of eight police forces.

IN THE second parliament, when the UK government's authoritarian approach to youth disenchantment and disruptive behaviour was being enthusiastically endorsed with the adoption of the Asbo criminalising culture, there should have been a very different line of inquiry.

Instead of a continual obsession with policing their petty political in-fighting, they should have been debating how the police could prevent the real fighting that disfigures their town centres, all over the country, every weekend.

As we near the end of the Scottish Parliament's third term, there are a few signs of a more civilised approach, one where, to borrow an old phrase, we are tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. However, our legislature has just failed so lamentably, in the face of a standard of evidence that would have put the al-Megrahi case to shame, to tackle the primary cause of the majority of crime. Holyrood's collective inability to tackle the nation's drink problem has left all of our public services, from policing to the courts, from health to education, with a major hangover.

Instead of arguing with each other that black is white and vice versa, our MSPs need to add some genuine colour to the current monochrome debate on the reform of our public services in general and the future of Scottish policing in particular.

Where, for example, does policing fit within the developing picture of public service provision, being led by a number of localised initiatives?

When leading Scotland's second-largest police force through its last period of significant change, our most successful reform was to devolve decision-making to the divisional level.

By recognising the close working relationship that our local commanders had with each of the five local authorities within our combined force area we were able to invoke the spirit of the time, in preparation for the Scottish Parliament, and decentralise decision-making.

This power shift proved to be an engine for even greater energy, for more innovative change and, yes, for economic efficiency, too.

We also prepared the way for centralisation of resource-intensive, increasingly specialised areas of common policing such as forensics, serious crime fighting capability and training, with for example a major extension of facilities at the Scottish Police College. The delicate, democratic balance between the centripetal pull towards the centre and the centrifugal push out to the local level can carefully be extended.

SO, IF we are to move towards a single Scottish Police Service to gain the economic efficiencies of scale, then let us also strengthen local accountability by simultaneously devolving operational power out to the local level.

In so doing, we can recognise that decisions are best taken where they have greatest impact and create locally owned, operated and branded subsidiaries of this new single Scottish police force; for example, the Shetland Police, the Perth Police, the Edinburgh Police.

Just as our devolved divisional structure struck the balance then between central command and local control, so can a decentralised police service operate more effectively and with greater efficiency when scaled up across Scotland.

Technology, increased levels of specialist skill and, of course, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament enable stronger national strategic direction for all public services, but they also provide the basis for further devolution of power down to the local level.

It is, of course, possible to structure a single Scottish police service in such a way as to align divisional command units with each of the 32 local authority areas. This would allow for national, strategic objectives to be set, whilst maintaining the operational independence of the police, clear from political interference at all levels.

We can secure the gains of centralised efficiency, whilwe also building on the very strong partnerships that exist between the police and other members of the public service family at the local, democratically accountable level.

Thankfully, any real reform will need to win broad approval in the court of public opinion when the Scottish electorate sits in judgment on 5 May. By then, our MSPs will be facing the reality of the economic crisis and will not be able to hide behind the political perjury of denying the need for radical, lasting change. The incoming Scottish government, of whichever political hue, needs to gather the evidence and construct a solid case for reform.

Step forward the Christie Commissioners, your country needs you.

Ross Martin is policy director at the Centre for the Study of Public Policy and a former convener of Lothian and Borders Police Board


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