Police Scotland changes course

The recent launch of Police Scotland’s ten-year strategy, Policing 2026, marked a turning point for Scottish policing on several counts.

In the first instance, the Strategy is evidence-based and underpinned by demand analysis which to the best of my knowledge, is unprecedented in Scottish policing.

Second, in a departure from the target-led approach to crime-fighting that marked the early Police Scotland years, the emphasis is on targeted prevention, vulnerability and inequalities: on mental health and alcohol abuse, the 158 domestic incidents recorded daily and thousands reported missing each year, and the fact that only one in five reported incidents result in a crime being recorded.

Third, there’s a clear nod to the modernization of local policing. As it stands, the operational model is stitched together from the eight legacy forces and mostly reproduces older arrangements – ‘legacy locations, divisional administrative structures determined in 2012, legacy ICT, infrastructure and ways of working’. To date, police reform has involved consolidation. In some areas, this appears to have worked, reducing duplication. In others less so, notably in the back-office, where four years down the line, around seventeen payroll and multiple crime recording systems are still in operation. The point is that there is an opportunity to ditch taken-for-granted legacy arrangements and take a more imaginative approach as to how policing might work better for local communities.

Police numbers

Fourth (and importantly), the Strategy signals a break from the longstanding, if arbitrary target of 17,234 police officers set by the Scottish Government in 2007. Whilst a commitment to officer numbers looked like a good deal for policing and the public, it has in fact constricted policing. As Niven Rennie, the retired President of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents put it: “17,234 comes with a price tag. You cannot retain numbers and strip out everything else – it just doesn’t make sense.”

For the most part, police support staff (whose roles are not afforded the same political protection) have taken the hit: which has invariably led to backfilling by officers. Since the introduction of austerity economics, police staff numbers have fallen by nearly 40%:  from 7,862 in March 2010 to 4,801 in February 2017. The net result? Fewer officers on the streets, as well as a deteriorating police estate. Whilst intended to put more officers on the street, the policy achieved the opposite.

That said, Policing 2026 is not an officer reduction exercise, nor is at a ‘time-bomb’. Clearly Scottish policing is facing an eye-watering deficit: around £200 million by 2020/21 at the latest estimate. Still, putting it dryly, there are probably less painful ways to cut costs than devising and negotiating a ten-year national policing strategy. Police Scotland could for instance, have continued to cut the back-office further, but chose not to.

It’s mostly about deploying officers more effectively, increasing frontline contact and trying to improve the service. The general idea is that police officers undertake operational roles. Finances are clearly a factor and there is a planned reduction in officer numbers, which has generated a good deal of media heat.  But it’s not the full story. The plan is to move 300 officers from corporate services into response roles, recruit 170 specialist staff, and lose 400 officers by 2020. Given that the number of officers working in corporate services is well above those already earmarked for the response roles, the planned reduction shouldn’t impact on the frontline.

A change in the political weather 

There is something else significant going on here, which is a tentative shift in the politics of Scottish policing. Substantive issues are trumping a flagship SNP policy that, however well intended, resulted in too few officers on the streets and too many officers in back-office roles. In other words, the political grip on Scottish policing appears to be diminishing.

This shift is important because, since reform, Scottish policing has been weighed down by politics. It is also worth adding that in contrast to its Westminster counterpart, the Scottish Government is an exceptionally powerful player in the policing landscape. Whereas reform in England and Wales saw power transferred from central government to local Police and Crime Commissioners, in Scotland power has coalesced at the centre.  Scottish Government ministers set the strategic priorities for the police service. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice appoints the Chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) and Ministers have the capacity to influence the final composition of the Board. Ministers also have powers to give directions to the Board, so long as it does not interfere with police operations.

It’s a strong hand and it has influenced Scottish policing for some time now. Research by Ali Malik shows the imprint of Scottish Government writ large on the SPA in the early years of police reform, with ministerial and civil service involvement ranging from light touch scrutiny and attendance at private members sessions, to subtle nods to the Chair, to more overt changes in style and scope of governance.

In part, these controlling dynamics can be put down to the unprecedented level of critical attention and scrutiny levelled at Scottish policing since centralization. As Professor Robert Reiner observed more than a decade ago, there is a good reason why police forces in England and Wales have not amalgamated: which is that it allows the Government to quietly assert influence, without taking direct responsibility when problems arise.

In Scotland, police reform undercut this advantageous position in one move. To be sure, the merger made operational sense. However, as the most significant public sector reform since devolution, it also made policing a test of political competency, bringing reputational concerns to the fore. The fact that a long-term strategy has taken nearly four years to nail down might well be read as a measure of the political sensitivity around officer numbers and policing more generally.

Breathing space

Viewed through this lens, Policing 2026 looks like the first sign of separation between the political centre and Police Scotland since the establishment of the single service, which can only be a good thing. With greater distance from Scottish Government, it opens policing up to more innovation. There is also potential for transparency about the true state of policing in Scotland – the demands placed on officers and aging ICT systems – and how best to deal with these problems.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail. The Strategy is broad-brush and there’s a good deal to pin down. For now, the point is that Policing 2026 looks to provide some badly needed flexibility, without the tight grip of government. It shifts the focus from crude police strength to dealing with local problems and priorities, and gives Police Scotland the breathing space to consider what policing might look like ten years down the line.

Images courtesy of Scottish Government CC BY-NC 2.0

A version of this article appeared in Policing Insight on 11 March 2017.



  1. Jackie McKelvie says

    Great piece Kath. This year’s Annual Review of Policing will reference Policing 2026 and the opportunity to transform the service, next step after reform. Would be good to catch up soon.

  2. Maurice Bishop says

    Substantive issues are trumping a flagship SNP policy that, however well intended, resulted in too few officers on the streets and too many officers in back-office roles.

    It wasn’t well-intended. It was a power grab. Under the SNP everything has to be run from the Central Belt and everything has to be branded “Scotland”. And, sadly: everything has to have a black hole at the centre of its finances, to paraphrase Audit Scotland’s repeated annual expressions of horror as they look at Police Scotland’s books.

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