Police reform is the justice issue being debated by local authorities
The justice portfolio normally throws up a catalogue of topics crucial to local authorities – from tackling antisocial behaviour through to providing rehabilitative programmes for offenders.
But the upcoming council elections have seen the issue of policing reforms dominating the brief.
The SNP has been quick to acknowledge that the merging of the country’s eight forces into one national unit is the biggest change in at least a generation, but local authorities have expressed concern over a number of issues, including potential reductions to police officer numbers and threats to accountability.
It has been announced that single forces for Scotland’s police and fire services are expected to begin operating on 1 April next year.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has said the legislation would “reduce duplication, not the quality of vital services” and deliver savings of £1.7bn over 15 years. Under the plans, the Scottish Government has said a Scottish Police Authority will be established to hold a national Chief Constable to account.
MacAskill last month rejected suggestions that the new single police force may face an additional bill for up to 800 officers who are currently funded by councils.
Between 600 and 800 officers are paid for by local authorities in areas where councillors asked for more officers beyond those recommended by local chief constables. As a result, local authorities contribute around £18m to the police budget.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has questioned whether this funding will continue, saying that “ the additional funding would likely transfer with the posts out of local government and into the new single service budget to subsidise the commitment to 1,000 extra police officers”.
MacAskill told Holyrood’s Justice Committee that police numbers would not be impacted, only their deployment, leading to Tory justice spokesman David McLetchie to ask why councils would continue to pay for the additional officers.
The Justice Secretary said councillors would have to answer to their electorate if they pulled officers out of areas where they had previously identified an additional need.
He said: “There is no suggestion that this is about to be pulled. These matters are put in by local authorities because they see a particular need. We’re clear, as a government, that we fund police to 17,234 (officers). If local authorities wish to remove officers from particular areas that they currently pay in addition for, that’s a matter that they will be accountable for to their own local electorate.”
East Renfrewshire councillor Barbara Grant, Cosla’s community safety spokeswoman, told a recent Local Government and Regeneration Committee meeting that the Police and Fire Reform Bill was “far too sketchy” and “more clarity on a lot of the Bill would be helpful”.
Grant said the number of members on the proposed national board was not enough and questioned democratic accountability. Bob Jack from the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives said what was needed was a national and local partnership, not an “appointed quango”. Jack said the local and national needed to be “knitted together”.
MacAskill told Holyrood that it was because of circumstances that Scotland was moving to a single force. He said: “When I first came into office I repeatedly asked if I would go to one force and I said no. What changed? What changed was the financial collapse that started with the Labour Government, and the cuts the Tories have brought in, mean the status quo is not tenable.
“The alternative to what we are doing – which is to address the matter, avoid duplication across eight forces and make back-office savings – is to go down to the situation south of the border where HMIC says 16,000 officers will be lost in England. They are going to lose almost the size of what our police force was when I came into office.
“We are making the move towards a single service to make sure we avoid duplication – there will be some job losses in some back-office functions, that goes with an ending of doing things eight times over. What we can’t do is have eight drivers for eight chief constables and similar levels of duplication.”
He denied that losing some back-office positions would result in taking officers off the beat.
Referring to accountability, MacAskill said a“strong formal relationship between each of our 32 councils and the services” will be created. He added that a “designated local officer will have significant delegated authority to work with the council and other partners to shape and deliver services”.
But Grant insists the Bill is undermined by a lack of accountability. She said: “We still don’t know who is going to be on this Scottish Police Authority and what the Bill says is it is going to be between seven and nine people, that is a ridiculous number. How can you run an organisation for the whole country that is supposed to be democratic, and I emphasise the word democratic, with between seven and nine people? It’s nonsense.
“As far as COSLA is concerned, our proposal is a minimum of 15 on the board and that the majority, certainly more than half, should be elected. There are a lot of elected people that have a huge amount of experience with police and fire.
“Mr MacAskill has been talking about how this will bring policing closer to each council because instead of having police boards, what he is saying is every councillor will have the opportunity to say something to a local commander. But they have that anyway and there is nothing new in it. If I want to speak to the Chief Constable all I have to do is lift the phone.”
She added: “The actual business that the police do on the ground will continue, I don’t see a problem with that. My problem is: where do you go from the cop who is organising things locally to the Chief Constable? Where is that big gap being filled and who is filling it? We don’t have a clue.
“There is a statement in the Bill that says the Scottish Police Authority must comply with anydirection given by the Minister. Where is the democracy in that? He is saying he can interfere with this body that has been set up and he can tell them what he thinks has to be done and they have to comply with his wishes.”
Labour backs the changes, but the Conservatives are calling for elected local police commissioners who would be responsible for overseeing the delivery and performance of the police service in their area.While the political debate is focusing on police reform, much of the electorate will be looking at the bread-and-butter issues of local safety – like provisions for street lighting, community wardens, youth services and attempts to control antisocial behaviour.
Across all party manifestos, there is a clear acknowledgement that justice services will need to be provided with fewer resources over the next four years.
Local authorities have already had to slash the money they give to support groups, like victim support and drug rehabilitation services.
Lily Greenan, Scottish Women’s Aid, said: “We have seen a year-on-year decrease in funding to local women’s aid groups and there’s a lot of anxiety for groups over how they will be funded so the coming election is very important.”
Law and order is always a major battleground at election time, but with the make-up of Scotland’s local authority areas so diverse, it is the issue of police reform and the impact it will have on bobbies on the beat that will be the key player across the country.