Better communication and more attention to localism needed, report on reform of police and fire services in Scotland concludes

Written by Jenni Davidson on 11 August 2017 in News

The Scottish Government’s second report on police and fire service reform looks at the changes from the point of view of communities and frontline staff

Police Scotland - Image credit: Ninian Reid via Flickr

Better internal communication and more attention to the needs of local areas and staff are needed in Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), according to a Scottish Government progress report on police and fire service reform.

The Evaluation of Police and Fire Reform report – the second to look at reform of these services – was carried out by Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR), ScotCen Social Research and What Works Scotland between June and December last year and focused on the experience of the changes from the point of view of communities and frontline officers and firefighters.

The research found that found that three areas of improvement are needed.

For both organisations, better internal communication to deal with the changing responsibilities and clearer information about career progression and training within the new national organisations is called for.

Thirdly, within Police Scotland it was found that a “renewed and refreshed commitment” to localism in policing was needed.

The research found that cumulative national decisions could have unintended consequences on local areas and that in policing local officers and communities raised concerns about the visible presence of local officers and about resources for routine response and engagement with local communities being stretched over larger areas.

Concerns too were raised by some members of the public about the 101 non-emergency number and the closure or reduced opening hours of local police stations.

“There needs to be a focus on understanding better how communities want to communicate with their local officers and also giving officers greater clarity about their roles and priorities within the community,” it said.

Meanwhile firefighters and the other groups consulted felt that in general the level of local fire services had been maintained since reform.

However, firefighters report being stretched due to declining numbers of administrative staff and had concerns about centralisation of support services, poor IT and difficulty accessing some equipment.

Concerns about resources were raised in relation to both Police Scotland and the SFRS.

The report notes: “From the perspective of local police officers and firefighters there were positive achievements in relation to improvements in accessing national capacity and specialist expertise. There were also strong commitments to partnership working.

“But the perceptions of those involved in the routine delivery of local services was that they are operating with diminishing resources, that work to strengthen connections with communities was often hampered by other organisational pressures, and the reductions in the budgets of other public services sometimes frustrated attempts to work more collaboratively.”

It noted that these challenges are similar to those faced in other countries which are undertaking structural changes to police and fire services and wider organisational change in the public sector.

The researchers advises that lessons can be learned for other public sector reform, that there needs to be careful modelling of how cumulative decisions can affect local service provision and that “meaningful, authentic communication” within an organisation is needed throughout the reform process, as well as with communities and partner organisations.

Opposition parties have criticised the Scottish Government particularly in relation to the resourcing issues raised in the report.

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said: “This is a damning report, exposing the great many problems that exist within the SNP’s single police force.

“It shows clearly that the Scottish Government is expecting officers to operate with fewer resources, and creating a context in which they are not being given sufficient time to properly engage with the public.

“The report suggests that morale is at rock bottom among the rank-and-file which is understandable if they are being prevented from doing a very hard, intense job by decisions taken at Scottish Government level.

“There’s no doubt that on the SNP’s watch, things have gone downhill.

“Its project was meant to make Scotland safer, policing better, and establish a more transparent and accountable force.

“Instead, this report suggests the opposite has occurred and our dedicated, professional and brave police service are being held back by political decisions.

“The SNP has some very serious questions to answer on this.”

Scottish Labour's justice spokesperson Claire Baker MSP said: "This report is yet another warning to the Scottish Government and the Justice Secretary. Under the SNP's watch, our emergency services have seen crisis follow crisis as a result of budget cuts and poor leadership.

"We welcome the improvements that this report notes and its recognition of the dedicated officers and staff, who are working hard to keep our communities safe. However, they are doing so despite the decisions taken by the SNP government.

"Within our police force we have a crisis of leadership and within our fire service resources are being spread thin. On both counts the Scottish Government has been posted missing.

"We need to see the Justice Secretary take responsibility and ensure our emergency forces have the resources and support they need to keep our communities safe."

Liam McArthur MSP commented: “Frontline police officers and firefighters are telling us that they are stretched. They are hamstrung by a lack of resources, the decision to cut valuable civilian expertise and their reliance on outdated IT systems.

“It is hard for anyone to do their job to the best of their ability without the right support.

“Police Scotland has lurched from crisis to crisis since the SNP’s botched centralisation.

“Much of what was promised hasn’t materialised. However, SNP ministers are now determined to absorb the British Transport Police into Police Scotland, despite the huge challenges already facing the national force and irrespective of the evidence and warnings.

“Their gung-ho pursuit of centralisation at any cost shows that they simply haven’t learnt from their earlier mistakes. It is time ministers put those right before embarking on any more.”

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