Exclusive: Former Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill says SNP should drop extra 1,000 police officers vow
Kenny MacAskill, who stepped down as an MSP last week, tells Holyrood decision over officer numbers should return to Police Scotland chief constable
Former SNP justice secretary Kenny MacAskill has said the party should drop its flagship commitment to keep 1,000 more police officers than they inherited in 2007.
In an exclusive interview with Holyrood before stepping down as an MSP, MacAskill said decisions over officer numbers should once again rest with the chief constable of Police Scotland.
However, the former Edinburgh Eastern MSP - who was justice secretary between 2007 and 2014 - insisted current demands on policing mean “any calamitous drop” in numbers would be highly undesirable.
The SNP administration has entered the last two Holyrood elections with a manifesto commitment to deliver 1,000 extra officers on 2007 levels, thereby preventing the number falling below 17,234.
Whilst in office, MacAskill frequently hailed the 1,000 extra officers pledge as one of the key factors behind a fall in recorded crime, which is now at a 41-year low. But the policy has been questioned by the Scottish Police Authority amid concerns over sustainability, while UNISON Scotland stress that civilian staff jobs have been sacrificed as a result.
Asked if he would include the 1,000 extra officers pledge for a third time if he was writing the SNP’s manifesto for May's Scottish Parliament election, MacAskill said: “No, I think everybody recognises there has got to be a change.
“Equally, I don’t think we can have a calamitous drop in numbers. The arbitrary figure of 17,234, everybody recognises was appropriate. But ultimately it has to be a decision by the chief constable.”
The former Edinburgh Eastern MSP said he “cannot see any basis on which you could drop numbers significantly” as he cited increases in Scotland’s population combined with growing pressures on police resources.
“17,234 was a figure that was appropriate,” said MacAskill. “It has to now go back to being a decision for the SPA and Police Scotland to make in discussion with political representatives.
“But any calamitous drop of say 1,000 would not be welcomed by the public. Whether it should be, could be, able in times to be slightly below 17,234, may be - that’s a matter for the chief.
“What I can say is when your population rises to 5.3 million from just over five million, when you get the threat of terrorism, historic sexual abuse and all the other demands on police, we can’t reduce the numbers because otherwise things that need done won’t get done.”
Asked why giving the single service discretion is the right decision now but wasn’t upon its inception three years ago, MacAskill, who stepped down last week after 17 years as an MSP, added: “It was a manifesto commitment, you have to stick with the manifesto commitment.
“But I would be very doubtful if the SNP manifesto commitment will say 17,234, I would expect it to say there will be no significant drop in numbers.”
An SNP spokesman refused to be drawn on whether the party’s manifesto will contain a clear commitment to maintain officer numbers at a minimum of 17,234 over the course of the next parliament.
He said: “Crime is at a 41-year low, meaning Scotland is the safest it has been for over a generation - that reduction has been supported by our delivery of 1,000 additional police officers than there were in 2007.
“We remain committed to maintaining those extra officers - as Kenny MacAskill rightly says, there are huge and increasing demands on our police service and the public would not welcome a drop in numbers.
“If re-elected, the SNP will also protect the police budget in real terms over the next parliament. The police are a vital public service that serve every community in Scotland and it is right that they receive this financial backing.”
Scottish Police Authority chair Andrew Flanagan claimed last month that the 1,000 extra officers policy represents a “very inflexible approach” going forward.
However, the Scottish Police Federation – which represents rank-and-file officers - has previously claimed that critics who believe having fewer officers will lead to an increase in the number of support staff are “sorely deluding themselves”.
Former convener Mary Fee resigned from the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing last week
The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee has backed James Kelly’s repeal bill at stage one
The Scottish Police Authority has referred a fourth complaint against Phil Gormley to PIRC
EXCLUSIVE: DCC Iain Livingstone confirms he was not informed about the SPA’s plans for Phil Gormley’s return to work