There was something nightmarish about the story of the car that crashed off the M9 and lay in a field for 3 days with its occupants trapped inside. What makes the story particularly worrying is the fact that the police were made aware of the incident and failed to act. The control room near Edinburgh which took the call about the M9 crash has a workforce absence rate of 10% and over half of the employees have applied for redundancy. Although the M9 incident is far more serious, it is similar to the reports that the police in Scotland no longer investigate many break-ins as it is “not a good use of time”.
This comes within the context of year-on-year cuts to Police Scotland’s budget, £64million this year alone, which resulted in the loss of around 800 police staff. The only way Sir Stephen House, the outgoing Chief Constable, can deliver the further cuts asked by the SNP Government is via what he terms “extreme measures”.
This situation is driven by the SNP decision to merge Scotland’s eight existing police forces simply to cut the policing budget. Since then several regional police control rooms have been shut to achieve redundancies. Indeed, these SNP cuts have been so successful that the Tories are thinking of emulating them.
The Police Scotland budget cuts have been exacerbated by the way in which the force was re-organised. Despite warnings from Unison and Scottish Labour, the SNP Government proceeded to implement an accounting structure which resulted in Police Scotland being billed for an additional £23m in VAT.
To maintain the police numbers and balance the budget, Police Scotland must cut administrative posts and have police officers take on more paperwork. This is not new – even before Police Scotland was formed the SNP were boasting that they’d appointed “1000 new officers”, but failed to mention that half these officers took the place of 972 sacked civilian workers. Unison’s George McIrvine: Police officers being paid around £35,000 a year are now doing the jobs previously performed by civilian specialists on £25,000.
The impact of these cuts has not been trivial. In Edinburgh, station closures and the abandonment of anti-burglary teams has coincided with a massive spike in house break-ins. In August it was reported that there were 2480 break-ins reported to police in Edinburgh in the preceding year to 1953 in the previous 12 month period – a rise of over a quarter. Other reports suggest that housebreaking doubled in Edinburgh in the first three months of 2015. Keep in mind that Edinburgh (Balerno specifically) already topped the league for house break-ins and that they had already risen by 40%. 40%!
So what has changed in Edinburgh that led to an increase in burglaries? For starters, 10 police stations were closed. My nearest police station in Oxgangs has been replaced with a weekly one hour session in a local library – this serves tens of thousands of people in Colinton, Bonaly, Oxgangs, Firrhill, Swanston, Buckstone, Fairmilehead, Dreghorn and Redford barracks and a substantial part of the Pentland Hills Regional Park.
In addition to reducing the profile of law enforcement in Edinburgh, Police Scotland also made a series of changes which Ian Murray MP termed “Glasgowising“. This saw methods of policing tried and tested in Edinburgh rejected for a “one size fits all” Scotland-wide approach. A key move in Edinburgh was to disband the dedicated housebreaking team only to re-establish it in December 2013 as “Operation RAC” due to public outcry. Although the police have worked tirelessly, progress has been slow due to the amount of ground that was lost when the housebreaking team was disbanded.
Whilst progress in dealing with house break-ins has been slow, the general crime clear up rate has been taking huge steps backwards. Like much of the western world, general crime in Scotland has fallen substantially. However, even police Scotland concede that their clear-up dates are not improving significantly. Indeed, the average police officer is now clearing up about eight crimes per year, down from 12 per year since the SNP was elected.
Responding to public concern, both Ian Murray MP and Kezia Dugdale MSP have made repeated calls for a return to locally accountable policing in Edinburgh. Despite also having their budget cut, Edinburgh’s Labour led council has set aside £2.8m to fund gaps in policing in Edinburgh. The money will fund 41 officers to work closer to communities. Labour’s Councillor Cammy Day is clear: “It’s what people have asked for. They need to know who they can talk to and who is their local contact, so having the named officers will really help.”
The top-down changes to policing is not unique to Edinburgh. The summer has seen controversy over armed policing, real concern about the abuse of stop and search powers and a collapse in police morale. In July the SNP Government was referred to the UN by the Scottish Human Rights Commission over the use of stop and search powers.
Throughout all of this the SNP Government asserted that these are “operational matters” which Police Scotland should address, but failed to accept it was time to look again at how policing is funded and organised in Scotland. The catalyst for change proved to be the deaths on the M9. This ultimately forced Sir Stephen House, the Police Scotland Chief Constable, to resign. Immediately following this the SNP gave into pressure and committed to an overhaul of how Scotland’s national police force is run and said the new Chief Constable would have to attend “local public scrutiny sessions”. Time will tell what this actually means.
Scottish Labour has consistently raised concerns about the oversight, funding and operation of Police Scotland. A key voice has been Graeme Pearson MSP, Labour’s Justice spokesman and former “top cop” who understands how policing works. He has raised concerns about political oversight of Police Scotland, in particular the claim by the Scottish Police Federation that “targets designed to give politicians control over police activity” were at the centre of much of the difficulties. Pearson has undertaken to complete his own independent review of policing in Scotland and will be holding meetings around Scotland to speak to rank and file officers, civilian staff, community groups and victim support staff. The review will look at: local accountability, relationship between Police Scotland, the Scottish Police Authority and SNP ministers; staffing; and, targets. This review will then feed into Scottish Labour’s 2016 manifesto.