By Alan Robertson. Published in Holyrood on 20/04/2016
The SNP has dropped its nine-year manifesto commitment to have 1,000 extra police officers after acknowledging that workforce decisions should lie with the chief constable of Police Scotland.
Justice Secretary Michael Matheson told Holyrood a re-elected SNP government will give the force “flexibility to be able to adapt the numbers to reflect the changing nature of crime”, in effect meaning the number of officers will be able to fall if police chief Phil Gormley decides other staff roles are required.
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.
However, Matheson’s predecessor as justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, told Holyrood last month that the party should drop the commitment and return decisions over officer numbers to the chief constable.
Ministers have 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, though its sustainability has been questioned by the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) while Unison stress civilian staff jobs have been sacrificed as a result.
The party’s 2016 manifesto, which was unveiled in Edinburgh this morning, stops short of an equivalent commitment, stressing it is “vital that we keep frontline policing strong to keep crime low” albeit acknowledging that “the nature of crime is changing and the police need to reflect this”.
“We will therefore ensure that the police also have more specialists, such as experts in cyber-crime and counter-fraud and that the service has the right mix and numbers of staff for the future,” it adds.
In a Q&A following the launch Nicola Sturgeon said the party “will not compromise on frontline policing” but added that a “degree of flexibility” is needed should Police Scotland chief constable Phil Gormley require specialist staff rather than frontline officers.
“What we’re saying is that we want the police service to be able to have the level of flexibility to make sure that they have got the resource that is best suited to reflect the changing nature of crime that’s taking place, particularly in areas such as cyber-crime,” Matheson told Holyrood.
“And I recognise, and we recognise, that at times that will mean having to employ highly trained IT experts who are able to deal with these issues much more effectively and it’s to give the police service the ability to be able to do that.”
Asked if police officer numbers could go down and civilian staff numbers rise as a result of the policy change, he added: “What we want to do is make sure we’ve got the right level, we have got the right mix of staff and that’s what we have said in the manifesto.
“It will be for the police to determine what they believe is the right level that it should actually be at in order to get the right mix in order to deal with these new and emerging types of crimes and threats more effectively.”
SPA chair Andrew Flanagan claimed in February that the 1,000 extra officers policy represents a “very inflexible approach” going forward as the civilian oversight body revealed plans to embark on a major review of demands facing the national force that will report later this year.
“If the police say that what we need to do rather than having 1,000 police officers [is] we need 950 police officers but we need 50 forensic accountants, [this policy] is to give them the flexibility to be able to do that,” said Matheson.
The Justice Secretary hinted at a change in stance at last month’s SNP conference in Glasgow after failing to mention the matter making a third manifesto appearance when addressing delegates. Instead, the key election pledge set out was to protect the police budget in real terms over the course of the next parliament.
Given an SNP commitment to invest an additional £100m in policing over the next five years, the party does not expect to see officer numbers drop sharply. Gormley will be expected to justify any decisions over workforce to the SPA as the body charged with oversight of the single service.
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”.