Chair of Police Scotland oversight body labels police officer target “very inflexible approach” for long term

Written by Alan Robertson on 22 February 2016 in ‘Holyrood’

Police Scotland’s civilian oversight body will embark on a major review of demands facing the national force after its chair claimed a Scottish Government commitment on officer numbers represents a “very inflexible approach” going forward.

Scottish Police Authority chair Andrew Flanagan revealed the scrutiny body intends to start work on a longer-term strategic plan within the next few months that will seek to map future demands on policing.

Flanagan said the work, which will be done along with Police Scotland, is expected to be concluded by autumn in order to inform a conversation about officer numbers as well as wider resource levels.

It comes amid a long-running debate over the Scottish Government’s commitment to maintain 1,000 extra officers on 2007 levels and the impact on other parts of the police service as a result.

Amid the prospect of political parties putting forward manifesto commitments on officer numbers beforehand, the former chief executive of children’s charity NSPCC said “everybody should be trying to be as open-minded at the moment as we possibly can be”.

Flanagan, who succeeded Vic Emery last September, said the decision to extend reform funding on the basis that officer numbers remain above 17,234 is a “reasonable starting position”, albeit signalled the SNP policy is on borrowed time.

“As you begin to develop the debate about what level of service you want and what are the demands on us, increasingly if you look at it over a ten-year period that’s a very inflexible approach to take,” he said.

“Therefore, yes there has to be some sort of a debate as to what the right kind of resource we should have, what kind of skills, whether it is police, whether it is support, and we’re not in a position to have that debate at the moment.

“We need a lot of planning work, a lot of thought about what the demand on our services are and the threats that are out there before we can really start to engage in that debate. And we’re not at that position.

“The working assumption is it’s 17,234. Our financial plans have to be based on it’s 17,234 and for the timebeing that’s where we are. But, ultimately, what we need is a highly skilled responsive mobile workforce.

“That may be police officers, that may be other people, and it’s the totality of that resource that’s important in terms of what that looks like rather than some relatively arbitrary number.”

The SNP administration has had a commitment in place since 2007 to maintain officer numbers above 17,234, though Flanagan’s predecessor had previously questioned its long-term sustainability while one of his board members has said a debate on the matter is needed “if we’re going to be able to balance budgets”.

The SPA chair said such a debate could only happen following a “long-term piece of work” to assess demand, the services Police Scotland is expected to provide and the best way of providing them.

“The more inflexibility you put into the discussion the more difficult a discussion it is, and I think everybody should be trying to be as open-minded at the moment as we possibly can be,” he added.

Emery has told a Holyrood conference in December 2013 that work was already underway on a scoping exercise to ascertain the number of officers needed nationwide, however Flanagan said that a focus on “strategic intent was put on the backburner” amid controversies around the likes of stop and search and armed policing.

It would have been “nonsensical” to run a piece of strategic work once it was established that the former chief constable Sir Stephen House and his predecessor at the SPA were planning to exit, added Flanagan.

“When we get into spring and summer, that’s the time when we should be in a position to actually sit down and think through some of these strategic issues and then come out with a longer-term strategic plan that deals with the demands of policing,” he said.

“And then perhaps we’re in a better position to begin to open up some discussion around the resource levels that we want.”