I read in the Herald that Justice Secretary MacAskill - no stranger to controversy - has put forward a "compelling case" for a single Scottish police force and fire service, effectively abolishing the eight regional forces and fire brigades that currently exist.
We know that Labour, with its obsession with centralisation, has supported the idea of single police and fire services. However, it is surprising that MacAskill is so keen to support Labour's position - and to promote it with such enthusiasm.
MacAskill rightly calls for modernisation, but his remedy is too extreme, too focused on the mere financial and too lacking in operational detail to be effective. He claims the status quo is "untenable" on the basis that the eight force structure "will not provide the savings necessary". Confusingly, he also promotes centralisation as a means of providing "a better service locally, devolving more decision making to local commanders". Why would it require a centralised force to deliver better local services? Surely this can take place without the reorganisation?
While it is possible to sympathise with the financial pressures facing the justice minister, these proposals as they stand pose serious questions about accountability. Scottish voters recognise the need to make savings, but will be unhappy at sacrificing local forces in favour of a drift towards centralisation simply in the interests of short-term economic pragmatism.
The Conservatives realise this and are said to support the proposals under the proviso that any single force is overseen by directly elected commissioners. While their overdue commitment to Liberal Democrats' manifesto policy is welcome, elected commissioners - while sound in principle - would not actually deal with the problem of reduced local accountability.
It should be stated that MacAskill was announcing the SNP's preferred position. No final decision will be made until after a public consultation, during which three options will be placed on the table: the status quo with "enhanced collaboration", a new regional model or a single force. However, given that MacAskill's SNP government have pre-empted the consultation and already determined the route it wishes to take (broadly supported by Labour and the Tories) it seems clear that the "consultation" is simply window dressing, designed to give the decision-making process a veneer of democratic approval. It is a pointless exercise, and smacks of the government's patronising approach towards democratic values. COSLA (the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) has already condemned any such consultation as a "sham"; not only has the government made up its mind but in pursuing its pre-determined agenda would sacrifice in the region of 4,000 jobs.
The Liberal Democrats have been left with the task of speaking against this simplistic and irresponsible drive towards a single police force. Justice spokesman Robert Brown MSP argued that "Liberal Democrats will fight any move towards a single police force in Scotland. It is hugely disappointing but unsurprising that the Cabinet Secretary presented his plans for a single police force and fire board without giving the slightest indication of what savings and benefits Scotland would gain as a result. Liberal Democrats are not persuaded that a creation of a single police force will save any significant amount of money. Communities will instead suffer as local accountability is eroded and local police services damaged. Centralised bureaucrats will be given far too much say over how local policing decisions are made without being aware of local problems and issues. We are still waiting for a clear reason to be given by any of the supporters on why moving towards a single Scottish police force will improve policing or make Scottish streets safer. The idea of a single Scottish police service is bad for democracy, bad for local communities and bad for local policing.”
Tavish Scott is similarly critical, pointing out that “Alex Salmond’s own chief constable Colin McKerracher said there was “not a shred of evidence” for a single police force. It’s becoming normal for his SNP Government to make an assertion first and look for the evidence afterwards. He can’t produce any evidence to show that his Government has the slightest clue about how much its centralisation will cost.”
We should all be concerned about the rush towards a centralised service, designed only to make savings, that will reduce local accountability and be less well equipped to serve the needs of local communities. It is, in any case, based on the most speculative of evidence; as usual, the cart is being put before the horse and decisions about shaping the long-term future in the interests of our communities have been pre-empted by the need to drive down costs.
The financial priorities are of course very real, but the best course of action is to have the debate first on how to move towards a modern, forward-looking, fit-for-purpose police force and then examine ways in which it can be delivered cost-effectively. Sadly, this won't happen due to MacAskill's neo-socialist drive towards a centralised force which could be more easily manipulated by politicians. And it is the Scottish voters who will be the worse for it - something they may well bear in mind when casting their votes in May.