One police force, but many reasons

The Scottish Government’s commitment to create a single police service in Scotland may well be due to the need to limit public spending, but this change is long overdue for other reasons.

Inconsistency in policing across Scotland might have been acceptable in Victorian times, but not in the age of social justice and mass communication.

Decades of reports from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary have pointed up inconsistencies. These have ranged from hard-edged operational capabilities to the way in which the eight separate forces respond to their communities. No-one expects a one-size-fits-all solution, not least in the difference between rural and urban policing, but citizens have a right to expect policing in all regions to attain common high standards of service.

Currently, the map of policing in Scotland is illogical since half of the country is covered by one force (Strathclyde) and the rest by the other seven forces.

In all but two of these forces there are three or more council areas in each force, so the representation of local needs on police boards is very limited, especially where there is one council which is much larger than the rest (e.g. Edinburgh for Lothian and Borders, and Glasgow for Strathclyde).

This situation could have been addressed in 1996 when councils became unitary authorities, but no-one then felt the need (least of all some of the police forces themselves which had developed comfortable – perhaps too comfortable – relationships with their police boards).

Local accountability should be greatly improved in the new model, and could be even more effective if it was to incorporate some council influence over local spending on police.

Accountability does not mean hands-on interference in operational policing. There are too many myths about this which have been perpetuated by a few existing and former chief officers (primarily from the west of the country) who like to hide behind the false premise of operational independence.

It is certainly true that politicians must never have the power to say to a senior police officer, for instance: “You will arrest that person.” But those politicians responsible for police services must have the right to ask after the event: “Why did you arrest that person?” And senior officers must have the duty to respond, within any justifiable bounds of confidentiality. Otherwise we would be little better than those undemocratic states which still exist around the world where police can act with impunity, free from authoritative challenge.

The Borders has a wonderful opportunity, as the pilot for local accountability in the new set-up, to really influence the way this develops across Scotland. I wish all the members of the Borders police division and the councillors of Scottish Borders Council well as they strive to find the best way to blaze that trail.

Malcolm R. Dickson

(former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police and assistant inspector of constabulary for Scotland)


There is something naïve about the front-page headline, ‘Keep politics out of policing’, in last week’s Southern where you report on the justice secretary’s visit to Galashiels to launch the bill to create a new police service for Scotland.

This is a significant change which could be a welcome development, but like any significant change it has risks.

Quite rightly you reported critics. But I think it is disingenuous of a former councillor (Andrew Farquhar) who is also an ex-police commander to urge that councillors are kept at arms’ length from operational matters.

This has not been suggested. The present deputy chief constable, Steve Allen, who was present at the launch in Galashiels, was quoted that day on BBC Radio Scotland as emphasising that the legislation continues to enshrine the principle of operational independence of the police, so “politicians can’t tell us who to arrest, when to arrest, they can’t tell us how to deliver policing outcomes”.

Politics is the process through which we sort out how we want our society to run, but primarily it is the policy-forming process and not the administration.

It is quite correct for councillors to have input into the policy, and it is to be welcomed that the new structure may strengthen that link at a local level. We have to be vigilant that that link is about policy.

But it is wrong to dismiss this challenging initiative with a generalised slur on politics.

Stuart Bell

(prospective SNP candidate for Tweeddale East)

Vine Street