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Cuts to Police Scotland's budget are a false economy that risks domino effect on public services

My 100th Scotsman column, recently published (3rd July).

For many of us involved in policing during the 80s and 90s, last week was a time of sadness and reflection as we said farewell to Sir Bill Sutherland, one of our greatest leaders.

An exceptional Chief Constable and one of the finest men I have ever met, Sir Bill did much to modernise policing in Scotland, both as a long-serving chief and Inspector of Constabulary.

In his fulsome tribute, Police Scotland’s Chief Constable Iain Livingstone, recruited by Sir Bill, spoke of his predecessor’s vision and tireless efforts to improve policing. It wasn’t always easy. When Bill Sutherland came to Lothian and Borders in 1983, the force was chronically underfunded.

Grant-aided expenditure, the limit to which local authority contributions would be matched by government, was nowhere near its intended level. Gradually, and against the difficult background of the ’84/85 miners dispute, he persuaded the Labour police authority to increase funding.

It was difficult but, to the credit of all concerned, the result was a police service that could recruit up to strength and invest in computerisation, vital in investigating the serious crimes that plagued us.

As he made his remarks, the irony must have struck Livingstone for, just a few days later, he was to appear before the Scottish Police Authority to report that if the Scottish Government’s spending review was carried through, the standstill budget for policing, amid high inflation, would precipitate a slide back to the dark days of underfunding.

The plain fact is that a standstill budget in a time of inflation means a cut in real terms. Given that nearly 90 per cent of the police revenue budget pays salaries, the consequence is obvious: fewer police on the beat. Factor in expected wage rises and there could be a lot less.

The capital budget projections are worse. Reductions of over £20 million from the vehicle, estates and the digital transformation budget will not only mean increasingly decrepit cars and buildings but an inability to effectively counter the biggest new criminal threat that we face: cybercrime.

The police, of course, are not alone. Many areas face cuts and since many public services are interdependent, the domino effect could be substantial.

Inadequately funded courts, prison and mental health services will impact on policing and vice versa. Our nation’s public services are multi-layered, conjoined. Promoting one at the expense of another may make a political headline, but seldom proves effective on the ground or in the long term.

Then there is the matter of trust and forward planning. It was only in its last manifesto that our government promised to maintain the police budget “in real terms”. While offering no growth, this at least allowed for forward planning, crucial for recruiting as well as areas like IT.

To change the goal posts at the last minute is neither conducive to trust nor forward planning worth the name.

Of course, situations will always change and ‘events’ can overtake the best laid plans, but stop-go funding is a sure recipe for poor public services.

Let’s hope that Livingstone does not have to fight the same battles as his illustrious forebear. For there is a fundamental truth about funding public services. It is always better and cheaper to maintain than have to rebuild.

My article can also be read on the Scotsman's website here.

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