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Police Scotland set to face tough choices as major budget cuts loom

Read what I have to say on this, in my latest Scotsman column, published 5th December 2022.

Buried on the inside pages last week were our annual Scottish crime figures. Once, the numbers were pored over in minute detail and widely seen as an indicator of the health of the nation.

No more, our government’s focus on constitutional wrangles has taken almost our complete bandwidth, and a substantial chunk of public cash. We can only hope now that the Supreme Court has ruled, our political leaders will dial back the rhetoric, rein in the zealots and concentrate on other pressing priorities.

Which brings us back to cash and crime figures. For, as we enter some lean years, crime trends will help decide the justice system’s priorities. The truth is that we cannot continue to do it all. It’s easy to take on new work and hard to stop doing things you always have, with the temptation to salami-slice your services and muddle through. But that only carries you so far, eventually the frontline becomes wafer-thin and dominoes begin to tumble. Politicians may promise the earth, but public service managers must face facts.

With the possible exception of health, public services have seen their funding nibbled away over the last decade. Local government has been hardest hit but all have seen cuts. Police, courts, prisons, and, critically, criminal justice social work are now doing a lot more with substantially less. Police Scotland now has a budget smaller than the eight forces ten years ago.

When you factor in the new demands of cybercrime, terrorism and historic inquiries, you get the picture. Little wonder that this year alone around 1,400 experienced officers have retired early.

So what do the crime figures tell us? Overall, reported crime has fallen again, although that depends on where you live. Scotland’s record on serious crimes, like murder, continues to be outstanding, and there have been some amazing results in clearing up historic cases, notably the 1976 murder of Renee and Andrew MacRae.

Even the sharp rise in reported sex crimes can be seen as a partial success. The vast ‘dark figure’ of unreported sex crimes has long been recognised. The more that are revealed, the clearer the picture. The bad news is the continuing rise in cybercrime, online fraud which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recently reported accounts for half of all crime.

Since cybercrime is by its nature transnational, there’s no reason to suspect the picture will be much different in Scotland. Addressing these specialist areas is costly, training lengthy, and not every officer is suited to the job. Meanwhile, none of the other demands have gone away, it’s not as if drugs or theft are out of fashion.

The Scottish Government will soon set its annual budget and we know there’ll be no early Christmas presents. It is unlikely the promise of maintained funding will be kept in the face of ten per cent inflation. The police budget could be many millions short.

I suspect the lights will be burning late in Police Scotland HQ at Tulliallan Castle as the Chief and his team struggle to decide what they can no longer do. Make no mistake, tough choices will have to be made. Our public services cannot continue to be degraded without a loss of service. The chickens are coming home to roost!

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