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Success of Police Scotland shows how public services can be improved through greater efficiency

Here's my first column for 2023, published 2nd January.

Few would claim 2022 was a glittering year. War, political turmoil and recession made it tough going, and the justice sector is no exception.

Our courts remain backlogged, our prison estate is creaking at the seams and Police Scotland is struggling amid rising demand and inflationary pressures.

But let’s not detract from what has been achieved in '22. The courts and prisons did well to provide the service they did, while Police Scotland once again solved all the major crimes in the year and did well organising events in Scotland after Queen Elizabeth’s passing.

So, what lies ahead? If necessity is the mother of invention, then there are undoubtedly opportunities. We just need the political courage to take them. The Crown Office and courts administration must work at pace to avoid falling behind. That will require some deft plea bargaining, unpalatable but essential.

We must continue to push for alternatives to short-term prison sentences. We simply cannot afford to keep imprisoning young men at the rate we do. It doesn’t make sense from a cost or outcome standpoint.

For the police, shrinking resources will force the issue of where to draw the line. The police cannot continue to step forward every time another service steps back. Recently, I counted as many police cars as ambulances at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary's accident & emergency. Some tough decisions are required.

Meanwhile, theft will increase and organised crime will continue to flourish. We cannot assume violent ‘county lines' drugs gangs will be restricted to England and Wales. Parts of northern Scotland are fertile ground for these groups.

But there are opportunities to streamline back-office functions in our blue-light services and find efficiencies by sharing resources. There's no reason why payroll and other admin services cannot be combined as a move towards joint control rooms. The savings that could be returned to front-line services would be considerable.

We must continue to embrace new technologies, including artificial intelligence and applications like facial recognition. I can almost hear the wailing of protest as I write, but it’s worth remembering technological developments in policing are usually resisted. From fingerprints in the 19th century to the use of computers, criminal intelligence, CCTV and DNA.

All were cast as dire threats to civil liberties; none turned out to be. The legitimate use of artificial intelligence will be no different and, properly controlled, a considerable asset.

On the operational front, the Lockerbie investigation is progressing once more and we can hope for more information about the Libyan connections. Make no mistake, Lockerbie is unfinished business. The passage of time has not blunted the desire to see the investigation brought to its full conclusion.

This year also marks the tenth anniversary of our national police service. Police Scotland had a difficult birth, but along with the Fire Service has now settled to be the largest example of structural reform in Scotland's public services for 50 years. It shows what can be done and begs the question why our local councils and health boards have not had similar reform.

None of this is easy, of course. It will take serious political courage to bring about such change. Whether our government has the will and the stamina remains to be seen.

My article can also be read at

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