Penny-pinching and how the SNP tried to blame Westminster for our cut-rate police

By Graham Grant

FOR a minister more widely remembered for his serial blundering than his candour, it was a deeply telling — and prescient — statement.

Four years ago, the then Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill confessed that he had been opposed to a single police force but Westminster budget cuts had made it a ‘necessity’.

Mr MacAskill told MSPs that ministers had ‘taken the view that we should make a virtue out of a necessity’. He also boasted that at a recent meeting of the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), representing rank-and-file officers, he had received a ‘standing ovation’.

Fast-forward to 2016 and it is hard to imagine his successor, Michael Matheson, enjoying a similarly warm reception from SPF delegates.

Last week it emerged that the force was so cash-strapped that officers were complaining about having to ration bin bags, and yesterday it was claimed tea towels had been banned because it costs too much to clean them.

On a daily basis, the SPF is drip-feeding onto social media similarly damaging claims about the effect of financial constraints.

It has revealed reports of dog-handlers abandoning searches and officers calling off an investigation into reports of a potential housebreaker — to avoid overtime costs.

Despite Mr MacAskill’s admission that he did not support the concept of a single service, he later became a vocal cheerleader for the amalgamation of the eight regional forces. But his comments from 2012 are also a reminder that Police Scotland, from its very earliest days, was seen as principally a vehicle for saving cash.

The high-profile commitment (now ditched) to keeping officer numbers at 1,000 more than the SNP inherited in 2007 helped to divert focus away from a brutal cull of civilian staff and the closure of swathes of police station front desks.

Unhelpfully, in October 2013, Alex Salmond advised that people should simply tweet police to report crimes, despite the force officially warning the public against doing so.

In August of that year, six months after the launch of Police Scotland, it emerged that more than 15,000 calls to the 101 non-emergency number had gone unanswered.

The warning signs of a looming crisis were growing and in the summer of 2015, Lamara Bell was left dying in a crashed car beside the M9 for three days amid allegations of police call-handling failures, now being examined by prosecutors.

The Nationalists, having made a ‘virtue out of necessity’, are reaping the consequences of trying to run one of our most prized public services into the ground.

The genesis of Police Scotland is also based on a lie — that the Westminster bogeyman of austerity had compelled the SNP to create the single force, as Mr MacAskill claimed. In fact, the Scottish Government chose to target policing to save cash. It was not obliged to do so and could have selected other areas of the bloated public sector to make cuts.

Health funding has been protected, though revelations about fat cat NHS bosses earning up to £180,000 a year suggest the SNP is unconcerned about runaway executive pay.

Public safety should be the key objective of any administration, while rising violent and sexual crime also demonstrate the repercussions for the NHS of cutting back on proper policing, in the form of more victims to treat.

Police Scotland is facing a £21.1million black hole in its finances this year, despite making £5million of cuts, with figures from the force’s public watchdog last week showing a massive overspend despite efforts to save millions of pounds on vehicles, IT and forensics costs and the sale of unused properties.

The huge expected revenue shortfall for 2016–17 amounts to almost three times the previous financial year’s £8.1million deficit. It seems light years away from the ‘world-class’ police service promised by Sir Stephen House, forced out of his job as Police Scotland’s first chief constable after a string of controversies, including the row over Miss Bell’s death. His successor, Phil Gormley, is continuing with the cuts agenda that helped to kill off Sir Stephen’s career, dropping ever-heavier hints about the diminution in the quality of service yet to come.

Car theft and shoplifting (which is also on the rise) will get lower priority in future, while an extension of Recorded Police Warnings, allowing people caught with cannabis and other supposedly ‘minor’ offences to escape without a full criminal record, is being considered.

Police Scotland Chief Constable Phil Gormley

Meanwhile, as the Mail revealed last week, thousands of police officers are moonlighting in their spare time.

Figures have soared by 40 per cent in the past three years, with officers taking up work as joiners, beauty therapists, electricians and shop assistants.

This may be well-advised, given that the removal of the long-standing pledge to maintain frontline manpower at 1,000 higher than 2007 levels is dead, paving the way for a possible cut in manpower.

All of this is being packaged, of course, as a positive for the public. We are told that in the future, while there will still be beat bobbies, we will need more cyber-crime specialists, with the emphasis shifting away from tackling ‘acquisitive crime’ to online fraud and those distributing and viewing images of child abuse.

A Scottish Government consultation is under way to establish what Scots believe the force’s priorities ought to be.

This is all part of a cynical exercise to prepare the public for the inevitable conclusion of the reform process foisted on us by Mr MacAskill: policing on the cheap.

Having created a police service primed to fail because of the cuts it must endure, the Nationalists are asking us which crimes we would like the police to prioritise. The traditional idea that police should fight all crime is obviously seen as hopelessly passé.

But vestiges of the old era are still clear to see, including the colossal incompetence demonstrated by the recent collapse of the i6 police ‘super computer’.

Despite warnings over its chequered record, Accenture, which was previously involved in an English NHS computer fiasco — one of the world’s biggest public sector IT scandals — was hired to build Police Scotland’s new system.

The budget quickly ballooned from about £45million to £60million and the project was hit by repeated delays and technical glitches. In February, Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame, then convener of the committee that holds Police Scotland to account, said she would not trust Accenture to fix leaky pipes.

Predictably, the plug was discreetly pulled on the contract last month, on the day Holyrood broke for summer recess — amid the political chaos following the Brexit vote.

Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson — now retired — had pledged in 2013 that the Accenture contract was the ‘start on our journey to have truly national policing processes supported by a modern IT solution’.

It was only in December 2015 that the Scottish Government stepped in to carry out an independent technical audit of the project but by then the damage was done.

We are assured that there will be no ‘financial detriment’ to Police Scotland, though full details of the termination of i6 remain secret.

But clearly, at a time when resources are scarce, this disgraceful saga wasted an enormous amount of time.

Mr Matheson, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen, while the project his government initiated falls apart.

Naturally, the key figures who caused the mess, including Mr MacAskill, Sir Stephen and Mr Richardson, have all retired with bumper pensions — proving that there is nothing all that novel about the brave new era they had envisaged, after all.