Centralisation of Scotland’s police and fire services has failed to deliver the savings and improved services it promised, according to a Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP.
Following publication of a report evaluating reform of Scotland’s police and fire services, Liam McArthur raised concerns the move has not realised its aims.
Scotland’s 16 policing and fire and rescue services – eight police and eight fire and rescue – were merged into two national bodies, Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), in 2013.
The move set out to bring a more consistent and improved service across the country, as opposed to having several separate and relatively autonomous regional organisations.
But Mr McArthur claimed: “The SNP’s centralisation has failed to significantly improve services or deliver the savings that were promised.
“When the sums didn’t add up, the Scottish Government took an axe to civilian staff positions, forcing more and more officers off the beat to fill the gaps.
“The Scottish Government need to ensure that a long overdue staff survey takes place as soon as possible.
“This will give us a more accurate picture of the challenges facing hard-working police and fire service workers.”
In 2014, the Scottish Government commissioned an independent four-year evaluation of police and fire reform in Scotland, with a report published on Thursday.
Its findings stated the reforms were “some of the most ambitious public-sector reforms in Scotland for a generation” and said the Government had clearly articulated the strategic aims of the reforms from the outset.
But it said the process of implementing the vision of both a single police service and fire and rescue service “has been more challenging and complex than anticipated by those in both policy and practitioner communities”.
The report also noted “significant progress has been made towards achieving the intended outcomes of reform as set out in the 2012 Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act”.
But concerns were raised over staffing and resources available for the services.
One section of the report highlighted unintended consequences of policing reform at local level.
It read: “The redeployment of officers to specialist teams, reductions in civilian staff and restructuring of resource provision and geographical responsibilities have resulted in concerns among local officers, shared by the public and local councillors, that resources are increasingly stretched relative to demand.”
A section evaluating reform of the fire and rescue service also outlined staff feeling stretched.
It read: “Local firefighters have reported feeling stretched as a result of declining numbers of administrative staff, which was viewed as resulting in increasing workloads.”
SFRS chief officer Martin Blunden said: “We welcome this comprehensive evaluation, which provides strong insight into what is described as one of the most ambitious public-sector reforms in Scotland for a generation.
“This report recognises our commitment to putting in place the necessary operational, governance and financial foundations that will enable us to meet modern risks such as severe weather and a growing elderly population increasingly calling upon our support to stay safe.
“It is vital that we listen to our people, the public we serve and our partners to ensure they have a voice in shaping future service delivery as we work to navigate a challenging financial environment, and ensure our ongoing efforts enhance both public and firefighter safety.
“We recognise that there still remains areas for improvement.”
Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Malcolm Graham said: “Police Scotland has transformed the way policing investigates rape and other sexual crimes, improved its approach to investigating murders and unexplained deaths, and its response to dealing with national threats.
“Our structure has allowed for the £73 million Scottish Crime Campus at Gartcosh, which has state-of-the-art forensics capacity and houses DNA 24, the most advanced profiling facility in Europe.
“This is despite having been required to remove around £200 million, the equivalent of the budget of four legacy services, from the annual cost base of policing.
“Reform is about using these great benefits to ensure the service is more agile, flexible and tailored to local needs.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “The people of Scotland are well-served by the officers and staff of their police and fire services, who work alongside communities and other partners to make our streets and homes safer.
“Police and fire reform was one of the most significant public-sector reforms since devolution, which is why we commissioned a long-term, independent evaluation which both services, their governance boards and the Scottish Government continue to learn from.
“The final report underlines how Scotland has not been unique in facing challenges in police and fire reform.
“Other nations have faced issues, some similar to Scotland, some not, and we welcome all of the contributions towards this research work.”
He added: “The recent Justice Committee report on police and fire reform rightly recognised a number of the significant achievements across both services and we continue to support them, including with an annual budget of £1.2 billion for the Scottish Police Authority and £327 million for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.
“We continue to press the UK Government for a refund of the VAT paid by Scotland’s police and fire services up to 2018.
“Police officer numbers across Scotland have risen by 6.3% since 2007 – an increase of more than 1,000 – compared to a 13.8% drop in England and Wales over the last decade.”