Jenny Marra MSP :  Policing (Speech in the Scottish Parliament )

5 December 2012  

The fact that the SNP’s back benchers are much keener to address the botched police commissioner elections in England—an issue over which the Scottish Parliament has no jurisdiction—tells the whole story.  

The SNP does not want to address the difficult problems that our motion has raised.

With just under four months to go until the start of the new police service, today’s debate has highlighted some critical questions about the Government’s handling of the transition to Scotland’s single police force.

We hoped that we would never have to seek the guarantees that our motion seeks today, especially at such a late stage in the process.

We are looking for clarification about the two most important roles in the new police service—who has responsibility over what?—and for guarantees that local officers will remain on our streets.

 Kenny MacAskill: The only outstanding matter is the line of accountable responsibility that the SPA chair is seeking. Does the member not accept that? What other aspect is she suggesting is still in dispute?

Jenny Marra: From the two speeches that I have heard from the cabinet secretary today, it seems that the HR and finance issues are the same ones that were under dispute when we took evidence from the chief constable and the chair last Tuesday morning.

I hope that the committee’s deliberations and this afternoon’s debate will help their discussions to reach a conclusion on the issues of contention that still exist today.

In his opening remarks, the cabinet secretary spoke of record numbers of police officers on Scotland’s streets.

However, as my Labour colleagues have pointed out, the reality of what is happening in police forces across Scotland is far removed from what he would have us believe.

Scottish Labour has been warning the Government for months that its drive towards efficiency savings has created a culture of backroom bobbies. Backroom staff jobs have been shed and are being done by police officers who should be on our streets.

Kenny MacAskill: Where?

Jenny Marra: The cabinet secretary is looking surprised and asking me where this is happening.

We have been telling him for months that it is happening in police stations and control rooms in Tayside and up and down the country.  

Kenny MacAskill: Does the member dispute the fact that HMICS has investigated the allegations of backfilling and found that the only instances of backfilling are in a limited number of situations in which pregnant police officers and male and female officers who have been injured cannot be put on front-line duties? Apart from that, HMICS is not aware of any instances of backfilling.

Jenny Marra: According to Unison, this is going on in 53 per cent of the posts that have gone. It is going on with custody officers in the cabinet secretary’s constituency and in control rooms in Tayside.

I suggest that he go out to police stations across the country and ask people on the ground whether it is happening.

Audit Scotland has just confirmed to us that it is.

As far back as May this year, I highlighted to the cabinet secretary evidence from Unison that 900 police staff jobs had been lost and were now being done by police officers.

In his response, he sought to deny the problem and then told me that it was an operational matter.

When I raised the same issue at First Minister’s questions in October, the First Minister dismissed the claim as ”utter nonsense”, despite the fact that my evidence came from a leaked document prepared for his justice department by Kevin Smith, the head of the police reform sub-group.

That evidence makes clear the new single service’s intention to cut police staff jobs in favour of officers doing administrative tasks themselves.

As I said, just last week, Audit Scotland published a report that said that each force has cut an average of 12 per cent of civilian posts to balance its budget.

The report also says that

“at a time of continued financial pressures there is a risk that this”

backfilling

“is not an efficient and sustainable use of resources if adopted longer term.”

We agree with Audit Scotland’s report, which confirms what we have articulated and heard for months.

The lack of honesty from the SNP about its guarantee to put extra police officers on our streets is concerning and unsustainable and it must stop.

The SNP’s fig-leaf figure of 65 more backroom staff does little to mask the 907 jobs that have been lost since March 2010 and the further 3,000 that Stephen House predicted will be lost in the future.

Kenny MacAskill: Ms Marra was a member of the Justice Committee when Chief Constable House made it clear to that committee that he had no intention of backfilling and that it would meet no purpose. Is she suggesting that he is a liar?

 Jenny Marra: The cabinet secretary needs to look at the evidence for himself.

I suggest that he goes out to his constituency, speaks to custody officers and trade unions and reads Audit Scotland’s report.

He might then get an accurate reflection of what is going on in the police force in this country.

Hard-working police staff should not have their fate hidden in leaked documents from reform sub-groups or in Audit Scotland reports, only to have it denied by the First Minister and the cabinet secretary.

That is why Scottish Labour has asked for a clear guarantee from the Government today that it will reverse its intention to backfill police staff jobs.

We are disappointed that the cabinet secretary has chosen to ignore that in his amendment.

The need for clarity is why we brought the debate to Parliament.

Nowhere is clarity more necessary than in the single police force’s leadership.

From day 1, the public must have confidence that those who are in charge have an irreproachable mandate yet, as Lewis Macdonald said, we have reached the astonishing point at which our chief constable and the SPA’s chair are already seeking separate legal advice on their job descriptions.

We are all for “creative tension” between colleagues, which can help to establish better relationships and define responsibilities.

However, it strikes me that, when that gets to the stage at which people feel that they must seek legal advice on their job descriptions, there might be a problem with the employer.

I say to the cabinet secretary that we do not seek political interference, but the Government must act on behalf of Parliament, which agreed the important Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012, by exercising ministerial accountability, not ministerial control.

The whole Parliament knows that my colleague Graeme Pearson has pushed for improved scrutiny of the single police service since the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Bill was introduced.

He argued passionately for better scrutiny by Parliament of the chair and the chief constable and for a specialist commission that would deal swiftly with issues such as the one that has arisen.

We are glad that a slightly watered-down version of his proposal has received cross-party support and we hope that it will be advanced as quickly as possible. Until that happens, it is the Government’s responsibility to facilitate a resolution to the conflict as quickly and efficiently as possible.

 

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