A Shetland councillor is backing a union’s call for the police authority in the north of Scotland to scrap its planned visit to Lerwick in May due to the cost at a time when police jobs are under threat.
The Northern Joint Police Board is expected to bring more than 30 people to Shetland on 11th May for the one meeting each year or so that it holds outwith Inverness. Police chiefs and staff from Inverness along with councillors from Highland, Orkney and the Western Isles would fly up, stay in a hotel and be treated to an evening meal.
But the union Unison, which represents some Northern Constabulary workers, had formally requested that all board meetings be kept in Inverness during the current economic difficulties which are likely to see the police budget cut next year by four per cent with more cuts in later years.
The board’s last trip out from Inverness was to Orkney in May which Unison said incurred an expenses bill of £8,426 compared with the £2,229 cost of meeting in Inverness in August. The disparity would inevitably be higher coming to Shetland due to more expensive flights.
The board is made up of 26 councillors from the four local authorities of Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and Highland. It usually meets four times a year to consider reports on police activities, budgets, complaints and other matters of concern.
At its last meeting in November the board decided to stick with its policy of travelling to each of the islands. But Unison is angry that 25 civilian jobs are being cut in the Northern Constabulary and the matter is expected to be raised again at the next board meeting on 29th January when the constabulary’s annual budget is set.
Shetland South member Allison Duncan said yesterday he backed the union. He, along with councillor Alastair Cooper, represents Shetland on the police board and its sister board the Highlands and Islands Fire Board.
“My view is if we can save money then I have no objections to going to Inverness and cutting out the Shetland end if it has to be.”
One of his fears is that funding cutbacks over the next two or three years will see the threat of losing two police officers from the Shetland force become a reality.
He said he had uncovered that possibility at a board meeting in November and it had to be resisted.
“We have one of the most serious drugs problems in the whole of Scotland and we need every policeman on the beat that we possibly can to get that scourge out of our society. I would be all for cancelling any trips to the islands to save staff and keep them in harness.”
Mr Cooper was less persuaded. He did sympathise with the need to work more cost-effectively, which he said might be done by more use of technology such as video-conferencing and perhaps cutting the number of councillors who travel on island trips. Highland, for instance, has 15 members on the board.
“I think there is a need for the board to make sure that whatever money we spend we spend it wisely and I think the likes of da Flea and me tripping away to meetings when we could maybe video-conference, we have to think about that far more seriously.”
But he said board members felt they did need to come out to the islands in order to fully appreciate the policing needs on the ground and the problems of remoteness. He said the same applied for the fire board, which also travels around and was in Shetland in September. “It is only when you go there that you appreciate and understand what folk are speaking about.”
When meetings take place in Inverness then both the fire and police boards meet on the same day, one after the other, halving the number of trips required by board members from the isles.
Mr Cooper said Unison had lost some support among members by what he said was its “selfish” attitude in presenting its case purely on how cutbacks would affect the Highland Council area. “I think Unison should have been looking to its members throughout the whole police and fire board areas.”