The Northern Constabulary and the board of 16 Highlands and Islands councillors which oversees the police force have emerged well from independent scrutiny of their roles and use of public money. However, one of several criticisms by the inspectors relates to a failure to send one of the force’s specialist teams up to Shetland to help tackle the serious drugs problem.
In their joint report published today the Accounts Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary for Scotland praised the force for its strong financial control and applauded the efficiency savings it made without closing any rural stations or cutting police officers. Indeed, much of the £1.7 million earned from selling police houses, and a further £1.8 million from other savings, has been reinvested in hiring extra “front-line” police officers – albeit at the expense of 75 jobs among support staff.
The Northern Constabulary cost £59.4 million to run in the financial year just ended and was the second cheapest force in Scotland the previous year at £223 per head of population. According to the inspectors, staff morale is good too, despite the cutbacks.
The criticism relating to Shetland specifically was in relation to the force’s use of its array of specialist teams which the inspectors felt were not deployed to island parts of the force area as a matter of routine despite there being a need.
The inspectors said: “Since the recent force reorganisation, the capacity of divisions to deploy specialist resources based on demand has increased, yet access across all area commands was variable. Movement of officers based on identified operational need is relatively common in mainland areas yet during the inspection we found movement of officers to the island areas of the force occurred less frequently.
“Despite a widespread recognition that drug abuse presents a major problem in Shetland, we found no evidence of it being addressed through the division-wide tasking process, for example by deployment of the divisional proactive team to the islands.”
The report also draws attention to a need for the force to make better use of its large network of special constables in rural communities. The inspectors discovered that their effectiveness in helping the force is unnecessarily limited by restricted access to computers and information and the fact that few are authorised to drive police vehicles.
The low levels of crime and the police’s high detection rate are already well known features of life in the Highlands and Islands and the report does not provide crime figures for Shetland and other areas. These are to be found in the annual public performance report which is published later in the year.
But the inspectors acknowledge the progress made in helping cut deaths and serious injuries on the roads. Between 1994 and 1998 a yearly average of 412 people were killed or seriously injured within the Northern Constabulary area. By 2008/09 that figure had fallen to 179, a figure greatly exceeding the force’s target of a 40 per cent reduction.
Similarly, declines have been recorded in the numbers of children killed or seriously injured with the yearly average falling from 46 during 1994-98 to just six children in 2008/09. It is not clear from the report how police operations have contributed to these improvements as opposed to better car safety, higher driving standards or superior road design and safety markings.
Attention is drawn to the force’s failure to meet its target of bringing five per cent more drink-drivers to justice – there was an eight per cent fall in the number of offences detected on the previous year, from 863 to 796 – but the inspectors do not ponder whether that may actually be a symptom of the success of the long-running campaign to dissuade people from drink-driving.
Commenting on the report, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary Bill Skelly said: “Northern Constabulary is performing well and the force demonstrates many of the elements of best value. A recent force review has led to a significant restructuring and the resources this freed up went towards frontline policing.”
He said the force did need to be better at monitoring and reporting its performance and quicker at handling emergency phone calls and in submitting reports to the procurator fiscal and the children’s reporter.
The Accounts Commission found that the Northern Joint Police Board had a strong awareness of its role and effectively scrutinises the force and holds the chief constable to account, although board members could be more active in seeking information from the police.
Shetland is represented on the board by two SIC councillors, Alastair Cooper and Allison Duncan, who attend meetings four times a year with the 14 other board members from Orkney, the Western Isles and Highland.
The commission called for more training on police issues for the board and for the establishment of clearer relationships between the board and the councils, particularly about allocation and use of money and manpower.
The board and the force will now produce an improvement plan to show how they intend to address the findings in the Best Value Audit and Inspection.