2. The merger of Scotland’s eight regional police forces into one national force is the biggest single public sector reform undertaken by this Government. So far, it has been nothing less than an abject failure, from the axing of more than 2,000 civilian jobs to pay restraint year upon year, and from the sheer incompetence that led to a VAT liability and an information technology disaster to the on-going crisis at the top. It has been gravely demoralising for all those rank-and-file officers across Scotland who turn out every shift regardless. Following the departure of yet another chief constable, what reassurance can the First Minister give to all those front-line officers and those remaining civilian police staff who serve our communities across Scotland today?
First, our police officers serving our communities across Scotland are doing a fantastic job—I am glad that Richard Leonard has recognised that. That is why crime is now at a 43-year low in Scotland. I do not think that it is fair for anybody in the chamber, notwithstanding the issues that we have been facing, to describe policing as being in any way, shape or form in crisis. Our police officers are keeping this country and the communities of this country safe, and they deserve our thanks for doing so.
In order to support our police officers, we are increasing investment in our police service and ensuring that the front-line resource spending of Police Scotland is increasing in real terms. It is right to do that and we will continue to support our police service in that way. Of course, we argued over many years that the position on VAT was indefensible. We were eventually backed on that by Scottish Labour, although it took a long time; rather than backing us from day 1, Labour backed the position of the Scottish Conservatives for a long time.
On the issue of a single police force, I still remember the days when Iain Gray was leader of Scottish Labour—if Labour eventually runs out of members from its own ranks to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party, I am sure that Richard Lochhead would be prepared to stand in temporarily—and I vividly remember watching him on a Saturday, I think, give a conference speech as leader of the Scottish Labour Party in which he announced that the policy of Scottish Labour was to have a single police force and he criticised the Scottish Government for dragging its feet in not committing to the same thing. It therefore used to be the case that Scottish Labour claimed the single police force as its idea.
Let us get behind our police service and the new chair of the Scottish Police Authority, and when the new chief constable is in place, which will be on a timetable to be determined by the SPA, let us get behind him or her as well. Let us support our police officers to continue to do the job that they are doing so exceptionally well right now in keeping this country safe from crime.
Scottish Labour did support the creation of a single police force, but not one that concentrated too much power in too few hands with too little accountability. In fact, in November 2015 we came up with constructive proposals and solutions to make the single force work, when Scottish Labour published a review of policing in Scotland that was led by Graeme Pearson, who is a former senior police officer. The review came up with 10 recommendations, from improved parliamentary oversight to staffing support and meaningful local accountability. We submitted it to Michael Matheson at the time. Can the First Minister tell me which, if any, of its recommendations were implemented? If they were not, why not?
As, I assume, Richard Leonard knows, a governance review is under way. Indeed, it is due to be published soon and it will no doubt make recommendations for change. I will be very happy at that stage to go into the detail of what those recommendations might be and how the Scottish Government might respond to them.
Richard Leonard mentioned parliamentary oversight. As I have just said in exchanges with Ruth Davidson, Mary Fee, as convener of the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing, was involved in the process around the appointment of the chair of the Scottish Police Authority. We will, of course, continue to listen when sensible proposals are made.
However, I come back to the fundamental point that nobody on the Scottish National Party benches is seeking to deny the challenges that we have faced around the leadership of Police Scotland. I say very seriously that they are deeply regrettable. However, the central point is that we have an excellent police force in this country that is working hard day in, day out to make sure that crime is at a 43-year low, and we should not lose sight of that fact; sometimes when I listen to the debates in the chamber, I think that some members do occasionally lose sight of it.
The problem is that, week after week, the First Minister stands up in the chamber and demands solutions from Opposition parties to problems that her Government has created in the first place. Labour offered 10, but her justice secretary ignored them. Since then, two chief constables have gone, morale among rank-and-file officers has sunk and public confidence has declined, and all the time the First Minister refuses to take responsibility. Will she take responsibility and look again at the recommendations of the Pearson review and will she find a new justice secretary to deliver them?
As I said in my previous answer, a governance review has been under way. That will report shortly, and all of us right across the Parliament will be able to consider any proposals and suggestions that come forward as part of that.
Richard Leonard talked about local engagement, for example. It is the responsibility of the Scottish Police Authority to make sure that local engagement arrangements are in place. Over the past few weeks, I have had members—to be fair to Richard Leonard, it has usually been the Scottish Conservatives, but some members of the Scottish Labour Party have done this, too—come to the chamber criticising the justice secretary, erroneously I may add, for inappropriately interfering in the work of the Scottish Police Authority. Today, they come here and stand up to demand that I, as First Minister, and the justice secretary intervene in the responsibilities of the Scottish Police Authority.
We have a new chair of the Scottish Police Authority in place, and she is doing a good job. I think that we should get behind her and support her in seeking to tackle the challenges that have been faced, and above all we should support the policemen and women across this country, who are doing such an excellent job on our behalf.