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WATCH: SNP candidates refuse to commit to decentralising Police Scotland

By Scott Maclennan

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One of the most emotive parts of the Inverness Courier Debate was a question from a retired senior police officer who spoke about how he had to watch his wife die because the call handler did not know the location of Orkney.

Former Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Hepburn was on holiday on the islands when his wife took ill five years ago but it took an hour for the ambulance to arrive.

Mr Hepburn also witnessed the dismemberment of the old constabularies into a centralised Police Scotland, something he argues did enormous damage to policing the Highlands and Islands.

Moderator Nicky Marr put the question to Kate Forbes, Ash Regan and Humza Yousaf on his behalf because understandably the issue remains deeply emotional for Mr Hepburn.

His question was: “People’s lives are in jeopardy – will any of you tonight commit to reversing the centralisation of emergency services, and to being honest with the public about its failure?”

But none of the candidates for First Minister would agree to anything more than reassessing call-handling rather than reversing the centralisation of Police Scotland as he asked.

Yousaf: I really would not decentralise Police Scotland

Mr Yousaf said: “First of all, basically, to hear about Charles's own story and obviously I offer my condolences to him. That's a failure of the system and a failure that just shouldn’t happen so for that I apologise.

“No, I wouldn't decentralise Police Scotland and I suppose the reasons why I wouldn't break up the single service is having gone through that if I talk to others, we know where it has worked.

“I know that that was a failure but I don't think that is the experience of everyone who deals with the police or indeed the Scottish Ambulance Service. And for example, I was talking Rape Crisis Scotland when I was justice secretary they would say for rape victims, they feel that police Scotland is far better in terms of their approach.

“If we look at the number of homicides that are solved or don't remain unsolved then it is a far better rate than it was when we had the divisions so I wouldn’t look to decentralise Police Scotland.

“What I think we should do is make sure that those who are in local divisions have as much flexibility within that system.”

He added: “Again I think that case, hopefully, is a rare case because what I dealt with when I was just a justice secretary was a relatively good experience for people. If it takes call handlers in particular areas and we think there'll be a better service there – we should absolutely be open to that.

“The beauty of Police Scotland is having better terms of conditions for police officers right up and down the country. There's no doubt that their terms and conditions are better now than when they were, for example, in those separate divisions.

“So, I really would not decentralise Police Scotland.”

Ash Regan: There's an opportunity to bring back that connection between local areas

Ash Regan suggested a halfway house of getting more local representation onto the Scottish Police Authority, elected by councils while admitting “I think there's a perception and perhaps a reality, that that has become very disconnected.”

“I'm very sorry to hear that Charles,” she said. “So that is unacceptable and that shouldn't be happening. So we definitely need to have a review of call handling. I'm not sure if there is one underway currently but we could look at that and we can definitely see if we can improve the way that calls are handled.

“In terms of local voice, this is something that I've been thinking about. I did speak to the Police Federation about this. I think there's an opportunity to bring back that connection between local areas and that accountability to local areas to the police because I think there's a perception and perhaps a reality, that that has become very disconnected in the way that you're describing.

“So, one possible solution to that, is that local councils could vote members onto the SPA for each area, which would give that local connection if you like. So I would look to explore that.”

Kate Forbes: There is a very strong argument for decentralising call handling

Kate Forbes believes there is “a very strong argument for decentralising call handling” but did not say one way or another whether she would be open to decentralising the force as a whole.

“Can I echo my public apology to Charles, having worked quite closely with Charles over the last few years, he'll know that echoes my private apology as well,” she said.

“I think there's a very strong argument for decentralising call handling. I think that when it comes to our public services, it's about empowering local teams so that there is an accountability between local teams, basically, Bobbies on the beat, you know who your local police are, you know how to access them and you know that if you call they'll be there when you need them.

“There's not an argument, I don't think, of decentralising central functions like the HR and the finance department. So there's an argument there for decentralising and empowering those on the front line, and I think particularly with call handling in a rural area.

“I'm not the only person in this room who has phoned up about something and had to go through a lot of steps to describe precisely where something has happened.

“So there is a strong argument to make there about ensuring that call handling is decentralised but I think there's a bigger question here around you knowing who your police are in the same way that you know who the other key members of the community are.

“While at the same time retaining some of the efficiencies that come from centralising key functions that none of us will ever engage with.”

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