“Police officer numbers have risen by 6.3 per cent under the SNP”

That was the claim from the party’s “fact-checking and rebuttal service” Twitter account, The SNP Media. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Where’s it from?

According to Scottish Government figures, in March 2007 — when the SNP’s Alex Salmond became First Minister — there were 16,234 “full-time equivalent” police officers in Scotland.

The latest stats, from June 2019, reveal there are now 17,259 bobbies on the books. That’s an increase of 1,025 officers – or 6.3 per cent.

Are these like-for-like figures?

In the early part of Mr Salmond’s premiership, police officer statistics were collated by the Scottish Government and released through responses to parliamentary questions. It was only in December 2008 that the data began to be published as “Official Statistics”.

Most of the apparent gains in police officer numbers were made in late 2008 and early 2009. You can see this in the graph that the Scottish Government has published alongside the police force dataset:

We asked the Scottish Government whether they’d looked into the possibility that the apparent surge in officer numbers might have been exaggerated by a change in how the figures were reported, rather than a real-world increase.

They told us the rise was a result of a 2007 SNP manifesto pledge to increase the numbers of police officers in Scotland by 1,000 — and was not caused by a change in the reporting process. They insist that current figures are comparable, not only with those from 2007, but can even be traced back as far as March 2000.

We spoke to the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), which oversees the use of official statistics in the UK. They told us that as “Official Statistics”, Scottish police officer figures are expected to adhere to the Code of Practice for Statistics, but have not been formally assessed by the Office for Statistics Regulation.

A UKSA spokesperson told us that following FactCheck’s query, they had spoken to the Scottish Government, which has “committed to include an explanation for the changes seen in the statistics in future publications.”

If we were to confine ourselves to official statistics only (i.e. from December 2008 onwards), we would see a much smaller increase in officer numbers than the figure advertised by the SNP — 3.5 per cent, rather than 6.3 per cent.

Fixing the graph

We’re not wild about the graph that the Scottish Government have published alongside the police workforce stats. On closer inspection, you may notice that the vertical (y) axis begins at 16,000, which exaggerates the increase in officer numbers.

We think that the following graph, produced by FactCheck, gives a more realistic picture of officer numbers in Scotland over the period for which we have comparable Official Statistics.

How many officers are on active duty?

Whenever we look at police officer numbers, we come across the age-old question: how many are on the “front line”?

South of the border, police watchdog HM Inspectorate of Constabularies (HMIC) has tried to work out how much time officers are spending on “public facing” work versus “middle” and back office “supporting processes”.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Government does not break down the total tally of officers in this detail.

The stats we’ve looked at so far include officers still being trained, those on long-term sick leave or parental leave, and officers paid wholly or in part by ports, airports or local authorities. But they don’t tell us how many officers are in each of these groups.

In 2015, the Herald newspaper said it had seen internal police force stats that showed just 8,700 officers were believed to be “operational” in Scotland, less than half of the overall tally.

Responding to the report, a Scottish Government spokesperson said at the time that “recorded crime [was] at a 41-year low with violent crime down 55 per cent since 2006-07. This Government’s commitment to maintain police officer numbers above 17,234 has been met in every quarter of this administration.”

The SNP dropped that target in 2016 to give the force “flexibility to be able to adapt the numbers to reflect the changing nature of crime,” according to then-Justice Secretary Michael Matheson.

More recently, there have been concerns about police officers “backfilling” civilian roles. Earlier this year, Unison Scotland told the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee that “more than 2,000 police staff posts have gone… there has been the expensive use of police officers to backfill many of the civilian posts”.

The Committee report also cited Chief Superintendent Ivor Marshall, President of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, who said that an unintended consequence of trying to maintain a target number of police officers was that “officers were taken away from their mainstream roles to fill support roles”.

But as it stands, there are no official figures to help us comprehend the scale of the problem.

Dr Kath Murray, Research Fellow in Criminology at the University of Edinburgh, told FactCheck: “To analyse the condition of policing in Scotland and better understand the demand placed on the frontline, the Scottish Government needs to publish detailed workforce statistics, disaggregated by roles, and shown over time.

She said “It is otherwise difficult to draw robust conclusions about the headline number of police officers, or to make any meaningful comparison with police officer numbers in England and Wales.”

FactCheck verdict

The SNP says police officer numbers have risen 6.3 per cent since they’ve been running Holyrood. That figure compares the number of “full time equivalent” officers in March 2007 with those in 2019.

There’s some debate over whether the 2007 figures are directly comparable with 2019. It was only at the end of 2008 that Scottish police officer numbers became Official Statistics. Before then, they were collated by the Scottish Government and released in answers to parliamentary questions.

When we look at Official Statistics only (i.e. December 2008 onwards), we see a much smaller increase in officer numbers than the figure advertised by the SNP — 3.5 per cent, rather than 6.3 per cent. However, the Scottish Government insists that it is fair to use 2007 figures, and that stats from as far back as 2000 are comparable with today’s.

There’s a further complication: there’s very little detail in the data. Unlike in England and Wales, Scottish Government figures don’t tell us how many officers are still on training, off sick or on parental leave, nor how many are employed by councils, ports and airports.

Unions and police chiefs have raised concerns that officers are being used to “backfill” jobs that were previously done by civilian staff – but we don’t have reliable figures to understand the scale of the problem.

It’s hard to say how many police officers are actually “on the beat” in Scotland today.