The Differences between Policing in Scotland and England and Wales

Policing operations in Scotland, England and Wales, unlike those of other countries, are not conducted by a single national police force. Indeed, with it own devolved government, Scotland is now a separate jurisdiction to England and Wales, which further complicates the policing structure. Moreover, as will be discussed, there are specialist police forces whose remit is limited to specific public and commercial sectors and, unlike what can be classed as the ‘traditional’ police force, are not ultimately accountable to the UK Home Office [1].

Traditional Policing

In Scotland, there are a total of 8 traditional police forces, which in the main operate within regional government boundaries. In England and Wales, the traditional force is comprised of 43 regional forces arranged on a similar basis to Scotland [2].

It is the responsibility of the Chief Constable of each force to manage policing operations, which includes making decisions about law enforcement practices and development of the officers within the force. The forces themselves comprise of regular police officers, with the uniformed branch being tasked with the power to enforce the laws and provide a visible police presence and the plain-clothed (detective) branch tasked with more in-depth crime detection. Although as a general rule police officers are not armed, there are specialist armed response units in most of the forces and many of these officers can be seen patrolling key sites, such as Airports. In the past few years, the UK government has also introduced uniformed police community support officers (PCSOs). The PCSOs, although attached to and managed by the local force, do not have the same level of enforcement powers as the regular police. Their role is related to assisting the local police by presenting a greater visible presence in the local community and helping to address issues that might adversely affect the quality of life, such as anti-social behaviour [3].

Apart from the responsibility of appointing the Chief Constable, providing the necessary resources and setting overall policing policies and priorities, no external police authority or the Secretary of State (in this case for Scotland) has the power to intervene in the areas controlled by the Chief Constable. However, the Chief Constable is accountable to local police authorities and boards, to which they have to provide regular reports on the performance of their force and the extent to which it has achieved the targets set. The police authorities are made up of 17 members, of whom 9 are representatives from the local council authorities, 1 is a magistrate and 7 are selected members from the local community [4].

Despite the apparent fragmentation of policing in Scotland, England and Wales, each force is subject to government legislation and policy. Furthermore, in the past decade there have been several national police and crime prevention bodies set up to ensure nationwide access to the sharing of knowledge and important research databases as well as providing specialist national police units. These bodies include the National Crime Squad (NCS) with a remit to target serious and organised crime, the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) and, more recently, the Serious Organised Crime Authority (SOCA) and the Fraud Squad [1]. The regional forces can call upon these national bodies as and when the need arises.

Although there have been recent discussion regarding the creation of a national, rather than regional, police force for Scotland, England and Wales to date, apart from the amalgamation of some of the smaller forces into a larger regional unit, this has not been implemented.

Specialist Policing

As mentioned in the introduction, for certain environments there are specialised policing arrangements. There are three notable policing forces within this area. The Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC) [5], which comprises of an approximately 1,000 personnel, is an armed force responsible for the protection and nuclear sites, their personnel and the safety and security of nuclear material. The Ministry of Defence police (MDP) [6], whose role is similar to the CNC, with the exception that it protects military sites, installations and infrastructure. Finally, there is the British Transport Police (BTP) [7] dedicated to protect the safety and security of passengers and freight carried on the UK railway network. In essence, the duties of these specialist forces and the structures of their respective organisations are similar to the regular police with the main difference being the specific focus of their territorial limits and that they are not directly accountable to the UK Home Office but their own authorities. Moreover, the roles of these specialist forces, unlike the regular police are trans-country. In other words, they are not confined within the borders of Scotland, England and Wales but operate throughout the UK.


It can be seen from this overview that, although Scotland has a different political and government structure to England and Wales, as well as its own jurisdiction, there is little difference in terms of the complex policing methods that are adopted by these three countries.


Mawby, R and Wright, A (2005), Police Accountability in the United Kingdom, Written for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative Police-Information – Available from: What is a PCSO? – Available from: Your Police Authority – Available from: Civil Nuclear Constabulary – Available from: Ministry of Defence Police – Available from: British Transport Police – Available from: