Chris Marshall: Those who police the police are failing

Auditor general Caroline Gardner raises concerns over the financial situation at the Scottish Police authority
Auditor general Caroline Gardner raises concerns over the financial situation at the Scottish Police authority
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Those who police the police are failing in their duty to the public, says Chris Marshall

As grimly predictable as a Black Friday punch-up or an outbreak of the winter vomiting bug, the run-up to Christmas was again punctuated by a series of damning reports on the state of Police Scotland.

Just as the Scottish Parliament was preparing to go into winter recess, both Audit Scotland and HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) delivered withering assessments of the force’s finances and the work being done by the Scottish Police Authority.

Auditor general Caroline Gardner warned the national force faces a funding gap of £188 million by 2020-21, adding that she had found “substantial issues” during the examination of the SPA’s annual accounts.

Her assessment was uncannily similar to the one she had delivered 12 months earlier, although the funding gap had this time grown by around £100m.

The SPA, which manages Police Scotland’s £1.1 billion annual budget, was also on the receiving end of criticism from HMICS.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Derek Penman warned of “major financial challenges” ahead and said “urgent work” was needed to improve the SPA’s finance function.

There was also criticism of the SPA’s recent decision to hold most of its committee meetings in private, something Mr Penman described as at odds with the watchdog’s commitment to being open and transparent.

While the SPA’s decision to conduct more of its work behind closed doors is depressing, it’s hardly a surprise.

All the indications are that the body is badly out of its depth and has failed to act properly on criticism it received from Audit Scotland at the end of 2015.

More depressing still was the reaction of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to the auditor general’s report.

Asked about the issue of police funding at the final First Minister’s Questions of the year in Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon opted for that old SNP failsafe of blaming Westminster.

Ms Sturgeon highlighted the issue of Police Scotland’s VAT bill, which currently sits in the region of £25m annually.

The issue is a significant one. The ability to recover money spent on VAT would this year, for example, more than made up for the force’s £17.5m budget shortfall.

Yet the problem is also one of the SNP’s making, as they were warned by the UK Treasury that setting up a police force under national control – rather than local authority-run – would leave it liable to pay the tax.

With the Treasury seemingly unwilling to compromise on the issue of VAT, it is increasingly incumbent on the SNP to come up with a Plan B.

Either the government finds more money for policing, or it finally makes explicit its position on officer numbers and allows the SPA and Police Scotland to cut their cloth accordingly.

There also needs to be better oversight of the Scottish Police Authority, which increasingly looks unable to carry out its core function of both managing and scrutinising the police budget.

The SPA is currently working on a ten-year vision for Police Scotland and last year appointed David Page as Police Scotland’s first director of corporate services to deliver “transformational change”.

So far there is little indication any of it has had the desired impact.

That will need to change in the coming year.