Chris Marshall: Penny drops for cash-strapped Police Scotland

Earlier this year it looked as if Police Scotland had weathered the worst of a storm of controversy which had engulfed the national force since its creation in 2013.

The national force is predicted to overspend its revenue budget by £21 million. Picture: John Devlin
The national force is predicted to overspend its revenue budget by £21 million. Picture: John Devlin

With the appointment of Chief Constable Phil Gormley late last year, the force embarked on a period of relative calm after the tumult experienced under his predecessor, Sir Stephen House.

But while controversies over stop and search and armed policing may have receded for the time being, another, much bigger crisis has come into view.

Figures released yesterday showed the national force is predicted to “overspend” its revenue budget by £21 million in the current financial year.

While the figure accounts for a relatively modest proportion of the overall £1.1 billion budget, it comes despite the force already identifying savings worth £5m for 2016/17.

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An underspend in the smaller capital budget means the total overspend is predicted to be £11.5m.

The release of the figures came as the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) said cost-cutting had reached “farcical” levels within the force.

According to the SPF’s general secretary, Calum Steele, things have got so bad that officers are having to supply their own light bulbs and hand soap.

As if all that wasn’t uncomfortable enough for the force, it was disclosed yesterday that Mr Gormley, who earns £212,000 a year, has been staying rent-free at Tulliallan Castle, the national police college, for the past six months as part of a re-location package.

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At the chief’s own request, the SPA revealed that as of 1 August, Mr Gormley is now paying £789.30 a month in rent and council tax.

The situation would be funny if it wasn’t all so serious.

That’s because the state of Police Scotland’s finances affects us all.

Amid pressure from senior police officers in the run-up to May’s election, the SNP quietly dropped a key pledge to maintain police officer numbers at a level 1,000 higher than when the party came to power in 2007.

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Figures released last week showed police officer numbers are now at their lowest level since 2010, with just 1,008 extra men and women in uniform compared to 2007.

With staff costs accounting for 90 per cent of the Police Scotland budget, it seems likely that number will fall further in the coming weeks and months.

The chief constable is keen to stress that crime is changing and priorities will have to adapt.

In a remarkable admission earlier this year he said his officers may have to turn a blind eye to low-level acquisitive crimes such as car theft and shoplifting in order to deal with the huge growth in the abuse of children online.

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But while the nature of crime is undoubtedly changing, with many traditional offences moving online, our Scottish police force still needs to be properly staffed and resourced to deal with those threats.

The Scottish Government is understandably keen to highlight the statistic that recorded crime figures have fallen to their lowest level since the mid 1970s.

But if ministers wish to continue to bask in the reflective glow of police successes, they need to start putting their money where their mouth is.

Police Scotland can only save so much by rationing bin bags and light bulbs.

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Sooner or later it will be officers and staff that have to pay the price.