Chris Marshall: Police funding crisis was foreseen

POLICE Scotland’s funding crisis was foreseeable, writes Chris Marshall

The meeting of the Scottish Police Authority board yesterday gave a glimpse into a future after Chief Constable Sir Stephen House and one where Police Scotland continues to be under considerable financial strain.

Sir Stephen, a regular attendee at the watchdog’s monthly public meeting, yesterday sent his apologies, his role taken by Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson, himself rumoured to be in the running for the chief’s job.

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Sir Stephen will stand down from his role at the start of December after a year which has seen his fledgling force lurch from crisis to crisis.

But it appears things are not about to get any easier for his successor.

A late board paper, which had not been published ahead of the SPA meeting as is customary, yesterday showed the force is heading for a £25 million overspend this year. The projected figure, which could yet go up or down, is particularly disappointing for a force which has prided itself on its ability to make savings since its creation in April 2013.

For all the talk of sharing resources and uniformity of access to specialist divisions, Scotland probably wouldn’t have a national police force had it not been for overriding financial pressures.

Under the reform programme, Police Scotland must find savings totalling £1.1 billion by 2026.

It must do so with one arm tied behind its back given the SNP’s implacable position on police officer numbers.

As an indication of how difficult the organisation will find it to make savings without cutting numbers, of this year’s near-£1 billion police budget, £722m will go on police officer pay. A further £190m will go on civilian staff costs.

But to be fair to Police Scotland, it has managed to find savings. From 2012-13 to 2014-15 it managed to trim £140.8m – the combined budgets of three legacy forces.

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But there are signs those savings are becoming harder and harder to identify the further we move from the previous set up.

The report presented to the SPA board yesterday said some of the efficiencies identified this year could not be achieved, although they may still deliver sayings in future years.

Clearly Sir Stephen’s successor has his work cut out.

Deputy Chief Constable Richardson said there remained a “significant dividend” to be found in three broad areas, which he termed “workforce”, “technologies” and “efficiency”.

In terms of an analysis of where the force might be headed it was vague to say the least, but it gave an indication that staff could yet bear the brunt of further cuts.

An interesting aside is that Police Scotland would be around £20m a year better off had it not been saddled with a VAT bill from the Treasury.

The Scottish Government has called for an end to the current set-up, under which Police Scotland are the only UK force to pay the tax.

Then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill was warned about VAT back in 2012, but hoped the problem would simply go away with a bit of politicking.

Whatever happens with VAT, however, Police Scotland finds itself in a hole.

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The force has taken a considerable amount of flak over the past 12 months, but this financial mess is not of its making.

As the Scottish Police Federation’s general secretary, Calum Steele, remarked yesterday, the £25m overspend could also legitimately be described as an “underfund”.