It’s difficult to fathom how a struggling public sector organisation could find itself in a position where it actually has to hand back millions of pounds of government funding.
Yet that’s exactly the scenario being contemplated by Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority ahead of a meeting with the Scottish Government next week.
Scotland’s national police force receives an annual revenue budget of more than £1 billion and has already budgeted for a £45 million operating deficit.
But Police Scotland’s chief financial officer expects an “underspend” of £22m on the separate capital and reform budgets, money which should be used to invest in and help re-shape Scottish policing following the merger of eight regional forces in 2013.
Put simply, Police Scotland cannot spend the money quickly enough.
A tighter procurement process is said to have slowed down the force’s ability to write cheques.
It means a cash-strapped public body is left in the potentially embarrassing position of having to hand money back so that it can be used elsewhere in government.
That would prove frustrating for the top brass, but their angst is likely to pale into insignificance compared to those on the frontline who are continually asked to do more with diminishing resources. They are entitled to ask why this situation has been allowed to happen, because senior figures should be held to account over this matter.
That said, the position is not impossible. It is in the Scottish Government’s interests to make a success of Police Scotland, and if the full available resource has not been used to assist the continued reform of the organisation into a single national force, then the simple answer is to rule that Police Scotland should keep the unspent funds to be spent in the next financial year, or if necessary, accept receipt of the unspent funds and then promptly re-allocate the same amount next year, over and above the existing funding – with a firm reminder that at this time next year, the funds will have been fully allocated.
Alternatively, guidelines could be relaxed to allow the unused funds to be spent on equipment.
But the best outcome would be to allow the force to keep the money, and insist it is spent on capital and reform projects, as was intended. Let common sense prevail – and let there be no repeat of this matter.