Cash-strapped police face returning more than £20m to ministers

Police face handing more than �20 million to ministers because it can't spend it quickly enough. Picture: John Devlin
Police face handing more than �20 million to ministers because it can't spend it quickly enough. Picture: John Devlin
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Scotland’s cash-strapped national police force is preparing to hand back part of its budget because it is unable to spend the money quickly enough.

Senior figures from Police Scotland will next week meet Scottish Government officials to discuss returning millions of pounds of reform funding.

The Scotsman revealed earlier this month that Police Scotland is set to “underspend” its capital and reform budgets by £22 million this year.

It has now emerged the force may have to return some of the money to the Scottish Government due to its inability to procure contracts in the current financial year.

James Gray, Police Scotland’s chief financial officer, described the issue as a “high-risk area” for the national force.

The force, which has an annual budget of around £1.1 billion, is predicting a deficit of around £45m for its main revenue budget. In previous years, unspent reform cash has been used to offset the deficit, but SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan said doing so again would undermine the “credibility” of Scottish policing.

Mr Flanagan said: “We need clarity on whether there’s wriggle room or whether the Scottish Government would like us to keep the allocation at this stage or whether they would like us to make a definitive statement of how much we want to hand back.

“Historically we have been in a situation where we’ve been granted reform money, been unable to spend it, and used it to offset operational expenditure. That undermines the credibility of Police Scotland and the SPA.

“Being more up front about this, being cold-eyed and not being optimistic and hope it will be alright would actually help build credibility.”

He added: “The earlier we can take a firm assessment of what we think we can spend and admit to what we can’t spend will help us next year when we go back to ask for reform money.”

Earlier this year, auditor general Caroline Gardner warned that Police Scotland will face a £200m funding gap by 2020-21, an estimate she described as “conservative”.

A report published earlier this month by the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR), which drew on the experiences of serving officers, found Police Scotland operating with “diminishing resources” and becoming “increasingly stretched” in its attempts to engage with local communities

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said: “People will be confused as to why a police force which has pleaded poverty from the outset is now handing money back.

“It’s well-documented that the Scottish Government’s decisions have left hard-working officers over-stretched, with many having to fill administration roles because of staff shortages.

“The public and our hard-pressed police service will no doubt be asking what on earth the Scottish Government and SPA have been doing to end up with too much cash in the accounts. It is high time money like this was used to ensure better facilities.”

Last year Police Scotland appointed David Page as its first-ever director of corporate services.

Mr Page, whose salary is £173,000, is tasked with delivering “transformational change” across the organisation. His appointment was followed by that of Mr Gray, who had previously been on secondment from accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Mr Gray said: “We are substantially improving our internal financial control and governance processes so that our three-year plan is built on solid foundations and in line with our committed response to the Audit Scotland report. ”

He added: “We are currently in discussions with the Scottish Government with regard to how much monies we will be able to return.”