Leader comment: Scottish Police Authority not doing its job

Since its formation in 2013, Police Scotland has never been too far from controversy.

MSPs have been told that the financing of the police is still facing major challenges.

From the furore over armed policing to the row about stop-search and the concerns at the performance of its control rooms, the national force has rarely been out of the headlines.

Yet the biggest challenge Police Scotland faces relates not to tactics, but to its finances.

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Auditor General Caroline Gardner yesterday delivered a scathing assessment of the financial leadership of the force and the Scottish Police Authority, the organisation which manages its £1.1 billion annual budget.

Revising her forecast for Scottish policing’s funding gap in front of Holyrood’s audit committee, Ms Gardner said the SPA faced a cumulative deficit of £200 million in real terms by 2020-21, a figure she described as a “conservative” estimate.

So dire were the warnings about the state of Police Scotland’s finances that committee member Alex Neil said the police force set up by his own party was now in “crisis”.

In the early days of Police Scotland the decision was taken to focus on operational policing so the public experienced no radical break from the eight legacy forces.

But while that decision may have been taken for eminently sensible and pragmatic reasons, it’s now clear that when it came to the force’s finances, eyes were not on the ball.

Despite repeated warnings from Audit Scotland over the shambolic stewardship of the SPA, it’s now clear lessons have not been learned. Pressure is mounting on Chief Constable Phil Gormley and justice secretary Michael Matheson, both of whom have now been in the job long enough not to be able to blame predecessors for mistakes of the past.

While there has been consolidation under Mr Gormley in his year at the helm, there are now worrying signs of financial drift.

The chief constable must get a grip of the situation and fast.

But the heaviest criticism must surely be reserved for the SPA, an organisation which has shown itself to be both toothless at holding Police Scotland to account and inept at managing its budget.

The SPA is currently working on a ten-year vision for policing, which is expected to be published and put out to consultation in the coming months.

Responding to criticism yesterday, it said meeting the growing threat of cyber-crime and other emerging crime types within its current budget was “challenging”.

Simply put, Police Scotland can no longer do all the things being asked of it with the budget allocation it receives.

Of course the elephant in the room remains officer numbers, with around 90 per cent of the police budget going on staff costs. The SNP quietly dropped a long-standing manifesto pledge on officer numbers last year, leaving the ball squarely in the chief constable’s court.

No-one wants fewer police officers, but something has to give before the impact of policing’s financial mess begins to be felt on Scotland’s streets.