Officer cuts must be made as Police Scotland still 'financially unsustainable', auditors warn

Cuts to the number of police officers in Scotland must be made to ensure policing becomes financially sustainable, a report has found.

Cuts to police officer numbers must be made to ensure policing in Scotland is sustainable, a report has warned
Cuts to police officer numbers must be made to ensure policing in Scotland is sustainable, a report has warned

The Scottish Police Authority, previously criticised for a “culture of failure”, “poor governance and poor use of public money”, was hit by the high profile resignation of its chairwoman, former health minister Professor Susan Deacon this time last year following a chastening report from Audit Scotland.

Now, the authority which funds Police Scotland and controls its governance, has been warned by auditors it must reduce its workforce substantially or face rising costs and a budget spiralling out of control.

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Plans agreed in 2018 to cut 750 officers were put on hold due to the potential for a no-deal Brexit at a cost of £17m for 2019/20.

Overall, the financial difficulties for the authority saw it overspend by £26.6m in 2019/20, with £32.9m provided by the Scottish Government to cover cashflow requirements.

This was worsened by a £15m financial black hole caused by understating the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with £2.2m of additional costs attributed to coronavirus in March 2020 alone.

The Audit Scotland report for 2019/20 into the SPA states 85 per cent of its finances were spent on its workforce, making it a “matter of urgency” that the SPA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government “reach agreement on what needs to be done to achieve financial sustainability”.

The report warns: “Financial scenarios developed by Police Scotland indicate that the deficit will increase unless significant action is taken either to increase funding or to reduce the cost of its workforce.

“The current model of policing in Scotland is not financially sustainable.”

However, the report notes progress in the authority’s leadership, governance and corporate function.

The report states: “While the Scottish Police Authority is currently operating with an interim chair and interim chief executive, there has been greater stability in the membership of the authority.

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"The lack of stability in the chief executive role limited development of the Scottish Police Authority’s corporate function in previous years. But, over the past 12 months, there has been progress to develop the capacity and capability of staff within the team.”

Stephen Boyle, auditor general for Scotland, acknowledged progress but warned decisions must be made urgently to ensure policing is financially sustainable.

He said: “The SPA has made progress in the past year whilst faced with the significant additional challenges of Covid-19 and preparing for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.

"It is now a matter of urgency that the SPA, Police Scotland and the Scottish Government reach agreement on what needs to be done to achieve financial sustainability. Without firmer progress on the key areas of budget balance and workforce planning, the SPA and Police Scotland will not be able to deliver the ambitions of the new Joint Strategy for Policing."

David Crichton, interim chair of the SPA said: “The Auditor General rightly raises the ongoing financial challenges for policing. The Authority’s position has been well documented and we remain of the view that the deficit is unsustainable, and without an increase in core budget or a reduction in officer numbers there is no short-term route to eliminating it.

A Scottish Government spokesperson welcomed the report and said future policing requirements will be considered as part of the budget process.

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