Police Scotland has been called “an organisation in crisis” after it emerged the force will face a £200 million funding gap by 2020-21.
Auditor General Caroline Gardner gave the updated figure – which she said was a “conservative” estimate – to MSPs on Holyrood’s audit committee during a scathing assessment of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).
Her evidence led to a call for the SPA, Chief Constable Phil Gormley and the Scottish Government to appear before the committee to explain the “financial mess”.
Ms Gardner said there was “weak financial leadership” in both Police Scotland and the SPA, the organisation which manages the £1.1 billion policing budget.
In December she said the SPA faced a cumulative deficit of £188m in real terms by 2020-21, but updated that figure to £200m yesterday.
And she said there may yet be “wider financial implications” as a result of the decision to scrap the controversial i6 computer system last year.
Ms Gardner said the first three years of Police Scotland and the SPA had been marked by “weak financial leadership”.
She said: “Since the establishment [of Police Scotland and the SPA] in April 2013, this has been an ongoing problem and one that has not yet been resolved.
“This would be unacceptable in any public body let alone those on the scale and importance of the SPA and Police Scotland.
“To illustrate the scale of the future financial challenge, I have updated my projections of the potential funding gap facing the SPA and Police Scotland
“These suggest a cumulative deficit of almost £200m in real terms by the end of this parliamentary session. I consider this projection to be conservative.”
SNP MSP Alex Neil, a former health secretary, told the committee the performance of the two organisations was “totally unacceptable”.
He said: “We know that morale is rock bottom amongst the police force, I know that the chief constable believes he’s £60m short of the money that he actually needs to do the job he’s been asked to do, so we have to give them their say to see if this is all part and parcel of the same problem.
“But it strikes me that this is an organisation in crisis, in terms of the management of their finances.”
Police Scotland was formed in 2013 with the aim of making £1.1bn in cumulative savings by 2026.
But it has struggled to balance the books and is forecast to overspend its budget by £17.5m in the current financial year.
Ms Gardner told MSPs the audit of the SPA had been “very challenging”, with nine draft versions of the annual accounts submitted.
She said there was a lack of senior leadership when it came to developing a financial strategy and highlighted a lack of transparency.
The SPA was criticised in December when it took a decision to hold the majority of its meetings in private.
Speaking after the committee meeting yesterday, Labour MSP and convener Jenny Marra said: “It was incredibly worrying to hear that the Scottish Police Authority’s cumulative funding gap – initially projected to be £188m – may rise to almost £200m.
“The audit committee is calling for the chair and chief executive of the Scottish Police Authority, the chief constable and the Scottish Government to come before us to get some clear answers on this financial mess and to find out why no progress is being made despite continual warnings.”
Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross said: “This is a devastating assessment of the financial mismanagement of our police service. Just a few weeks ago, we were told the police faced a £188m funding gap.
“Now, just a few weeks later, we learn that has grown to £200m and that this itself is a ‘conservative’ estimate.
“The SNP said that a single police force would use public funds more efficiently. Instead, thanks to its incompetence, we now have an organisation whose finances are seemingly out of control.”
A spokeswoman for the SPA said the organisation had been working on a ten-year strategy to address “changing demands” and to build a sustainable policing service.
She said:“We have put more finance staff into policing to address capacity and capability, and addressed the specific financial issues around fixed asset reporting.
“While we have acknowledged issues around policing’s financial performance, the operational performance of the service remains strong.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The SPA and Police Scotland have recently taken steps to improve financial leadership and management and governance arrangements. Significant progress needs to be made and we have asked the SPA for regular updates.
“The draft budget continues to protect the revenue funding for policing in real terms, and provides an overall increase to the SPA budget.
“In addition, the continuation of the reform budget will allow Police Scotland to continue the process of transforming the service to reflect the changing nature of crime and society and meet the VAT costs imposed by UK ministers.”