Watchdog warns of challenges ahead for Police Scotland

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The public spending watchdog has warned there are “considerable challenges” ahead for Scottish policing amid continuing financial concerns.

Delivering its audit of the Scottish Police Authority’s (SPA) 2017/18 accounts, Audit Scotland said there had been improvements in governance and transparency.

Picture: Ian Georgeson

Picture: Ian Georgeson

But it said the SPA, which manages the £1.1 billion annual police budget, still faces budgetary pressures.

Publishing its annual report and accounts yesterday, the SPA said it had reduced its projected deficit from £47.2 million to a £34.3m overspend by the end of the financial year.

Auditor General Caroline Gardner said there had been “slow progress” developing workforce and estate strategies.

And she highlighted the fact £4.3m was spent in 2017/18 on consultancy fees – more than double the £1.9m spent the previous year. Expenditure on agency staff was £4m, a significant increase from the £1.5m spent in 2016/17.

Ms Gardner said: “Policing in Scotland continues to go through considerable change. Progress has been made in key areas, but there remains a substantial amount of work to do if the SPA is to achieve long-term financial sustainability and meet the challenges of modern policing.

“The scale, cost and complexity of the plans needed to deliver that transformational change should not be underestimated. It’s vital that the SPA and Police Scotland develop comprehensive strategies for its future workforce, estates and ICT and clarify where the funding is coming from to make them a reality.”

Audit Scotland also highlighted the “critical” role of a recently approved IT strategy, which Police Scotland has said would cost £298m to address its ageing computer system.

The SPA was heavily criticised under its previous leadership for a decision – later reversed – to hold many of its meetings in private.

Susan Deacon, chair of the SPA board, said: “A huge amount of work has gone into improving the financial and organisational performance of the Scottish Police Authority and Police Scotland – and that work continues.

“This year’s annual report and accounts, and Audit Scotland’s independent reports, demonstrate that substantive improvements have been made. I am particularly pleased that Audit Scotland has noted that the authority now conducts its business in an open and transparent manner. This was, quite rightly, an area of significant critical comment in the past.”

But Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said it was clear the SPA was still “struggling to find its feet” five years on from its creation.

He said: “The effects of the SNP’s bungled policing centralisation will be felt for years to come.

“The SPA, Police Scotland the Scottish Government all need to step up because the problems on their desk are huge.”

Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman Daniel Johnson MSP said: “Widespread reforms to policing cannot be completed on the cheap, while it is clear mismanagement at the SPA is also impacting on delivery.

“The SNP government must look at the findings of this review and finally heed the continued warnings.”