Scottish policing remains ‘financially unsustainable’, says Auditor General

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA) has improved how it operates but policing in Scotland is still not financially sustainable, says the Auditor General for Scotland.

Dec 11, 2020
By Paul Jacques
Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland

Leadership of the SPA and Police Scotland has stabilised, and the authority has made progress in financial planning and management, as well as in its business support and governance functions.

But in his report published today (December 11), Auditor General Stephen Boyle says the authority is still unable to balance its budget. The SPA overspent by a total of £26.6 million in 2019/20, with the Scottish government making up the gap in additional funding.

More than 85 per cent of the Scottish police budget is spent on officer and staff wages.

A previous SPA plan to achieve financial balance by 2020/21 depended on reducing officer numbers. However, the Auditor General said due to concerns around the impact of EU withdrawal, and in agreement with the Scottish government, those planned reductions were cancelled.

Police Scotland has yet to develop a detailed workforce plan, said Mr Boyle, and the force, together with the SPA and the Scottish government, urgently need to identify a model for policing in Scotland that is financially sustainable.

“The SPA has made progress in the past year while faced with the significant additional challenges of Covid-19 and preparing for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU,” said Mr Boyle.

“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.”

The report coincides with publication of the SPA’s Annual Report and Accounts for the 2019/20 financial year.

The SPA said the accounts confirm that policing managed its finances during 2019/20 within the revised budget set by the authority and approved by the Scottish government. The final reported outturn for the period was a deficit of £26.6 million, which includes an additional £2.2 million of expenditure incurred in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The amount spent on policing during the year was:

  • £1,144.7 million Police Scotland (revenue and capital);
  • £33.2 million Forensic Services (revenue and capital);
  • £3.7 million SPA Corporate (revenue); and
  • £24 million reform funding across all policing.

Responding to both the publication of the SPA’s Annual Report and Accounts and the Audit Scotland report, SPA interim chair David Crichton said: “I warmly welcome the Auditor General’s report and the acknowledgement that the authority has benefited from a period of stability and continued to strengthen its governance of policing.

“I want to thank the authority’s leadership and staff team as well as my fellow board members who have invested significant time and energy in this improvement work.

“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.

“The authority continues to engage with the Scottish government and Police Scotland to identify options for delivering financial sustainability.”

Lynn Brown, interim chief executive and accountable officer for the £1.2 billion policing budget, added: “Audit Scotland has issued an unqualified opinion of the SPA’s accounts, which is welcomed and acknowledges the significant progress that has been made within the authority to strengthen governance and accountability within policing.

“Important progress has been made in the last 18 months to improve the authority’s oversight of policing, organisational capacity and focus. Work continues to develop and build a more assertive and outward facing authority that acts in the public interest and I am confident further progress will be made in the months ahead.”

She added: “Audit Scotland also identifies the need for Police Scotland to produce a detailed Strategic Workforce Plan. The authority recognises that this is an essential element of a financially sustainable police service and we will continue to work with Police Scotland to ensure this is delivered and underpinned by clear understanding of service demand.”

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