With Scotland reforming its local police services into a single national force by next April, two important numbers have emerged.
The first is 17,234: the number of police officers that the Government has committed to maintaining in Scotland. The second is £1.66 billion: the level of savings expected be generated over the next 15 years as a result of reform. The tension between the commitment to service levels and extensive savings was inevitably going to mean a demand for scrutiny of the financial foundations for reform. But are we certain that our politicians have scrutinised these proposals effectively?
Last December, Scottish Parliament committees were just about to commence their scrutiny of the legislation. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy Scotland (CIPFA) signposted the outline business case as a key area where committee attention should be directed. We also suggested that there should be a formal process to track and report on whether the benefits of reform have been realised.
So how well did the committees perform? As I have mentioned, CIPFA suggested that the committees should commence their work by firstly seeking evidence that the outline business cases would be independently and robustly tested. Assurance as to the financial stability of the reforms would surely be a good basis for any further scrutiny.
A review of the committee deliberations in the early months of this year confirms that this assurance was in fact sought from expert witnesses, some of whom had also expressed concern on the outline nature of the business case. At the February meeting of the Finance Committee the very first question asked was on the outline business case. So at this early stage it would seem that our system of scrutiny was looking successful. Evidence which was provided repeatedly referred to the level of savings required and to the tension that this would cause with the political commitment to maintain police numbers at a specific level.
The committee then also had an opportunity to question the Scottish Government officials who were responsible for the draft legislation, again surely the right people to quiz on an outline business case. Once again the committee rose to that challenge and directly questioned officials on the lack of a detailed business case. It was at that point that the response from officials shifted the balance of responsibility for these financial projections from government to the police service itself. But no subsequent challenge to this positional shift was either recognised or made during questioning.
The extent to which the Finance Committee continued its formal challenge on the outline business cases can then be seen in its final report and from its recommendation that the Justice Committee, the lead scrutiny committee, should seek further evidence on quality assurance of the outline business case from the Scottish Government.
The Justice Committee's final report picked up this issue, seeking clarification from the Scottish Government on when the full business case will be completed and again expressing concern on the ability to achieve the desired level of savings. The response? That production of a full business case is a matter for the police service and that Government is "entirely confident" that savings are deliverable.
So what can we conclude? The committees asked the right questions and they did report on the remaining concerns. Unfortunately, however, even after completion of their process it was not enough to alleviate these concerns which continue to be expressed by the significance of the two numbers in this seemingly near-impossible equation – maintaining the level of police numbers in Scotland while generating the expected level of savings. So in this time of majority government another arm of scrutiny will become even more essential. But we will have to await with interest the first report which tracks and proves the benefits of a single police service in Scotland.
Don Peebles is policy and technical manager of CIPFA Scotland.
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