POLICE Scotland has still not integrated any of its back office functions almost four years after it was meant to make policing more efficient, the head of its oversight board has admitted.

John Foley, chief executive of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), said the force was still using “17 or 18” different payroll systems, despite Scotland’s eight regional forces merging in 2013.

He also admitted the SPA had been paying a PwC accountant £950 a day since June in an attempt to get to grips with Police Scotland’s runaway £1.1bn budget.

The Auditor General for Scotland, who has issued three annual reports criticising the force’s “weak” financial management, recently warned it faced a £188m deficit by 2020/21.

Taking evidence from the SPA and Chief Constable Phil Gormley in light of the warnings, Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee heard the failure to streamline the legacy systems of the eight former forces had contributed to the financial problems.

SNP MSP Colin Beattie asked if "any actual back office function that has been successfully integrated since the police merger?"

Mr Foley said: "In terms of a function being completely integrated, in my view, no they haven't."

He denied it was an "act of desperation" to bring in a £950-a-day accountant when the force’s own budget was under such strain.

He said: “We're getting good value from the point of view that we need to have someone who is experienced and knows what they're doing. The risk of not having that is much greater.

“We're not pretending that the finance function is anything other than in a difficult place and so we need to have someone with the appropriate skills and experience to lead that."

He said the force was recruiting a permanent chief financial officer, who should start in April

SPA chair Andrew Flanagan denied the force was in "a state of crisis", as SNP committee member Alex Neil recently suggested, but admitted the situation was "clearly challenging".

He told MSPs the finance team had been working with legacy systems that had not been rationalised and streamlined into a single system following merger.

"The issue wasn't only competency of the staff, it was when we were being asked questions of detail it was very difficult for them to dig down into the legacy information that they had and bring forward sensible consolidated responses," Mr Flanagan said.

Like Mr Foley, he said back office systems like pay and HR had still not been integrated, and said a decision had been made after the merger to focus on operational policing instead.

But he insisted the force was now "on the right path", and referred to this week’s publication of a 10-year strategy, which set out plans to slow officer recruitment.

Police Scotland Deputy chief officer David Page also admitted the force’s use of police officers to perform backroom duties after thousands of civilian staff were let go was a “false economy”.

Since the merger, the first SPA chair Vic Emery and first Chief Constable Sir Stephen House, who fought a damaging turf war in the force’s early days, have both left.

Asked whether the financial situation was a threat to policing in Scotland, Chief Constable Gormley said: “I think we've got a plan to deal with it. I think it's a challenge, of course it is and if we don't deliver on the plan then it will start to impact on our operational capability, but I'm completely confident we'll meet that challenge."

Committee convener Jenny Marra said: “It’s unacceptable that we’re still discussing financial and leadership failures at Police Scotland almost four years since it was established.

“The SPA and Police Scotland have accepted it is vital their transformation plan finally deals with long-standing weaknesses around financial planning, leadership and transparency. Their efforts to reduce a projected £188m funding gap must not affect public safety in any way.”

LibDem Liam McArthur said his party’s warnings against centralising the police had been borne out by “a litany of failures” at Police Scotland the SPA.

He said: “There is little sign of the cost-saving back office consolidations that ministers offered as the justification for their misguided power grab.”