SCOTLAND’S single police force remains “financially unsustainable” seven years after it was established, the country’s spending watchdog has warned.

Auditor General Stephen Boyle said the constant over-spending on Police Scotland should be addressed by as a matter of “urgency”.

The Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the oversight body in charge of the force’s budget, overspent by £26.6million in 2019/20 on a budget of £1.18billion, with the Scottish Government having to plug the gap.

The SPA originally planned to go £24.6m into the red, but an extra £2.2m on Covid costs made the deficit £26.6m.

The SPA had planned to cut spending in 2019/20 by shedding 400 police officers and another 350 in 2020/21.

However the plan fell apart because of concerns about Brexit disruption and disorder, and the cost of maintaining the continuing officers was £17m in 2019/20.

 Police Scotland, which spends more than 85% of its money on staff and officer wages, has yet to develop an alternative plan to save money. 

The SPA said it agreed with the Auditor General that the continuing deficit was unsustainable, "and without an increase in core budget or a reduction in officer numbers there is no short-term route to eliminating it".

Police Scotland was created in April 2013 by the merger of the country's eight regional forces, with the SPA established alongside it.

Publishing his office’s seventh report on the SPA, Mr Boyle said the organisation’s leadership had “stabilised” after years of turbulence, and it had made good progress on financial planning and management, business support and governance.

However slow progress in other areas meant it could struggle to deliver the Joint Strategy for Policing, which is meant to modernise the service by 2026.

He said: “The SPA has made progress in the past year whilst faced with the significant additional challenges of Covid-19 and preparing for the UK's withdrawal from the European Union.

"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 also found officer numbers at their highest in Police Scotland's history as of 31 March 2020, at 17,431 full-time equivalents.

The report does not cover the full cost of policing the Covid pandemic, but notes Police Scotland had incurred an extra £2.2m of costs by the end of March 2020 alone.

The costs related to cancelled annual leave, overtime payments and buying personal protective equipment.

Scottish Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “This report confirms the financial black hole in Scotland's police service funding that we have been warning the SNP about for years.

"They need to sort it out urgently and provide the funding required for a robust, efficient and modern police service.

"The people of Scotland know our police give everything to keep them safe and we owe those brave officers the resources they need to provide that service.

“Any cuts to frontline services caused by SNP failure would be unacceptable. The SNP created the national force in a rush and failed to adequately plan.

"These funding issues have been known about for years. There can be no more excuses from the Nationalists."

Labour MSP Jenny Marra, convener of Holyrood's Public Audit Committee, said: “It is heartening to hear that progress has been made in the overall operation of the Scottish Police Authority during the past year.

"However despite this, the SPA remains financially unsustainable and there remains a clear risk that the delivery of the new Joint Strategy for Policing is in jeopardy as a result.

“Our committee will seek clarity on what steps are being taken to ensure key areas such as budget balance and workforce planning are addressed as an absolute priority.”

Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP said: “Since the SNP's botched centralisation, the national force has been consistently in the red.

“The police are also increasingly having to plug the gaps in other public services. They are picking up the pieces of Scotland's mental health crisis.

“Police officers and staff work incredibly hard, day in day out. The Justice Secretary needs to ensure that Police Scotland has the support and resources it needs to protect our communities.”

David Crichton, Interim Chair of the SPA 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.  

“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 £1.2bn 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.

“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.”