Scotland is well served by its police service, and the service’s key role in keeping communities safe has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic. All members will acknowledge that.
There is much in the Auditor General’s report that is to be welcomed. It recognises the improvements and progress across organisational leadership, capacity, governance, financial planning and management, and that the Scottish Police Authority has built on the progress that was highlighted in last year’s report.
Despite the constraints on Scotland’s public services from a decade of United Kingdom Government austerity, our investment in policing this year has increased by £60 million, to more than £1.2 billion. We have also given the SPA an additional £8.2 million to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on the policing budget.
Future policing requirements will be considered as part of the budget process. We will continue to support the SPA to address the findings of the report, and we will work closely with the SPA and Police Scotland to consider options to address the challenge of financial sustainability.
The cabinet secretary is right that Scotland is well served by its police officers and staff, but Audit Scotland’s latest report leaves the SPA’s aim of achieving financial balance by 2020-21 in tatters. To make matters worse, Audit Scotland warns that without significant action the deficit is set to increase. Dealing with Brexit, Euro 2020 and COP26—the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—all while policing a pandemic means that next year could be the busiest ever for Scotland’s police force.
The challenges are new, but the financial problems are not. There have been bailouts ever since Police Scotland’s inception, so at what point does a bailout just become the budget?
I will refresh Liam McArthur’s memory on a couple of things. One is that outcomes are hugely important to people; of course we will continue discussions on the finances of Police Scotland, but the outcome from Police Scotland’s hard work and endeavour is a fall in crime over the past decade, including a fall in violent crime, which has almost halved
There have been other positive outcomes; for example, sexual offences, including rape, have been investigated to a consistent level and in a consistent way across Scotland, which was not the case prior to Police Scotland’s inception. Those are not my words—that is what many stakeholders who are experts on the issue say. The outcomes from Police Scotland are indisputable, and have been positive right across the board.
I hear what Liam McArthur says about funding. I have no doubt that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will engage with the Liberal Democrats in good faith when it comes to the budget process, so the points that Liam McArthur makes about finances can be taken up during it.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that one of the areas of exponential growth in pressure on Police Scotland is in relation to mental health. Officers often spend entire shifts accompanying vulnerable people at accident and emergency departments. Although they are not best equipped for that role, police are being left to pick up the pieces from Scotland’s mental health crisis. Because 85 per cent of revenue expenditure is on staffing, that use of time puts huge pressure on police resources.
The cabinet secretary will be aware that Scottish Liberal Democrats have long campaigned for more mental health professionals to be based in A and E departments and police stations, but roll-out so far has been sluggish. Of the 800 new workers who were promised by the Scottish Government, police stations have had only an additional 12. When will police stations have their fair share of those workers to help with that burden?
I do not accept Liam McArthur’s characterisation of the work as “sluggish”. He knows that our “Mental Health Strategy 2017-2027” outlines our commitment to funding 800 additional mental health workers in key settings by 2021-22. We are making good progress and are on course to deliver that commitment; as of July, 485 whole-time equivalent mental health posts had been recruited. I am certain that the figure will now be higher. We are at 60 per cent of the target and there is still time to go.
As for the numbers who are recruited for police stations, although we have committed to providing funding for 800 additional mental health workers—to which action 15 of the
“Mental Health Strategy 2017-2027” commits us—workforce planning is conducted by integration authorities according to their population’s needs. If Liam McArthur thinks that more mental health workers should be in X, Y or Z custody setting, he should make that known to the relevant local integration authorities, and we can take up that conversation.
Progress on action 15—to recruit mental health workers—has been positive. There is still a way to go to meet the commitment in 2021-22, but I am certain that more such workers will be recruited to police custody settings.
We increased Police Scotland’s funding by £60 million in the previous budget, which was £10 million more than the Conservatives asked for. On body-worn cameras, decisions on spending of capital funding that we provide are, ultimately, operational decisions for the chief constable. If he makes it clear in budget discussions that he would like money for body-worn cameras or any other initiative, that will be considered.
The chief constable, the interim chair of the SPA and I have met the finance secretary twice, and we plan to meet again in the new year, so the budget discussions are well under way. Discussions will also continue with the Conservatives, and if they believe that funding for body-worn cameras should be part of the financial settlement, we will engage in good faith.
Like Audit Scotland reports of the past, the current report highlights the lack of workforce planning. Police Scotland faced a cut of 750 officers last year, but they were saved by an 11th hour reprieve because of Brexit. Will the force face that cut in officers in the coming year? If so, will the officer numbers be sustainable?
I am not sure that I accept the characterisation of the situation as a last-minute “reprieve”. It was always the case that the Government said that it would cover a budget deficit, which allowed the chief constable to make the operational decision to maintain additional police numbers at more than 1,000.
It is important to note that, while the Government has been in power, more than 1,000 additional police officers have been recruited. Because of the funding that we have provided and the assurances about the budget deficit, which we have a long-term plan to reduce, Police Scotland has been able to maintain the 1,000 additional officers.
As I said, the budget discussions for 2021-22 continue, but I see no reason why officer numbers would be reduced, particularly given the pressures that there will be on policing in the next 12 months.
The Auditor General’s report shows that progress has been made despite a decade of UK austerity, but there is uncertainty because of the coronavirus, and Brexit has hampered efforts. What additional policing costs have been incurred because of the risks that are associated with European Union withdrawal?
Police Scotland has devoted significant resource and time to managing operational impacts on policing and the wider justice system from Brexit. The Scottish Government continues to work closely with the SPA and Police Scotland on planning for the consequences of EU exit by working through the operational and financial implications. As I said, the additional £60 million of funding that we gave the SPA in this year’s budget has allowed police officer numbers to be maintained throughout the year.
However, Brexit not only has financial impacts; it has real-life community impacts. Brexit will mean that Police Scotland has no access to the European arrest warrant, which has helped to catch criminals who have absconded and fled overseas. It will mean that it has no direct access to the Schengen information system, which gives it alerts about people in Scotland who are wanted in, or missing from, other countries. Those operational tools are important to keep our communities safe; the real impact on justice, home affairs and policing will be felt in our communities.