Police Scotland's new chief constable has been urged to make the force more publicly accountable after paymasters claimed that revealing proposals to close a spiralling £25m budget gap would “cause harm and stress to police staff”.
MSPs from across the political spectrum say continuing uncertainty over the budget has sent morale plummeting, but the Scottish Police Authority claimed it would not be in the public interest to make its proposals known.
New chief constable Phil Gormley has been warned he faces a tough challenge in balancing the books, after his predecessor, Sir Stephen House, questioned whether some of the options on the table would be “politically acceptable”.
Personnel costs account for up to 94% of the police budget but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that she will not relax the requirement to maintain 1000 more officers than the SNP inherited.
Deputy chief constable Neil Richardson, Police Scotland's most senior officer until Mr Gormley starts work on January 5, has warned backroom police staff who have already borne the brunt of the cuts to expect more redundancies.
Unison has demanded an urgent meeting with senior officers and engagement with all key stakeholders on the budget, amid fears that Police Scotland “has no real strategy as to how they are going to achieve this year's savings”.
Meanwhile, the SPA refused a Freedom of Information request from the Press Association urging the body to reveal its budget options.
It said: “The information requested could prejudice the effective operations of SPA and Police Scotland, since the information requested is merely potential options to save money and none of the options are subject to formal agreement.
“Thus disclosing the information may provide inaccurate information to the public and may cause harm/stress to SPA/police staff who would at this stage be unsighted on potential cost savings measures.”
Only 12% of SPA and police personnel feel they have appropriate information on what the SPA wants to achieve, a survey found.
HM Inspector of Constabulary (HMICS) has warned Police Scotland that “a lack of information creates the risk that staff fill in the gaps with rumour and speculation”.
The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) and Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (Asps) have highlighted issues around meaningful staff engagement, communication, transparency and openness to challenge.
A Deloitte report on police reform, commissioned by Police Scotland, found personnel felt disengaged and excluded from discussions about changes affecting them. It recommended immediate improvement in employee engagement, two-way consultation and communication, but in November HMICS found Police Scotland has not significantly improved its engagement.
HMICS found many decisions were made in “informal briefings … held in private” and went “unminuted or were subject to a single entry in an action log”.
Aberdeen Council is seeking a judicial review of a plan to merge two northern divisions, agreed in private by the SPA following a consultation which the council deemed inadequate.
Labour justice spokesman Graeme Pearson said: “As the newly appointed chief constable sits down at his desk, balancing Police Scotland's budget will be one of toughest challenges the force will face in the coming months.
“That growing budget gap reflects the absence of a fully-fleshed business case for reform right from the outset. With such uncertainty, it's no wonder police officer and staff morale is on the floor.”
He added: “The new chief constable, SPA chair and the justice secretary will have to come up with answers and quickly.”
John Finnie MSP, a former policeman and justice spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said: “Quite the reverse of their view they will 'cause harm to police staff' if they reveal the budget options they are considering, continuing speculation will only further harm staff relations.”
An SPA spokeswoman said: “SPA carries out regular and meaningful engagement, which includes unions and staff associations. We have set clear expectations of Police Scotland to enhance and improve staff engagement by Police Scotland, and there is a raft of work under way all across the country to come up with ideas for how that should be taken forward.
“Only this week we appointed a new chief constable in Phil Gormley, with a key strength being his track record of engaging and involving the workforce.
“The budget this year remains a challenge and considerable work is under way to consider ways of addressing that. We have been open in publicly reporting the current forecast overspend. There will continue to be regular public reporting of financial matters.
“It is entirely legitimate that engagement on options to address this may initially require to be conducted in private. However, SPA and Police Scotland are committed to ensuring that the key issues and outcomes of engagement are brought to public attention in an appropriate and timely way through the existing police governance and scrutiny meetings.”