PROTECTING officer numbers to deal with Brexit has taken policing budgets into deficit, Scotland’s Auditor General has said.

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Audit Committee, Caroline Gardner told MSPs that shelving plans to cut the number of officers left the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) with a deficit of £35.6 million in the last financial year.

Police Scotland’s chief constable rejected plans to balance the books by losing 750 officers, warning the implications of Brexit meant officer numbers had to be maintained.

The SPA has a statutory duty to set and approve the budget for policing in Scotland, based on the funding received from the Scottish Government.

MSPs heard how it is expected to spend £42m more than its budget this year, while previous forecasts for the SPA to break even by 2021 have been scrapped.

Gardner said: “Plans to achieve financial balance in 2020-2021 will not now be achieved. This is due, in part, to the planning for EU withdrawal which has meant that the planned reduction in police officer numbers has been postponed.”

Gardner described 2019 as “a turbulent year in all sorts of ways”, in which the Scottish Government has given the police force a one-off payment of £17m to deal with the fallout of Brexit.

READ MORE: SNP set to reject Boris Johnson's Brexit Bill at Westminster

Audit director Stephen Boyle said: “From an operational perspective, the chief constable said it wouldn’t be possible to reduce police officer numbers by that amount in order to maintain an effective policing service.”

Asked by Alex Neil MSP how much it would cost to maintain the 750 officer roles that would have been phased out, Boyle said: “£42m is the operational implication of continuing to deliver services added on with the EU services. So it’s tens of millions of pounds that are needed to meet that scenario of not reducing officer numbers.”