Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Cuts 'could hit Troubles probe'

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton says the police's primary role "is to keep people safe today"
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton says the police's primary role "is to keep people safe today"

Resources dedicated to investigating historic Troubles murders in Northern Ireland could be cut as a consequence of implementing potential cuts of £88 million, the region's chief constable has warned.

George Hamilton said his priority when deciding where to reduce spend had to be keeping the public safe in the present day.

Mr Hamilton outlined the consequences of looming cuts to his operating budget at the monthly meeting of the PSNI's oversight body - the NI Policing Board.

As well as everyday policing functions, the PSNI dedicates significant resources to investigating historic Troubles killings through the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and to meeting its obligations to provide information to other legacy investigations, such as those undertaken by the Coroner's Service.

"The police's primary role is to keep people safe today," Mr Hamilton said at the meeting in Belfast today.

"We also acknowledge that we do have a statutory responsibility around historical or legacy investigations and, of course, we are going to fulfil our obligations on that, but that does not mean that there is not some possibility to reduce the number of officers and support staff who are working on legacy investigations.

"And if I have to reduce head count of police officers or police staff I will do it on historical issues before I do it on keeping people safe today.

"That is not to undermine the impact legacy has on families and on victims - I understand that, but my primary responsibility is to prevent more victims occurring, to keep people safe today.

"These are difficult decisions to make but I am hoping the public will be able to connect with that decision that the priority has to be keeping people safe today."

Mr Hamilton said cutting any of the PSNI's almost 7,000 officers would be his last resort. But he warned discretionary spending - such as funds to support community groups - could be hit.

The PSNI has an annual budget of around £1.2 billion, but more than a third of that is fixed costs.

Mr Hamilton's operating budget of £740 million for this year was down £47 million on 2013/14 and he has already implemented around £15 million worth of in-year cuts since April.

After another round of Stormont budget cuts were announced last month, he told board members he is now scenario planning for further spending reductions of £11 million, at best, or £25 million, at worst.

That will either mean the PSNI has had to shoulder a £73 million cut this financial year or an £88 million cut.

"£80 million is more than the cost of running two out of our eight police districts," said Mr Hamilton.

"I say that for illustrative purposes, clearly we are not going to collapse two of the eight districts, but that is the scale of the cuts we are talking about.

"So I need to be up front and candid with the community and Policing Board - we cannot possibly take out cuts of up to £80 million and people expect to see the same level of police visibility, the same level of reassurance.

"It's our job to keep people safe - our approach to removing this money from the budget will be such that we will try to maintain the highest possible level of service. But with that amount of money coming out of the budget there will be an impact."

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