While police officers continue to put their lives at risk dealing with increasing terrorist attacks, Chief Constable Matt Baggott has drawn the line on the level of budget cuts he is prepared to accept from the Justice Department.
Mr Baggott has warned Justice Minister David Ford that the PSNI will not be able to operate effectively if forced to make budget cuts of more than £1m a week over the next four years.
The PSNI’s top team has raised serious concerns about the impact that proposed cuts of up to 8% will have on the service, as well as on the safety of the public and police officers, particularly at a time of heightened dissident republican activity.
The Belfast Telegraph has learned that in a confidential document to the Justice Department Mr Baggott said that the PSNI must not be forced to operate with any less than it's current quota of 7,500 officers.
A police source said that if the PSNI was forced to make 8% cuts, the strength of the PSNI would have to be slashed by more than 1000 officers through redundancies and a lengthy recruitment freeze.
Mr Baggott’s response to the proposed cuts makes it clear to Mr Ford that this simply cannot happen.
Last month, the PSNI was asked by the Department of Justice to calculate the potential impact of a 5% and 8% cut to its running costs. If the cuts were to be imposed on the four year budget, the PSNI would lose between £147m and £224m — potentially more than £1m a week.
The PSNI scenario report to the Justice Department states: “It remains the professional opinion of the Chief Constable and senior command team that the PSNI requires sufficient funding for the equivalent of 7,500 regular officers and 2701 police support staff, as agreed in 2009.”
The report adds that 5% and 8% cuts would exacerbate the critical problems, increase the risk to the right to life, reduce the PSNI's presence, reduce neighbourhood policing numbers and leave the PSNI unable to sustain the level of public order policing needed over the Twelfth.
The Chief Constable is understood to have drawn the line at cuts of 2.5%. Even these cuts will be challenging for the service to manage and will likely mean |having to put on hold the refurbishment of the Landrover fleet and the purchase of new equipment and also throw into doubt the PSNI’s role in historical enquiries and inquests.
DUP Policing Board member Jimmy Spratt said that the PSNI budget needs to be ringfenced.
“An 8% cut is unthinkable, 5% is not do-able and 2.5% is do-able with a hell of a lot of pain and making things almost impossible for senior command,” he said.
“These savings must be made from other justice departments. I think the Chief Constable has made a clear, unambiguous statement to the Justice Department that 5% or 8% cuts cannot be met.
“For the safety of the people of Northern Ireland and the UK, it would be unthinkable for the PSNI to have to make these sort of cuts.”
UUP Policing Board member Basil McCrea added: “The PSNI cannot under any circumstances meet the 5% or 8% scenarios.
“You have to question if this is the right time to be cutting |the budget given the dissident threat.
The Policing Board said that the board and the PSNI will |continue to engage with the Department of Justice so that forthcoming policing budgets can be agreed and secured.
“It is the view of the Board that the PSNI should be provided with sufficient funds so that they can deliver effective and efficient policing throughout Northern Ireland,” she said.
Where will the axe fall?
It is likely to be one of the toughest decisions David Ford will have to make as Justice Minister — where to wield his budget-cutting axe during this time of financial crisis.
The potential 5% and 8% cuts that all of the justice bodies have been asked by the department to consider have probably caused many sleepless nights for department heads who will be fighting to keep their budget pain to a minimum.
But such severe cuts would be potentially crippling for the PSNI, which is already operating in a very tight and challenging financial environment. Public safety must come first and at a time when it is clear that terrorists are intent on bringing death and destruction to the streets of Northern Ireland it would surely be nothing short of disastrous to enforce heavy monetary constraints.
The Chief Constable cannot be expected to cut crime, tackle the dissident threat and make the streets safer on reduced funds. It is therefore likely that Mr Ford will be looking at all the other justice bodies first to make up the savings.
The Court Service is just one of the bodies where massive cuts could be made following years of high legal aid payouts.