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Police chief makes budget plea

Published 04/06/2015

Chief Constable George Hamilton has appealed for stability
Chief Constable George Hamilton has appealed for stability

Northern Ireland's Chief Constable has implored the region's politicians to sort out the budget crisis that is threatening to consume Stormont.

George Hamilton said he would not take a "political position" on the dispute over welfare reform implementation, which has triggered the threat of financial meltdown in the powersharing Executive, but he stressed the police's need for funding "stability".

Addressing the monthly meeting of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, in Belfast, the region's top officer said: "I suppose my plea to the politicians is it would be really helpful for me if you could sort it out."

An ongoing impasse over the introduction of the UK Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, and the resultant stalling of the landmark Stormont House Agreement political deal, has pushed the five-party coalition Executive toward the edge of a financial precipice.

The defeat of the Welfare Reform Bill in the Assembly last week, due to a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto, has endangered other elements of the agreement, such as the devolution of corporation tax powers, access to £2 billion of increased borrowing powers from the Treasury, a major civil service redundancy scheme and new structures to address the legacy of the Troubles.

But, of more immediate concern, the failure to introduce welfare reform has left the Executive facing a reputed £604 million funding gap this financial year.

That shortfall, which would have major ramifications for the PSNI's budget, is in part a consequence of Treasury penalties for non-implementation of welfare reforms currently running at just under £10 million per month.

If Executive ministers fail to agree a budget to implement the multi million pound cuts then a senior civil servant will be forced to take over departmental purse strings.

But that individual will be subject to spending restraints, which will mean even more funding will be cut from the PSNI and other public services.

Mr Hamilton noted that previous budget wrangles at Stormont, again in part due to the welfare impasse, forced the PSNI to adjust its budget at least six times in the last financial year.

The PSNI saw tens of millions of pounds shaved off its initial funding allocation in 2014/15.

But the service could be in line for even more severe cuts if the Stormont House Agreement collapses.

"It's in everyone's interests that there is a stable budget," Mr Hamilton told board members.

"Part of the chaos that we were dealing with in the year that's passed was that the budget changed six or seven times through the year."

He added: "Those fluctuations in the budget make it almost impossible."

Mr Hamilton said he had received an Executive letter yesterday asking the PSNI to identify areas where potential in-year cuts could be made this year.

"That is a polite introduction I guess telling us that more cuts are coming over the hill," he said.

He said that other than voicing support for the new structures proposed for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, he would not pass comment on the merits or otherwise of the rest of the Stormont House Agreement.

"All I would plead for is some sort of stability around the budget, which seems to be synonymous with political consensus around the various component parts of the Stormont House Agreement. And that is not a political statement, it is just one of simply allowing me to exercise some strategic financial management around this organisation.

"The ability to target resources, to do things proactively is undermined if the budget is constantly changing."

He said even definitive confirmation that the budget would be cut was better than not knowing what level of funding was coming.

"What we need is some sort of stability, even if the stability is bad news actually," he said.

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