Police in Northern Ireland put £1,000 a day in informants' back pockets
Police are paying out more than £1,000 a day for information on criminal activity such as drug smuggling in Northern Ireland, it can be revealed today.
Payments to informants have risen four-fold since 2005 with over £400,000 handed over in the last year.
It is believed to be one of the highest payouts by any UK police force and indicates the huge cost involved in the fight against the drugs trade.
While the expenditure sheds new light on one of the most secretive areas of policing, it will turn the spotlight back on to what has always been a controversial issue in Northern Ireland.
Intelligence is an important weapon in the fight against serious crime and the figures would appear to reflect a growing dependence on information.
The PSNI said it believed informants had helped to save lives and prevent crime.
The 2012/13 expenditure of £422,000 is a significant increase on the bill for 2005/06, when just £104,326 was spent on agents.
It is believed that sum does not include intelligence relating to national security and dissident terrorism, which would come largely under the remit – and budget – of MI5.
Instead, it is likely to relate to serious and organised crime, including those involved in the drugs trade and possibly fuel laundering, depending on who is behind it.
It is not clear why expenditure has risen so sharply, since the PSNI refuses to discuss its use of informants.
One factor may be better quality information or more reliable sources, or it could be a growing number of informants.
The Belfast Telegraph, which obtained details of informant spending under Freedom of Information legislation, also asked the PSNI how many agents it operates, which policing districts they are based in and whether any had a criminal conviction.
The PSNI declined to answer any of the questions.
Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey, who sits on the Policing Board, said the money was put to good use.
"I am happy to see informants paid for information which helps take major criminal players out of the game," he said.
"It does make sense because often it is the only way you can get under the skin of many of these criminals.
"Everything which the PSNI undertakes is tightly regulated, and every penny spent will have been accounted for."
However, for others, the use of informants in Northern Ireland remains highly controversial.
In 2007 a report by then-Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan concluded that RUC officers protected loyalist informers from probes into more than a dozen murders, including the killings of Raymond McCord junior and Catholic taxi driver Sharon McKenna, who was gunned down in January 1993.
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said his party had regularly raised concerns on about the PSNI's handling of informers. He said: "At the Policing Board, Sinn Fein have raised on a number of occasions, issues around agents being able to break the law and vulnerable young people being approached to act as agents."
"While everyone knows that any police service will use agents, our problem is the lack of accountability with which agents can be used.
"The bad practices in the past cannot be repeated."
A PSNI spokesman said the use of informants was subject to strict regulations.
"Like any other police service... the Police Service of Northern Ireland cannot operate effectively, nor can it fulfil its primary function to prevent and detect crime, unless it uses intelligence gathered from a range of sources," he said.