PSNI 'may have to return £14m'
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) will probably have to return £14 million to the government next month due to uncertainty caused by "huge" cuts, the deputy chief constable said.
Money lost to the force would have been invested in securing officer numbers and efficiency-generating technology by police managers in other parts of the UK, Drew Harris added.
Plans to increase the number of officers in Northern Ireland are not affordable because of tight budgets, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has said.
Mr Harris said: "The in-year pendulum swing of huge budget cuts and significant easements (£13 million provided in autumn 2014) made strategic financial planning virtually impossible.
"Such an approach led in part to an in-year underspend likely to be in the region of 2% of PSNI's budget."
The force's budget for 2014/15 was £704 million. The underspend includes funding held to cover potential legal and other liabilities, such as the ongoing part-time police officer proceedings.
Mr Harris said: "Given the uncertainties in the new financial climate we are operating in, it is prudent and sensible to keep some funding in reserve.
"It is however an underspend which in UK policing would have been invested in long term, efficiency-generating technologies, securing police officer numbers and pump priming an even greater focus on prevention and partnership working."
Chief constable George Hamilton has said one of the problems is the PSNI's inability to carry over underspends into the next financial year, a situation unique in the UK. The money has to be returned to the government.
Mr Harris said staff and officers adopted a robust and prudent approach to 2014/15 spending to ensure the force was fit for purpose in 2015/16.
Policing is facing its biggest transformation in years because of significant budget pressures and work to align policing districts with the new local council borders by April 1.
The senior officer added: "We are facing unprecedented financial cuts and it is inevitable these cuts will impact policing.
"It is worth noting that since 2011 the PSNI budget has been reduced by approximately £217 million.
"In the last five years alone the PSNI has delivered savings of £175 million."
The force has begun a significant internal change programme, spanning across the entire organisation, to develop new and innovative ways of working taking into consideration a greatly reduced budget and less officers and staff.
The Resilience and Capability Review recommended a strength of 6,963 officers.
Mr Harris added: "However, the reality is that this will not be sustainable in the future.
"By April 2016 we will have around 200 fewer officers due to high number of officers retiring and limited scope for recruitment.
"Going forward there is likely to be further reductions in officer numbers."
He said the PSNI will deliver a new structure and delivery model for frontline policing, aligning with the new local council structures from April 1.
The 11 policing districts will focus on local priorities supported by centralised back office functions.
"PSNI will continue to keep people safe and will deliver this in partnership with local communities, responding to their needs and using resources in the most efficient and effective way possible."
HMIC inspectors have warned of a £104 million funding gap by 2018/19.
A report from the inspectorate said: "The planned growth in officers and staff is not affordable within the projected budget beyond 2014/15."
HMIC said the PSNI had not yet moved to an operating model which could be funded by its allocated budget.
The chief constable has told the Policing Board by April next year officer numbers would be down to 6,770 and the PSNI was losing more officers than it could replace.
The Police Federation has called on PSNI managers to appoint 1,000 new officers to combat the security threat posed by dissidents and loyalist and republican rioters.
Chairman Mark Lindsay said: "What HMIC says is that this assessment is likely to be the beginning of a long period of retrenchment where the current strength of the service could reduce by almost a third unless urgent action is taken to reverse the slide.
"This will have a severe detrimental impact on both communities and the officers who serve them."