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Police budget to be cut by £1m a week

By Deborah McAleese

The PSNI is facing massive financial cuts of more than £1m a week over the next four years.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott has warned that redundancies will be inevitable if the cuts to the policing budget are as heavy as feared.

Increasingly tight police finances has also meant that recruitment to the force has had to be frozen.

The PSNI has been asked by the Department of Justice to calculate the potential impact of a 5% and 8% cut to its running costs following last week’s Budget by Chancellor George Osborne.

If the cuts are imposed on the four-year budget, the PSNI will lose between £147m and £224m — potentially more than £1m a week.

News of the potential cuts came on the same day that officers were attacked by petrol bombers in Craigavon, the same week that two officers were injured after being knocked down by a lorry during an anti-smuggling operation in Meigh, and just days after a 300lb was left outside Aughnacloy Police Station.

At a time when the PSNI is dealing with a severe dissident threat, international organised crime and legacies from the past, on top of day to day policing, such potentially large cuts to the £1.2bn annual budget has caused major concern.

The PSNI's head of finance, David Best, said that even the lower level 5% cut was the equivalent of axing a third of officer numbers.

“Now we're not going to do that, but it's just to illustrate the size and scale of cuts we are going to face up to,” he told members of the Policing Board yesterday.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott said all other potential efficiencies would be exhausted before jobs were lost, but he warned that redundancies would be inevitable if the cuts were severe.

“Before we get into the people issues we've a long way to go in seeing how we can become more efficient,” he said.

“But ultimately we are an organisation that spends about 85% of its budget on people, and if we get to the point of cutting so deeply it's inevitably going to affect the numbers of people you have working for you — but we're a long way from that.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice stressed that no decisions on cuts had yet been made.

“The department has asked all the areas that it funds to produce plans as to how it would make cuts against two scenarios, 5% year on year and 8% year on year,” he said.

“We have not asked anyone to make any level of cuts for 2011 on because the budget outcome is not yet known.”

The scale of the cuts required across the public sector in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the Budget will not be known until later in the autumn. At that stage, the Executive will have to decide which services will be hit.

Mr Baggott has been looking at a number of cost-cutting exercises that would not impact on frontline services. He told Policing Board members that to employ private security firms to take over certain non-contentious policing jobs — such as guarding stations — would free up warranted officers to fight crime and would save the PSNI around £5m a year.

The security guards would be subject to the same exacting scrutiny and oversight measures as the police and would be accountable to both the board and the Police Ombudsman.

The board, however, rejected the proposal yesterday.

The Justice Committee has already been warned that the PSNI could be the hardest hit by cuts to the justice budget.

During a recent committee meeting chairman Maurice Morrow said the situation “does not bode well for the future”.

He added: “The Chief Constable will only be as good as the money in his hand.

“Therefore, if you do not put money in his hand, he cannot put police on the streets.”

The justice department’s director of resources, Anthony Harbinson, warned committee members that “tough decisions” lie ahead.

He said that “pain will be felt throughout the department” and that as the PSNI makes up the single biggest element of the justice budget, “it will also feel that pain”.

“Obviously it will be for the Chief Constable to determine the nature of operational cuts in the organisation,” Mr Harbinson added.

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