PSNI handed £1.8 million to informers
MLA vows to tackle PSNI Chief Constable over 'unwarranted spending'
Police in Northern Ireland paid out more than £270,000 for information on crime in the last year, it can be revealed.
The cost of informants has risen by almost 70% in the past decade. On average £743 a day is spent on obtaining criminal intelligence, PSNI figures show.
Across the last five years the total bill comes to more than £1.8m. It is believed to be one of the highest spends of all 45 UK police forces, second only to the Metropolitan Police.
SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said the level of expenditure was "shocking and unwarranted".
"No community is so impenetrable that thousands of pounds should be spent on hiring informants," he said.
It is unlikely the total includes money spent on intelligence relating to national security, which falls under MI5's remit.
Details of the PSNI's spend on informants, known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS), were revealed after a Freedom of Information request from this newspaper.
In the 12 months to April, the total cost was £271,387.
That has fallen from 2013/2014, when a record £466,332 was spent, but is well above the £160,169 figure from 10 years ago.
However, the PSNI refused to release further details, including the number of informers in its network and the highest amounts paid out to individuals.
The PSNI said any disclosure relating to "sensitive informant information" would jeopardise its investigations and law enforcement. Its response added: "Informants play a vital role in assisting the police and this is based very much on relationships built on trust and the expectation of complete confidentiality.
"The PSNI would never disclose information which would compromise our tactics."
However, Mr McCrossan, who has served as a Policing Board member, said too many questions remained.
He intends to seek answers from PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton. "There is little accountability on the spend, of how many individuals are given money and how much, and even concerning whether the information provided led to successful prosecution," he added.
"I will be raising the issue with the Chief Constable of the PSNI at the earliest opportunity."
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 a series of murders.
However, a senior officer said intelligence plays a key role in policing. Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said informants are used to save and protect lives by police services across the world. "The information provided by informants is collected and processed professionally and is used to assist officers tackle the threats posed by drugs, burglaries, child abuse, human trafficking, terrorism, paramilitarism and a range of other issues which cause communities harm and concern," he said.
"Few terrorist or criminal gangs operate in an overt fashion, therefore, the use of CHIS plays an important role in assisting the police to prevent harm and apprehend criminals.
"However, it is important to note that the use of CHIS is fully governed by legislation and is subject to rigorous internal levels of accountability and management.
"It is also subject to extensive external oversight, with which the PSNI fully co-operates, not least of which is with the Investigatory Powers Commissioner."
The National Police Chiefs' Council said: "Informants often provide timely and essential intelligence which cannot always be obtained by other means."
Earlier this year it emerged a police force in England had paid a child rapist more than £10,000 for help during a sex abuse investigation. Northumbria Police paid the man to infiltrate parties where girls were being drugged and abused by an Asian gang.