Questions over amount handed back when police warned of cuts
Concerns have been raised after it emerged that Stormont’s Department of Justice (DoJ) handed back more than £47m since the beginning of the last financial year.
It comes at a time when the PSNI is facing severe funding pressures, with the force facing a £180m budget shortfall.
According to new figures, over the course of the 2020/21 financial year, £11m in non ring-fenced resource expenditure — money for day-to-day spending — was handing back to the Department of Finance (DoF).
Just over £14m in capital expenditure — money for investment — was returned over the same period.
This financial year, up to December 31, 2021, £2.6m in non ring-fenced resource expenditure and £19.6m in capital spending was returned to the DoF.
Mervyn Storey, chair of Stormont’s Justice Committee, said that, at a time where budgets are stretched, this is a very significant amount of money to hand back.
“I will be asking further questions about this. This deserves further scrutiny. With limited resources they must be used wisely. With many buildings within the justice estate getting old, to hand back capital money raises questions about financial planning,” he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen said it is not difficult to see multiple areas within Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system that could have benefited from additional funding.
“Our prison and police service are stretched to the brink, alongside our probation service and courts,” he said.
“Every department must be more focused in ensuring that the money they receive is used to deliver the best possible services and outcomes.”
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods, a member of the Justice Committee, said: “The Executive’s overdue move to a three-year budget will hopefully result in long-term investment in areas of our justice system where there is most need, such as youth justice, forensics, supporting victims, rehabilitation and probation.
“Northern Ireland’s courts system is in need of increased investment, especially with the backlog of cases which has developed over the pandemic, and the roll out of new legislative developments such as committal reform.”
Last year, Finance Minister Conor Murphy called on all departments to return whatever money they can in order to prioritise health spending.
Back in December, Mr Murphy’s three-year draft budget was approved to go out for consultation by a majority of MLAs.
During a subsequent meeting of the Policing Board, members were warned of “catastrophic” cuts to police numbers due to the proposed budget.
The PSNI’s chief operating officers, Pamela McCreedy, said officer numbers could by reduced by as much as 1,100.
Policing board member Mike Nesbitt said the £44.4m allocated for PSNI staff was £30m short of the figure required to reach 7,500 officers — as stipulated under the New Decade, New Approach agreement that restored power-sharing in January 2020.
“It now emerges the underlying budget figures reveal a massive shortfall which could see up to 1,100 officers lost over the three years 2022 to 2025,” he said during the meeting.
“That means the PSNI having to operate with 1,500 fewer officers than promised. Clearly that is totally unacceptable. There is a £180m gap in the budget. That has extremely serious implications for the PSNI’s ability to do its job.”
Mark Lindsay, chair of the Police Federation, said: “If these cuts are implemented, it will undoubtedly impact on the ability to tackle crime and protect our communities.
“A savage cut of 1,100 in the number of officers will undo all the good work that has been done over the past 20 years. It will impact severely on Neighbourhood Policing, which has been the ethos of policing, and also on our ability to deal with the full range of serious crime.”
The DoJ said: “The funding returned to the Department of Finance since the beginning of the last financial year is mainly as a result of the impact of Covid-19 or funding that was ring-fenced by the Executive for a specific purpose which cannot be reallocated by the Department for any other purpose and therefore is required to be surrendered if not utilised.
“Underspends at year end are not available for individual departments to carry forward into future financial years. Year-end underspends are required to be returned to the NI Executive who can access these prior year underspends through the established Budget Exchange Scheme up to limits imposed by HM Treasury. This allows for future year re-allocation according to wider Executive priorities.”