Belfast Telegraph

Troubles killings unit to be closed

A specialist police unit that investigates Troubles killings in Northern Ireland is to be closed down due to budget cuts, the Police Service of Northern Ireland has announced.

The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was set up in 2005 to review more than 3,000 unsolved deaths during the conflict. Last year the unit, which operates on a stand-alone basis within the PSNI, was subject to a highly critical inspectors' report that questioned whether it investigated state killings with the same rigour as those committed by paramilitaries.

The PSNI decision comes after Stormont's Department of Justice asked it to make a £50 million in-year budget cut.

The police said it was anticipated the HET would be replaced by a "much smaller" PSNI branch that would focus on legacy investigations.

A number of temporary agency workers, many of them retired police officers, are involved in HET investigations.

The police said closing the HET was a consequence of its decision not to extend a contract with an employment agency - Grafton Recruitment - beyond the end of the year.

That will see more than 300 agency staff not have their contracts renewed into 2015.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay said: "Today's news will have an impact on a large number of people. It's not a pleasant situation to be in. While this is a difficult decision, it is a necessary one. We simply cannot engage the services of people that we cannot afford.

"With cuts of this magnitude, as a Police Service, our immediate obligations must be towards keeping people safe today. The loss of these posts by the end of the year will effectively mean the closure of HET."

The PSNI has an annual budget of around £1.2 billion, but more than a third of that is fixed costs, such as pensions.

The service's operating budget of £740 million for this year was already down £47 million on 2013/14 before it was asked to make the further £50 million in-year reduction.

Earlier this month PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton told members of his oversight body - the NI Policing Board - that resources dedicated to investigating historic Troubles murders could be hit as a consequence of implementing budget savings, stressing that his priority was keeping people safe in the present day.

Mr Finlay reiterated that message as he announced the decision not to extend Grafton's contract.

"In the last number of weeks, we have made it clear that the current financial challenges would mean there would be change in how PSNI responds to the demands of the past and the pace at which we can service the demand," he said.

"The PSNI understands the importance of dealing with past and that a huge deal of hurt and pain continues for the many people affected by our troubled history. If we are to achieve a safe, confident and peaceful society, dealing with the past is an issue that our society must address. However, achieving a solution lies well beyond the remit of policing."

Mr Finlay added: "As a Police Service, we will continue to meet our legislative responsibilities with regards to the past. This includes investigations where there is new and compelling evidence; as well as our responsibilities in responding to the requirements of coronial inquests.

"It is anticipated that we will form a much smaller Legacy Investigations Branch. In recent weeks we have met with the Policing Board to discuss this challenge and we will continue to work with them as we progress the issue.

"What is clear is that we cannot afford to do all that we currently do and some of what we do will take longer to achieve."

The HET, which costs around £6 million a year, was working through each unsolved case in chronological order. It is understood the new legacy branch will prioritise cases where evidence is potentially stronger - meaning many cold cases may not be re-opened for years to come.

Last year HM Inspectorate of Constabulary claimed the HET's approach to investigations was inconsistent and had serious shortcomings

The HMIC report was commissioned after the HET was criticised in an academic report that claimed the HET afforded former soldiers preferential treatment during interview and did not properly investigate deaths involving the Army.

The future of the HET has been mired in uncertainty since those critical reports.

The HET is the latest victim of significant budget cuts at Stormont.

The powersharing administration is currently wrestling with the requirement to make around £200 million of in-year reductions.

A significant amount of that sum - £87 million - is a penalty imposed by the Treasury for the Executive's failure to agree to implement the Government's welfare reforms in the region.

Officers' representative body, t he Police Federation for Northern Ireland, described the blow to the PSNI's budget as a "disaster".

Federation chair Terry Spence described the job losses and end of the HET as a "cruel blow".

"The savage economies that the PSNI has to make in a relatively short span of time meant drastic and draconian decisions had to be made," he said.

"This is a disaster for police funding and will call into question the ability to deliver a proper police service.

"I accept the priority has to be keeping our community safe, but doing away with the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) is a matter of deep regret to this Federation. It will be replaced by a much smaller Legacy Investigations Branch which will inevitably have an adverse impact on investigations.

"We are also very concerned about the loss of 300 temporary jobs. Those jobs will still have to be done and that will mean diverting frontline officers to desk posts. In an organisation that is already badly stretched, under-staffed and under-resourced, this is a short-term and potentially very damaging move.

"Having to make savings of £50 million in six months is a cruel blow and a big ask. I would again appeal to our politicians to re-examine what they're asking the PSNI to do and the consequences that their demands will have on the entire community."

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