Budget frustration and disappointment for PSNI – chief constable

Policing in Northern Ireland will become less visible, less accessible and less responsive if budget mitigations are not received, the chief constable has said.

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne previously warned of a £23 million funding gap.

The situation has been thrown into further uncertainty following the final collapse of powersharing government at Stormont last week after months of ministers being unable to carry out their full functions.

Senior civil servants are now set to lead government departments after the deadline passed for a new executive to be formed in a DUP protest to press for action by the UK government over unionist concerns around the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris is expected to announce a fresh Assembly election in the next week.

DUP MLA Trevor Clarke expressed alarm at the chief constable’s assessment that there could be 1,000 fewer officers in the PSNI by 2025.

He urged the Northern Ireland Office to advocate for practical and financial support for the PSNI.

Mr Byrne told the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Thursday that he spoke with the Northern Ireland Office on Wednesday, and previously discussed the budget situation with Mr Heaton-Harris.

David Trimble funeral
Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Simon Byrne (/Liam McBurney/PA)

He described internal frustration and disappointment at the situation.

“This is the second year that police officers find themselves with no pay rise and also we’re stuck in a rut around the payment of contractual increments for people doing a difficult job on our behalf around the clock,” he told the board.

“Without mitigation, we will become less visible, less accessible and sadly less responsive.

“Some aspect of service delivery will start to look different, things will slow down as people continue to leave, there will be less detectives, we are starting to see gaps in neighbourhood policing teams as we simply cannot fill the posts as people leave, and tough choices to come, possibly in the next few weeks over the size of some of our operational support teams.”

Mr Byrne added: “We ask and expect officers to do tremendous and exceptional things on our behalf, and as a front line (worker) we’re asking them to do that on £24,000 a year, so that will become increasingly difficult.

“The doomsday scenario would mean an organisation moving from being a reactive visible organisation that has a footprint in the community to a reactive one.

“If we get to the assessment of 6,000-6,200 officers, we will still respond to 999 calls, we will still investigate crime. What will suffer inevitably is our proactive capability and our patrol visibility particularly through neighbourhood to give the type of contact and reassurance people have welcomed in the last few years.”

Questioned about loyalist tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Byrne said he believes he has enough officers to man large-scale protests if they happen, or potential disorder.

But he said the PSNI may need to rely more on mutual aid support from police in England and Wales to quell potential disorder if budgets have not been uplifted in the next two or three years.

“Despite the short-term issues that we’re talking about, 300-plus less officers, clearly the longer our budgetary situation continues, and if it is not remedied and we’re in a situation in two or three years’ time where we face similar tension with far less people… the relationship with England and Wales will have to be a different one, because if we’re far, far smaller our resilience to deal with other sustained protest or disorder will be a lot lower, and we would have to resort to mutual aid a lot more quickly,” he said.

Mr Clarke said already, tough decisions are being made to delay the repair of police vehicles, slow down the issue of equipment and reduce occupational health services because of the pressures facing the budget.

“The New Decade New Approach agreement contained a UK Government commitment, not an aspiration, to increasing police numbers to 7,500.

“That pledge has been utterly ignored and we are now seeing headcount plummeting toward 6,000,” he said.

“While the Secretary of State dithers and delays over the date of an election, the challenges facing policing, including the potential for a smaller and slower response to tackling crime and harm, continue to grow.

“Ultimately, the NIO must now advocate for the practical and financial support that is desperately needed for policing in Northern Ireland.

“If it does not, the impact of a freeze on recruitment will be stark for communities in need of a visible, effective and responsive police service.”

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland also called for action.

Chairman Liam Kelly said an erosion of public services is being faced.

“Hundreds (of officers) who leave will not be replaced.

“Just a few days ago, the Police College welcomed 54 new student officers, but they will be the last significant intake for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“There is no budget and no plan by our politicians to deal with the expected shortfall.

“Policing in Northern Ireland has never been in such a parlous position.

“Action is urgently required to avert a breakdown in services and if our devolved ministers aren’t up for the job, then I’m calling on the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, to take control of the situation and engage in much-needed damage limitation.”