The Police Service for Northern Ireland could lose 900 officers over the next three years due to a budget shortfall, the Policing Board has been told.
Board members were told by the PSNI’s chief operating officer, Pamela McCreedy, that the budget settlement could lead to an operating shortfall of £180 million over the next three years.
Stormont’s draft budget, outlined earlier this month, proposes a 10% increase in health spending over the next three years.
While none of the other departments would see a reduction in their baseline allocation from the last budget, they will be 2% down on what they would have expected if extra funding were not being diverted to health.
Gerry Kelly, chairman of the board’s Resources Committee, said members were told a reduction in staff numbers would be the most likely way to achieve savings.
“With staff operating costs representing around 79% of the PSNI’s current budgetary provision, members were told that the potential for achieving savings of this level presents serious challenge and would likely mean a reduction in headcount,” he said.
“Committee members expressed deep concern at the potential scenario of a reduction in officer levels of 900 over the next three years to meet the shortfall.
“With discussions ongoing around the draft settlement, the committee has asked for a further paper on the range of scenarios being considered by the PSNI to be brought to January 2022 committee meeting for further consideration and discussion.”
DUP MLA Trevor Clarke said police numbers could drop to around 6,000, far below the commitment to 7,500 full-time officers in the New Decade, New Approach deal.
He criticised Finance Minister Conor Murphy, saying he had “failed to prioritise the police workforce within his budget for the next three years”.
“In fact the PSNI have indicated that the net result will not even be a standstill position. It is likely there would be a reduction in police numbers to the region of 6,000 – a loss of one officer in every seven,” he said.
“Around 300 officers already retire or leave the police service every year. In addition to this, the budget currently on the table would almost inevitably lead to a pause on recruitment.
“This would have a serious and adverse impact on response times and limit current and future investigations.
“There has been a stark failure by ministers to acknowledge the deep challenges these cuts will bring. At a time when crime is becoming more sophisticated and harmful, support for policing should be enhanced not reduced.
“Tough financial decisions must be taken across the board but the police service should not be the sacrificial lamb.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said: “There is a £180 million gap in the budget. That has extremely serious implications for the PSNI’s ability to do its job.
“What is needed now is an assessment from the PSNI of the potential implications for service delivery of such a drastic cut in budget and headcount.
“What does this mean for neighbourhood policing? Or tackling organised crime, drugs and people trafficking?
“As the party of law and order, we will be calling on the Justice Minister, Naomi Long to step up and protect the PSNI’s ability to keep people safe.”
In a statement to the PA news agency, Ms McCreedy said: “We note the publication of the Northern Ireland Executive’s draft budget 2022-2025, and welcome the move to a multi-year budgetary settlement.
“As the Chief Constable reiterated at the most recent Northern Ireland Policing Board meeting, the police service faces significant budgetary pressures which could impact on our delivery capability.
“We will examine the detail of the draft budget document when it is published and work closely with the Northern Ireland Policing Board to provide feedback through the formal consultation process.”