Police in Northern Ireland are facing a potentially “impossible” financial situation, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable has warned.
Simon Byrne said the force was facing a funding gap of £141 million and that this could result in a total recruitment freeze, cuts to overtime, closing police stations and inquiry offices and grounding some of the police fleet.
Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris set a budget for the region in the absence of devolved ministers at Stormont.
A number of Stormont departments have already warned that they are facing shortfalls and will have to consider cuts to frontline services.
Mr Byrne set out his concerns on the implications for policing in his monthly accountability report to the policing board.
He said: “I am obligated to highlight my concerns regarding our precarious financial position.
“An already stark situation for the year ahead has now, in my opinion, the potential to become an impossible one.”
Mr Byrne said the budget represented a cut of 4.75 per cent to PSNI finances, leaving a funding gap of £141 million for the financial year.
He added: “Even with significantly reduced recruitment, leaving officer numbers at just 6,459 by March 2024, and further non-pay cuts, this gap can only be reduced to around £85 million.
“In my view, it is simply not possible to reduce our cost base by this residual amount given the time frame available, contractual commitments and the lack of invest-to-save funding or practical delivery mechanisms.
“We will continue to do all that we can to reduce costs this year, including commitments to minimal recruitment only, cuts to non-pay areas and progressing our transformational programmes to drive out improvements in efficiency, demand management and costs.”
But the chief constable said these measures would not be enough to balance the police budget.
He added: “I have recently commissioned an exercise to consider still more cuts in areas of spend that in some way could be described as variable or discretionary, to the extent that the costs are not yet committed.
“This will inevitably include items such as a total recruitment freeze, further cuts to overtime, closing police stations and inquiry offices, grounding some of our fleet, leaving IT systems unsupported and so on.
“All of these measures will impact frontline delivery and carry some variable risks.”
Mr Byrne added: “The funding position means that I am now increasingly likely to face the dilemma of balancing the requirements of Section 32 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and obligations as the accounting officer for the police budget.
“These are serious concerns and I have been engaging with the Permanent Secretary and others to stress the significance of the challenges we face.”
DUP policing board member Trevor Clarke said it was unacceptable that elements of policing in Northern Ireland were at risk due to a “failure to deliver appropriate funding”.
He said: “In the current financial year, the policing budget will again be squeezed considerably, leaving the chief constable with no option but to sustain the growing culture of cuts both to headcount and core services.
“We need to be realistic about the cause of these problems.
“The huge pressures facing funding for policing would not simply vanish into thin air if an Executive and Assembly was restored today or tomorrow.
“Current funding for all aspects of our public services is not capable of meeting current demands.”
He added: “Given the threat posed dissident republicans, the continued scourge of organised crime and rise in domestic and sexual offences, it is reprehensible that parts of the PSNI fleet are expected to sit idle in the coming months due to a lack of manpower and resources.” – PA