Short-term costs drive ‘storing up’ problems for PSNI

Northern Ireland police budget dropped by more than £200 million over past nine years

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne ultimately wants to increase numbers to 7,500, but this will require significant added funding, police sources have said. File photograph: PA Wire

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne ultimately wants to increase numbers to 7,500, but this will require significant added funding, police sources have said. File photograph: PA Wire

 

The focus on short-term cost reductions means the PSNI “storing up problems for the future”, the Northern Ireland Audit Office has warned in a new report.

The office referred to how the PSNI has been operating on a significantly reduced budget in recent years.

It noted how over the period 2010-11 to 2019-20, PSNI funding dropped by “more than £200 million in real terms, while demand has increased and the nature of crime has changed significantly”.

“If the PSNI is to continue to manage in these circumstances, it has to adopt a more strategic approach to reducing costs,” the report warned.

The audit office said the PSNI’s main focus has been to reduce expenditure by decreasing the size of the workforce. The number of police officers fell from 7,195 to 6,660, while police staff numbers fell from 2,400 to 2,260 between April 2011 and April 2019.

“This presents a number of risks to long-term sustainability,” the office warned.

Recruitment drive

In February the PSNI launched a campaign to recruit 600 new student officers. Allowing for retirements and other turnover of staff, the recruitment drive will bring the number of police to about 6,900.

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne ultimately wants to increase numbers to 7,500, but this will require significant added funding, police sources have said.

The New Deal, New Approach January deal that restored the Northern Executive and Assembly pledged that policing numbers would be increased to 7,500.

Head of the audit office, the North’s comptroller and auditor general Kieran Donnelly, said that “despite significant cuts, a reducing headcount and increasing demands, crime outcome rates and confidence in the PSNI have remained stable”.

“However, the focus on short-term cost reductions means that it has been storing up problems for the future,” said Mr Donnelly.

He added: “Staff absence is at an all-time high and there is a backlog of building maintenance which will need £27 million (€30.99 million) to deal with. It is essential that the PSNI manages its budget in a long-term strategic way to address the issues that have been created as a result of top-slicing budgets over the last nine years.”

The report referred to how the PSNI introduced a methodology called priority-based resourcing in a bid to manage costs, but that it did not deliver the anticipated strategic change and that “the focus turned very quickly to reducing headcount”.

The audit report also found that the approach to managing short-term financial pressures had unintended consequences, such as a reduction in neighbourhood policing. Moreover, the average number of working days lost as a result of sickness absence increased from eight days in 2010-11 to 14 days in 2018-19. The number of PSNI officers on recuperative and adjusted duties also more than doubled over the same period, from 6 per cent in 2010-11 to 13 per cent in 2018-19.

The report warned that “high levels of sickness absence, increasing levels of demand and the emerging concerns over officer wellbeing are all issues which present significant risks to the future resilience of policing”.

The PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton, in accepting the report’s findings and recommendations, adverted to how the audit office acknowledged that the PSNI suffered more severe budget cuts than other police services in the UK.

‘Radically increased’

He said that in the interim, the number of neighbourhood officers has “radically increased”.

Added Mr Hamilton, “We are not complacent. The need to drive further efficiencies remains and PSNI will actively seek to incorporate the recommendations in the report to ensure an improvement in our approach and that our next efficiency programme demonstrably delivers value for money.”

The chairman of the North’s Policing Board, Doug Garrett, said a new PSNI chief operating officer is to be appointed “to drive forward strategic change, business modernisation and bring focus to achieving value for money in resource utilisation”.