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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Claudia Savage

PSNI stabilising but budgetary issues remain, says interim chief constable

PA Wire

The PSNI is beginning to stabilise following a series of controversies, the interim head of the organisation has said.

Interim chief constable Jon Boutcher also said there would be a significant impact on policing if funding is not increased, but that the PSNI has a role to play in efficiently allocating its resources.

Mr Boutcher has had his first meeting with the NI Policing Board since taking up the role, following the resignation of Simon Byrne.

Issues affecting the PSNI in the run-up to Mr Byrne’s resignation included a significant data breach, in which the personal details of all officers and staff were mistakenly published online, and a critical High Court ruling that said two junior officers had been unlawfully disciplined for their actions at a Troubles commemoration event.

Mr Boutcher said that he has had positive experiences with officers and staff since taking up the position.

“We have begun to stabilise even in recent days, because of recent events that caused, I think, a lot of uncertainty and challenge for the organisation, and given reassurance and support to those hard-working staff,” he said.

“But I’ve had nothing but positive experiences in speaking to people … a lot of rhetoric about low morale, and I’m sure there are concerns about morale and some of that is justified, but the experience that I’ve had with the officers and the staff has been very positive.

“They’ve been very pleased to see me and what they’ve told me about what they’re doing is exemplary.”

Mr Boutcher said key among the issues that need to be addressed moving forward is the financial position of the PSNI.

In the absence of a devolved executive at Stormont, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris set a budget for the region earlier this year.

The DUP is blocking the devolved institutions in Belfast in a protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements and senior civil servants are currently running public services in the region.

The PSNI saw a reduction in its budget of 1.7%, which combined with rising costs and pay inflation amounts to a funding gap of around £107 million.

Additionally, senior officers have estimated that security and legal costs from the data breach could potentially cost the force £240 million.

Mr Boutcher said the importance of the PSNI’s funding crisis would need to be stressed to politicians.

“I don’t have to pitch the importance of numbers and funding to this board,” he said.

“People say less police means less policing. That can certainly be the case, there are things we can do to help ourselves.

“But I want to thank the board for their support around the funding issue so far. We need to drive that home to everybody, especially those who are going to make the decisions about our funding going forward.”

In addition to rectifying the budgetary position of the force with additional funding, Mr Boutcher said that existing funds would have to be allocated more efficiently.

“There are things, though, that we can do that I’ve already seen, to make ourselves more efficient and make sure that our resources are aligned to our priority, and we’re already looking at what we can do around that,” he said.

“We need to show that we have the leverage with our resources in the right place and that resource that we do have is working to the aims of the organisation.”

Mr Boutcher outlined the impact the budgetary shortfall would have on policing in Northern Ireland and said it was important to “lobby strongly” for adequate funding.

“We acknowledge that the decrease in officer numbers is likely to have consequences, including – one – a significant reduction in neighbourhood policing patrol hours, meaning less visibility, problem-solving activity, engagement and reassurance of community.

“Secondly, a reduced number of detectives and less experienced detectives. This will limit capacity for the development of intelligence and proactive investigation of terrorism, organised crime and high-harm offences such as rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse.

“And, finally, fewer specialist uniformed support officers will mean reduced capacity for proactive search operations, specialist resource deployment and less resilience to deal with significant public disorder, that often we know can occur in this place.”

He added: “There’s a considerable amount of work to do to stop these consequences from occurring, some of which as I’ve explained we can mitigate, but we need the help of everybody to address the issues that we can’t mitigate unless we get sufficient funding.”

Mr Boutcher added that the PSNI needs a longer-term budget plan to facilitate a stable financial position.

“What business anywhere would operate on the basis of – you only get a one-year budget, that you can’t plan for what you’re going to do moving forward?” he said.

“It’s not a way to run an organisation of 800-odd million pounds, especially with the responsibility, and this is across public services, I absolutely respect and understand that.

“We need to work more smartly with other public services as well and I’m sure they’d agree with that.”

In addition to the budget, Mr Boutcher referred to a number of sensitive cases within the PSNI including masked men in a courtroom in Belfast, recent protests relating to the Middle East, arms searches in the Creggan area of Londonderry and the case of two officers unlawfully disciplined that plagued the final days of his predecessor.

The interim chief constable said that he has a high standard for officer behaviour but that the “blame culture” of policing needs to change.

He told the policing board: “I want to emphasise that we will not always get things right.

“Being a police officer today is harder than I think it’s ever been for all sorts of different reasons.

“And we do need to reset the blame culture button that seems to exist in policing generally.

“That doesn’t, by the way, as some people would sometimes guess, conflict in any way with the high standards that I expect from all my officers and staff, but we need a learning culture, not a blame culture.”

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