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PSNI officer numbers 'unsustainable, dangerous, irresponsible'

PFNI Chair Liam Kelly says officer numbers, which are already the lowest seen in the PSNI's lifetime, could 'feasibly deplete to around 6,000' by the end of the financial year.

The rank and file in Northern Ireland are being let down by a Conservative government who "couldn't care less" and an Executive whose track record is "is every bit as disappointing as their Westminster counterparts".

According to the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI), both the UK government and currently-suspended Northern Ireland Executive have failed to address a set of challenges which are "the greatest in a generation".

Allowing officer numbers to decline dangerously is a perfect illustration of this, Chair Liam Kelly told the PFNI's 51st annual conference on Wednesday.

He said: "The one vital piece of the jigsaw we don’t have in place is the resource that is desperately needed to continue the job at the level that is required.

"I’m talking about a shrinking PSNI. I’m taking about draconian budget cuts. I’m talking about a recruitment ‘freeze’. At the rate we’re witnessing right now, coupled with an inadequate budget, we could feasibly deplete to around 6,000 officers by the end of the financial year.

"That will be a new low, bearing in mind we are already at the lowest number of police officers since the PSNI came into existence in 2001. It is unsustainable. Dangerous. Irresponsible.

"In the absence of a devolved administration, we are forced to look to the UK Government to step in to fix the problem."

While there are issues associated with not having a functioning Executive, particularly around pay awards, the PSNI also faces independent budgetary pressures.

The Department of Justice told the force last month that there will be a further 4.75% cut to its baseline in 2023/24, meaning it will have to make savings of around £141 million.

Chief constable Simon Byrne has since confirmed that this gap can only be reduced to around £85m - even after making cuts including reducing officer numbers to just 6,459 by March next year.

Mr Kelly is in no doubt that the opposite approach is needed, and has called for the recruitment of "at least 1000" officers over the next 18 months.

While this is something which could be spearheaded by the UK government, given its role in the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, the Chair claims Westminster doesn't care.

He told delegates that Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris turned down an invitation to attend the conference, alongside two requests to meet to discuss the issues.

“His failure to meet, or even be here today, is testament to an out-of-touch Secretary of State who seemingly couldn’t care less, or care about our policing service, or care about you and your colleagues who do what you do every day of every week.

“When push comes to shove, it is clear that if the policing crisis doesn’t impact on Conservative seats, it doesn’t make it on to the political Richter scale.

“Why are we treated so shoddily? There are 20,000 additional officers in England and Wales but in Northern Ireland, we’re witnessing declining numbers."

Ultimately, it's a shared responsibility. “Even when we had an Executive, it too failed to deliver on policing. We sought a three-year budget to give stability and allow for forward planning. It didn’t happen.

“We were promised an increase to 7,500 officers under New Decade, New Approach. It never materialised and now we could quickly end up with 6,000 officers."

Mr Kelly used his keynote address to highlight a number of other issues, including officer assaults which reached a five-year high earlier this year.

With 923 attacks between April 2022 and February 2023, the PFNI wants three things: a wider rollout of Taser, at least two days of personal safety training a year for officers in local and neighbourhood policing, and tougher legislation which allows "effective deterrent sentences" to be imposed.

Mr Kelly also believes officers are being "badly let down by protracted disciplinary investigations", and says the PFNI will continue lobbying for statutory time limits be put in place on both PSD and Police Ombudsman (PONI) matters.

He added: "To assist with this, our Sergeants and Inspecting ranks have also got to be trained, empowered and supported in expeditiously dealing with quality of service and minor misconduct matters at local level.

"Words of advice, a rebuke or warning could effectively and efficiently conclude the vast majority of issues enabling both the officer, the complainant and service to move on from a low-level infringement of the Code of Ethics."

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