New Year’s Message
By Liam Kelly - Chair, Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI)
I have no desire to be pessimistic or downbeat, but I have to call it as it is. The start of 2024 will bring little or no relief for police officers weighed down by the burden of severe resourcing deficiencies and financial constraints.
I have to hope this unhappy state will not continue to drag on for months. It’s time the government got a grip of a deepening crisis in policing that is piling pressure on our officers. Urgent and positive intervention is long overdue and even though the previous track record has been inadequate and woeful, they must by now realise the appalling damage they are presiding over.
A financial package contains an allocation to address Public Sector pay awards including one for our officers. Yet, without Ministers in place, the Secretary of State is refusing to budge to sign off on long overdue pay increases. He’s been obstinate to calls to bring financial relief to thousands of public sector workers who are hit hardest by this cost-of-living crisis.
For the Secretary of State to positively intervene on pay awards would see the removal of a bargaining chip in the endless discussions over the Windsor Framework and the Northern Ireland budget. So, the officers I represent are effectively pawns in this political controversy, this logjam that is not of their making.
This is a cheap and shoddy strategy that does no one any credit and it must end. All it does is feed cynicism. It is appalling treatment of the men and women I represent who risk life and limb on behalf of all our communities.
Our officers are incredibly resourceful and resilient, but even their recognised ability to do more with less has been stretched to breaking point. They are fatigued, grappling with constant pressures, attacked and abused, under-valued and treated with disrespect by a Government that certainly doesn’t appear to have their backs.
It is heartening that our new Chief Constable, Jon Boutcher, agrees with the Federation that the hand-to-mouth existence cannot continue. Collectively, we see a Service starved of the finances and resources it needs to deliver the full range of policing services the public has a right to expect.
Mr Boutcher’s commitment on pay and running the risk of sanction has been well received by the rank and file, but if the system was operating properly, he wouldn’t have to potentially take this drastic course of action.
Service strength continues to deteriorate with up to sixty officers leaving or retiring every month. This is an unprecedented exodus and shows no sign of slowing down or being reversed.
There are still three months to go before the end of the financial year and I expect the headcount total number of officers to dip to a frightening and unsustainable new low of around 6,300.
There is an obvious need for urgent intervention. The brake has got to be applied, and only the Government can do that. If they want to preside over a Service that could continue to shrink by a further 700 in the next financial year, then they’re on the right track. Heading towards 5,600 officers may be a challenge too far for the Service with colossal and far-reaching impacts on the services we provide.
Major and unwanted surgery will be the inevitable consequence within meaningful financial resources. This is all uncharted territory for policing. As we look ahead to prioritising services in 2024, we will face unpalatable decisions. That we will have to pare back on the range of services we offer is a given. Calls for assistance will be carefully assessed. It may well be the case that relatively minor incidents will not be addressed or, if they are, there will be significant delays as other matters will have to take priority.
A long, hard look at being the back-stop for some medical situations could also be inevitable. We can no longer afford to have the increasingly scarce commodity of officers on the ground spending unproductive hours in hospital Emergency Departments waiting for vulnerable people to be medically assessed.
The Service is being slowly strangled by a Government that is using policing, and other cash-strapped public services, as a political bargaining chip to re-start the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly which has been ‘moth-balled’ for almost two years. The tactic is to heap pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of the institutions and, so far, it has proved fruitless and unproductive.
Regrettably, the Secretary of State and NIO have shown nothing but indifference towards the Federation. We have raised concerns in writing and requested personal meetings so Chris Heaton Harris and his officials can meet us to hear our legitimate concerns at first hand. Their stance, which presumably is being dictated by Downing Street, shows an indifference and callous disregard towards this Service and the people we serve.
There’s already a growing PSNI funding gap of some £52 million and that’s after a massive cost-cutting exercise including stopping recruitment. There is nothing else to cut. The situation becomes even more perilous whenever you add costs associated with data breaches, holiday pay, replacing equipment, technology upgrades, the delayed annual pay award and the impact of inflation.
Getting Stormont back is not the panacea. Having Ministers in place without sustainable financial muscle from HM Treasury will only provide a short-term sticking plaster rather than transformational long-term solutions to all our public services. Our society needs to see the PSNI getting the significant investment it requires as a matter of urgency.
The time to get real is right now.