The PSNI’s budget must be ring-fenced to protect policing services and fight the dissident threat but the service is already improving how that money is being spent, according to Dominic Bradley. The SDLP MLA has chaired the Policing Board’s Resources and Improvement Committee since May 2010.
Its main responsibility, he explains, is to hold the PSNI to account for how it uses its resources, including its funding and estate, and examine how those could be best used in the future.
“At the end of the day, what we want to see is an impact on front-line policing so that the service delivered is the best possible service that can be delivered to the public,” he states.
That emphasis on front-line policing is still “the most important aspect” despite the dissident threat.
“It’s where the public interfaces with the
PSNI,” he remarks. “People on the front- line are the people who are at the point of delivery, and it’s very important that they have every resource and back-up which is necessary for them to provide an effective and efficient service.”
While recognising the financial pressure across government, Bradley backs the Chief Constable’s call to ring-fence the policing budget, due to the current security situation.
“We don’t believe that the Chief Constable should be handed a blank cheque. We believe there should continue to be efficiencies delivered from within policing,” he explains.
Matt Baggott told the board’s November meeting that the PSNI had achieved £80.5 million savings over the last three years. The police, he says, are aware that they must have a leaner organisation that can still deliver policing effectively.
The committee has signed off on financial scenarios presented by the PSNI, which have now gone to the Department of Justice. Any decision on ring-fencing will be up to the Executive but he is “confident” of a positive response.
Bradley adds that the public would not “forgive” the Policing Board, the Justice Minister or the Executive if the police could not adequately respond to incidents because of a lack of resources.
A total of £50.3 million has been made available to the PSNI from the Treasury to deal with the security threat for 2010- 2011: £37.4 million from the Hillsborough Castle Agreement and another £12.9 million provided in June 2010.
Bradley highlights two projects where the PSNI is seeking to improve the service, through better call-handling and automatic number plate recognition.
The first project’s aim is to provide a speedy response to members of the public and ensure that they are kept up to date afterwards. His committee has been impressed with the project, Bradley has tested it for himself and he can already see the improvements brought about by a pilot scheme run from Ardmore police station in Newry.
Pilot schemes for the number plate project are also taking place. Officers should eventually be able to check the information on a hand-held device rather than having to return to the station, and the committee also hopes this will be streamlined with the Garda’s system.
“It’s good to see that the efforts that the police are making to improve the service are actually bearing fruit and are having an impact on the interface with the public,” Bradley remarks.
The PSNI’s resource-to-risk approach also aims to match police resources to policing needs. This will involve moving 600 officers from desk-bound duties to front-line policing by March 2011; 548 have been released as of 10 November.
“That is another important step forward in ensuring that the public are getting full value for the money that they invest in the policing service. And obviously where we want police officers is on the ground delivering the service, not in back office jobs working with computers.”
Police station closures are one of the most controversial parts of the Police Service’s estate strategy.
There is a mistaken belief that the Policing Board closes stations but Bradley is keen to dismiss that. The PSNI decides whether to keep a station open or closed, on a district command basis. The board’s role is to decide on the disposal of the police station which “in many instances” occurs several years after a closure decision is made.
Bradley comments that local communities “generally feel more secure when they have an adjacent police station, although that feeling of security is not always based on reality.” Policing, he adds, is delivered by police officers, not police stations.
Many stations are only staffed for limited hours and are a financial burden on the Police Service. The board will only recommend a disposal after consultation has taken place with the community and the local district policing partnership.
A police estate must reflect the needs of the service, and spending money on surplus buildings takes resources away from the front-line. The “sprawling” headquarters estate, in east Belfast, is also being streamlined.
An external audit report, published in early November, described the board’s decision-making processes as “slow, bureaucratic and not outcome-focused”, resulting in “frustration among members and senior officers of the PSNI”.
The report, Bradley explains, was “very positive” in parts and acknowledged the “sea change in policing” achieved by the board over the last 10 years.
“It’s been one of the major successes of the peace process,” he remarks, pointing out that many people thought change was unachievable. All mainstream parties are on board. Even when the Assembly was suspended, the board continued to work.
With the devolution of policing and justice, he says the audit was a “timely intervention” and the board voted to accept the report in its entirety. A new leadership team has been set up to respond to the criticisms, which will include a stronger focus on outcomes and value for money.
Policing, he says in conclusion, involves not just the police and the Policing Board but other parts of the justice system, including the Ombudsman, and the community.
“The community has a huge role to play in policing. It’s only with the close co- operation of the community that the police can be as effective and as efficient as we want them to be.”
“We are always conscious of asking the community for its continued support and co-operation, and also for its view of policing because we need to hear from the community what they think of the service that’s being delivered to them. And if there are areas that can be improved, obviously we want to address those areas.”
Chair: Dominic Bradley MLA
Vice-Chair: Sir Desmond Rea
Jonathan Bell MLA
Leslie Cree MLA
Gearóid Ó hEara
Alastair Ross MLA