Naomi Long: Justice system may not recover from ‘incredibly damaging’ budget cuts

Justice Minister Naomi Long has warned of irreparable damage to the justice system and major reductions in police numbers if Stormont’s proposed budget goes as planned.

The PSNI said it had to delay the recruitment of 85 officers due to “financial pressures”.

In a letter to the police board, Chief Constable Simon Byrne called the move “prudent” in the circumstances amid concerns over Stormont’s proposed budget.

He has previously warned that if the number of PSNI officers is implemented, it could drop by 900 over the next three years.

Cadets were due to begin training in March and are said to have raised the costs of the service by up to £5million this year.

Speaking to BBC Radio Foyle on Monday, Justice Minister Naomi Long said that until the budget was agreed the chief constable did not want to proceed.

“Obviously that would be four to five million pounds of unfunded pressure, and when you’re dealing with people’s jobs, you don’t want to put them in a situation where you offer them a job and find out in a few months, or a few weeks later you don’t have the money to pay them.

“Basically what he’s done is put it on hold until it’s clear to us what the end result of the budget will be.

“Because under the draft budget it would certainly not be possible to continue recruiting, it would actually take not just the PSNI but the whole justice system for us to consider quite significant cuts.

“The cuts that I have been very clear about, both with the finance minister and with the rest of the executive, would be extremely damaging to the justice system.”

She told the BBC that justice was the only department that would lose money because of the budget, a point which has been checked by the independent tax advice.

“Nobody knows who the next justice minister will be, so it’s not about me or my department, it’s just an analysis of the impact this cut would have on the justice system as a whole. together.

“And I think it’s a very serious situation, we would find it difficult to carry out our statutory functions as a result of the cuts in this budget and I don’t think it’s an acceptable place to be with something so fundamental. for health and well-being.

She added: ‘I don’t dispute the need to put health first, but we have to recognize that many of the things that contribute to good health and well-being are not necessarily provided by the Ministry of Health. itself, they are also provided. by other departments.

“It’s not just about the PSNI, although it’s about 68% of the justice budget, it’s also about maintaining the prisons, it’s also about making sure we fund the justice system properly. , that we are recovering properly from Covid.

“If you look for example at what happened to budgets in England when the Chancellor made his announcement there was £2billion earmarked specifically for court pressure due to recognition of Covid recovery and other things that should be done during this time. .

“Now that money is not mortgaged when it comes to Northern Ireland through the block grant, so it is not earmarked for justice, but we have written to the Department of Finance and asked how much it would cost us. And the answer is nothing. So we are expected to restore the justice system here with no money at all.

She said Finance Minister Conor Murphy had insisted that a 2% cut across all departments in Stormont was the same, but Ms Long fundamentally disagreed with that point.

“Because there are other funds that go to other departments in addition to compensating them. And this is stated very clearly in the analysis of financial advice.

“But it also stems from a 9% reduction in the justice budget since justice has been devolved and you cannot, year after year, have that kind of depth of cut and be able to manage it.

“We’ve done very significant justice reform, whether it’s to legal aid, whether it’s how we fund the legal profession in terms of the work to be done on behalf of the Department of Justice, whether it’s in terms of efficiency throughout the ministry itself,” she said.

Ms Long said the department was at the point “where no fat can be cut and a significant amount of damage would be done”, damage over the next three years that “may not be recoverable”.

The PSNI currently employs around 7,000 officers and announced in November that it would recruit an additional 400 cadets as part of a new campaign focused on “the next generation” of police in the force.

The NI executive had pledged to increase the number of officers to 7,500 as part of the 2020 New Decade and New Approach (NDNA) agreement.

Ms Long said the numbers would drop “significantly”, according to the police chief’s analysis.

And dealing with important issues like the Stalking Bill adds pressures on the budget and is integral to people’s health and well-being and feeling safe in their homes.

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