Overtime bill in Northern Ireland almost £50m amid fears over officer shortfall

A national force’s “too few” complement of officers are paying a “considerable” price to themselves and their families as 1.79 million hours of overtime were recorded in the last year, new figures reveal.

Mar 5, 2018
By Nick Hudson

Rank-and-file officers are “going the extra mile” as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) admits to spending nearly £125,000 a day with the annual total expected to reach close to £50 million this financial year.

In some cases individual officers drew more in overtime – the top three claiming £44,555, £44,318 and £42,393 respectively – than a police sergeant’s basic salary.

Politicians in the province have joined calls for an urgent review to plug the workforce gaps as the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) reports a “crying need” for more officers to tackle the “full range of crime and terrorism”.

PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris said budget cuts and political uncertainty meant it was difficult to recruit more officers – the numbers being nearly 1,000 down on the 7,500 benchmark of the Patten Report.

He expects officer numbers to drop by 100 in the next financial year to 6,600 – also well below the 7,000 officers Chief Constable George Hamilton previously stated is necessary to police Northern Ireland effectively.

PFNI chair Mark Lindsay argues: “Overtime isn’t the best way to maintain a police service to the public, but it has to be used as a last resort when you don’t have the numbers on the ground to maintain normal work patterns.

“The issue for us is the fact that we have too few officers working excessive hours and shifts.

“They go the extra mile at some considerable cost to themselves and their families and, yes, that involves overtime, but there’s no other option open to them.”

He added: “If there wasn’t a need for officers to be on shift, then the overtime bill would be a lot less, but there is a crying need as they tackle the full range of crime and terrorism in Northern Ireland.”

The PSNI’s spending on overtime was disclosed after a Freedom of Information request by the Belfast Telegraph.

As the figures showed one officer worked 1,759 hours of overtime last year – the equivalent of 73 days of full 24-hour shifts – and another worked 1,569 extra hours; the force maintained that the highest extra payments were for a “very few” specialist officers.

The FoI request also revealed that in the 12 months to last April, a total of £45.5 million was spent on overtime – equivalent to £124,730 a day – some 1,787,406 hours of extra work were recorded in that time.

In the six months from April to September 2017, the bill rose by a further £24 million, with 813,835 extra hours clocked up. At the current rate of spending, the PSNI overtime bill will hit £48 million this financial year – the highest total since 2013/14 when it reached £63.8 million.

Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said the figures are proof that current PSNI staffing levels are insufficient.

Mr Chambers, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary part-time reservist, said: “We have always maintained that staffing should reflect the figure first envisaged by the Patten Report, which set the PSNI staffing figure at 7,500.

“It should also be remembered that the Patten Report also recommended that there should be an enlarged Part Time Reserve of up to 2,500 officers.

“Given that the PSNI’s own website says it has 6,689 officers as at February 1, 2018, it does not take a mathematical genius to work out the shortfall, nor should it come as a surprise that there is such a large overtime bill.

“What is needed is more officers, plain and simple. The ongoing political impasse and the consequent lack of a policing board is obviously not helping the situation.”

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said the PSNI’s staffing situation required an urgent review.

“People will be shocked by these figures and will question how such an overtime bill can be clocked up,” she said.

“I would question why the money can be found for overtime, and yet the PSNI is unable to recruit additional officers.”

Mr Harris said: “In the last four years we’ve taken £160 million out of the police budget so against that uncertainty it’s difficult to keep your recruitment going.”

Last May, the PSNI District Policing Command produced a five-yearly corporate policy review that concluded overtime “should not be the default option to meet a resourcing demand”.

Between 2013 and 2017, the PSNI has spent £193 million on officer overtime while civilian staff clocked up more than £15 million in the same period.

The majority of overtime spend is accounted for by public holidays, with a 37 per cent rise in the number of hours recorded from 154,002 in 2015/16 to 210,991 in 2016/17. The policing of parades is now third on the list in overtime costs.

Other reasons for overtime include investigations, sickness, training and ‘variable events’.

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