Northern Ireland

Policing board faces calls for its abolition

Basil McCrea
Image caption Basil McCrea said he had "every confidence" the Policing Board would continue

Just a week after adverts were placed inviting applications to become an independent member of the Policing Board, some are arguing that it should be abolished and its functions transferred to the justice committee at Stormont.

But even members of the same political party can't agree.

Now, Matt Baggott finds himself at the centre of a tug of war, about who should hold him to account for how he runs the PSNI.

The Policing Board has performed that role for the past nine years, but now an Ulster Unionist member of the Stormont justice committee says the chief constable should answer to it.

Ulster Unionist David McNarry says the Department of Justice gives the police its budget, so should also hold it to account, and that the board should be abolished.

"Stormont pays for the budget for policing and yet we can only discuss giving them money, we can't discuss what that money is used for," he said.

"It's very much in the public view now that the chief constable is looking for £200m. I'd like to know exactly what he wants it for. That's the proper function of a scrutiny committee."

Not all members of the Ulster Unionist team are pulling in the same direction.

Mr McNarry's party colleague and Policing Board member Basil McCrea, disagrees with him.

"The Policing Board has a fundamentally different role to play which is to ensure that policing is acceptable to people of the whole of Northern Ireland," he said.

"I have every confidence that the Policing Board will continue its existence and will continue to do the job it's doing."

The DUP's Jimmy Spratt, member of the largest unionist team at the Assembly and a member of the Policing Board said it still has a role to play, but he believes the cost is too high and is calling for radical reform.

"This board is terminally ill, I think it needs drastic overhaul and I think it's incumbent on the justice minister to look at that," he said.

Battler for relevance

"This is a body costing £8.8m and it's no longer sustainable in its present form."

This debate comes just months after a report by an independent consultant which was highly critical of the way the Policing Board functions.

The report's author did not pull any punches. He said the board lacked "direction and vision", and "failed to provide value for money".

He described the decision-making processes as slow and bureaucratic and said this resulted in frustration amongst board members and senior police officers.

The board has established a leadership team to implement the recommendations contained in that report.

The board going out of business is not on the agenda and Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey insists that it is not an option.

"The Policing Board has legal authority over the police budget, over police performance, over human rights compliance and I would be surprised if any other members of the assembly scrutiny committee thought that they could undertake the volume of work which goes through the Policing Board," he said.

SDLP MLA and Policing Board member Dominic Bradley is also convinced of the board's necessity.

"The Policing Board has been a key element in ensuring that the policing reforms brought about by the Patten commission have bedded down well in Northern Ireland," he said.

"So most definitely the board still has a role to play and a most important role at that."

The current Policing Board will cease to exist next month and while there is no question of it not being replaced, the new team could find itself locked in a battle for relevance.