Mr Beggs: I thank the Business Committee for affording me the opportunity to discuss a topical and vital issue that affects the people of the borough of Larne and further afield: response policing in Larne. The news that emergency response police officers were to be relocated from Larne to Ballymena emerged during the summer. I say “emerged” because I first became aware of the information through social media. Reports subsequently appeared in the local press as further discussion of the rumours occurred.
As early as August, I sought out and met the PSNI area commander for Larne and Ballymena, Chief Inspector John Magill. He confirmed that, under an internal rationalisation programme called Service First, the Larne police response unit would be relocated to Ballymena in the autumn. It was to happen as fast as that. I expressed concern at the proposal, as well as the planned time frame, which would prevent proper discussion of the issue and not allow appropriate planning were the changes to happen. I also highlighted the issue to my colleague Ross Hussey, a member of the Policing Board.
There have been further meetings. At the end of August, Chief Inspector Magill met the Larne policing and community safety partnership (PCSP). Since then, letters of concern have been addressed to the Chief Constable and others. My colleague Councillor Mark McKinty, chairman of the Larne PCSP, wrote to the Chief Constable on 22 July, and again in September. Larne Borough Council did likewise, and wrote to the Minister of Justice. However, I understand that, to date, there has been no response to those concerns, just acknowledgements and holding letters.
At this point, I was going to thank the Minister of Justice for his attendance and express the hope that his summing up would bring some light, clarity and reassurance to my constituents. However, as we can see, he is not in attendance. I believe the reason is that response policing in Larne is an operational matter. The mantra of “That would be an operational matter” seems to trump everything. It is precisely that lack of engagement by and the inflexibility of the hierarchy in the PSNI and Department of Justice that has prompted me to raise this issue in the Assembly to ensure that there is adequate and wider discussion of the matter.
Also, and this is crucial, my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues and representatives from Larne policing and community safety partnership have been contacted by unprecedented numbers of serving police officers who are expressing their concerns, off the record, that the removal of these response police officers from Larne will reduce the effectiveness of policing there.
The proposal will remove 20 response police officers from Larne. In the future, one seventh of their response policing time will be spent sitting in a car travelling between Larne and Ballymena. How can that be good for policing or for response policing? Local knowledge will be diluted as officers share duties and briefings over a wider area, and that, in my opinion, will leave the community in Larne more vulnerable to criminals. How will the people of Larne receive a timely emergency response during each shift changeover? The travel time between Larne and Ballymena is around 35 minutes, and if the officer is then required to travel on, perhaps to Islandmagee or down the coast, it could take another 25 minutes on top of that. In my mind, that would be unacceptable. In addition, Larne is a major port. What timely response from Ballymena will be possible to a port incident?
What we do know is that the PSNI, as an organisation, is being subjected to significant financial pressure. I say this in passing, but Members who were in this House three and a half years ago will recall that, at the time of the devolution of policing and justice powers, which my party opposed at the time as we had concerns that we highlighted, we were told that there would be a financial package to secure future funding for policing. What has happened to that guarantee, that dividend? It seems to me and many of my constituents that we have seen nothing but cutbacks in policing over the past three years, with rural police stations, such as Glenarm, closing and further centralisation of policing planned. That financial pressure has led to an internal review of operations and a management-consultant-led review, under the Deputy Chief Constable, called Service First. From a Larne perspective, this does not represent “service first”.
The following proposal comes from the Service First strategy. It has not been put into practice, but I understand that it is meant to be enacted at any time. The emergency 999 response officers covering the borough of Larne will parade for duty and be dispatched from Ballymena and not Larne Police Station. If those 20 police officers move to this new centralised response unit, the very close relationship between the 10 neighbourhood officers and their sergeant and inspector, who parade in Larne, will no longer exist. It will cut the current police service based in the town of Larne, and which is fully briefed on local issues, by two thirds.
Budgetary pressures are a major factor behind the rethinking of current policing provision. However, it is essential that any proposed changes are fully thought through and do not endanger public safety or public confidence in policing. To put this into a wider context, response police officers were redeployed from Carrickfergus to Newtownabby PSNI station some time ago. Again, at critical shift changeover times, officers will not even be available in Carrickfergus to come to assistance in Larne, which may well leave Newtownabbey as the closest alternative location. If a shift overlap is being provided by doubling up on policing time, surely that would be done at considerable cost? That would reduce any theoretical savings that are being projected.
Where is the transparency in this proposal? There has been silence from the Chief Constable and, indeed, the Minister. The net effect of all this will leave a stretch of the heavily populated east Antrim coastal strip without an emergency police response unit. Of course, we will still have our neighbourhood beat officers, but emergency responders will have to travel from Ballymena, which is 22 miles away.
Some Members might think that Ballymena is well connected to Carrickfergus and Larne. However, I assure them that despite the proposed and, frankly, daft amalgamation with the new mid- and east-Antrim council unit, the transport connections between Ballymena and east Antrim are not good at all. The A26 road over Shanes Hill is notoriously prone to closure in winter weather. I remind Members that, in March this year, the road was closed for several days. At present, Larne and Carrickfergus are located in different policing districts. Why can Larne and Carrickfergus response police not be located together in the east Antrim strip? They could work closely and perhaps garner savings that might be required.
I must also question how the scheduled review of local government has been factored into the proposal. It appears that the police are restructuring ahead of RPA and are failing to take account of it. Carrickfergus, Larne and Ballymena are to come together in a new mid- and east-Antrim council. At present, Carrickfergus response police officers are based in Newtownabbey, which is D district. However, in the future, Carrickfergus will join with Larne and Ballymena, which are in H district. Will Carrickfergus police officers be based in Ballymena in the future, or will we have police officers coming from two different districts into the new council area and being managed from two separate areas? If that is the case, it removes much of what was designed in the new policing structures to increase accountability to local people.
There are very real concerns in the community about the future shape of policing in our district. Although I appreciate that the PSNI response police officers would still spend much of their shift patrolling the Larne area, much of their day would be spent travelling back and forward to Ballymena. During that time, they would not be physically present to assist the people of Larne or to provide reassurance by their physical presence in the town or surrounding area.
A key objective of the current policing plan for Larne is keeping police officers in the Larne area command unit visible and keeping the community informed about local policing issues. One of the key means to achieve that is:
“Continued linking of Neighbourhood Policing through Response Policing officers attached to Larne Area Command Unit”.
It seems very obvious that moving response police officers from Larne to Ballymena is a breach of the Larne district policing plan. It is a breach of the faith of the local community. The Service First plan might be an accountant’s dream, but I fear that it could be a police officer’s nightmare. As I said earlier, serving police officers are expressing deep concerns.
At present, the recorded crime rates in Larne are relatively low, and public confidence in and support for the Police Service is relatively high. That has always been the case in east Antrim, but public confidence is at stake. We should not take that hard-earned public confidence and support for granted.
I have been advised of an increasing number of incidents where individuals have taken the law into their own hands. Sometimes, victims are too fearful to even report to the police. Those statistics do not even exist. Last Tuesday and Friday, for instance, homes were attacked in the Antiville area. There were reports of concerns about an individual’s inappropriate behaviour prior to that. It seems that a second home may well have been attacked by mistake, as it had a similar address. Let me make it clear: taking the law into your own hands is wrong. It creates more victims, and it is creating more criminals. Not only can innocent victims be created, but a guilty party might move on to other communities without their guilt or innocence being determined by our justice system.
I am concerned that the removal of response police officers from Larne will result in reducing the effectiveness of local policing. A vacuum could be created in which paramilitary groups try to establish an increased local role for themselves in the community. We must all respect and rely on the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Public Prosecution Service and our Courts and Tribunals Service. To do otherwise would result in the law of the jungle.
For all the reasons that I have listed, I as an MLA for East Antrim find it unacceptable that Larne response officers are to be removed to Ballymena, some 22 miles away. I accept that there is the operational independence of the Chief Constable, but there are equally important concepts such as public interest, duty of care and public safety. Another buzzword when discussing policing in recent years is accountability. Has the Policing Board been fully briefed? Has it been able to question the Chief Constable and senior officers on Service First? Has this plan been fully thought out? What alternatives have been considered? The failure to respond to numerous letters from Larne Borough Council and the Larne policing and community safety partnership show that there has been a lack of engagement.
In conclusion, I bring this matter to the attention of the Assembly because my constituents in Larne want to have an effective, professional, local police service in their area. It is totally unacceptable that the second largest sea port in Northern Ireland should be left only with a neighbourhood police officer team of 10. The team does work efficiently and effectively, but, if the separation occurs, they would be left without that closer working relationship with the response police officers. I hope that someone in the PSNI, the Department of Justice or the Policing Board is listening and will reconsider this plan, even at this late stage.