Analysis: Drastic cuts "could put British security at risk"
LONDON (Reuters) - Drastic government spending cuts to tackle a huge budget deficit could leave Britain at greater risk of attack from militants if the security services are hit too hard.
Britain, considered with Germany the leading European target for attack, spends some 3.5 billion pounds ($5.45 billion) on security and counter-terrorism, an amount that has risen 250 percent over the last decade.
Of that, 570 million pounds a year goes specifically toward funding the police's counter-terrorism (CT) activities and around 3,000 officers.
But with most government departments facing spending cuts of at least 25 percent to address a budget deficit running at about 11 percent of gross domestic product, police chiefs recognize CT budgets will not be immune.
Already, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has announced that 10 million pounds will be taken from CT grants for 2010-11, and funding is likely to be further reduced when details of a spending review are announced in October.
Britain's most senior CT officer accepts savings are needed but warns they could leave Britain more vulnerable.
"The one thing I have no doubts about is that we can do this, but what we have to make absolutely clear to government and others is what this may mean in terms of a rising burden of risk," Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates told senior officers last month.
The government has stated national security remains its top priority and one senior minister said Yates was being alarmist.
"We are going through a period where public spending is going to have to be cut and that's going to affect a lot of people, a lot of frontline services," Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said.
"I think it's going to be pretty important for people who are managing big public services like police forces to focus on cutting out unnecessary costs ... being as efficient as they possibly can before they even begin to contemplate talking about alarming the public in this kind of way."
But experts and former officers echo Yates's concern.
"LUCKY ALL THE TIME"
Britain has faced a series of plots by Islamist militants since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, with the July 7, 2005 London suicide bombings which killed 52 people on the capital's transport system being the most notable.
It is on its second highest threat-level of "severe," meaning a terrorist attack is considered highly likely. That is unlikely to be lowered before the 2012 London Olympics.
"John Yates ... in my view was not indulging in shroud-waving, but simply making a statement of the obvious," said Peter Clarke, the former head of London's Counter Terrorism Command who led the investigation into the July 2005 attacks.
"Large cuts will inevitably lengthen the odds of the intelligence agencies and the police being 'lucky all the time'," he told Reuters via email.
John Reid, a former Home Secretary (interior minister) in the last Labour government, said increased efficiency across the police service could allow for cuts of up to about 10 percent.
"Beyond that we have to accept that it will begin to make inroads into our effectiveness, whether it's in policing, counter-terrorism, national security or otherwise," said Reid, who is now chairman of the Institute of Security and Resilience Studies at University College London.
He also warned there needed to be care that other areas of national security, such as counter-espionage, did not suffer.
"There are many elements to security other than counter-terrorism and we have to make sure in bolstering one of these we don't forget about the others," Reid told Reuters.
Clarke said 90 percent of CT costs went on staffing, so cuts were likely to mean job losses. "If the cuts are very deep, they will not be able to be achieved just by efficiency savings -- there will inevitably be an impact on operations," he said.
Under greatest threat would be surveillance, which requires huge manpower. In 2008, British security services reported they were monitoring some 200 networks and around 2,000 individuals.
The security services were criticized after it was revealed two of the four 2005 bombers had been identified in a surveillance operation but were not followed up.
"Surveillance ... requires such a high level of manpower and resource so cuts will undoubtedly cause problems there unless they funnel money in," said Ben Wilkinson, head of security and counter-terrorism at London's Royal United Services Institute.
"When you start cutting budgets you reduce the operational capability of the police and in this field you have got to have 100 percent success rate. I think the CT operation can take a small cut, but I think it's got to be quite limited."
Britain's growing private security sector is expected to play a role in providing efficiency savings by taking on some tasks, such as back office functions and certain training jobs.
But Clarke said it was a myth that the private sector was inherently more efficient or effective.
"I have heard many arguments over the years for the private sector to become involved in aspects of policing, such as surveillance, protection duties and so on," Clarke said.
"However when everything is taken into account, I can't recall an example where it would actually have saved money."
(Editing by Andrew Roche)
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