British police cuts will hit counter-terrorism effort, says top officer

Metropolitan Police officers march in formation at Horse Guards Parade in London.
Metropolitan Police officers march in formation at Horse Guards Parade in London. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Britain's ability to counter militant attacks would be undermined if the government makes dramatic cuts to policing budgets as part of spending reductions to be unveiled this week, the most senior anti-terrorism officer said on Tuesday.

Finance minister George Osborne is expected on Wednesday to detail multi-billion pound spending cuts across government as part of his ambitious plan to turn Britain's deficit into a surplus by 2020.

While Osborne has promised to boost the budget directly allocated for counter-terrorism, he has refused to rule out cuts to police forces across the country.

London Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said if their budgets were slashed as some have predicted, it would significantly damage the country's counter-terrorism capability by hitting armed police numbers and reducing local policing.

"If there are dramatic cuts then I worry that will undermine their ability to do their role in counter-terrorism," Rowley told parliament's Home Affairs Committee. "Dramatic cuts, I am concerned that will undermine part of our counter-terrorism effort."

Rowley confirmed that he had written a letter to Home Secretary (interior minister) Theresa May, leaked to the BBC on Monday, which warned cuts could hamper police ability to cope with multiple attacks by roving gunmen as seen in the French capital last week.

Some commentators say police could see cuts of more than 20 percent as part of the government's plans, and Rowley said London police would struggle to deal with reductions of more than 10 percent.

Britain is currently on its second highest alert level of"severe", meaning a militant attack is considered highly likely, and Rowley said there were several thousand suspects being monitored by police and spies.

Rowley did not say whether Britain had seen any direct threat in the wake of the Paris attacks, but said police and security services were "working flat out" on the issue.

Britain says seven plots have been foiled in the last year, although not on the same scale as those carried out in Paris, with counter-terrorism officers making on average an arrest every day.

Most of the concern is linked to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants and those Britons who have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join them.

Charles Farr, the Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, said they now estimated up to 800 Britons have travelled to Iraq and Syria, some to join Islamic State. About 50 per cent had returned home while about 70 were believed to have been killed, Farr said.