UK police chief warns budget cuts will 'raise terrorism risk'

Head of anti-terrorism squad triggers political row by saying that the reductions will hamper operations against severe Al Qa'eda threat.

LONDON // Britain's chief anti-terrorism police officer found himself in the middle of a political storm yesterday after warning that planned government spending cuts would increase the risk of a terrorist attack in the UK.

John Yates, an assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police in charge of the country's antiterrorist police activities, said the cuts were coming at a time when the threat of an al Qa'eda-inspired attack remained severe, with extremists hatching a plot to kill a prominent figure in British public life within the past two months. He told fellow police chiefs that, with the new coalition government announcing in its emergency budget last month that spending across departments was to be reduced by 25 per cent, ministers would have to accept that this would inevitably mean an increased risk of terrorist attacks.

Mr Yates made his comments at a private meeting at the annual conference of the Association of Chief Police Officers in Manchester, but his remarks were leaked to The Times crime editor. The comments enraged ministers in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government and Mr Yates, who subsequently declined to repeat his criticism in public, found himself under attack for "alarming the public". But during his speech, he said that the cuts confronting anti-terrorism officers were "eye-watering". The Metropolitan Police would see £87 million (Dh486m) wiped from its anti-terrorism budget, while units across the country would lose £62m, he said.

Such reductions could result in a dramatic decline of the ability of anti-terrorism police to monitor the activities of Islamist extremists, particularly outside London, he warned. Mr Yates also criticised government proposals to review existing security legislation - including control orders, surveillance powers and the 28-day period during which terrorism suspects can be detained without charge - as having the potential to adversely affect the fight against violent extremists.

He described the threat of al Qa'eda attacks in the UK as remaining "severe" and said the type and scale of operations that Islamist extremists were planning were constantly mutating. His remarks, which severely embarrassed the Conservatives who have long proclaimed to be the party of law and order, came just days before Britain marks the fifth anniversary of the four suicide bombings on the London transport system on July 7, 2005, which killed 52 people and injured 750.

The comments prompted a public rebuke from the cabinet office minister, Francis Maude, who said public servants should not indulge in "shroud waving" and should be concentrating on getting costs down rather than "alarming the public". Mr Maude told the BBC that it was simply not appropriate for public servants to make such remarks. "There is a special responsibility on all public servants to be really careful what we say and what we do," he said.

"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, driving down costs, being as efficient as they possibly can before they even begin to contemplate talking about alarming the public in this kind of way." However, Alan Johnson, the home secretary in the Labour government until its election defeat two months ago, applauded Mr Yates's remarks for highlighting the damage that spending cuts were likely to cause.

Accusing the new government of being "as soft as a damp marshmallow" on crime, he said: "I don't know what Francis Maude knows about this, I don't know what he knows about counterterrorism. "They are going to severely affect the ability of the police and the other agencies to protect the people of this country." Some senior police officers, however, were privately critical of Mr Yates's comments, suggesting that he was indulging in "special pleading". They feel that the £600m counterterrorism budget is generous and should not be immune from the cuts facing the police service as a whole.

A spokesman for the chief police officers' association said: "The home secretary has made clear that alongside other areas of public spending, policing must deliver its share of savings to meet the fiscal deficit. No area of policing is immune. "In counterterrorism policing, as well as every other aspect, chief officers are determined to protect the frontline as much as possible, driving efficiencies, collaborating and looking at all ways of saving money while keeping the public safe. "The police service stands ready and committed to meet all the challenges we currently face." The Home Office, the department responsible for the police, declined to comment beyond saying: "National security is the first duty of the government."