A lack of Government funding to help South Yorkshire Police pay for the legal costs of the Hillsborough inquests has left the force with a shortfall of around £6 million, it was revealed today.
Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire’s police and crime commissioner, said the special grants given by the Home Office totalling £10.7 million, were “very bleak news for the financial position of South Yorkshire Police”.
He said the shortfall between the grant and the estimated total costs of legal representation for eight retired officers, and the force itself, at the hearings in Warrington, “could be in the region of £6 million”.
Dr Billings said: “This figure is a very early estimation of the costs that we face. We have not yet received the invoices for January to March 2015, a period where there was significant witnesses giving evidence at the inquests.
“My office will continue to analyse the true impact on the budget and the effect that this will have on the provision of police services within South Yorkshire.
“This estimated figure, and therefore the estimated shortfall, does not take into account other potential special grant applications for other police officers who have applied for financial assistance, nor the continued representation of those currently covered by the special grant that will continue to be represented during 2015/16.
“I repeat my warning of yesterday, that this is very bleak news for the financial position of South Yorkshire Police and we have a lot of work to do, including continued dialogue with the Home Secretary to establish a way forward that will relieve the burden on the public of South Yorkshire.”
The payments given by Home Secretary Theresa May cover the two financial years in which the inquests have been going on so far, though the force still faces a substantial gap in paying for representation for its retired officers.
Much of the cost relates to eight former senior officers, including former chief superintendent David Duckenfield, formally represented at the inquests in Warrington.
By the end of last November, two law firms representing the officers had received payments totalling just over £11.5 million. South Yorkshire’s chief constable is also represented, with the latest costs available showing a further £810,710 spent.
Dr Billings yesterday said his force had been left in a “grave” situation by the “less-than-full funding” and the timing of the announcement.
And he hinted he may be forced to reduce the cost of the Hillsborough hearings to South Yorkshire tax-payers, saying he would be considering the “affordability of financial assistance to the interested persons for the remainder of the inquests”.
He said: “While I recognise that the Home Secretary’s decision was a matter of discretion, I am extremely disappointed by both the timing of the announcement and the amount of funding granted.
“By waiting until the last day of parliament, and after the South Yorkshire police budget and precept for the coming financial year had been set, the Home Secretary now makes it virtually impossible for any further appeal to be made before the general election. However, I will be seeking clarification of the amount and how it was calculated.
“The inquests are predicted to go on until late 2015/early 2016 and the Home Office is already on notice that we are submitting other special grant applications for other interested persons who have applied for funding, and for the further legal costs we will incur during 2015/16.
“I shall be calling an emergency meeting of my officers and senior police personnel as soon as possible to try to understand the full implications of what has been announced and the options open to us.
“But no one should be in any doubt that the situation South Yorkshire now faces as a result of this very late decision and less than full funding, is grave.”
The PCC’s office has been trying for more than a year to get the Home Secretary to help fund the costs but has so far been unable to secure a firm commitment on how much will be made available.
As the inquests are set to run for nearly another year, South Yorkshire Police may ultimately face a bill in excess of £20m - the equivalent of close to 10 per cent of the force’s entire annual budget.
Dr Billings warned last month that without government support “the costs will present a serious threat to the Force’s financial stability and capacity to deliver normal policing services.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said today: “On 27 March the Home Secretary agreed to provide a special grant to the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner in relation to legal costs incurred by the inquests into the Hillsborough tragedy. The amount is up to £5.1m in 2013/14 and £5.6m in 2014/15.”
Dr Billings added: “The Home Office has awarded a sum estimated at £10.7million towards the costs incurred in providing funding to interested persons involved in the Hillsborough Inquests.
“This covers financial years 2013/14 and 2014/15 only and is substantially less than the total payments we have had to make.
“The special grant application I submitted was for the full amount, which leaves us the shortfall to pay. My office now has to undertake a financial analysis to establish the size of the shortfall and its impact on our budget.
“I then need to consider our options in relation to the Home Secretary’s decision, and in relation to the affordability of financial assistance to the interested persons for the remainder of the inquests.
“I fully recognise the importance of these inquests and the need for a satisfactory resolution for the families of all those involved, and my sympathies are with those families and the terrible loss they have suffered.
“I am therefore committed to facilitating that satisfactory resolution by meeting my legal obligations in respect of funding those involved in the inquests.
“However, without adequate reimbursement from the Home Office, the communities of South Yorkshire today will have to bear the additional cost, with an ultimate impact on the police budget and our ability to provide policing and crime services.
“The position I have adopted throughout has been to be as helpful as possible to the inquests for the sake of the bereaved families, while safeguarding the financial position of the current South Yorkshire Police and public.
“We are now at a critical point for the South Yorkshire Police budget and my decisions going forward. It is vital that I fully understand the impact of any decisions I may take upon the inquests’ proceedings.”