MPs have called upon the UK Government to ensure that “necessary resources” are made available to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to support the officers affected by a data breach which identified them by name and rank.
Details of around 10,000 PSNI officers and staff were mistakenly published last month in response to a freedom of information request.
The PSNI has confirmed the list, which included the surname and first initial of every employee, their rank of grade, where they are based and the unit they work in, is in the hands of dissident republicans.
Appearing in the Commons on the first day back from summer recess, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris faced several questions from MPs about the cost implications of the breach.
The urgent question took place just after Simon Byrne resigned as chief constable of the PSNI with immediate effect, following a string of controversies, including the data breach.
Asking the urgent question on the matter, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We need to hear from the Government that they will ensure the necessary resources are available to the police, notwithstanding budgetary constraints, to ensure that police officers, their families and police staff are properly protected against terrorist attacks.”
Echoing Sir Jeffrey’s claims, newly-appointed shadow Northern Ireland secretary Hilary Benn said: “Does the Secretary of State recognise that there will be additional costs in protecting staff as well as responding to potential civil claims?
“There were already great pressures on the policing budget in Northern Ireland and the cuts that it is now facing would in the words of the PSNI leave the service smaller less visible, less accessible, and less responsive.”
Mr Heaton-Harris acknowledged “the response to such a significant breach will obviously come with a cost”, adding: “The UK Government is clear that security is paramount, and the focus remains on support and expertise at this point, with Northern Ireland policing being devolved, and so it is for the Department of Justice to set their budget, ensure it can fulfil its duties and responsibilities.
“But it still remains a fundamental responsibility of the executive and in its absence for the Northern Ireland Department to run a balanced and sustainable budget.
“Where additional funding is required, the correct process must be followed and this includes a whole host of different things.”
Responding to Labour, Mr Heaton-Harris also said: “I mentioned it in my answer but at the end of the day, he forgot to mention almost certainly the Information Commissioner will come out with a decent fine for this data breach.
“There’s a whole host of different things that we’ll have to take into account and as and when they will materialise, we will look at them.”
Tory former Northern Ireland secretary Shailesh Vara also asked Mr Heaton-Harris to “use his considerable influence to ensure that the safety of all those people is first and foremost, and not the cost”.
He went on: “It is important that that influence that he has is exerted to its fullest because these are good people who find themselves in a very, very difficult position through no fault of their own.”
Mr Heaton-Harris earlier reassured the Commons PSNI officers and staff have “around-the-clock” support from the UK Government.
He said: “Many PSNI officers and staff have raised concerns about themselves and their family, and they have my support and understanding as they go about their important work keeping communities safe in these worrying and most-testing of circumstances. To them again, I say thank you.
“In response to these concerns, the PSNI and wider security partners are taking appropriate action and are working around the clock to investigate the incident, provide reassurance and mitigate any risk to the safety and security of officers and staff.
“As of August 30, 3,954 self-referrals have been made to the PSNI’s emergency threat management group. This is part of the welfare and support services which have been made available to PSNI officers.”
He added: “Six individuals have been arrested by detectives in investigating the breach and the criminality connected to it. Five have been released on bail to allow for further police inquiries and one has been charged with possessing documents or records likely to be useful to terrorists.”