Spending cuts could weaken police and defence frontline services, MPs warned

By Katie Schotcher for RNZ

The top brass at police and defence have warned MPs the government's spending cuts could see them divest capability or weaken frontline services.

Public sector bosses have been questioned at Parliament's Select Committees over the past month about the potential impact of the government's public service cuts.

While most chief executives remained tight-lipped about their savings proposals, some hinted 6.5 or 7.5 percent cuts would have consequences.

Ministers are now examining these pitches, to decide what trade offs the government is willing to make.

Where exactly the cuts will be made - and how much will be saved - will be revealed in May's Budget.

Defence Force - 6.5 percent savings

Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short told MPs defence officials looked "at all areas line by line" before presenting their savings proposal to the Defence Minister.

"We haven't had the detailed discussion [with the minister], which says to this point, we can absorb some of the savings. But to absorb more than what I call the trimming - trimming from administration, travel, contractors, that sort of thing - we start to get into not doing maintenance on infrastructure, not doing maintenance on our major platforms."

To go cut more than 6.5 percent (150 million of the army's total budget), Air Marshal Short said the Defence Force would have to "divest ourselves of capability".

"We're presenting that solution, but showing... very clearly the impact."

Ministry for Primary Industries - 7.5 percent savings

According to MPI director-general Ray Smith, the ministry had already made cuts to its spending.

Through the previous Labour government's cuts, MPI returned $195 million that was dished out through the Climate Emergency Response Fund.

In December's mini-budget, the ministry saved a further $26 million through the cancellation of industry transformation plans.

MPI was in discussions with ministers over the 7.5 percent saving request, but stressed the ministry wouldn't make any changes to its "core statutory roles."

"If you think quarantine officers and biosecurity or key science staff that support that function, think fisheries officers, think food safety officers, think veterinary surgeons that work across a range of meat plants, and those that work in our trade and market access areas and animal welfare inspectors.

"Those type of roles that we have statutory requirements and big service delivery to do and in a range of areas...Those people won't be included in the efficiency exercise that we're undertaking."

MPI had not offered staff redundancies and did not have a hiring freeze in place, but was recruiting fewer people, Smith said.

"I think we've got about 80 odd jobs advertised today. This time last year, we would have had 400 jobs advertised."

Those 80 jobs were for MPI's core statutory or critical corporate roles, he added.

Police - 6.5 percent savings

When appearing at select committee, Police Commissioner Andrew Coster was asked if the police could cut costs without losing staff, as the bulk of its budget is spent on personnel.

"It's certainly true that much of police's budget is driven by our headcount. Obviously... we have a large number of employees... roughly 3500 employees, staff as well as our constabulary staff.

"So we can look at the mix of how services are delivered in the organization. But there are a range of trade offs to deliver savings," Coster said.

Cuts to the back office would affect the frontline, Coster said.

"We have staff who operate in a... corporate support capacity, which is what might be described as back office and then we have staff who operate on our operational area doing activity to remove that load from frontline.

"So if there were cuts in the group that were in that operation support area, that would impact our service."

Oranga Tamariki - 6.5 percent savings

Oranga Tamariki was reducing its spend on contractors, consultants, travel and ICT, according to chief executive Chappie Te Kani.

But was clear the organisation did not want to put young people or Oranga Tamariki staff at risk.

"How we are going about this is ensuring... our core purpose is the protection of young people. That is the top of the apex in our decision making about where we prioritize our resourcing and... our advice to government about where the savings could well be."

Ministry of Transport - 7.5 percent savings

Ministry of Transport chief executive Audrey Sonerson said there had been a net reduction of 24 roles across the organisation, most of which were vacant.

The Ministry made a number of staff redundant and got rid of vacancies it had been struggling to fill.

"The other thing we did is created a couple of roles to try and bring more of the contractor and consultant spend in house," Sonerson told MPs.

She did not intend "at this point of time" to make further changes to the "major shape and staffing of the ministry".

Sonerson planned to make savings by further reducing contractor and consultant spend, as well as "shaving bits off external work.