POLICE chiefs have been urged to send out special constables instead of fullytrained officers on Friday and Saturday nights to save cash.

Government proposals to make £545m annual savings by 2014 will target a rise in overtime payments that will swallow up six per cent of the pay bill in some forces.

They call for more specials and community support officers to be deployed at weekends in place of warranted officers, to “get the most from taxpayers’ money”.

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Ministers insisted the switch was already under way in London, but the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, warned of “carnage” if overtime was drastically cut back.

Paul McKeever, its chairman, said: “We do not do overtime out of choice. We cannot just walk away from criminals or turn our backs on crimes being committed. Next, the Government will try to schedule where and when crime happens.”

Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), also raised concerns, insisting overtime was already scrutinised carefully by forces.

He said: “The police service is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week organisation and has to be able to respond flexibly to any event or crime at any time.”

The region’s four police forces ran up a total overtime bill of £18.85m in 2007-8, official figures show. Cleveland paid out the most as a percentage of its total pay bill – five per cent.

Other cost-cutting measures include sending out officers to patrol alone, rather than in pairs, and forces combining to buy uniforms, cars, computer systems and other day-to-day equipment.

However, there will be no fresh attempt to merge forces, after plans to create a single North-East police force had to be abandoned, in 2006, after fierce opposition in Cleveland and Durham.

Ministers are still keen to see voluntary mergers, but only where it has the “full backing of all the forces and police authorities concerned”

– which would rule it out in the North-East and Yorkshire.

The Home Office insisted the package was about “savings, not cuts”, pointing to the 2.7 per cent increase in police budgets announced last week.

And it insisted there was “nothing for warranted officers to worry about”, despite plans to give community support officers new powers to seize fireworks and graffiti spray cans.

But Policing Minister David Hanson said forces needed to get away from the “culture of overtime being normal”, to slash £70m off the annual overtime bill of £413m.

He added: “There is good overtime and bad overtime.

There may be cheaper ways of delivering efficient police services at weekends, or other times of pressure.

“There will be more special constables and police community support officers, as we look at deployment in an effective way.”