THE chairman of Cleveland Police Authority last night pledged to resign if an inquiry into the troubled force's finances blames him for its £8m budget deficit.

Councillor Ken Walker was speaking at a special meeting of Stockton Borough Council, which was also attended by Chief Constable Sean Price.

Coun Walker said: "It is a serious state of affairs. The Audit Commission has been told to lead an inquiry into what has gone wrong.

"I have also, with the support of the Chief Constable, called in Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

"If a proper and authorised inquiry, which will be independent, shows that there is a blame that clearly lies at my door, I will deal with that and do the honourable thing and go.

"It is important we get to the bottom of this. It is the coward that walks away and does not see it through.

"There is not anyone who can sit up and say there were warning signs in any report presented to us that indicated to us we had any kind of problem to the magnitude we are now facing."

During the meeting, Councillor Bob Gibson, leader of Stockton Borough Council, passed a motion for the council to support a full investigation of the finances of Cleveland Police Authority, while assuming there would be no reduction in the service offered to the public.

The 16 members of Cleveland Police Authority will meet Chief Constable Price and his deputy Ron Hogg today when they will be presented with a final budget deficit figure.

Chief Constable Price said he was looking forward to the meeting.

He said: "I am sure it will be most helpful in examining the processes, which have gone on financially over the last several years. I wasn't chief constable two years ago, nor have I been involved in any of the budget setting processes of previous years, including 2003-2004.

"I took immediate action when irregularities in my finance department were discovered recently and then informed the police authority.

"As I have said before, my new executive team and myself have been bitterly disappointed at the significant hidden challenges that have emerged in recent days. Their scale and volume were unexpected."

The force's finance director, Steve Prevell, has been suspended until further notice while an investigation is being carried out.

Ken Gardner, of Cleveland Police Authority, said members were shocked to hear the news, but they had not met for ten days, during which time the £8m black hole figure had been revealed.

Meanwhile, Ashok Kumar, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, has written to Home Secretary David Blunkett requesting him to intervene in the financial management of the force.

The MP has repeated his calls for Coun Walker to quit. But former CID chief and Middlesbrough mayor Ray Mallon said this would be premature.

He said: "This is very, very serious indeed and I have never known Cleveland Police to be in such a mess as this.

"I don't support any calls for any resignation at this time. That is premature as I see it.

"As far as calling for resignations, that will come later and it may not be the chairman of the police authority, it may be others as well. But as far as the police authority are concerned, all I am interested in is them doing their job."