by Matt Cavanagh
A few days before the general election, David Cameron famously promised that “Any Cabinet minister, if we win the election, who comes to me and says ‘here are my plans and they involve front line reductions’ will be sent back to their department to go away and think again.” As late as last September, home secretary Theresa May was insisting that “lower budgets do not mean lower numbers of police officers”. The breathtaking disingenuousness of these soundbites has been exposed again yesterday, as Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary publish the first authorised estimate of how the government’s 20% cut in police funding, announced in October’s spending review, will affect police numbers – and in particular how it will affect the front line.
The report, based on detailed investigation of individual forces’ plans, estimates that 16,200 police officers will be cut between 2010 and 2015. This entirely undoes Labour’s investment between 2000 and 2010, taking police numbers back to 1997 levels.
There is undoubtedly scope for efficiency savings in the police. Some of these were already in train before the election (they are set out in Chapter 5 of the 2009 White Paper). But as is clear from the graph on p24 of the HMIC report, with 81% of police funding going on staff costs, and another 10% going on areas like transport and premises, the 20% cuts announced in the spending review were always going to cut deep into police numbers.
The Policing Minister James Brokenshire yesterday reiterated the government line that crime and police effectiveness “do not depend on numbers”. The HMIC report contradicts this, arguing that “Research suggests that, all other things being equal, higher levels of police are linked to lower levels of property crime, [while] evidence for an association between police numbers and violent crime is weaker.” With the recent crime figures highlighting the lack of any coherent crime policy, ministers might be advised to be a little more cautious, and a little less complacent .
Besides any effect on crime, police officer numbers clearly have a direct effect on visible patrolling. To some extent this can be offset by the welcome trend, dating back to 2009, towards single patrolling – which also makes officers more approachable to the public. But this cannot fill the gap entirely, and the availability of officers for patrol has wider benefits, including helping to build public confidence.
Police Community Support Officers, introduced under Labour specifically to focus on patrolling and public confidence, are also being cut, by 1,800. This is a proportionate cut of around 11%, the same as police numbers. We should be grateful that Chris Grayling gaffed himself out of the job of Home Secretary, as he was planning to scrap PCSOs altogether. Police civilian staff are being cut at around twice the rate of police officers and PCSOs – but there are risks here too, as many police staff were hired precisely in order to free up warranted officers for front line tasks.
In fact, the most important thing about yesterday’s report is that it tries to estimate not just the effect on overall numbers, but also how this will affect the front line. Defining the ‘front line’ is notoriously difficult and controversial, but HMIC have made a decent attempt, and – unlike ministers – are clear about their methods and assumptions. The report finds that up to March 2012, forces are only intending to cut the front line by 2%, but that it will become progressively more difficult to protect the front line from then on. Indeed, for some forces, it will be impossible. Yvette Cooper noted this, rightly complaining that “forces which have already done well in cutting bureaucracy and getting more officers out on the street are actually being hit harder because they are having to cut more now from the frontline.”
To get a clearer sense of how the Government’s cuts will affect front line policing in different parts of the country, look at the graph on p22, showing which forces face the biggest challenge. The graph compares the planned cuts in officer numbers in each force, with the estimate of how many officers are not in front line jobs. Put simply, the closer your force comes towards the right hand side of the graph,the more deeply it is likely to have to cut into front line officers. As HMIC state:
“In 8 forces the number of police officer posts they plan to cut is higher than the number of officers they have in non-frontline functions… A further 8 forces would need to reduce the police officers allocated to non-frontline functions by 80–99%, if they are to avoid having an impact on the number of police officers in frontline roles.”
This impossible predicament includes some big forces: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands, and all three Yorkshire forces. But a glance at the same graph shows that if you live in David Cameron’s constituency, or Theresa May’s constituency, you’ll be ok. As they say, we’re all in it together.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.