by Matt Cavanagh
Two weeks ago, I highlighted the embarrassing gulf between David Cameron’s pre-election promise that cuts would not affect the front line, and the reality of the planned police cuts, as set out in the recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.
There is undoubtedly scope for efficiency savings in the police, but as HMIC set out, with 81% of police funding going on staff costs, and another 10% going on areas like transport and premises, cuts of 20% were always going to cut deep into police numbers. HMIC’s report is the most systematic and rigorous attempt so far, to estimate not just the likely effect on total police numbers – a cut of 16,000 by 2015, ironically the exact number the Met have deployed on London’s streets in recent nights – but also the likely effect on the front line for different forces around the country.
This is relevant to Cameron’s defence of the policing cuts today, when he was confronted in the Commons by former Home Secretary Jack Straw. To justify his assertion that the cuts will not affect the front line, or visible patrolling, Cameron chose to discuss his own local force, Thames Valley. This choice was either ignorant, or disingenuous. A glance at the graph on page 22 of the HMIC report shows the difference in the scale of the challenge faced by Thames Valley Police, in trying to protect the front line from spending cuts, compared to those forces who have been dealing with the riots, including the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside. Thames Valley Police would have to reduce their non-front-line officers by just under 50%, in order to avoid cutting into the front line. That is challenging, but arguably possible. By contrast, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, and Merseyside forces would have to cut their non-front-line officers by 100%. Even those who hold the simplistic view that almost all ‘back office’ jobs are unnecessary would have to admit that to cut at this level without affecting front line police numbers is simply impossible.
As public concern about crime and policing soars, the government seems to be trapped in defending two increasingly indefensible claims: first, that the cuts won’t reduce front line police numbers, and second, that anyway police numbers don’t affect crime. This position was already starting to look naïve or complacent before the riots, especially with the signs that the long downward trend in crime may be on the turn. Now it looks reckless and hopelessly out of touch, as even Conservative MPs and ‘ministerial sources’ admit.
It has been amusing, if also a bit depressing, to watch Tory cheerleaders like Tim Montgomerie suggest that the way out of this problem is for Theresa May to introduce a new target for how much time police officers actually spend doing visible work. In fact, May inherited such a target from Labour. Admittedly, it was applied only to Neighbourhood Policing Teams, but she could have chosen to extend it; instead, in those heady days of last summer when ministers were falling over themselves to mock Labour’s ‘top-down targets’, she scrapped it.
Even more ridiculous is the spectacle of Conservative MPs and Conservative-leaning think-tankers trying to use the riots to back up the case for elected police commissioners – just like they did with the scandal over the Met’s links to News International – without realising that the Met is precisely the one police force which is already very close to the elected commissioner model.
These rather desperate moves are not surprising, since other than elected commissioners, and some useful development of Labour’s introduction of online crime maps, the government doesn’t really have any crime policies – and yet they need to talk about something other than police cuts. But these moves aren’t working. As John McTernan noted this morning, Cameron’s reluctance to break off his holiday to grip the riots ignored the “basic political law, that if you’re going to have to do something, you should do it of your own free will, rather than being forced to.” He needs to realise that rethinking the police cuts falls in the same category.
Matt Cavanagh was a special adviser on crime and justice under the last Labour government.