Last week’s announcements of crime statistics in England and Wales just so happened to come out on the same day as the Home Office update on police officer numbers. Neither made for comfortable reading. As well as the first rise in knife crime in four years, the police have recorded an increase in sexual offences of 37 per cent and fraud is up by 17 per cent. Police recorded crime was shown to have risen by three per cent, the first increase in recorded crime since the introduction of the national crime recording standards in 2002. On top of all this, we also learnt that 17,000 police officers have been cut over the last five years.
The Tories rely on the Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) to justify their slashing of police budgets, and continually assert that crime is going down. Indeed, they are right to say that the survey showed a decrease in total crime this year. However, as we have always made clear, the CSEW doesn’t show the full picture. It doesn’t include, for example, some of the most serious and demand-intensive crimes; it doesn’t count murder, sexual crimes or even shoplifting. This means that it naturally emphasises the reduction in traditional crimes such as burglary, which is welcome, but does not cater for the growth crime areas such as sexual offences or fraud. The Government are wrong to ignore such crimes – they not only cause the greatest harm but also take much more investigation and support time by officers and staff.
In this sense, as one senior officer stated recently, “crime is not so much down, as changing”. And the crimes that we are seeing on the rise are the high harm, high complexity, high demand crimes that are ever more difficult for the police and partners to address. For example, the Cambridge Harm Index clearly shows that rape accounts for one to two per cent of our recorded crime but constitutes 50-60 per cent of total ‘harm’. The nature of these crimes means that their investigation and handling requires greater police resource, at a time when those resource levels are being bitterly attacked.
Perhaps most concerning about the Home Secretary’s cuts is the fact that, contrary to her assurances in 2010 that “cuts can be taken without affecting frontline policing”, 12,000 of the officers lost were described as ‘operational frontline police officers’. The impact of this may be taking a few years to properly set in, but in hollowing out neighbourhood policing, May is taking a dangerous gamble.
As well as reducing the capability of the police to respond to the most serious and demanding crimes, the consequence of reducing police numbers is that the scope for proactive work to prevent and protect, especially our most vulnerable, is diminishing. Exacerbating this problem further are the continued attacks on local government funding, so that the successful partnership working that was so vital in reducing crime in the past is coming under ever increasing strain.
The Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy said: “This increase in recorded violent crimes is showing some worrying trends and placing huge demand and risk on a reducing number of staff. Many of these incidents are complex with vulnerable victims to be protected and dangerous offenders to be brought under control. We are bringing many more cases to court but keeping on top of this is getting more and more challenging.”
He is right. Whilst forces have worked to protect front line officers, yesterday’s announcements show that the ability to continue this practice is being sorely stretched.
Before the general election, we set out a costed plan to find £800m in savings from the police budget, including on procurement, without impacting on the frontline. Our plan would have saved 10,000 police officers. We understand the intuitive link between frontline police numbers and crime rates, backed up by studies across the UK and Europe which make it abundantly clear that lower numbers of police officers per head correlate with increased offences.
The government have admitted that their current approach to funding isn’t doing the job; the permanent secretary to the Home Office said to the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that the police funding formula has “become more and more detached from the real demands on policing.” This admission will surprise few in the policing world, and yet does little to help the police forces that have now been struggling for five years to keep officers on the front line.
Many, particularly those in the regions most disadvantaged by the current formula, will be waiting with baited breath tomorrow when the Home Secretary updates the House of Commons on the funding allocation for police forces. We hope that when she does so, she bears last week's announcements in mind.
Jack Dromey MP, Shadow Policing Minister and Ron Hogg, Police and Crime Commissioner for County Durham