The National Audit Office (NAO) report this month on the financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales demonstrated how the government has been playing fast and loose with the police service. The home secretary’s salami-slicing of the government’s police funding has some forces reeling while others remain relatively unscathed.
Northumbria, where 85% of the police force’s funding comes from central government, has had a 23% cut, while Surrey, which has a stronger council tax base and relies on the government for only 46% of its budget, has suffered cuts of just 12%. In general, poorer areas have had significantly greater cuts. Theresa May seems to have little interest in knowing about how the cuts are affecting police forces and even less in doing something to support the worse off.
The NAO report criticised the government (and in particular the Home Office) for not having the information it needs to judge whether the police service is spending its money wisely. How could May say in her speech to the Police Federation last month that “it is perfectly possible to make savings without affecting the quality of neighbourhood policing” when, according to the NAO, she has no basis on which to reach this judgment?
The NAO report adds to a growing body of evidence, including some collated by the College of Policing, that, far from being just about cutting crime, the police service has a much wider role in keeping the public safe. It provides the initial response to mental health crises, to parents worried about their missing children, and supports the work of many other public services. Police forces say fewer than one in four emergency and priority incidents reported to them relate to crime. Clearly, the public does not recognise the home secretary’s description of policing as a service that exists exclusively to cut crime.
The police service has done a woeful job of making the case against the cuts. It would help its cause if it could show what it is asked to do, what it does, and how much it all costs. This work has started but the case is not yet compelling.
May has challenged the police service to work with her or have reforms imposed, but the NAO report blows her credibility on whether the cuts can be absorbed without severely damaging service delivery. Something will have to give. Either the police grasp the nettle and start seriously transforming their service as West Midlands police are doing, or May begins the process of reducing the number of forces to just a handful.
The most sensible way to reduce costs without affecting the quality of the service the police deliver, would be to reduce the number of forces from 43 to, say, 10 or even – as in Scotland – to just one. The majority of officers at a recent Police Federation conference voted for a single, national force. Everyone in the field knows this is the solution, given the economies of scale and potential to rationalise headquarters functions. Just saying the police should do more with less really won’t cut it.