A row over an attempted reform of the Whitehall funding formula for the police has descended into farce after Home Office ministers were forced to call a halt and announce a 12-month delay to the process.
The complex formula for funding the 42 police forces in England and Wales has been called “unclear, unfair and out of date” by ministers, and the reform has already been redrawn twice in the face of unprecedented threats of legal action, first by inner-city forces and then by shire forces.
But the admission in a letter by Home Office officials that the latest version of the formula, which would have left 31 of the 42 forces worse off than expected, was based on “incorrect data” has persuaded ministers to give up the reform attempt for this year.
The police minister, Mike Penning, apologised to MPs on Monday for the “wrong figures” and said the distribution of Whitehall grants to the police would now be based on the existing formula for an extra financial year, with the 2016-17 allocations announced in December. The new system will now come into effect 12 months late in April 2017.
“I am sorry to say there was a statistical error made. We recognise this has caused a great deal of concern to police forces around the country,” Penning told MPs.
The initial proposed changes to the funding formula would have addressed concerns about the underfunding of inner-city forces compared to rural ones. The sums involved were not insignificant, with the Metropolitan police set to lose up to £184m and forces such as Durham and North Wales set to lose £10m each.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, told Penning: “To call it a shambles would be charitable.”
The delay over the funding formulaprompted the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall, Tony Hogg, to “pause and reflect” on his plans for a 15% rise in his police precept on council taxpayers. The increase would trigger a local referendum under the Localism Act 2011, which restricts police precept increases to 1.99%.
The row over Whitehall funding of the police is likely to look like small beer compared to the impact on the police of the 25%-plus cut to the unprotected Home Office budget being prepared by the chancellor, George Osborne, in his comprehensive spending review to be unveiled on 25 November.
The home secretary, Theresa May, is to spell out on Tuesday her plans for the future of the Home Office after a spending review that is likely to require her department to reduce its expenditure by 50% between 2010 and 2020.
May is expected to argue that the lessons of her reforms of the police, who have already absorbed a 20% reduction in Whitehall grants since 2010 without a rise in crime, should be applied across the Home Office.
She is expected to set out how the Home Office will continue to deliver better services for the public, at less cost to the taxpayer, while maintaining national security, controlling immigration and cutting crime. She is expected to highlight changes in working practices and delivering services, including more digital approaches, as one way of finding savings.
The parliamentary and health service ombudsman has disclosed that he has upheld two-thirds of the 158 complaints investigated about immigration cases. This compares with about a third of all complaints being upheld against government departments in general.