Policing is never far from the news and with the publication this week of the Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report into policing across England and Wales it has hit the headlines again. But behind the predictable TV sound-bites about police cuts, the report sets out a very encouraging picture of police forces rising to the challenge of tighter budgets and making reforms to protect the frontline.
As a public service costing £14 billion a year, policing has to play its part in reducing the deficit (down by a quarter in the last two years). But reform would be necessary even if there were no deficit. After years of Labour increasing the bureaucratic burden on police but leaving the service unreformed, there is a huge amount which must be done to make our police forces leaner, more efficient and effective crime fighting agencies.
The first words of the HMIC report makes perfectly clear what its chief finding is: ‘Police forces have risen to the financial challenge, cutting their spending while largely maintaining the service they provide the public’. It could not be any clearer.
Read on and you find that the gloomy predictions of Labour and the Government’s opponents that budget reductions for police forces would lead to a decline in the service provided to the public simply have not come about. The report makes clear that the Government’s approach is working.
The front line is being protected. The report found that police forces plan to keep 94 per cent of their frontline officer numbers – that is a significant achievement. Indeed in the two years from March 2010 neighbourhood police officer numbers have actually increased by 2,300. At the same time forces are reducing non-frontline officer numbers by 42 per cent. So the proportion of police officers on the frontline is increasing. And tellingly the report found that the majority of forces are not taking any longer to respond to emergency calls.
Our model of policing by consent is internationally respected. HMIC found that this model remains fundamentally unaltered. But new and innovative approaches to how the service is delivered are producing real benefits. Because of local restructuring, forces now plan a 9 per cent increase of spending in public protection roles like the management of sex offenders and child protection. Forces plan to make £169m of savings from collaborations. There will also be real investment in the special constables, whose numbers declined during Labour’s years in power, from almost 20,000 in 1997 to just over 14,000 by 2010.
And what about the service provided to the public? Again the news is encouraging.
Crime is coming down; overall crime levels fell by 3 per cent between December 2010 and December 2011. Victim satisfaction has increased, particularly amongst victims of anti-social behaviour. A majority of members of the public surveyed by HMIC had not noticed any change in day-to-day police visibility.
Most devastatingly for the Government’s critics, HMIC found no link between budget reductions and crime levels and no link between police officer reductions and recorded crime. Labour, who before the last election would not guarantee to maintain police numbers but who now opportunistically scaremonger about the consequences of headcount reductions, cannot credibly argue that any reduction in officer numbers will damage the service provided to the public – there is simply no evidence to support it.
At the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in November the public will be faced with another stark choice on policing. Conservative candidates will be committed to the rigorous, reform-minded approach which our police forces themselves are taking to deal with lower budgets and get more for less. In contrast Labour candidates, extraordinarily, oppose the very existence of PCCs, and are wedded to the old centralising Labour doctrine, hostile to the collaboration and innovation which will be vital to success in the future.
In the first term of the last Labour government from 1997 to 2001, police officer numbers fell by over 1,600. The Home Secretary at the time, Jack Straw, said ‘an effective modern police service is about far more than numbers alone. It is about improved technology, increased efficiency and performance and partnerships.’ He was absolutely right.
But sadly for all of us, Labour in the years of plenty that followed failed to reform our police and simply went on spending money we didn’t have. Now we have a Government which is not afraid of serious reform. There is still much to do, but this report highlights the potential of that approach, as well as proving the sceptics and doomsayers wrong.