The claim

“We are recruiting 5,000 constables over the next three years and we want Londoners of every background to consider a policing career.”
Boris Johnson, 30 January 2013

The background

The mayor of London has been popping up in unexpected places of late.

On Thursday Boris Johnson hijacked Nick Clegg‘s weekly radio phone-in, urging the deputy prime minister to get cabinet ministers “out of their posh limos” and on to public transport.

Boris has also pledged to get in training for a 100-mile bike race around the capital this summer, saying: “I have said that I will do it and I will do it.”

What about more important promises the mayor has made – like the ones that helped to get him elected last year?

Keeping police numbers up to strength was one of the key commitments in his pre-election manifesto. And last week the mayor was quoted as saying that we can expect 5,000 new recruits to the Met over the rest of his term of office.

That came as something of a surprise because, as we’ve found in previous FactChecks, police officer numbers have been falling in London and the Met has a nasty black hole in its budget. Is there really a recruitment drive in the offing?

The analysis

The mayor of London’s press office told us: “The mayor has pledged to keep police numbers high and has a plan to deliver that which requires recruiting 5,000 new constables over the next three years.

“Recruitment was put on hold during the Olympics but unlike many other parts of the country, the Metropolitan Police is now training new officers and numbers will rise again this year.

“The balanced budget we have set out allows us to keep police numbers high at around 32,000 over this term and our reform plans will put more cops into neighbourhoods.”

So we’re not talking about 5,000 extra constables, but the Met will recruit new PCs to make up for those who leave the force every year through naturally wastage.

Staff turnover in the Met runs at around 5 per cent so we will need about 5,000 new recruits in three years to keep the numbers level.

That is what is supposed to happen, anyway. But Boris has a history of failing to deliver on promises to keep police numbers high.

When he was elected for his first term as mayor in 2008 there were 31,398 warranted police officers in the Met.

That number, inherited from the previous Mayor Ken Livingstone, marked a low point, but Livingstone had budgeted for numbers to rise and they went on to reach a high of 33,404 in November 2009.

The surge came during the first half of Boris’s watch but took place as a result of financial decisions taken by his predecessor.

Police officer numbers went down for the rest of Boris’s first term – after he really took control of the Met’s budget – and by the time he made his pitch to voters for a second time last year he had presided over a drop of more than 1,700.

Now the latest official statistics reveal that there are only 31,163 officers serving in the Met. That’s fewer than the total Boris inherited from Ken Livingstone five years ago.

It means London has lost 2,241 officers since November 2009, or an average of 70 cops from every borough under Boris.

The mayor’s long-term commitment is for strength to stay at around 32,000 for each of the next three years.

[Note that it’s only police officers that are predicted to stay level – the overall Metropolitan Police Service workforce (“total MPS”) will still fall.]

But we know that these targets are not being met. And in its latest monthly report the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime admits: “There are risks around the speed at which the shortfall in officer numbers can be recovered.”

The Met does have plans to reallocate officers between various functions and restructure the workforce. There are to be more officers deployed in neighbourhood teams, and the numbers of constables will rise, balanced by a cut in the numbers of sergeants and higher ranks.

Does that mean there will be more frontline policing overall?

Not according to the independent police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. HMIC thinks the Met will see a smaller proportion of its total workforce on the frontline in 2013 than in 2010.

This is in contrast to the national picture, which suggests that most forces are successfully moving in the other direction.

The final question is whether the Met can really afford to recruit enough newcomers to keep strength on an even keel.

The force has to find £232m savings to balance the books by 2014/15. That represents the lion’s share of the national funding shortfall of £302m identified by HMIC last year.

The mayor’s latest report reveals that the plan was to underspend by £50m this year in order to start making up the shortfall. But with very little of the financial year left the force is still £23m short of hitting that target.

A spokesman for Boris Johnson told us: “The expectation is that by the end of the financial year the MPS will achieve the target set by the deputy mayor of a £50m underspend.

“This will be transferred to a budget resilience reserve for use in future years whilst the MPS implement savings proposals needed to deliver the significant on-going savings.”

The verdict

Boris’s press team are at a loss to explain where the claim about 5,000 more constables comes from. It appears to fly in the face of everything we know about Met police recruitment trends.

The reality is that Boris has presided over a significant drop in police strength, and there are now fewer officers than there were when he first became mayor five years ago, even as London’s population continues to grow.

By Patrick Worrall