The claim

“This report makes it clear that the frontline of policing is being protected overall and that the service to the public has largely been maintained.”
Nick Herbert, 3 July 2012

The background

The policing minister was putting a positive spin on today’s news that nearly 6 per cent of frontline police officers will be lost by 2015 thanks to budget cuts.

Ministers have been upbeat from the outset on the ability of police forces to cut staff without hurting the front line. We’ve picked up Theresa May and David Cameron in the past for loose language on this point.

But today’s report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary does give the government some political ammunition. The police watchdog found some reasons to be cheerful, as well as issuing some dire warnings about the possible effects of austerity.

The analysis

Today’s report is an update of HMIC’s major research into the effect of the cuts published last summer. Forces made projections until 2015 then, and those forecasts have changed slightly over the last year.

There’s some good news in today’s revised estimates of the severity of the cuts.

Overall, forces are planning to cut slightly fewer jobs than they thought they would have to. Originally, the projections were for 34,100 police officers, PCSOs and civilian staff to get the chop by 2015. Of those, 16,200 were going to be warranted officers.

Now we’re talking about 32,400 overall workforce cuts and “at least 15,000” officers, according to HMIC.

And there’s evidence that forces are shielding the “front line” – that’s defined as staff in visible roles like responding to 999 calls and patrolling neighbourhoods; those who do specialist jobs like CID detectives; and some “middle-office” staff like custody sergeants and local commanders.

The new report says the front line will fall by 5,800 officers and an additional 2,300 other staff – that’s 8,100 in total or 6 per cent of all staff, while the non-frontline workforce will see 20,300 jobs lost or 33 per cent of the workforce.

That means the proportion of officers and staff in frontline roles will shift – from about 67 per cent in 2010 to 74 per cent in 2015.

Clearly, these are still major cuts, despite the slight revisions since last year, and the frontline hasn’t dodged the axe altogether.

HMIC put it like this: “The front line is being protected, although not preserved.” So when Mr Herbert says “the frontline of policing is being protected overall”, he’s echoing the watchdog’s language, but only telling half the story.

He’s not being entirely upfront about the fact that 6 per cent of frontline roles are going.

But is he right to say that crime overall fell in the first year of the spending review period, and that victim satisfaction has improved slightly.

And it seems that forces are making an honest effort to take up the slack from back office job losses by sharing administrative services.

So that’s the “good news”. What about the clouds on the horizon?

HMIC said the number of police in visible roles fell by 5,500 between 2010 and 2012. “Visible” is a narrower definition than “frontline” and comprises response, neighbourhood, roads, firearms, community safety, dogs and mounted units.

And the frontline officers are having to multi-task more, with neighbourhood teams doing more of the kind of work that would have been done by response units or detectives. So there’s a “potential risk” that neighbourhood police officers will spend less time patrolling their patch, according to the report.

HMIC also says that forces in England and Wales are planning to recruit an extra 9,000 unpaid special constables, a 58 per cent increase on March 2010, suggesting that we are going to be relying increasingly on volunteers to police the streets in the era of austerity.

Perhaps most worrying of all, two police forces – Cheshire and the Met – failed to give HMIC frontline staffing projections until 2015, putting the whole thrust of this research into doubt.

Worse, Britain’s biggest force also failed to explain how it’s going to close a £233m funding gap.

The Met’s budget shortfall accounts for the lion’s share of a £302m gap nationally. It’s not clear where the money will come from and more job losses can’t be ruled out.

But the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, made a pre-election promise to us that he won’t make any more cuts to Met Police officer numbers in the coming years and we shall be holding him to it.

The budget black hole is one reason why HMIC says it has “multiple concerns” the Met and two other constabularies: Devon and Cornwall and Lincolnshire.

The verdict

Nick Herbert has done better than David Cameron and Theresa May in winning a Fact rating for his comments on police numbers today – as long as it’s understood that “protected overall” doesn’t mean “untouched”.

In truth, this report could have been worse for the government. About half of these cuts have already been delivered and HMIC surveys suggest the public haven’t noticed any significant dip in service.

That could be because ministers were right about the ability of the nation’s police forces to take a budget hit, or whether it’s because chief constables have been straining every nerve to stop the effect of the cuts being seen on the streets.

Either way, the big black cloud on the horizon is the Met Police’s finances. “Multiple concerns” about the biggest force in the country’s ability to manage these cuts end HMIC’s latest report on a jarring note.

By Patrick Worrall