The claim

“My nine-point plan for a Greater London…making our streets safer with 1,000 more police on the beat.”
Boris Johnson, 7 March 2012

The background

Politicians often make promises before elections that they can’t keep afterwards. Presumably the hope is that voters will forget. But here at FactCheck towers we don’t forget.

Boris Johnson swung into the headlines last week thanks to a zipwire malfunction, and generated more copy when he plays host to Rupert Murdoch and Wendy Deng. It seems the Mayor of London’s profile has never been higher. 

But let’s wind the clock back to the election manifesto Boris published in March this year in what proved to be a successful bid to get Londoners to return him to power.

The fourth of nine promises to the electorate stated that Boris would begin a second term by “making our streets and homes safer with 1,000 more police on the beat”.

Has he kept his word?

The analysis

When we first read his manifesto, we thought Boris was promising to bump up police numbers by 1,000 over the course of his second four-year term.

But it turned out that this was a manifesto pledge about something that had supposedly already happened.

The Mayor was in fact committing to having 1,000 more Met Police officers by the end of his four-year term than were on the books when first came to power.

His press office told us: “The 1,000 more police relates to what the mayor inherited in May 2008 compared to strength in May 2012.”

We know that there were 31,398 warranted officers policing the capital at the end of March 2008 according to figures from the now-defunct Met Police Authority. That’s our best estimate for strength at the moment Boris took over – and in fact it’s the figure he quoted himself in his campaign material.

That was a convenient target for the Mayor to choose when making his “1,000 more” promise, because it marked a low point.

Officer numbers were on the up when Boris took over in 2008, thanks to the last budget set by Boris’s predecessor Ken Livingstone. There were as many as 33,404 in November 2009,  but then the numbers began to fall.

So even if Boris had hit his target of 32,398 officers on the books in May 2012, that would still mean that he had cut more than 1,000 from that high point  30 months earlier.

But the Mayor hasn’t hit the magic number of 32,398, as we now know. The latest report compiled by the Met for the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime reveal that the figure for the end of May 2012 was just 31,684 officers.

So Boris has failed to honour one of his manifesto promises, and he’s missed by more than 700 bobbies, according to these statistics. (*See Update)

Officer strength was less in May 2012 (31,684) than in the previous month (31,825) and less than in May 2011 (31,852). So numbers are down year-on-year, and they’re falling as we speak, according to the latest available figures.

Those things are also true of police staff and community support officer numbers – they both fell between April and May too, and are lower than last year.

That’s strange, because Met Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe was assuring London Assembly members in February of this year (here, p16) that the force was about to experience a surge in recruitment, with officer strength expected to hit around 32,200 by the following month.

Evidently, that hasn’t happened. What has gone wrong?

One clue might be the fact that the only Met Police employees who are seeing their ranks increase year-on-year are Special Constables – most of whom are unpaid volunteers.

Does this suggest that Britain’s biggest police force cannot afford to maintain paid officers in adequate numbers?

The latest figures we have for service strength are all even lower than the staffing targets set out in the Met’s Draft 2012-2015 Business Plan – even though Boris’s people told us before the election that these targets were pessimistic.

All this comes after the Met failed to explain to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary how it plans to resolve a funding shortfall of £233m while protecting frontline services. We should know more in the autumn.

The verdict

With all this financial insecurity, it’s no  surprise that earlier this month, Boris’s deputy mayor for policing Stephen Greenhalgh refused to rule out more officer cuts, saying he did not have a “crystal ball” to predict future service strength.

That’s a lot more honest than the promise his boss made to London’s voters five months ago.

Of course, Boris Johnson won’t be the first politician to fail to live up to a pledge made on the campaign trail.

Far more worrying is what the broken promise represents: dwindling numbers of police in the capital,  and Scotland Yard failing to show how it will halt the decline.

If there is a repeat of last year’s riots or another major incident on his watch, a police shortfall could spell far more trouble for Boris than a drooping FactCheck-o-meter.

By Patrick Worrall

Update: Boris’s press team say they prefer to put service strength at 31,816.2, a number which includes recruits and secondments. It’s not clear whether that’s a fair comparison, as we don’t know whether the benchmark figure for March 31 2008 included those too. Even if the higher number is fairer, it still means Boris has broken his pre-election promise.