The claim

“If you look at the figures from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, they believe there will be more police in visible policing roles this March than there were a year ago.”

David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 22 February 2012

The background

Holding the front line in the face of 20 per cent cuts in the police budget is crucial for the PM.

Despite the ring of alarm bells over frontline police numbers, David Cameron told the House of Commons that the thin blue line is actually getting fatter.

He claimed that there will be more police in “visible roles” next month than there were a year ago (visible comes under the new definition of “frontline”). FactCheck looks at the evidence.

The analysis

Mr Cameron’s claim rests on predictions made in Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s (HMIC) Adapting to Austerity report, published in July last year.

Analysing data from 42 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the police watchdog based its forecasts on Home Office statistics from March 2010 and budgeting predictions made public by police forces.

According to HMIC, police service strength stood at 243,888 in March 2010. The HMIC arrives at this total by adding up the number of officers, staff and Police Community Support Officers.

The “frontline” can draw from all of these three groups; but in March 2010 the number of those classed as frontline staff accounted for 68.1 per cent of the total.

A year later, by March 2011, total strength across the 43 forces in England and Wales had fallen to 232,720. HMIC then predicted that it would fall further to 230,876 by March this year.

Yet HMIC said it expected to see non-frontline staff bear the brunt of the cuts as forces strive to protect the frontline – and this would push the proportion of frontline staff up from 68 per cent in March 2010 to 70 per cent by March 2012.

Had Mr Cameron talked about the forecast for proportion of frontline police, he would have been on safe ground.

However, HMIC does not believe there will be “more police in visible policing roles” by March 2012; the report actually anticipates total police numbers to drop by 12,800 – including 2,500 from the frontline.

The problem is that the predictions the inspectorate made last summer have already proved to be woefully over-optimistic (to be fair, the HMIC did warn that the numbers could change “perhaps significantly”).

By March 2011, according to HMIC figures the frontline had already lost 7,994.

And the latest figures from the Home Office show that the police workforce as a whole had seen 19,000 full-time equivalent posts cut by September 2011 – far more than the total 12,800 cuts HMIC forecast for this March.

By September then, the size of the force had been dragged down to 224,883 – well beyond the HMIC’s forecast of 230,876 for next month.

We don’t yet know how many of these were on the frontline, as the Home Office doesn’t provide the analysis, so we can’t tell if forces have managed to swing the ratio to 70:30 despite the severe cuts.

Certainly in March 2011 the ratio was heading in the wrong direction – sliding slightly from 68.1 per cent to 67.9 per cent over a year.

Plus, even if by September they did manage to meet the 70:30 target, that would translate as a frontline strength of 154,796 – which is a 7 per cent cut in the frontline.

The verdict

It was misleading of Mr Cameron to say the HMIC expects more bobbies to be out on the beat by March. The HMIC does not expect this; last summer it predicted a drop in numbers – and Home Office figures issued just two months later proved the HMIC’s forecast to be ridiculously over-optimistic (though it was based on data provided by the forces).

Total cuts have been far more severe than the HMIC anticipated; with the force losing almost 8,000 from the frontline alone. That’s more than three times the amount they expected between March 2010 and March 2012.

Mr Cameron would have done better to quote the HMIC’s belief that forces will increase the proportion of police on the frontline, as the lion’s share of the jobs cut are played out in the back office.

But given that the cuts have surpassed the HMIC’s predictions, it remains to be seen if the police will have managed to protect the proportion on the frontline.

By Emma Thelwell

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Update: Labour MP and shadow policing minister David Hanson told FactCheck: “The Prime Minister has got his facts wrong yet again”, adding that after PMQs, he raised a point of order in the House. Mr Hanson asked the Speaker of the House to arrange for a copy of Adapting to Austerity to be presented to MPs. “I would not wish the House to be inadvertently misled by the prime minister’s comments today,” he said.