“I think the honourable gentleman is confusing two things. That’s the number of police officers who aren’t on frontline duties and the number of police officers who are actually in back office roles like IT and HR. Those are the figures that I gave. Those are the figures that are right.”
David Cameron, 14 September 2011
FactCheck has been following the cut and thrust of debate on cuts to police budgets closely, but we confess that one eye-catching statistic from last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions slipped through the net.
Mr Cameron told Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth: “There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs, not on the front line.”
The PM was arguing that spending cuts don’t have to spell fewer officers on the beat, as many are apparently toiling away in jobs that take them away far away from frontline duties.
But on Wednesday the Labour MP Rob Flello challenged the Prime Minister over the numbers, accusing him of “evasion, inaccurate answers and arrogant put-downs”.
Mr Flello said: “Last week the Prime Minister told this house there are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs. But Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary says there are less than 8,000 police officers and PCSOs in back office roles.”
Mr Cameron said the backbencher was confusing “the number of police officers who aren’t on frontline duties and the number of police officers who are actually in back-office roles like IT and HR”.
He added: “Those are the figures that I gave. Those are the figures that are right.”
Someone is certainly getting confused. But is it the Labour backbencher or the man in control of the pursestrings?
Downing Street told FactCheck that Mr Cameron was in fact himself quoting the same research by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary referred to by Mr Flello – but with a rather different spin.
The policing watchdog’s report Demanding Times is the most up-to-date, comprehensive analysis we have of how police officers are deployed in the 43 forces in England and Wales.
For the first time, HMIC offered definitions of the concepts of “frontline”, “back office” and “middle office”, in an effort to cut through some of the confusion that had surrounded those terms whenever they were bandied about by politicians.
HMIC says about 82 per cent of police officers and community support officers work on the front line – a category that includes visible uniformed officers who patrol the streets and roads, specialists like CID detectives, as well as others who work closely with the public, like local commanders and custody officers.
About 14 per cent work in the middle office. These are mostly officers who have less face-to-face contact with the public but are still involved in fighting crime.
Examples include intelligence staff, units who work to ensure that evidence is ready for court cases and “process support” teams who help co-ordinate drugs squads, vice squads, burglary units and so on from police headquarters.
Only 5 per cent of police officers and PCSOs work in the “back office” – in IT, human resources and the like.
According to the latest Home Office figures, there are 139,110 full-time equivalent police officers in England and Wales, and 15,820 PCSOs.
Since the HMIC figures on back office numbers don’t differentiate between the two, we have to add those two together before we can take a percentage.
Five per cent of 154,930 is 7,746 – far below the 25,000 mentioned by the Prime Minister.
So where does he get this number from?
A Downing Street spokesman referred us back to his original statement Mr Cameron to the House of Commons last week, in which he said: “There are 25,000 police officers in back-office jobs, not on the front line.”
The aide clarified that what Mr Cameron meant by that was that he was using an alternative definition of “back-office jobs” to the one used by HMIC, where the term now means “everyone who is not on the front line”.
That means lumping together what HMIC call “back-office” and “middle-office” jobs and calling them all “back-office” to come up with a higher number. (The figure of 25,000 is presumably based on 19 per cent of the total number of police and PCSOs, although that in fact equals just under 30,000.)
It does appear though, that Mr Cameron specifically assured the Commons that precisely the opposite was the case this week, when he said: “I think the honourable gentleman is confusing two things. That’s the number of police officers who aren’t on frontline duties and the number of police officers who are actually in back office roles like IT and HR.
” Those are the figures that I gave. Those are the figures that are right.”
We can only assume this was a slip of the tongue, rather than an attempt to mislead the House.
More importantly though, it appears to be the case that the Prime Minister is wilfully ignoring the definition of “back-office” put forward in the HMIC report – even as he uses other parts of it to make a political point.
Even more importantly, what that means in effect is that Mr Cameron appears to be arguing that officers should be shifted away from less visible but vitally important middle-office roles and on to the “front line” (presumably that’s the same front line as defined by HMIC, but then again, on this evidence, who knows?).
That’s something you might object to if, say, you want detectives to catch the rioters who smashed up your corner shop last month and bring a successful prosecution against them.
All of this adds up to another Fiction rating for Mr Cameron, and a dismal overall score for this week’s PMQs, which have already seen the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, demand that Mr Cameron return to the House to correct another apparent mistake.
By Patrick Worrall