The claim

“We will not do anything that will reduce the amount of visible policing on our streets.”
David Cameron, 10 August 2011

Cathy Newman checks it out

At the heart of David Cameron’s “fightback” against the rioters is his decision to flood the streets of London with 16,000 police – almost treble the number on duty earlier this week when the trouble began. But it’s hard to see how those kind of numbers can be sustained if this new era of social unrest continues.

The government is cutting police budgets by 20 per cent by 2014/15 – though ministers have always promised the spending reductions won’t affect “frontline” officers. Today the London mayor Boris Johnson urged the prime minister to rethink the cuts. But Mr Cameron insisted the police had the resources they needed, and that “visible policing” would not be reduced. So does his line on the thin blue line pass muster?

The analysis

The best analysis we have on the effect of cuts to police budgets comes from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), the Government body that carries out independent oversight of the police in England and Wales.

Last month HMIC published a report on how police forces are planning on implementing the cuts, and it found that across 42 of the 43 forces in Enland and Wales, the average constabulary would see frontline numbers fall by 2 per cent by March next year.

HMIC defines “frontline” police as “those who are in everyday contact with the public and who directly intervene to keep people safe and enforce the law”, a category that includes beat officers as well as specialists like firearms officers, mounted officers and detectives.

Had Mr Cameron said “frontline” rather than “visible”, he would have earned himself in instant FactCheck black mark, as frontline numbers are clearly already in jeopardy as a result of the cuts, according to HMIC.

But the Prime Minister referred to “visible policing”, a slightly different phrase that may have got him off the hook.

According to the inspectorate, “visible” police are “staff who wear uniform and mainly work in public”, a smaller sub-set of “frontline” which HMIC analysis doesn’t cover specifically.

So we can’t prove the Prime Minister wrong, but whether the fine distinction between kinds of police will impress civilians who have been on their own front line of the recent riots is of course a highly moot point.

Undercover officers who mingle with crowds, burglary specialists who try to recover looted goods and detectives who will try to identify thugs from CCTV images all fall outside Mr Cameron’s promise, but many will feel that they have an important job to do in the coming days.

In any event, it’s doubtful on current evidence whether the Government has the right to make assurances about how the cuts will affect the way police deliver any services, frontline, visible or invisible, at the end of the spending review period in 2015.

Both Mr Cameron and Theresa May have been making reassurances about police strength, with the Home Secretary saying: “We know that, at the end of the spending review, the police will have the sort of numbers that would enable them to deploy resources in the way they have done in the last few days.”

But it’s not clear from HMIC figures how she can be sure of that, since the vast majority of the 42 police forces who discussed their budgeting plans with the inspectorate could not say how the cuts will affect frontline numbers beyond 2012.

The HMIC report said: “Only eight forces provided a plan that detailed their anticipated frontline vs non-frontline profile for the whole of the CSR period. This meant that we did not have enough data to analyse what frontline numbers will be by the end of the period (March 2015).”

Cathy Newman’s verdict

Senior Tories are really concerned the government is losing its grip on law and order. One government member told me: “People will remember this when they come to vote at the next election.” If David Cameron fails to restore order within days, history suggests the public may not forgive him.

Jim Callaghan lost the election after the Winter of Discontent, and a prolonged period of social unrest could wreak electoral havoc for the Conservatives. So being able to claim that police numbers are holding up is crucial for the PM. He just about gets away with it, by using the word “visible” rather than “frontline”. But the public may not be fooled by such rhetorical sleight of hand.

The analysis by Patrick Worrall