The claim

“It’s ridiculous to say that savings cannot be made. But lower budgets do not mean lower numbers (of officers)”

Home Secretary Theresa May, 15 September 2010

The background

Arresting statistics were published today: 34,100 police jobs will be axed in England and Wales by 2015 due to Government cuts –  a third of these have already been cut. And the overall figure is an underestimation, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) admitted.

The extent of the cuts could prove worse, HMIC warned, because some forces haven’t provided data running to 2015 – including the Met, which last year accounted for a fifth of England and Wales’ police workforce.

The force is facing a 20 per cent budget cut over four years, which HMIC chief Sir Denis O’Connor said was its “biggest financial challenge in a generation”.

Yet speaking in September, Theresa May said it was ridiculous to say that savings couldn’t be made without hitting the number of police officers.

Have the Home Secretary’s detectives proved her wrong already? FactCheck looks at the evidence.

The analysis

Just four months ago, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) said that 28,000 police jobs could go. ACPO also sounded the siren for worse to come, warning FactCheck in March that it was a “movable feast”.

Today’s numbers confirm the cuts are worse than expected, HMIC has revealed that 4,000 more officers’ jobs than expected are now set to go; brining the total number of officers’ jobs on the line up to 16,200, or 11 per cent of officers.

A further 16,100 other police staff and 1,800 community officers bring the total to 34,100 – this represents 14 per cent of the police workforce and culls the force to the same size it was in 2003/04.

The number of police officers alone will drop back to the same number we had in 2001/02.

The Prime Minister has always insisted that the frontline won’t be hit, and Ms May has told her force “the frontline is the last place police should look to make savings – not the first”.

But the “non-frontline” isn’t just made up of pen-pushers – it includes the CID (Criminal Investigations department), Intelligence, drugs and vice squads, fraud, hate crime, vehicle crime and a host of other departments. These people provide vital support to frontline officers.

The Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales said: “It is impossible to reduce the workforce to this extent without impacting on service delivery.”

Today’s data shows that forces are trying to protect the front line, planning just a 2 per cent cut between March 2010 and March 2012 of 2,500 officers (non-frontline numbers will drop 11 per cent).

But the HMIC warned that to sustain this over a four year period will be “very challenging”, especially over the next 18 months – as the Government cuts are front-loaded with two thirds due in the first two years.

In fact, 10 forces will have to cut more than half their back office workforce to save their frontline, the HMIC said.

A further 22 forces will have to cut more than 30 per cent of their non-frontline forces to protect their frontline. “Others may, by necessity, have to make more inroads into frontline numbers,” the report said.

Could this have an effect on crime? At the most basic level, the HMIC says “frontline officer numbers are a key factor in a force’s ability to fight crime and increase public confidence in the service”.

Higher police numbers have been linked to lower levels of property crime, with a separate report published by HMIC this month estimating that a 10 per cent cut in police officers could lead to a 3 per cent rise in property crime.

Yet HMIC was keen to point out to FactCheck that considerably more research needs to be done.

Cost-cutting has had very little impact on our police forces’ ambitions to cut crime levels – with 17 forces setting themselves targets.

However, five of the forces with the most ambitious crime reduction targets are subject to higher budget cuts (more than 16 per cent) than many of their peers.

Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation, says the knock-on effect will see forces struggling to keep their heads above water as resources dwindle. “This will fundamentally change the way we police our communities and an almost inevitable consequence will be a rise in crime rates”.

The verdict

The HMIC’s report proves that lower budgets do mean lower numbers of police officers. Officer numbers are expected to drop 11 per cent in four years and although it is holding up well, even the hallowed frontline will be 2 per cent thinner by next year.

Today’s report reveals significant doubt over whether police can meet efficiency targets and hold frontline cuts at 2 per cent for the whole CSR period.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg reminded us today that “it is not possible to ring fence the police”.

No one expected to find a silver bullet. But with 80 per cent of police budgets spent on salaries, managing cuts – without hitting the frontline or dropping the ball on crime – will be a target on the run for the police.

By Emma Thelwell

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