Boris Johnson received something of a mauling over the weekend from the BBC’s Eddie Mair, who accused him of being “a nasty piece of work”.
The mayor of London was no doubt hoping to get an easier ride from the press today when he published a long-awaited new policing plan for London.
FactCheck would never accuse Boris of being nasty, but we have cast doubt in the past on his claims that he is protecting the strength of the Metropolitan police in the age of austerity.
Last time we checked, the mayor had failed to honour a pledge to have 1,000 more officers on the beat at the end of his first term in office than he inherited from Ken Livingstone. And police officer numbers were falling, not rising.
What’s the latest from City Hall?
Let’s have a look at the claim again, particularly the phrase: “We are now actively recruiting 4,500 more police”.
The bit about “now actively recruiting” can’t be true. Go to the Met’s careers page and try to apply for a job as a police officer and you get this message:
But the mayor’s office told us the phrase Boris used in his Telegraph column was just a slip of the tongue. The Met will begin actively recruiting some time later this year, we were assured.
Fine. Will we really get 4,500 more police?
Actually the official plan is more ambitious than that. The aim is to “strengthen the Metropolitan police service by recruiting 5,000 new constables over the next three years”.
Don’t get too excited, though. This doesn’t mean that if we have 32,000 officers now, we’ll have 37,000 in 2016. It means we’ll have the same number of police in three years time, as London’s population continues to grow.
There won’t really be “more” police. There’s no real “strengthening”, it’s just that officers who leave the force through natural wastage will be replaced by new recruits. So there won’t be a cut in police numbers in London, as there will be in almost every force in England and Wales.
Or at least that’s the plan. If we sound sceptical, it’s because the mayor has so far failed to deliver on his promise to maintain police officer strength at around 32,000 officers.
The key pledge in today’s plan is to “keep police numbers as high as possible at or around 32,000”. But we are not really at that level.
The latest figures supplied to the London Assembly’s police and crime committee show that there were 30,843 officers at the end of last year. And the forecast for the end of this month is 30,437.
We were supposed to have 31,957 officers at the end of March, so the potential shortfall between the target and the reality is just under 1,500 officers.
This means, among other things, that there are fewer officers now than there were when Boris took over from Ken Livingstone back in 2008 (31,398).
And there’s nothing in today’s announcement that makes us confident that this shortfall will be made up.
According to the Met Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, staff turnover in the Met runs at about 5 per cent a year.
If that’s right, recruiting 4,500 or 5,000 new police officers over three years will only just keep numbers on an even keel.
At that rate of recruitment we’ll still be stuck at just over 30,000 by 2016, or we might have scraped to 31,000 officers, a level the deputy mayor for policing, Stephen Greenhalgh, described last year as “the worst case, the doomsday scenario”.
Boris’s latest Telegraph column suggests that the Mayor had a choice between selling off police stations to save money, or failing to keep officer numbers high.
Actually, the evidence is that he’s doing both. The number of stations will be slashed from 136 to 73, although that is offset by a promise to create 100 contact points in libraries, hospitals and neighbourhood police team bases where you will be able to speak to a bobby at least three times a week.
As far as officer numbers are concerned, there are fewer now than there were when Boris first became Mayor in 2008, and fewer than what Mr Greenhalgh may live to regret calling “the doomsday scenario”.
We think that the most Boris can claim is that London will not suffer the same fall in officer strength that most other forces will have to endure over the rest of the spending review period.
This is true on paper, but as we have seen, the reality has failed to live up to the rhetoric on many occasions in the past.
By Patrick Worrall