Osborne’s slashing of police budgets will hinder reform

George Osborne’s decision to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament has left the police with too little time to put in place longer term reforms.

Rick Muir is the Associate Director for Public Service Reform at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Public debate on the state of the police service has polarised into two seemingly contradictory narratives. On the one hand the Police Federation argues that a 20 per cent cut in central government policing grants is damaging the ability of the service to tackle crime effectively.

On the other hand, the government argues the police are ‘the last great unreformed public service’, and that big savings can be made without harming the frontline. In reality there is some truth in both of these arguments.

There is a real risk frontline officer numbers will be hit, in particular from 2012 onwards. A recent HMIC report estimates the service will need to shed 16,200 police officers by 2015 in order to balance budgets.

Although so far the fall in numbers has been mainly achieved by squeezing the back office, this will be harder to maintain from 2012-15. The next 18 months will be particularly difficult given that two thirds of the cuts are frontloaded in 2011-2013. Forces that have already squeezed back office functions and employ a relatively high proportion of frontline staff will struggle to avoid big reductions in frontline service.

HMIC found that 22 forces would have to cut their non-frontline workforce by more than 30 per cent in order to protect their frontline numbers. This will be a major challenge – but it is also true that over the long-term big savings could be made in the police service without affecting frontline policing.

To give just two examples:

Workforce mix and job design:

There is too little specialisation within the police service and there are far too many warranted constables doing tasks that keep them away from the frontline and could be performed as well and at lower cost by civilian staff.

Evidence from National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) modernisation pilots found that new specialist custody teams in Dyfed Powys freed up officer time equivalent to 14,391 hours per annum, while the use of socialist Local Investigation Officers  in Wiltshire freed up 12,598 hours of officer time per annum.

A CID team in Surrey achieved an 8 per cent lower running cost by greater use of civilian staff.

Collaboration between forces is still too marginal to the work of the police service:

Forces continue to procure their own air support, uniforms and vehicles, maintain their own IT systems and run their own finance and HR departments. Scotland is looking at reducing the number of its forces, and England and Wales should do the same.

This need not come at the expense of flexible local policing so long as Basic Command Units can be held to account by local councils at borough and county level.

So, the government is right to argue there is money to be saved in the police service. The problem is that George Osborne’s decision to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament has left the service with too little time to put in place the longer term reforms that could cut costs while protecting the frontline.

Instead we are in involved in a classic rush to salami slice officer numbers.

Although the hacking scandal has damaged the reputation of British policing, it is worth pointing out that public confidence in the police has been rising in recent years, most likely because of the return of visible neighbourhood policing. It would be a tragedy if these gains were lost because of front-loaded and unnecessarily severe cuts to force budgets.

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