BY MAX WHITE, Deputy Editor
Police forces throughout the UK are “struggling to cope” with ever decreasing staff numbers and ever increasing crime rates, a recent Home Affairs Select Committee report set out, in a damning critique of Home Office and Government police funding policies. The report says that “policing is at risk of becoming irrelevant to most people”, as forces find themselves under “considerable stress”, with a Home Office that has shown a “complete failure of leadership”.
Policing and police funding has always been a stumbling point for governments. The role of a government is to keep its citizens safe, and the most visible and overt form this assumes is the police. However, policing and public safety is expensive and complex to finance, and usually bears the brunt of Government cuts and austerity.
The impact of recent cuts to the police has been immense. Since September 2009, the last set of Home Office figures before the Conservatives were elected to government, there have been cuts of 22,424 officers UK-wide. Since a similar time, 2010-11, there has been an overall funding decrease of 19% in real terms to all forces. This is coupled with rising crime rates: in the 3 years to March this year, crime reported to the police rose by 32%; whilst violent crime has almost doubled since 2015. This now means a crime is committed every 6 seconds.
The Home Affairs Committee report identifies neighbourhood policing as the area that is hit the hardest by cuts. They found there has been a drop of more than 1/3 of neighbourhood officers since 2010, with some forces losing more than 2/3. Stephen Doughty, a Labour member of the committee, pointed out that “neighbourhood policing lies at the heart of British policing”, emphasising the vital police-community relationship is being eroded by cuts to neighbourhood policing. In only the last 3 years, The Guardian reports a loss of 7,000 neighbourhood officers, with a drop of 18% of PCSOs in the same time. The Times reports that recently released figures “showed that hundreds of thousands of domestic burglaries, vehicle thefts and shoplifting cases are closed without a suspect being identified”. As such, Che Donald of the Police Federation, the association that represents the rank and file police officers, has emphasised that “there is no substitute for embedding officers and PCSOs in neighbourhood teams”.
Outside of neighbourhood policing, the report highlights other areas of great concern. There is a less than 2% conviction rate for people who watch child sexual abuse online, with forces being “woefully under-resourced” on this; there are around 700 live terror probes running in the UK; there is the epidemic of ‘county lines’ drug gangs who exploit children as young as 12 in their operations; and new technology that has been introduced to fight crime has been a “complete and utter mess”.
Another damning report of police funding came recently from the National Audit Office (NAO). They told the Home Office in the report that their approach to police funding is “ineffective and detached” from the “changing demands faced by police officers”, and that forces are under “financial strain” and are “struggling to deliver effective services to the public”. They found that arrest rates and victim satisfaction levels have plummeted – 33% of victims of crime are unhappy with their treatment from the police (up from 29% in 2016), and there has been a drop of 26% in the number of charges and summons of suspects. They urged the Home Office to “get a grip on police funding”, and “direct resources to where they are needed”.
The recent budget has also sparked fresh divides between the Government and police chiefs. The Chancellor did indeed assign an extra £160m for counter-terrorism policing, but all other parts of policing saw no extra funding. The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has sent a formal letter to the Treasury saying it will seek a judicial review of the Government’s proposals to deduct hundreds of millions of pounds from their budgets. This centres around the Treasury’s recalculation of the money each force needs to pay into the police pension scheme, landing forces with a £420m bill. The NPCC estimates that the bill, if met solely by cuts to police numbers, would mean 10,000 fewer officers on the streets.
Furthermore, last week three of the UK’s most senior police chiefs (from the West Midlands, Greater Manchester and Merseyside forces) warned of a fresh policing crisis as a result of this pensions decision, which would leave them with no option but to cut police numbers. Dave Thompson, Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, added that “criminals are well aware of how stretched we are”.
This pensions decision has come alongside Phillip Hammond’s assignment of £420m to fixing potholes, the same amount as he’s taking off the police, sparking accusations from the Police Federation that he’s ‘prioritising potholes over public safety’.
In addition, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, head of UK counter-terrorism policing, has said that this part of policing, despite being the only area to receive extra funding in the budget, “depends entirely on” local officers for intelligence. He adds that since the 2017 Westminster Bridge attack, 13 Islamist and 4 far-right terror plots have been foiled, warning also that these forms of extremism “feed off each other”.
It is clear, then, that British policing is in crisis. Policing is an issue that is always said to be a top priority, but is also often one of the areas that is hit hardest by cuts. The vast majority of police officers do an exemplary job at keeping the public safe, but find themselves consistently under increasing pressure in their job because of politics and funding. For example, the BBC found that forces spent £1.7bn on overtime in 5 years. Despite being overworked and underpaid, police officers continue in their jobs on the streets with trepidation that theirs may be the next job to be axed as part of cuts, meanwhile politicians bicker between themselves and constantly jettison responsibility for the people who keep the public safe from harm. Despite claims that austerity is coming to an end, the police remain at their most critically underfunded level for decades, and forces are becoming more disillusioned with the politicians and departments that manage them. Community cohesion and trust suffers, police officers suffer, everyone suffers from underfunded police forces.