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MPs: thin blue line is wearing thinner

by Mark Rowe

Funding for police forces is down by nearly a fifth since 2010-11 and there are nearly a fifth fewer officers and staff. Inevitably there are consequences and forces are under increasing strain, says a committee of MPs.

Forces cannot do everything and are prioritising their work by cutting back in some areas, such as neighbourhood policing meaning fewer officers on the street. Public confidence in the police is declining and officers’ personal resilience is under pressure with this reduction in visibility, says the PAC (Public Accounts Committee) report, Financial Sustainability of Police Forces.

Violent crime and sexual offences have increased and forces are dealing with more incidents which are not crime related, at the same time as coping with fewer front line staff. Forces are feeling the pressure of ‘cost shunting’ as cuts to other areas of public spending, such as health, are passed onto policing because it is so often the first line of response. Policing by consent relies on public confidence and this is being severely dented. Despite the pressures facing forces, it is disappointing that the Budget did not address the financial sustainability of police forces, particularly in neighbourhood policing which has borne the brunt of cuts.

At a time when funding is tight, the Home Office must make tough choices about its priorities for policing. But it is not showing strategic leadership, the report complained, and it has acted too slowly in response to known financial sustainability problems. It does not have a national picture of demand for police services and so has a limited understanding of what resources forces need, says the PAC.

The Home Office’s formula for distributing funds has long been acknowledged as unfit for purpose, as the Committee says it reported in 2015, but has still not been updated. In the absence of a proper formula, central government funding to local forces has been subject to crude cuts across the board, which do nothing to take account of the complexities of local circumstances. Local taxpayers are paying more to fund police services, compensating for the 30% central government cuts, while seeing less local policing.

The MPs said that they last looked at the sustainability of police forces in 2015 and it is depressing that the Government still has a poor understanding of the on the ground reality of its funding regime.


Public Accounts Committee Chair, the Labour MP Meg Hillier, says: “The ‘thin blue line’ is wearing thinner with potentially dire consequences for public safety. Public confidence and trust that the police will respond is breaking down.

“Funding reductions of nearly a fifth have placed severe strain on police forces, which have in turn been forced to cut back. The results are stark.

“The Police and Crime Commissioner for Merseyside told us that the impact of austerity had been immense, causing the loss of force-wide resources such as robbery and street-crime squads.

“In Devon and Cornwall, neighbourhood policing has been hit to the extent that the PCC believes ‘our communities do not feel safe’. The Chief Constable of Durham told us the public feel let down.

“Last week, the Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council added her voice to those concerned about what over-stretched forces can realistically be expected to do. In this context it is not surprising that officers’ personal resilience is under pressure, too – not least from serving as ‘first responders’ as cuts to other public services continue to bite.

“This cannot continue. Government must show leadership and get on with fixing the flaws at the heart of its approach to policing. In particular the Home Office must improve its understanding of the real-world demands on police, and use this information to inform its bid for funding from the Treasury. And when it secures that funding, it must distribute it effectively.

“It is wholly unacceptable that, more than three years after accepting the police funding formula needs to change, the Home Office has no firm plans to do it. If it is to convince police and the public that it is serious about addressing their concerns then it should set out a plan as swiftly as possible.

“The messages from communities and police forces across the UK are clear. The Government must act now.”

For the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners APCC Chair, Mark Burns-Williamson said that demand on the service is increasing as is the complexity of the cases that forces are having to deal with. “We are working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Home Office to review our demand and resources in preparing a comprehensive submission in the run up to the next Government spending review.

“The prolonged period in not addressing how the funding formula is allocated has contributed to the uncertainty, along with the overall reductions in central grant, both of which need to be tackled if the overall financial position of policing is to improve in the future. With regard to the Emergency Services Network, we remain very concerned that the extension of Airwave could have a significant impact on already pressured police budgets. On police reform, in order to fulfil our ambitions in this area, as set out in the Policing Vision 2025, we need to move forward with a multi-year approach to funding programmes, which has the potential to achieve far greater value for money.

“Any further national strategy would need to complement the Policing Vision 2025, which sets out the key outcomes and objectives for policing, alongside those areas where we believe further developments are needed in order to build a police service for the future – something all policing leaders are fully committed to.

“We know the public want to see more investment and support for policing services and we continue to work with the Home Office to resolve the immediate employer pension contributions issue.”

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