Today’s National Audit Office report on the financial sustainability of the police service makes for damning reading. It summarises what anyone working in policing will already know:
- a real terms cut in Home Office grant to police and crime commissioners of 30 per cent since 2010/11, which, when council tax increases are taken into account, means 19% less money in real terms;
- a huge reduction in workforce: 15% fewer police officers, 21% fewer police staff and 40% fewer PCSOs (18% overall reduction in the size of the police workforce);
- unsurprisingly therefore we see a direct impact on the service the police are able to offer to the public: the time it took to charge an offence increased from 14 to 18 days between 2016 and 2018, the arrest rate fell from 17 per 1,000 population in 2014/15 to to 14 arrests per 1,000 population in 2016/17 and there have been fewer breathalyser tests, motoring fixed penalty notices and convictions for drugs trafficking and possession.
What the NAO is really concerned about is that the Home Office does not understand the impact of the funding reductions on the financial sustainability of police forces. If there were to be serious service or financial failure in a force, they argue, the Home Office would not have seen the warning signs in advance because it does not collect or monitor the data. For example, the NAO says that the department does not know what level of reserves it may be necessary for forces to hold. While police forces currently hold 15% of net revenue expenditure on reserve, this contrasts to 40% for local government.
The report is damning about the government’s lack of a strategy for policing. Ministers will no doubt respond, as they have to critical NAO reports in the past, that they have devolved responsibility to the local level. The problem the government has is that it has devolved the responsibility (and the blame) to police and crime commissioners, but it still raises most of the money nationally – and the NAO quite reasonably expects the centre to take an interest in how the tax payers’ money it dispenses is spent.
The report gets at the heart of what I see as one of the biggest problems with current policing policy: the lack of any national strategy for policing. Having a national strategy does not mean an end to local accountability for local policing. It means rather that there should be a clear sense of direction in particular in those areas that require a push from the centre. These include IT (where progress has been slow), specialist capabilities that really ought to be pooled across wider geographic areas and the response to cross border crime (cyber, serious and organised crime, fraud, modern slavery, online child sexual abuse etc). The report is critical of the delayed implementation of the Emergency Services Network. It criticises the oversight of the Police Transformation Fund saying of the Police Reform and Transformation Board which oversees it that “its role as a national coordinator of the transformation of police services is limited as it has no budget, formal powers or levers to make transformational change happen across all forces”.
The government thought it didn’t need a national strategy because policing would ‘self-reform’. But a system cannot self reform in a coherent or anywhere near optimal way if it lacks the institutions and decision making processes to do so. Decisions on national policing matters are diffused across a number of central institutions (the NPCC, the College, the Police IT Company etc) which are unquestionably weaker than their predecessors (most importantly ACPO and the NPIA). And the really big decisions require unanimity of 43 chief constables and 43 accountability bodies (mainly PCCs), so the whole system moves at the speed of the slowest traveller.
The next phase of police reform will require not just a clear national strategy but also much stronger capacity and capability at the centre to deliver it. Priorities for local policing should continue to be set locally, but the system overall needs to cohere and achieve outcomes that are more than just the sum of its parts. I am looking forward to speaking about these and others issues at the Deloitte Future of Policing event next week.