A dialogue of the deaf: The debate about police cuts

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A dialogue of the deaf: The debate about police cuts

Yesterday’s National Audit Office report on the “financial sustainability of police forces in England and Wales” spells out just how impoverished the debate has been on the impact of cuts on police forces.

It clarifies that:

  • The Home Office funding formula doesn’t consider the circumstances of individual forces;
  • Most police forces don’t understand their demand in detail, nor its relationship to costs; and
  • The Home Office doesn’t understand the relationship between cuts and service delivery, nor when individual forces may require additional support.

Why does this matter? The current debate about the impact of cuts to police budgets could best be described as a dialogue of the deaf. Police forces, PCCs and the Home Office are doing the public a great disservice in allowing this to persist.

The weakness of the arguments was perhaps most evident in Steve White’s speech to the Police Federation annual conference, with its emphasis on rhetoric and “we told you so”. Where is the robust evidence on changing response times, unpaid overtime, rest days cancelled, stress, resignations and retirements, and victim satisfaction?

What is the evidence about the changing resourcing of response and neighbourhood police functions, the caseload of CID officers, conviction rates and staff morale?

To borrow a health analogy, all of these “vital signs” should be knowable. Evidence that they are straying from historical norms would make the case far more strongly than simply stating, for example, that workloads are up. The College of Policing report on demand started this work, but does not go far enough certainly it does not support the case so often seen on social media and elsewhere that demand is rising.

Yes it does appear to be changing, and yes, in respect of some areas such as public protection and mutual aid it has risen. But that is not the same thing as saying demand is up. As the NAO report makes abundantly clear, there simply isn’t enough evidence to support this.

It is also striking that the debate, such as it was, between the Federation and the Home Secretary completely ignored the fact that some, particularly smaller, forces appear to be in a far less resilient position than others. Along with the debate about policing at a national level, there really needs to be a debate about the more urgent cases of the forces in greatest need.

By the time the HMIC PEEL inspections are in a position to say anything about how forces are coping with the cuts, and indeed how resilient they are to absorb further cuts, it may be too late to have the argument, never mind win it.

Interestingly, we have it on good authority that Home Office officials have been finding it difficult to keep informed about developments in forces, ironically because of allegations from PCCs that they are attempting to interfere at the local level. Assuming this is true and we have no reason to doubt that it is PCCs really need to take a much more mature approach to engaging with the Home Office.

The publication of the National Audit Office report represents a huge opportunity for policing to make the case against cuts and to challenge the Home Office on its assumptions, but the arguments have to be stronger, and in particular they have to be evidence based. If the Chairman of the Police Federation is serious about working with the government, then here’s surely an opportunity that cannot be missed.

Gavin Hales,Deputy Director, The Police Foundation

This blog was orginally published on 5 June 2015 by Police Oracle.