“Significant strain” on police budgets is causing the service given to the public to worsen, a Home Office official has admitted after senior officers condemned the impact of austerity.
Scott McPherson, director general of the crime police and fire group, said the department “absolutely recognises” the struggle to cope with budget cuts and plummeting numbers of police officers.
“The police are under significant strain and, with the resources they have, some of the performance measures we would like to be improving are getting worse,” he told the Public Accounts Committee.
MPs heard there are 50,000 fewer people now working in policing compared to 2010, while violence, terrorism and non-crime demand has increased.
Senior officers told how they have not only been affected by cuts to their own forces, but by slashes to other public budgets that have left them as the “service of last resort” for mental health, missing people, suicide and other crises.
Some forces have started "prioritising" the crime they respond to because of the strain on resources, and figures show that the majority of victims are left with no confidence in the criminal justice system by their experience.
Investigations are taking longer and almost half are being closed with no suspect identified, while the proportion ending with someone being charged or summoned to court has fallen to 9 per cent.
Jane Kennedy, the Merseyside Police and Crime Commissioner, said the falling number of police officers was having a “real impact on ordinary people”, adding: “The impact of austerity has been immense.”
Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, vice president of the Police Superintendents Association, said forces had been “impacted by the austerity that has hit other public services”.
He cited mental health-related calls as a particular issue, with the College of Policing saying that, of the 12 million incidents dealt with by police every year, 4 million are mental health-related.
“Crime is probably about 20 per cent of what we deal with and there has been an exponential rise in everything else because of the gaps appearing in other public services,” Chief Superintendent Griffiths said.
Senior officers told how constables sometimes have to wait several hours with people who have not committed crimes for NHS staff to take them for treatment.
Alison Hernandez, the Devon and Cornwall Police and Crime Commissioner, said the growing pressure on officers was driving up depression and anxiety.
“We’ve had police officers commit suicide,” she added.
Sir Thomas Winsor, HM chief inspector of constabulary, told MPs that, although in the early years of austerity police forces were “to find considerable efficiencies without affecting output, now there’s a political question over whether or not the cuts have gone too far”.
Speaking ahead of the committee hearing, Chief Constable Dave Thompson said policing was at a “tipping point” in Britain.
The national policing lead for finance and resources said “hard choices” provoked by budget cuts had left forces less visible, less responsive and less proactive.
“Core aspects of policing – such as answering calls, attending emergencies, investigating crime, bringing offenders to justice and neighbourhood policing – are being pushed beyond sustainability,” he added. “We are in danger of pursuing efficiency to the point of ineffectiveness – where we can process the work but we’re not detecting crime as we should be and not meeting public expectations.”
Chief Constable Thompson, who heads West Midlands Police, said that, while funding increases had been directed to specific areas like terrorism and serious organised crime, there has been a real-term reduction of police budgets of 19 per cent since 2010.
“Policing is at the tipping point – and we need to move on from here,” he added. “We need police and crime commissioners, chief constables and our government to come together on a shared vision so we can grasp the opportunities technology brings and become more effective and productive.”
A recent report by the National Audit Office concluded that the Home Office's light touch approach to overseeing police forces means it does not know if the system is financially sustainable.
The watchdog found arrest rates and victim satisfaction levels are on the slide, and flagged up reductions in the percentage of crimes resulting in charges.
The Home Office has pointed to increases in funding to combat the terrorist threat, but the head of national counterterror policing said it requires a “whole system approach”.
Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu said some of the thousands of officers who responded to last year’s attacks had to be pulled from other areas of policing, including murder, organised crime and sex offences.
“Policing is a machine with many moving parts, and counterterror policing is just a fraction of the effort required to keep us safe,” he told a security conference in London earlier this week. “We cannot absorb further cuts in wider policing even if we maintain the counterterror policing budget.”
Senior officers and police commissioners appearing before the Public Accounts Committee cited concerns with the current formula used by the government to award funding to regional police forces.
Durham Chief Constable Michael Barton told MPs that his force was not eligible for funding allocated to deprived areas and those with high alcohol dependency rates, because tower blocks and pubs were used as indicators.
“We were told we could cut hard, cut deep, cut once and austerity would end in 2015, and that has not been the case,” he added. “We’ve lost more cops than we’re comfortable with, and that’s less visibility, and less traditional crime investigation.”
Sir Philip Rutnam, the Home Office permanent secretary, said the funding formula will be changed “but it won’t be a silver bullet for all things”, and called for forces to push for more efficiency and sell off assets like historical buildings.
But he also admitted that delays to a new emergency services radio system had cost £1.1bn as the Home Office was forced to extend its old Airwave network.