By Rob Whiteman CBE, CIPFA CEO
Policing is a key public service for all societies. However, the police force is only as effective as the public purse that supports it. The past decade of austerity has put intense pressure on the English and Welsh police forces and their finances. Earlier this year, the government confirmed a funding increase to support the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers over the next three years. This followed last year’s announcement of Operation Uplift recruitment targets for both England and Wales. At CIPFA, we welcome any funding initiative that supports policing, however, public finance professionals managing police funds must be aware of the challenges that accompany this project.
There have been a plethora of news stories from across the country chronicling the effects of too few police officers in our communities - slow response rates, the prioritisation of investigations, poor rates of prosecution for certain types of crime and so on. Home Office figures show that the number of police officers in England and Wales has been steadily declining over the past several years. Austerity measures have meant that policing budgets were slashed while fiscal pressures increased. As a result, police forces have been spread far too thin for far too long. Now with new funding come additional costs – both human and financial.
The reality of Operation Uplift that some seem to overlook is that it will take some time before new police officers are recruited, trained and ready to patrol in our communities. To meet the government’s recruitment targets, additional staff will be needed to identify and evaluate interested applicants. Delays also are expected to arise due to the time it takes for recruits to complete the Police Education Qualifications Framework (PEQF) and its associated college requirements necessary for police work. Onboarding new law enforcement officers also means increased amounts of tutoring, which in turn takes valuable, experienced officers away from their community patrols as they mentor and support new recruits. The recruitment process, when done properly, can be a lengthy one, and the positive impacts won’t be felt immediately.
In addition to government funding, Operation Uplift brings with it higher expectations for what the police force will achieve. As a force grows so do public and political expectations. People will be impatient for declining crime rates, expanded investigations, increased rates of prosecution, and improved call response rates. A larger police force should reasonably improve things among the British public. However, reality is likely not to live up to expectations. An additional 20,000 officers recruited into the wider police force by 2023 still fails to reach the numbers forces employed before austerity measures were introduced. Many in the sector are also concerned that some recruits will not actually reach English and Welsh police forces, and instead be recruited to the National Crime Agency, counter terrorism units or other security agencies. While of course other agencies provide crucial value to society, this potential split in the recruitment pool further limits the number of police officers in the street.
The government’s ‘Operation’ to increase the number of police in communities across England and Wales certainly comes at the right time. However, it’s important to realise that this initiative won’t be a cure-all for the issues resulting from a decade of underfunding. UK police have shown year after year that they’re capable of performing well under tough circumstances. We expect the situation regarding law and order in our communities to be much improved in the coming years, but lengthy obstacles will need to be overcome by our police forces in order to get there.
This article first appeared in the Police Oracle.