Home Secretary warns police chiefs over officer cuts
Home Secretary Theresa May has warned police chiefs to cut costs elsewhere before slashing officer numbers.
Speaking to police superintendents for England and Wales, Mrs May said chiefs had to systematically attack overheads, not the front line.
Her warning came days after figures emerged that suggested possible cuts of up to 40,000 police officers.
But Mrs May told the superintendents' conference the debate over policing had to be "rational and reasonable".
The outcome of the government's spending review will be published next month and Mrs May said it was "pure speculation to start guessing at the final settlement for the Home Office and police budgets" until then.
The police superintendents are some of the most experienced operational officers in England and Wales. Most started their careers at the bottom and worked their way up - now they're typically borough commanders, senior investigating officers or heads of specialist units.
Unsurprisingly, they're disappointed the government chose not to treat the police like the NHS and ring-fence their spending. Trying to deliver frontline services with shrinking budgets is a burden that will fall directly onto their shoulders.
Some hope the imperative to save money will accelerate collaboration between forces. A pioneer is the Regional Roads Crime Team drawn from forces across Yorkshire and the Humber. In its first two years it's already seized criminal assets of £10m and made 1,200 arrests.
But there is considerable suspicion about the government's proposals for Police and Crime Commissioners - and frustration when police are described by politicians and journalists as the last unreformed public service.
"I will work hard to ensure a fair deal for policing," she said. "But there will definitely need to be savings made.
"It's ridiculous to say that savings cannot be made. But lower budgets do not mean lower numbers [of officers]."
Mrs May said that forces needed to start their cuts by looking at the costs of their equipment procurement programmes and support and back office functions.
"The front line is the last place police should look to make savings - not the first," she told the annual conference in Cheshire. "You must make savings happen."
And she warned chief constables against looking for quick savings, rather than tackling wholesale reform of their forces.
"I expect all chiefs to be systematically attacking overheads throughout the force, not least in headquarters."
Government was doing its part, she said, by replacing Whitehall targets with more accountability to communities through directly-elected policing and crime commissioners.
Mrs May also cited the New York Police Department, which had cut officer numbers - but also reduced crime.
More officers did not lead to fewer crimes if those new officers were stuck in the station filling out forms, she said.
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And she warned forces that reforms would have to include rethinking pay and conditions.
Later on Wednesday, Warwickshire Police, one of the smallest forces in the country, said it was considering collaborative arrangements with colleagues in Coventry, which is part of West Midlands Police. It wasn't clear whether this meant a merger.
The Home Secretary has said she will hear the case for bringing forces together, but would not compel any of them to merge.
Last week, the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, revealed that forces could cut 40,000 officers, based on calculations circulating among chief officers.
They said if the Treasury demanded cuts of 25%, it would mean "Christmas for criminals" as forces struggled to balance budgets.
And Chief Superintendent Derek Barnett, the head of the Police Superintendent's Association for England and Wales, warned that forces needed to be "sufficiently resilient" to deal with public disorder or tensions.
Mr Barnett said: "In an environment of cuts across the wider public sector, we face a period where disaffection, social and industrial tensions may well rise.
How four forces could be hit
- Lancashire - 600 fewer officers over four years
- West Midlands - 1,000 officers to go as part of cost savings totalling £140m
- Kent - 500 officers to be cut over four years
- Hampshire - 120 officers to go per annum over four years through natural wastage
Source: Police Federation estimates
"We will require a strong, confident, properly trained and equipped police service - one in which morale is high and one that believes it is valued by the government and public."
And shadow home secretary Alan Johnson said: "Theresa May might have convinced herself that fewer police officers on the beat will act as deterrent to criminals but she won't convince the public. She is also failing to convince the police"