Home Secretary Amber Rudd is once again taking heat over police cuts. She has stood firm in her conviction that cuts to police numbers are not the cause of the recent rise in violent crime – and that reversing those cuts is not the answer.
The evidence in this area is messy, but the data we do have suggests that her position is justified. Diverting large chunks of public money into hiring thousands of new police officers is unlikely to be the most effective way of dealing with the issue: it’s an appealingly simple answer to a very complex problem.
Today’s Serious Crime Strategy tries – at length – to capture the complex web of issues which lead to people becoming perpetrators and victims: from mental health problems, to deprivation, and lack of parental support. These are all issues which go well beyond the police’s remit – and have all been touched by cuts in one way or another.
Amber Rudd called today’s strategy “a start" – but it is rather late for that. Knife and gun crime have been rising since 2014, while the political battle over police cuts has been waged for even longer.
Ultimately, the policy responses in the strategy do not measure up to the scale of the problems it outlines, or to the heat of the political debate. A laundry list of old and new interventions, it will do little to convince the public that the Government is effectively tackling the problem of violent crime.
Since 2009/10, police spending has fallen by 17%, while police officer numbers have fallen by 14%. Our Performance Tracker – produced in partnership with CIPFA – finds these cuts were made without a notable detriment to the quality of the service, at least initially.
The relationship between the crime rate and police activity is notoriously difficult to fathom, and a rise in crime cannot be considered a straightforward indicator of poor police performance. The leaked Home Office analysis which has caused Amber Rudd so much trouble today essentially admits as much.
Increases in recorded crime often indicate a shift in police practice, while large-scale studies usually identify wider societal or technological shifts behind genuine changes in crime patterns. In any case, crime – as measured by the Office for National Statistics’s crime survey of England and Wales – has been falling since 1995.
But signs of pressure are emerging. In 2017, victim satisfaction levels dipped below 2010 levels. There are reports of forces struggling to deal with volumes of emergency calls: almost a quarter are struggling to meet demand in a “timely way”, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies and Fire and Rescue Services.
One of the new announcements in today’s strategy is the £11m Early Intervention Youth Fund. This is a welcome two-year investment in tackling the roots of the problem – but it looks rather puzzling in the face of a £44m real-terms cut in spending on youth justice services at a local authority level since 2014/15.
Meanwhile, the state of the wider criminal justice system must also be taken into account. The prison system has not fared so well under fiscal constraint, with spiralling violence following its large (26%) staff cuts. The youth offending estate is particularly troubled – “not a single establishment” is safe, according to the 2016/17 report of HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.
As the pain of spending cuts starts to bite in key areas – with the prison and health services particularly suffering – ‘public sector efficiency’ is becoming a harder political sell. That does not, however, mean that there are no efficiencies yet to be made.
But if this government wants to convince the public that its aim is efficiency – not pure ideological cutting – then it needs to do better than this strategy. A statement that crime is about more than policing requires a robust, cross-government response to go with it. Without that, the debate over police cuts isn’t going anywhere.
Performance Tracker is produced in partnership between the Institute for Government and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).