The government has met its highly ambitious police recruitment target, but policing still needs a more sustainable approach to it workforce planning and long-term funding
Following a 16% real terms decline on police spending and an almost 15% decline in police officers between 2009/10 and 2017/18, in 2019 the government was elected on a manifesto commitment to boost the number of police officer by 20,000 by March 2023. 44 Dearden L, Boris Johnson’s push to recruit 20,000 more police increased risk of ‘unsuitable’ officers, watchdog finds, The Independent, 10 March 2022, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-met-police-jobs-risk-b2032903.html 45 Conservative Party, Our Plan | Conservative Manifesto 2019, www.conservatives.com/our-plan
The programme was ambitious, requiring the recruitment of almost 50,000 new officers to offset normal resignations and retirements. While the programme has experienced some issues, including the use of an outdated funding formula to allocate resources between forces, 46 National Audit Office, The Police Uplift Programme, March 2022, www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/The-Police-uplift-programme.pdf the government deserves credit for successfully recruiting an additional 20,951 officers. 47 Home Office, Police officer uplift, England and Wales, quarterly update to 31 March 2023, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-officer-uplift-quarterly-update-to-march-2023/police-officer-uplift-england-and-wales-quarterly-update-to-31-… This is a laudable achievement; as the NAO found in March 2022, the programme had tightly defined objectives and was well coordinated. 48 National Audit Office, The Police Uplift Programme, March 2022, www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/The-Police-uplift-programme.pdf
Government has done well to hit its target but will struggle to retain 149,572 officers
Successful delivery of the final stage of programme was not guaranteed. First, the recruitment target was backloaded meaning it had to recruit more officers this year. 49 National Audit Office, The Police Uplift Programme, March 2022, www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/The-Police-uplift-programme.pdf Second, as the IfG and CIPFA Performance Tracker shows, recruitment started to fall below target in May 2022 and needed an increase in officer headcount of over 1,000 per month to get back on track. Third, this would be hard to achieve given a tightening labour market and reputational challenges around policing. 50 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, The Police Uplift Programme, Fifteenth report of session 2022–23, HC 261, p. 14, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23202/documents/169519/default Despite these headwinds, the government recruited an extra 5,771 officers in the quarter ending March 2023 51 Home Office, Police officer uplift, England and Wales, quarterly update to 31 March 2023, www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-officer-uplift-quarterly-update-to-march-2023/police-officer-uplift-england-and-wales-quarterly-update-to-31-… – though as a former BBC home affairs correspondent suggests, this may have been achieved simplifying the recruitment process, encouraging failed candidates to reapply and by encouraging retiring officers to defer retirement till after the 31 March deadline. 52 Danny Shaw, Twitter, 25 April 2023, https://twitter.com/DannyShawNews/status/1650955054025719813
The government may yet struggle to retain these officers as increasing numbers are exiting the service; 2021/22 saw the highest rate of voluntary resignations since at least 2015. This appears to be driven by low morale, pay dissatisfaction and ‘how the police are treated by the government’. 56 Police Federation, Pay and Morale Survey 2022 – Headline Report December 2022, www.polfed.org/media/18245/pay-and-morale-2022_headline-report.pdf None of these factors are likely to improve in the near future, and morale could get worse given the reputational damage done to forces by the poor behaviour of some police officers identified in the media and in reports such as the Casey review. Further, as forces examine historic allegations against officers – 1,131 in the Met Police in the last decade – more officers may leave the forces due to misconduct. 57 France A and Salisbury J, Four out of five investigations into officers need to be reassessed, says Met Chief, Evening Standard, 6 April 2023, www.standard.co.uk/news/london/met-police-misconduct-review-mark-rowley-wayne-couzens-sarah-everard-b1072521.html
The stated benefits of the uplift programme relied on retaining an additional 20,000 officers up to 2029/30. 58 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, The Police Uplift Programme, Fifteenth report of session 2022–23, HC 261, p.43, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23202/documents/169519/defaultThe Police Uplift Programme (nao.org.uk) But given retention problems, the government will likely need to continue with enhanced levels of recruitment if it wishes to retain current officer levels.
A recruitment target is a blunt instrument for improving outcomes for victims of crime
There are big problems in the police but it’s not clear that the number of officers is the most pressing; forces are struggling to rebuild public trust, charge rates remain low – with currently only 6% of police recorded-crimes leading to charges in 2021/22 and victims wait a long time for justice.
The scale and speed of recruitment – 46,505 have been recruited since November 2019, 31% of the overall workforce – has put undue pressure on the vetting system. The police inspectorate (HMIC) found that some vetting units have struggled to cope with the higher caseload. 64 His Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, An inspection of vetting, misconduct, and misogyny in the police service, www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/wp-content/uploads/inspection-of-vetting-misconduct-and-misogyny-in-the-police.pdf p. 5 and p. 10 And, HMIC has warned there are risks that unfit candidates could become officers if recruiting practices (including vetting) fall short.
The recruitment surge also fails to address key workforce challenges which have contributed to low charge rates. Forces still face gaps in specialist skills in areas like digital forensics and accredited detectives. And the volume of new staff has placed an “operational burden” on existing staff, taking up 50% of more senior officers’ time while new recruits are trained up. 65 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, The Police Uplift Programme, Fifteenth report of session 2022–23, HC 261, p. 8, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23202/documents/169519/defaultThe Police Uplift Programme (nao.org.uk)
Police forces should use their budget as effectively as possible but there is evidence that the uplift programme has created perverse incentives around workforce composition. Over £400m of police grant funding was linked to maintaining officer numbers. 66 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, The Police Uplift Programme, Fifteenth report of session 2022–23, HC 261, p.21, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23202/documents/169519/defaultThe Police Uplift Programme (nao.org.uk) The emphasis on officer numbers above all else has reduced chief constables’ flexibility and may undermine efforts to modernise workforces by, for example, making greater use of civilian staff. 67 House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, The Police Uplift Programme, Fifteenth report of session 2022–23, HC 261, p. 8, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/23202/documents/169519/defaultThe Police Uplift Programme (nao.org.uk) The police inspectorate has raised concerns that forces may resort to replacing back-office roles with highly trained officers. 68 Observations on the third generation of force management statements, www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmicfrs/wp-content/uploads/observations-on-third-generation-of-force-management-statements.pdf, p.21.
Extra officers could cause problems for the rest of the justice system
Even if additional police officers improve the performance of the police, they could exacerbate problems in the wider criminal justice system. There is a record backlog of almost 62,800 cases in the criminal courts (almost 90,000 when factoring in the complexity of cases processing through the system), prisons are nearing capacity, and the average waiting time from offences being charged to cases clearing the courts has increased from 250 days in 2019 to almost 400 in 2021.
Fixing these problems requires an end-to-end approach to better identify key skills shortages and unblock pressures, but the uplift programme has only targeted one element of the system and there are no comparably high profile plans for the criminal courts and prisons.
Given the extremely tight spending plans pencilled in from 2025/26 onwards, it’s critical that whoever forms the next government takes a more holistic approach to policy making in the criminal justice system.