Spending by the police has fallen considerably since 2009/10, and so has the number of police officers. Meanwhile, the nature of demand on the police is changing, with the service reportedly responding to more ‘non-crime’ work such as dealing with people in a mental health crisis. Inspections of forces suggest that quality has been maintained, but a number of warning signs have emerged in recent years, such as the decline in offences resulting in charges. Public concern with crime and ‘victim dissatisfaction’ are rising.

This section discusses the 43 police forces that cover England and Wales. The key task of the police is of course to respond to and investigate crime, which can range from theft to terrorism, and also to work to prevent crime (through education, for example). The police also deal with non-crime work, such as providing community reassurance, tracing missing people and responding to people in a mental health crisis.

Spending on the police has fallen by 18% since 2009/10

Figure 4.1 Change in net expenditure on police services in England and Wales (real terms), since 2009/10

In 2017/18, net expenditure on police services in England and Wales was around £11.8 billion (bn). This is a fall of 18% in real terms from levels of spending in 2009/10, but the pace of the reduction has slowed in recent years. Forces have been responsible for implementing spending reductions themselves, with no single approach mandated by government.

There is evidence that, in the past two years in particular, police forces have started using their reserves to bolster their day-to-day spending. In March 2017, police forces held a total of £1.7bn in resource reserves. This is an increase from the £1.4bn they held in 2011 (a real-terms rise of around 8%). However, much of this growth took place before March 2015 – since then, reserves have fallen by 22% in real terms.[1] The number of forces that are using their reserves has also increased (from 14% in 2011/12 to 62% in 2016/17).[2] Earlier this year, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) warned that some forces are using their reserves to “shore up” their current operations, arguing that this is a short-term strategy that will work only “until the money runs out” (especially as commissioners are required to balance their budgets).[3]

Demands on the police are not clear, but appear to be changing

The police have a responsibility to uphold law and order, so a key measure of the demand the service faces is the amount of crime taking place. There are different measures of determining crime levels (which provide different figures), but the most consistent and long-term method is the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW).

The CSEW is a victimisation survey, asking the general population about their experiences of crime. This means it is less affected by reporting practices, and can also capture crimes that are not reported to the police. According to the CSEW, crime (excluding fraud and computer misuse) has fallen by 35% since 2009/10, to 6.1 million(m) incidents. This continues a general downward trend of crime that has been taking place since the late 1990s.[4] The best measure of overall crime levels, therefore, suggests that they have declined.

However, the CSEW is not good at measuring high-harm but low-volume crime (such as homicide and sexual offences) and does not include crime without a direct victim (such as drug possession). Therefore it is valuable to also consider the number of ‘police-recorded’ crimes. These figures initially dropped as well (by 7% between 2009/10 and 2013/14). However, police-recorded crime has increased considerably in recent years, meaning there has been an overall increase of 27% in police-recorded crime since 2009/10, to 5.5m incidents.[5]

The Office for National Statistics has said that part of the increase in police-recorded crime is the result of improved recording practices and an increase in victims reporting sexual assault crimes (following high-profile coverage of these offences). However, it also believes that there have been genuine increases in certain crimes, particularly violent crimes.[6] For example, the police recorded a 16% increase in offences involving knives over the past year. This increase is corroborated by a 14% increase over this period in medical admissions for assault by a sharp object.[7]

As well as dealing with more violent crimes, the police are facing new types of crime: in particular, online crime. In 2017/18 the CSEW found nearly 3m incidents of ‘cyber’ crime, where the internet was involved in some way. This data is very new, so it is not included in the overall CSEW crime figures.[8] It is therefore possible that the apparent fall in overall crime levels reported in the survey since the 1990s in fact represents in large part a shift of criminal activity onto the internet.[9]

These figures suggest that the police are facing new challenges in dealing with crime. But forces are also believed to be spending increasing amounts of their time dealing with incidents that do not actually involve a crime.[10]

Incidents in which mental health is a factor have attracted particular attention, but there is only disparate data on this. Data from the Metropolitan Police in 2017 showed that within the 5m phone calls they received that year, there were an average of 315 calls per day in which concern was expressed for a person’s mental health. This is an increase from 237 in 2012, which the Metropolitan Police suggested was due to cuts to mental health services in the NHS.[11]

There are other disparate measures for what is happening to other types of incidents that the police deal with, for example calls made to report missing and absent people (which have gone up) and antisocial behaviour incidents (which have gone down).[12] But without systematic data on all of the non-crime incidents that the police respond to, and how much of their time is spent on them, we cannot clearly understand exactly how much demand for their services the police are facing.

Input: overall staff levels have fallen, and there are concerns about staff shortages in some roles

 Figure 4.2 Change in the number of police officers (full-time equivalent), as of 31 March, since 2010

At the end of March 2018 there were 122,404 police officers in England and Wales* – 15% fewer than in March 2010, and 0.6% fewer than the previous year. The decline in police numbers since 2010 has reversed the workforce expansion that occurred during the 2000s, meaning that by 2016 there were fewer police officers in England and Wales than there were in the late 1990s.[13]

Forces have made these cuts in different ways, and targeted different parts of the workforce differently – with resources for the most serious issues being better protected. For example, since 2015 there has been a 25% increase in the number of officers who primarily work in the firearms unit (particularly in the past year as the Home Office has sought to boost armed capability in response to terrorist threats), but a 12% reduction in local policing.

There is also a reported shortage of detectives. In its 2017 evaluation of police effectiveness, the HMICFRS reported a ‘national crisis’ in the number of investigators, estimating a 17% shortfall of more than 5,000 staff. It believed that this would have implications for the quality of investigations and victim care. Meanwhile, 75% of existing detectives reported that their workload was too high.[14] In 2018, the Home Office unveiled a new scheme through which university graduates can be fast-tracked to detective rank. Rather than the two years it usually takes for a police officer to specialise as a detective, graduates will now undertake a 12-week programme. The scheme is expected to increase detective numbers by 1,000 over five years.[15] This follows earlier moves by some forces, such as the Metropolitan Police, to allow direct entry into detective roles, without applicants having to first serve on the beat.[16]

Overall, the size of the entire police workforce fell by 18% between 2010 and 2018 (from 244,497 to 199,752) – because numbers of other types of staff declined more than the number of police officers. Over the same period, the number of police community support officers fell by 40% and civilian staff by 21%.

*    Staff numbers refer to full-time equivalents unless otherwise stated.


Input: workforce morale has been maintained overall, but long-term sick leave and pay dissatisfaction have risen

Figure 4.3 Number of police officers on long-term sick leave, as of 31 March, since 2013

Rates of long-term sick leave are one indicator of workforce morale. On 31 March 2018, 2,362 police officers were on long-term sick leave (about 1.9% of the workforce). This represents an overall increase since March 2013, when 1,873 police officers (1.4% of the workforce) were on long-term sick leave, but numbers have remained fairly flat over the past two years. Forces have reported an increase in the number of officers on sick leave as a result of mental health problems, although this can cover a range of issues from job-related stress to family bereavement, and may also reflect better awareness of mental health issues.

The Police Federation’s latest survey of pay and morale suggests that morale is very low, but that it is not getting worse: 58.7% of respondents reported low personal morale and 94% reported low police service morale in 2018, compared with 59.1% and 94% respectively in 2014). At the same time, there has been an increase in the proportion of officers stating that their morale is negatively affected by workload and responsibilities – from 52.4% in 2016 to 61.7% in 2018 – and by pay and benefits – from 70.9% in 2016 to 76.5% in 2018.[17]

The CSEW also indicates an increase in the number of assaults on police officers. While the data is likely to be an underestimate, and comparability across forces is difficult, it is possible to observe an apparent rise in incidents in recent years.[18] Assaults (without injury) on a constable increased by 15% overall between 2009/10 and 2017/18 (from 15,781 to 18,114); they initially fell by 9% up to 2014/15, before substantially increasing. For the first time, in 2017/18 there was also a collection of data on the number of assaults (with injury) on constables, with 8,181 assaults recorded.[19]

Output: the police may be doing more work, but not without making trade-offs in the service provided

There is no clear data on police activity. The rise in police-recorded crime indicates that the police are undertaking more work, but this does not take into account the work needed to deal with incidents that do not end up recorded as crime, which – as previously discussed – may also be rising. This is particularly significant, as HMICFRS data on forces’ responses to emergency and priority incidents in 2016/17 found that only 24% of the incidents they responded to were crime related. Meanwhile 64% of the incidents were non-crime related (such as missing persons or responding to a car accident) and the remaining 12% were responding to anti-social behaviour.[20] Without access to better data on what police officers spend their time on, we cannot say with any precision what has happened to levels of output.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that the police are having to change how they respond to crime, in the face of reduced spending. The National Audit Office has noted that the police are doing less proactive work: since 2010 “there have been fewer breathalyser tests, motoring fixed penalty notices and convictions for drugs trafficking and possession”.[21]

There are also suggestions that some forces are having to make trade-offs about which crimes to investigate. For example, Freedom of Information requests of the Metropolitan Police revealed internal guidance for officers to consider the ‘proportionate’ level of investigation, stressing the need to focus on serious crime and incidents that are more likely to be solved.[22] This internal guidance included not opening full investigations into lower-level offences where there was no CCTV (closed-circuit television) footage or the cost of damage was less than £50.[23] Vehicle thefts, burglary and criminal damage were among the most common offences not receiving further investigation.[24]

Furthermore, the decline in the proportion of offences that result in charges being brought suggests that the police may be struggling to keep up. In 2017/18, only 9% of offences resulted in charges, nearly half the 17% rate in 2013/14. There is significant variation in the charging rate for different types of crime; 40% of possession of weapons offences resulted in charges in 2017/18, compared with only 5% of sexual offences (although it should be noted that the final charging rate for these sexual offences may be higher, as more than a quarter of them did not yet have an outcome by the end of the year). But the decline in the proportion of crimes resulting in charges has taken place across all categories of crime, with the greatest change for sexual offences and the least for drug offences.[25]

Output: the quality of policing appears to have held up, but public concern is rising

Levels of crime are not a good measure of the quality of the police. As well as being difficult to measure accurately, crime levels can be affected by a broad range of factors beyond the work of the police: for example, reductions in vehicle crime may relate more to technological improvements by car manufacturers than to police work. Other indicators of quality are therefore helpful, including inspection data and public satisfaction levels.

Figure 4.4 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services’ police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy (PEEL) ratings, 2017

The HMICFRS conducts annual inspections of all 43 police forces, based around three criteria: effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy.*[26] In 2017, the majority of forces were judged to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ on all three measures. On the theme of legitimacy, 86% of forces were rated good or outstanding, a 2% fall on 2016. On efficiency, 76% were rated good or outstanding, a 5% fall on 2016. On effectiveness, 72% were rated good or outstanding, a 5% increase on 2016.** Summing up, the HMICFRS stated that while more forces improved than worsened, it is concerned that “in a minority of forces, the service is overwhelmed in some aspects of policing”.[27]

Overall public confidence with the police, measured by the CSEW, has remained largely unchanged since 2011/12, with 62% of people in 2017/18 rating the police as good or excellent.[28] But while confidence in police services does not appear to have changed significantly, public concern with the problem of crime appears to be on the rise. In the April 2018 Ipsos MORI Issues Index, this concern reached its highest level in seven years, with 23% of people reporting crime as one of the most important issues facing Britain today.[29]

Figure 4.5 Victim satisfaction with the police, since 2009/10

Most people have little direct contact with the police. So victim satisfaction rates give us more direct access to their performance. Following improvements in victim satisfaction and reductions in victim dissatisfaction up to 2013/14, in recent years these positive trends appear to have reversed. In 2017/18 satisfaction was 68% (below the 69% in 2009/10).

There has also been a growing concern with the visibility of the police (‘bobbies on the beat’) and the role that this plays in preventing crime. While falling numbers of local police officers are not necessarily a bad thing, given the changing nature of crime, it is of concern to the public. The percentage of respondents to the CSEW reporting high visibility of foot patrols declined considerably from 39% in 2009/10 to 21% in 2017/18. The proportion reporting that they ‘never’ see police foot patrols also increased from 27% to 42% over the same period.

*    HMIC defines effectiveness as “an assessment of whether appropriate services are being provided by each police force and how well those services work”; efficiency as “an assessment of whether the manner in which each force provides its services represents value for money”; and legitimacy as “an assessment of whether, in providing services, each force operates fairly, ethically and within the law”.

**    In 2017, Greater Manchester Police did not receive a full inspection, by agreement with the HMICFRS, following the terrorist attack that occurred in May 2017. As such, it did not receive grades for either efficiency or legitimacy, and so is not included in the figures provided by the HMICFRS for either of these themes.


Have the police become more efficient and can that be maintained?

Evidence suggests that the police have become more efficient since 2009/10. They have responded to considerable funding reductions without an obvious decline in the level of activity they are undertaking. Between 2009/10 and 2013/14, this was accompanied by increasing victim satisfaction with the police service. However, this satisfaction has been declining since 2013/14, as has the proportion of offences resulting in charges (for all types of crime). Meanwhile, the workforce is seemingly feeling the strain, with increases in sick leave and assaults on staff, and declining morale. These warning signs raise questions about whether all of the efficiencies achieved in the past few years can be sustained.

These efficiencies have been achieved through a mixture of productivity improvements and economy drives. Spending reductions resulted in the overall workforce declining (including a 15% fall in officer numbers) even as police activity rose. This clearly indicates improvements in productivity, although it is difficult to ascertain the extent, as data on police activity is limited. Recorded crime data gives only an overall sense of the volume of crime-related activity that the police undertake. Some crimes require far more investigation than others, and so involve more activity. Although some forces collect data on average investigation times for different kinds of crime, this is not standardised and is not published. Data on non-crime activity is also patchy, meaning that it is difficult to understand the true extent of productivity increases.

There is also evidence of economies, most clearly from the Government’s public sector pay cap. In 2010, wages were frozen for two years, and from 2013 increased by 1% each year, in line with the cap. However, the cap has now been loosened: in 2017 the police were awarded a 1% bonus and from 2018 have been given a consolidated pay rise of 2%.[30]

The Government made further attempts to produce efficiencies from staff pay and conditions. Between 2010 and 2012 the independent Winsor review made 183 proposals to save the service £485m over three years and to extend support to experienced and skilled officers. These reforms included changing pay and bonus structures, and introducing new qualification requirements. However, these changes were possible due to cuts to other parts of the service (especially office jobs) and faced criticism from within the sector. Although most of the recommendations were implemented in some fashion, 28 (including changes to weekend working pay and stand-by allowance) were not taken forward as the Police Staff Council did not accept the recommendations.[31]

Clear reductions in spending and the workforce, at the same time as crime-related police activity has possibly risen, suggest that there have been productivity improvements in the police since 2010. But while inspection ratings and public satisfaction have not changed significantly, it does not appear that these changes have taken place without any impact on quality, such as victim satisfaction and charges. And the limited data available on many aspects of police activity makes it difficult to understand the scope for any further productivity improvements.

Have efficiencies been enough to meet demand?

There are signs which suggest that efficiencies have not been enough to meet demand over the period from 2009/10 to 2017/18, in which spending has declined. Although it noted that the police appeared to be prioritising ‘life and limb’ and ‘in action’ crime, in March 2018 the HMICFRS reported that almost a quarter of forces were struggling to deal with 999 calls in a sufficiently timely way.[32] There are further concerns that the rise in waiting times leads to more abandoned calls. For example, a Freedom of Information request has found that across 32 forces, the number of 999 and 101 calls that were abandoned more than doubled between 2015/16 and 2016/17.[33] The National Audit Office has also noted another increase in ‘queuing’ within the service, as the time taken to charge an offence increased from 14 days in March 2016 to 18 days in March 2018.[34]

However, the question of whether efficiencies have met demand is made difficult by the absence of consistent data on many aspects of the demand that the police face, how it is changing, and the activities they carry out. The clearest consistent data there is on demand for police services relates only to crime. Although the different indicators suggest different results, the Office for National Statistics has concluded that there is likely to have been real increases in some crimes.[35] A leaked Home Office document also suggests that government believes that crime-related demands on the police have increased (possibly due to fewer officers).[36]

At the same time, the data suggests that the nature of demand is changing. The police have had to deal with several major terrorist incidents in the past 18 months, while at the same time there have been increases in recorded numbers of knife crimes.[37] In April 2019 the Government announced a £40m Serious Violence Strategy to address these increases. Crime is also increasingly online, requiring new and expensive digital forensics to tackle it. Beyond this, many forces suggest that they are experiencing increases in non-crime demand, such as mental health incidents – but there is no national-level data on this. Increases in non-crime incidents would be significant, as estimates suggest that more of police time is spent on non-crime than crime demand.[38]

In 2017 the HMICFRS reported that 33 of 43 forces are good or above at understanding local demand – but without common standards for measuring demand, the national picture is still unclear. The HMICFRS has sought to address this, with all forces tasked with creating ‘force management statements’ between 2018 and 2020. These are self-assessments by chief constables, which seek to answer what demand their force expects to face, how they will expand their capability and efficiencies, and the funding that this will need. However, the National Audit Office has said that the early statements vary in quality and use data in different ways, concluding that there has been little improvement in analysing demand since 2015.[39]

The Government (and police forces themselves) need a clearer picture of demand to understand whether police forces have been able to work more efficiently to meet changing demands within constrained budgets. They need to understand, too, what scope there is for further efficiencies across police forces and what resources are likely to be required to meet the Government’s aspirations for tackling crime.