When it comes to policing in England and Wales, there are a number of warning signs emerging. Victims are becoming less satisfied and fewer offences are resulting in charges. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given the fall in police spending, staff and officer numbers since 2009/10.

At the same time, complex crimes requiring more police resources – such as child exploitation and abuse – are on the rise. With reduced resources, the police have had to adapt to growing demand, and are increasingly prioritising responding to more violent or easier-to-solve crimes. They are also taking longer to investigate and charge crimes, but this could partly be due to the growth in the use of digital evidence.

This chapter examines the 43 territorial police forces operating in England and Wales. While the quality of these forces’ work, as judged by the police inspectorate, has held up, there are clearly challenges ahead.

The prime minister recently pledged to increase the number of officers by 20,000 in the next three years, but recruiting and deploying them effectively will be difficult. Demand on the police is likely to increase in the next five years, although it is difficult to project with certainty. If government spending on the police continues on its current trajectory, it should be more than enough to meet demand – if it was to increase in line with population growth.

However, if crime rates continue to rise as quickly as they have in recent years, the government may need to spend an extra £3.5 billion on top of what is currently planned.

The police respond to crimes ranging from fraud to violent assault, while also conducting prevention work such as patrolling, gathering intelligence or collaborating with other agencies to protect the public from sexual offenders. But not all of the police’s work relates directly to crime. Forces also deal with mental health incidents, traffic accidents or missing persons, and make referrals to local authorities’ children’s social care departments.

Spending has declined by 16% since 2009/10, and forces are becoming more reliant on revenue raised locally

Change in day-to-day spending on police services in England and Wales since 2010 (real terms)

Note: This chart represents the percentage change in gross expenditure over time, in 2018/19 prices.

The police in England and Wales have had to adjust to large cuts in funding from central government. Forces are making more use of reserve funding – money set aside for unforeseen spending – and have sold off capital assets, including police stations, to help meet demands. Neither is a sustainable source of funding. However, with a 16% drop in real-terms spending between 2009/10 and 2018/19, the police have had to look for alternative funding solutions.

In 2018/19, £13.3 billion (bn) was spent on the police in England and Wales (excluding capital spending). This was 16% less in real terms than in 2009/10, despite an uptick in the last year.

Funding from central government has decreased over time – central grants have fallen by 30% in real terms between 2010/11 and 2018/19[1] – and forces are increasingly relying on income raised through council tax bills, known as the ‘police precept’.[2] In the years 2014/15 (the earliest for which data is readily available) to 2018/19, funding collected through council tax went up by 13% in real terms. Although the government announced a £970 million(m) uplift in police funding for 2019/20,[3] the bulk of this will come from an increase in local funding, of up to £510m.*[4][5]

The decline in central government funding has affected forces, most of which derive a large proportion of their income from central grants (although the average is 64%, this ranged from 81% for Northumbria Police to 43% for Surrey Police in 2018/19).[6]

In the face of spending cuts, the police have increasingly made use of their financial reserves – money set aside for unforeseen spending. In 2017/18, 88% of forces (38) were using reserves, compared with 14% (6) in 2011/12.**[7][8] Forces held £1.4bn in resource reserves in March 2018[9] (equivalent to 12% of annual spending for that year). This was the same cash amount they held in 2011, which equated to 11% of spending for that year.

While reserves initially increased until March 2015, reaching a high of £2.1bn, they have fallen by 35% in real terms since.[10] HM Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) warned last year that using reserves to shore up the way some forces operate “can only last until the money runs out”.[11]

In addition to using reserves, since 2010 the police have also sold off capital assets, including police stations, to raise funds[12] – between 400 and 600 police stations were closed between 2010 and 2018.[13] Police forces can keep receipts from these sales and use them to invest in capital projects or in day-to-day programmes that are expected to generate savings, for example by transforming services.[14]

Capital receipts increased from £81m to £264m between 2010/11 and 2016/17 – almost trebling in real terms[15] – but are less sustainable than other sources of financing as they include one-off savings.

* The remaining funding that makes up the £970m figure consists of central government grants for pension costs, counter-terrorism policing and programmes to tackle serious and organised crime.

** The proportion of forces using reserves between 2011/12 and 2016/17 was calculated by the National Audit Office (NAO) in the report Financial Sustainability of Police Forces in England And Wales 2018. We have extended this analysis for 2017/18, by taking two consecutive years’ worth of data and then dividing the number of forces whose resource reserves declined between the two years by the total number of police forces.

Demand on the police appears to be increasing

Number of victim-reported and police-recorded crimes

A lack of data combined with changing trends in crime and crime-related work makes it hard to measure demand on the police. While the overall picture is unclear, there is enough evidence to suggest that some crimes – including complex and serious crimes – are placing increasing demands on the police. In addition, along with responding to incidents of crime, police work also involves dealing with incidents that do not relate directly to crime, such as managing public safety and welfare, notably by working with vulnerable individuals.

There are two main approaches to measuring crime (see the figure above). The first is to look at how many crimes are recorded by the police,* and the other is to survey the general population to ask about their experiences of crime. Each of these approaches has different strengths and weaknesses and provides a different impression of how crime has changed over the past decade.

Having fallen by 7% between 2009/10 and 2013/14, the number of crimes recorded by the police has since risen to 6.0m in 2018/19, which is 37% higher than the 2009/10 figure of 4.3m.[16] In principle, police-recorded crime provides the best available estimate of crimes that do not have a direct victim (for instance drug possession) and of less frequent, more severe offences such as incidents of knife crime and sexual offences.

Still, it is difficult to interpret trends over time in this data, because the police have improved the way they record crime. Additionally, victims of certain crimes (in particular sexual assaults) are increasingly willing to report them, partly due to reduced social stigma.[17]

This means that some of the rise in the number of incidents recorded by the police is likely due to greater police awareness of crimes that previously went unrecorded and unaddressed.

The second main measure of the prevalence of crime is the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), which asks a representative sample of people what crimes have been committed against them in the last year. Compared with police-recorded crime, the CSEW is seen as a more reliable measure of less serious offences such as theft or fraud, and those that do not cause serious physical harm, some of which may not be reported to the police.[18][19]

The number of crimes reported by the CSEW fell by 37% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, in line with the fall in reported crimes since the mid-1990s.[20][21] However, having reached a low of 6.1m incidents in 2016/17, numbers rose by 6% to 6.4m in 2018/19.** These figures exclude fraud and computer misuse offences, which have only been fully included in the survey since 2016/17 but accounted for 43% of all reported crimes in 2018/19.[22]

Crime figures show a mixed picture depending on the type of crime, but there are indications that some crimes are creating additional demand on police resources. For instance, although overall levels of violent crime have declined since 1995, there has been a large increase in the number of offences involving knives or sharp instruments in recent years. The number of such offences – as recorded by the police – has increased by 42% since 2011, the first year for which there is data.[23]

Complex, serious and organised crimes, ranging from human trafficking to sexual crimes against children, are also becoming more common and can be more challenging for the police to respond to.[24] The number of police-recorded sexual exploitation and abuse crimes against children under the age of 16 went up by 259% between 2009/10 and 2018/19, from 17,402 to 62,409 cases – although part of the increase could be driven by better police recording and the increased willingness of victims to report these crimes.[25]

The internet has also placed increasing demands on the police in this area,[26] with industry referrals*** for child sex abuse images in the UK increasing by more than 10 times (997%) between 2012 and 2018, from 10,384 to 113,948.[27]

While the growth of online crime may reflect a wider shift in criminal activity towards the internet,[28] and away from more traditional ‘street’ crime, it still presents significant challenges for the police. Cybercrime and other criminal activities such as drug smuggling or modern slavery cut across police forces’ operational borders,[29] making it difficult to organise a co-ordinated response. This has fuelled longstanding debates on the viability of the police’s 43-force model.[30]

In spite of these trends, the majority of police time is in fact spent on incidents that do not relate directly to crime (non-crime).[31] HMICFRS data shows that only 24% of the incidents that forces responded to in 2016/17 related to crime; 64% were non-crime related – including road traffic accidents, mental health incidents and missing person cases – with the remaining 12% focusing on anti-social behaviour.[32] The volume of non-crime demand may be partly due to the police being available around the clock, making them the main public service available to respond to ‘out-of-hours’ crises, particularly for mental health problems.[33]

There is also some evidence that police forces are dedicating more time to collaboration with other public agencies, although there is little systematic data on this. For example, between 2013/14 and 2017/18, the number of referrals from the police to local authorities’ children’s social care departments went up by 20% – although this could be driven in part by requirements to find alternatives to police cells to hold children who need to be detained.[34]

Similarly, some data indicates that the police have been conducting more safeguarding work. The number of restrictive court orders to protect the public from sexual or violent offenders (which the police can apply for along with other agencies) nearly trebled between 2009/10 and 2017/18 to 5,551.****[35][36]

Incidents relating to mental health are widely reported to be placing additional strain on the police, but the data is incomplete.[37] The College of Policing estimates that 2–20% of incidents reported to the police are linked to mental health issues, while the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health estimates that mental health incidents account for up to 15% of police time.[38][39] Unfortunately, many estimates tend to be dated and based on either a small number of forces or data collected over a short period.[40][41]

Other figures also indicate that the police may be picking up more work related to mental health. The number of such incidents reported by 36 of the UK’s police forces***** went up by 28% between 2014 and 2018, from 385,206 to 494,159.[42] There was also a 13% increase in the number of individuals the police took to a place of safety under the Mental Health Act between 2013/14 and 2017/18.

This puts additional pressures on police time; responding to a single mental health incident can take up to 12 hours of officers’ time.[43] Officers also often lack the training to properly respond to this type of incident and can end up being responsible for the welfare of individuals that other professionals would be better placed to deal with.[44]

The lack of comprehensive and systematic data on the activities carried out by the UK’s police forces makes it difficult to establish a full picture of the demands they face. In a welcome move, HMICFRS tasked forces with developing Force Management Statements by 2020 to shed light on demand.[45] However, this data is not published in a consistent format, making it difficult to determine a clear national picture.

* Police-recorded crime covers: theft; violence; criminal damage and arson; public order offences; sexual offences; drug offences; and the possession of weapons. In 2014, HMICFRS and the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) found compelling evidence that the police were under-recording crimes, which affected the reported decrease in crime. As a response, the UK Statistics Authority stripped police-recorded crime of its National Statistics status and HMICFRS has been inspecting police forces’ crime-recording practices since then.

** Because the CSEW does not survey the entire population, statistical uncertainty means that the ONS cannot rule out that the trend has in fact remained flat in the last couple of years.

*** These referrals have existed since 2004 and are mandated by US federal law; they are made by internet service providers to an organisation based in the US which sends UK-relevant data to the National Crime Agency.

**** Restrictive orders were introduced by the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 and prohibit defendants from undertaking any activity described in the order. They include Sexual Offences Prevention Orders; Sexual Harm Prevention Orders; Notification Orders; and Foreign Travel Orders.

***** In addition to the 43 police forces in England and Wales that are the principal focus of this chapter, the UK is also served by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Police Scotland and the British Transport Police.

The police workforce is increasing after years of decline

Change in the police workforce since 2010

Notes: Figures are recorded at 31 March of each year. PCSOs = police community support officers. Source: Home Office, ‘Police Workforce England and Wales Statistics’, Table H3.

By 2018, the number of police officers in England and Wales had fallen to its lowest point in decades. While the decline in officer numbers has not been consistent across all areas of police activity, in some areas – such as the number of detectives – it is particularly acute. The figures have become a source of political argument, with the prime minister recently announcing plans to recruit 20,000 new officers over three years.

In March 2019, there were 123,171 full-time-equivalent (FTE) police officers – an increase of 0.6% on a year earlier. This still left police numbers 14% below their March 2010 level. After an expansion in officer numbers in the 2000s, numbers declined in the years to March 2018, at which point they were the lowest at the end of a financial year since comparable records began in 1996.[46]

In 2018, the number of police officers per 100,000 people in England and Wales had declined to 199, compared with 247 per 100,000 in 1996.*

This reduction has not been consistent across all areas of police activity. For example, the number of officers working in local policing has declined by 11% since 2015/16 (when comparable data was first published); by contrast, the number dealing with nationwide policing issues, including counter-terrorism and national security, has increased by 15% over the same period.

The shortage of detectives is particularly acute. A Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealed that the number of detectives working in major crime and murder units fell by at least 28% between 2010/11 and 2017/18.[47] In 2017, HMICFRS lamented the shortage of detectives, estimating there were 17% (over 5,000) too few.[48] It also raised concerns in 2018 that as a result of the shortages, underqualified officers from other units were taking on investigations without sufficient supervision.[49]

Its May 2019 report noted some improvements – for example the rate of accredited investigator vacancies decreased from 19% to 14% in the past 12 months – but still identified problems with poor supervision of investigations.[50]

To create a pipeline of detectives, the Home Office launched the National Detective Programme in 2018 in collaboration with Police Now – a registered charity, supported by the Home Office, that assists the police with recruitment – to fast-track university graduates to detective rank,[51] providing £350,000 of seed funding for the programme.[52] The scheme starts with a 12-week Detective Academy and aims to increase the number of detectives by up to 1,000 in the next five years.[53]

Since 2010, the composition of the police workforce has changed. Besides officers, the police workforce is mainly composed of civilian staff, designated officers** and police community support officers (PCSOs, civilians employed by police authorities since 2002 to work in a ‘highly visible, patrolling role’). The overall number of these staff fell even more sharply than that of officers between March 2010 and March 2019 – by 21% (from 100,354 to 78,851).***[54] This includes a 44% decline in the number of PCSOs, from 16,918 in 2009/10 to 9,547, in 2018/19.

As a result, the proportion of police officers as a percentage of the total workforce increased by two percentage points between 2009/10 and 2018/19 (from 59% to 61%).[55]

Despite this fall in the police workforce, it appears that forces have invested in support and investigative functions in the last few years. Officers working in business support functions such as HR or finance increased by 38%, from 3,401 to 4,677, between 2015/16 and 2018/19, partially reversing the 40% reduction in the number of officers working in such functions between 2009/10 and 2015/16.[56]

The number of civilian staff has also picked up since 2016/17. Forces have also increasingly used designated officers – who can fulfil a variety of roles including supporting investigations – since 2009/10. Their numbers rose by 27%, from 3,840 in 2009/10 to 4,893 in 2018/19. This might be a cheaper way to meet demand for investigators while increasing the range of skills available to forces.[57][58]

The prime minister recently pledged to recruit an extra 20,000 officers by 2022.[59] However, meeting this ambitious target may be difficult.[60] For instance, if the number of officers leaving the force in the next few years remains similar to that in 2018/19, the police would need to recruit around 46,000 officers to achieve a net increase of 20,000 officers in three years.**** This would require attracting around half a million applicants.[61]

* Estimates for the number of police officers prior to 2003 excluded officers who were on parental leave or on career breaks, and are therefore not directly comparable to figures in later years. To make the comparison possible, we used the figure for ‘officers available for duty’ – which excludes long-term absentees – from March 2018, the last year for which population estimates are available.

** Designated officers are “police staff (who are not police officers) employed to exercise specific powers that would otherwise only be available to police officers”. They may take on the roles of PCSOs or investigation, detention or escort officers by permission of chief officers. Home Office, Police Workforce, England and Wales, 31 March 2019, Statistical Bulletin 11/19, 2019, p. 4; Natale L and Williams N, The Police in England and Wales, Civitas Crime, 2012, p. 10.

*** This figure excludes the number of special constables (whose numbers are reported in headcount rather than FTE as they do not work contracted hours), and traffic wardens, who were gradually replaced by civilian officers and decreased sharply in number between 2009/10 and 2011/12.

**** This analysis is based on calculations reported in Orr-Munro T, ‘Want 20,000 extra police officers? The police service will need to recruit 45,000’, Policing Insight, 26th July 2019, using updated data on leavers for 2018/19.

Dissatisfaction with pay and workload have both increased, but long-term sick leave is stable

Number of police officers on long-term sick leave

Note: Figures are recorded at 31 March of each year.

While the data for police morale has only been collected for the past few years, it indicates worrying trends. Officers are unhappy with levels of pay and workload, and with the way the police as a whole are treated. Other indicators such as the number of officers on sick leave have remained more stable.

The 2018 Police Federation survey of around 22% (27,000) of its members – mainly constables, sergeants and inspectors – showed an increase in the proportion of officers who report that workload and levels of pay are hurting morale. For pay, this figure rose from 71% to 77% between 2016 (the first year the data was collected) and 2018.

Over the same period, a growing proportion of respondents pointed to workload  and responsibilities as having a negative impact on morale – a 10-percentage-points increase to 62%.[62]

In a different 2018 survey of 15% (18,000) of its members, the Police Federation asked respondents to rate their job; 44% reported it to be very or extremely stressful, up from 39% in 2016.[63]

But the factor most often mentioned as damaging morale is the way the police as a whole are treated. This was highlighted as an issue by 86% of respondents in 2018 (a one-percentage-point increase compared with 2017).[64] The frequency with which this is mentioned by officers is unsurprising given the number of assaults on constables has increased. Around one in 10 officers were the victim of an assault that did not result in injury in 2009/10 (15,781 such assaults were recorded), compared with one in six in 2018/19 (20,578).

More seriously, the number of assaults with injury on constables increased by 27% between 2017/18 (when this data was first recorded) and 2018/19, with 10,399 such assaults recorded last year.[65] Part of this increase may be due to better reporting, given that this data is just starting to be recorded – but it is also worth noting that data recording varies across forces, while some officers regard assault as just ‘part of the job’ and do not raise a crime record on each event. This likely makes the number of recorded assaults an underestimate.[66]

Although self-reported dissatisfaction has increased, other indicators have remained more stable. A 2018 Police Federation survey of its members indicates that the proportion of members unable to take their full entitlement of leave has remained roughly constant, decreasingly slightly from 53% in 2016 to 52% in 2018, although this still represents a large proportion of its membership.[67][68]

The prevalence of long-term sicknesses among police officers has also stayed relatively constant over the past decade. The number of officers on long-term sick leave rose from 1,873 in March 2013 to a peak of 2,404 in March 2016, before falling to 2,370 in March 2019. The proportion of the workforce on long-term sick leave increased from 1.4% to 1.9% between March 2013 and March 2016 and has remained stable since.

The police are making trade-offs in what crimes to prioritise

The police have adapted their response to crime in the face of resource constraints, notably by further emphasising the need to prioritise the most serious or easier- to-solve crimes.[69][70][71] Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to 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 which are more likely to be solved.[72][73]

This type of prioritisation has occurred across all forces: based on its 2017 inspections, HMICFRS reported that some crimes were being unallocated and some risk assessments downgraded[74] so that police forces could redirect staff towards crimes they stood a greater chance of solving. In 2019, it reported that as a result, fraud is seldom seen as a priority because it can be difficult to prove compared with other crimes – even though people have a higher likelihood of being victims of fraud than of many other crimes.[75]

The National Audit Office has also highlighted that the police are also doing less proactive work.[76] The number of breath tests conducted by the police decreased by 46% between 2009/10 and 2016/17, as did the number of motoring fixed penalty notices, which declined by 43% between 2010/11 and 2016/17.[77] This overall trend has also affected neighbourhood policing, even though it plays an important role in crime prevention and wider engagement with communities.[78][79]

At first glance, it may appear that the volume of forces’ work has declined. Despite the increase in recorded crime, the number of crimes solved (through a charge, caution or other mechanism) has fallen.

For example, the share of crimes resulting in suspects being charged or summonsed (when the suspect is asked to appear in court) within a year has almost halved, from 15% in 2009/10 to 8% in 2018/19.[80] Within this, there is considerable disparity in charging rates between years and types of crime: in 2018/19, around 36% of weapons off  nces resulted in charges being brought, but in the same year only 5% of criminal damage and arson offences did. Similarly, while 83% of homicides were solved in England and Wales in the year to March 2011, this fell to 67% in the year to March 2018.[81]

It is also taking longer for the police to charge offences, with the average length of time taken rising from 10 days in March 2015 to 23 days in March 2019.[82]

However, the work required from the police to investigate and charge cases appears to have increased over the past decade partly due to the rise in some violent, complex and online crimes, but also as technology has increased the volume and complexity  of digital evidence the police collect.[83] Around 79% of forces use ‘kiosks’ – machines that make an exact copy of the contents of a mobile phone – but reports produced by kiosks can average 35,000 pages of evidence from a single mobile phone, all of which must be analysed to assess its value.*[84]

This has pushed forces to dedicate additional resources to investigate even simple crimes and has lengthened the time needed for some investigations.[85] This means the reduction in the number of crimes being solved does not equate to a decrease in activity.

* Digital evidence has also created problems for investigators, who do not necessarily have the specialist training required to deal with cases that rely on digital evidence, such as online child sexual abuse.

Victims appear to be less satisfied with the police, but the quality of policing appears to have been maintained

While data on the quality of policing suggests standards are being maintained, both public confidence and victim satisfaction are falling. The former can be pinned on a lack of police visibility while the latter, being based on people’s interaction with the police, is perhaps a better way to judge performance.

Crime levels alone are also not a reliable measure of the quality of policing as they are affected by a variety of factors over which the police have no influence. These include technological innovations making theft more difficult, such as manufacturers installing activation locks on phones or preventing stolen devices from being re-set, and anti- theft devices on cars. As a consequence, it is useful to supplement data on crime levels with other indicators, including inspection data and levels of public satisfaction.

Percentage of police forces in England and Wales rated as Good or Outstanding on effectiveness and legitimacy

The annual HMICFRS inspection of police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy (PEEL report), covers the 43 police forces in England and Wales.* In 2015, around 75% were judged to be either Good or Outstanding on all three measures; this had increased to 77% by 2017.**

Here we focus on effectiveness and legitimacy (efficiency is discussed below). These have moved in different directions over time. The proportion of forces rated Good or Outstanding on effectiveness between 2015 and 2017 went up by 14 percentage points, from 58% to 72%. By contrast, there was a four-percentage-point decrease in the proportion of forces that were considered Good or Outstanding when it came to legitimacy, with figures going from 88% in 2015 to 84% in 2017.

Overall public confidence in the police has fallen in recent years. The proportion of the public rating the police as Good or Excellent in the CSEW fell to 58% in 2018/19, having fluctuated between 61% and 63% between 2011/12 and 2017/18.[86]

One area of public concern is police visibility – ‘bobbies on the beat’. This plays a major role in the public’s perception of the police and overall safety since the public finds police foot patrols reassuring and considers them an important crime deterrent.[87][88][89]***

In 2018/19, just 16% of respondents to the CSEW said that foot patrols were highly visible in their local area, less than half the 39% recorded in 2009/10. Over the same period, the proportion of respondents reporting that they never saw foot patrols increased from 27% to 47%.[90]

Percentage of victims who were satisfied with the police

Public attitudes provide some insight on the quality of work undertaken by the police. But as most people have little direct contact with the police, victim satisfaction rates are a more direct and fairer measure of police performance.

Recently, the trend of rising satisfaction among victims of crime has been reversed. Between 2009/10 and 2013/14 the overall proportion of victims who were very or fairly satisfied with police performance increased from 69% to 74%, before falling to 66% in 2018/19 (see the figure above). This decrease in satisfaction has not been uniform across the different categories of crime: satisfaction of victims of violent crime has actually increased slightly, from 72% in March 2016 (when more detailed data first became available) to 74% in March 2019.

However, this has been more than offset by substantial decreases in victim satisfaction with police responses to theft offences and criminal damage, which between March 2016 and March 2019 fell from 73% to 65% and from 63% to 56%, respectively.[91] As noted, this disparity may be partly due to the police prioritising more serious crimes.

Other discrete measures indicate that the quality of some outputs from the police could be improved, notably police files submitted to the criminal justice system.[92][93] Around a third of police files prepared for prosecutors in 2018/19 were sent back due to major errors.[94]

* HMICFRS defines effectiveness as “an assessment of whether appropriate services are being provided by each police force and how well those services work” and legitimacy as “an assessment of whether, in providing services, each force operates fairly, ethically and within the law”.

** In 2018/19, HMICFRS changed the way it undertakes and reports on PEEL inspections. It will now deliver its inspection programme in three tranches each year; the first set of inspection reports was published in May 2019 with other reports expected to be released throughout 2019. As a result, it is not possible to use data for 2019 as it has not been released in full at the time of writing.

*** Despite its impact on public perception, the evidence on whether police foot patrols actually decrease crime is mixed. The College of Policing notes that foot patrols do not necessarily reduce crime rates and that this is dependent on officers patrolling at the right times and in the right places by identifying ‘crime hotspots’. There is little evidence that random patrols reduce crime. See College of Policing, ‘The effectiveness of visible police patrol’, What Works in Policing to Reduce Crime, (no date), pp. 1–2.

Have the police become more efficient – and if so, can that be maintained?

Police forces have cut costs by limiting pay rises for officers, changing pay and bonus structures, and buying goods more cheaply. They have also adapted how they work to allow them to process more cases, even as the number of staff has been cut, although there is evidence that this has come at the cost of falling standards in some areas.

Pay restraint appears to have reached its limit and – in response to growing dissatisfaction among officers – the police were given an above-inflation pay rise in 2019. But there is scope for forces to make further savings on the goods they buy, with some forces still paying far more than others for the same equipment.

It is estimated that police officers’ average gross annual pay declined by 15% between 2009/10 and 2015/16 – not accounting for changes in the composition of the workforce, which can also affect pay.[95] This was the result of a pay freeze in 2011/12 and 2012/13, followed by pay rises of just 1% a year from 2013 to 2017.[96]

Savings were also made by implementing the recommendations of the Winsor review – an independent review of police pay and conditions. The review made 183 proposals, including changing pay and bonus structures and introducing new qualification requirements, which were designed to save a cumulative total of £485m over three years, from 2010 to 2012.[97][98] Most of these recommendations were taken forward in some way, although 28 – including changes to weekend working pay – were rejected by the Police Staff Council.

The public sector pay cap, combined with the substantial reduction in staff numbers, has led to the proportion of spending on staff costs falling from 82% of total spending in 2010/11 to 77% in 2016/17.[99] If the proportion of spending on staff costs had stayed the same in 2016/17 as in 2010/11, spending on staff costs in 2016/17 would have been £2.5bn higher than it was.

But over the past two years the pay cap has been steadily lifted, in response to dissatisfaction with pay and conditions. In 2017/18 and 2018/19 the police were awarded a 1% bonus (with another 1% one-off bonus in 2017/18). After the government accepted the Police Remuneration Review Body recommendations in 2019, police officers received a 2.5% pay increase.[100]

With a pay cap no longer enforced, forces are unlikely to be able to find further cost savings by cutting pay.

Forces have also managed to cut the cost of some of the items they regularly buy,[101] by entering into joint contracts with one another or agreeing common specifications for certain goods[102] – for example, some forces have more than halved the cost of police fleeces through joint purchasing.[103] But, despite these efforts, continued variation in the cost of equipment bought by different forces suggests there is still scope for further savings in this area – some forces paid almost 10 times more than others for police batons in 2018.[104]

The police also appear to have prioritised their activities as staff numbers have been cut to allow them to achieve more with less, although this may have affected

the quality of the service they are providing. The numbers of both officers and civilian staff have fallen since 2009/10, while the number and complexity of crimes they record have increased over the past six years; they are also dealing with more non-crime incidents.

Taken together, this suggests that the police actually achieved more in 2018/19 than they did in 2009/10, despite having fewer officers and staff at their disposal.

But in spite of these efforts, the proportion of forces that were considered Good or Outstanding in terms of efficiency in annual HMICFRS inspections – described as “an assessment of whether the manner in which each force provides its services represents value for money” – decreased by five percentage points between 2015 and 2017.

Have those efficiencies been enough to meet demand?

There are signs that the quality of the police service has declined in some areas over recent years and that police forces are struggling to meet all requests for their help. Victim satisfaction has declined, the number of crimes charged within a year has fallen and the time taken to charge crimes has gone up since 2014/15.

Despite efforts to prioritise the most serious crimes, reductions in staff numbers and spending have led to concerns that remaining staff have become overstretched.[105] An FoI request found that across 32 forces the number of 999 and 101 calls that were abandoned more than doubled, from 8,000 in June 2016 to 16,300 in June 2017.[106] The situation does not appear to have improved: in March 2018, the HMICFRS reported that almost a quarter of forces were struggling to deal with emergency calls in a sufficiently timely way.[107]

In its 2017 PEEL report, HMICFRS noted that while more forces have improved than worsened, in a minority some aspects of policing are in danger of being overwhelmed.[108] This supported by the increase in the proportion of officers reporting their workload as ‘too high’ in the Police Federation survey, which went from 65.9% of respondents in 2016 to 72.4% in 2018.[109] Increases in reported stress levels may also indicate that these working practices are not sustainable. 

How will demand for the police change?

Forecasting demand for the police is difficult. As outlined above, the Home Office and forces themselves only have a limited understanding of how police time and resources are utilised. Data on recent trends in the prevalence of recorded crime is affected by recent improvements in how the police record crimes and a greater willingness of victims to report certain types of crime. This makes it difficult to understand fully how crime rates have increased over recent years, let alone to predict how these trends will evolve in the future.

If demands on the police per person in England were to remain constant, demand for the police would be expected to rise in line with population growth – implying a 2.9% increase by 2023/24 from 2018/19 levels. If, instead, crime rates were to continue to grow in the future at the same rate as they did between 2017/18 and 2018/19 (while other sources of demand grew in line with the population), demand would grow much more rapidly – by 31.0% between 2018/19 and 2023/24.

Projected spending and demand for the police


Projected increase in demand by 2023/24 (range) 2.9% – 31.0%
Spending scenario Current government policy Recent trajectory Meet demand
Change in real-terms spending by 2023/24 7.9% -0.8% 2.8% – 31.0%
Spending in 2023/24 (2018/19 prices) £14.4bn £13.2bn £13.7bn – £17.5bn
Impact on unprotected government spending (2018/19 prices) £0.0bn £1.2bn -£0.7bn – £3.1bn
Projected gap (2018/19 prices) -£0.7bn – £3.1bn £0.5bn – £4.3bn -

Source: Institute for Government calculations. See Chapter 13, Methodology.

These two projections provide an indication of how much police spending may need to grow over the next few years in order to meet demand while maintaining the scope and quality of policing at current levels. It may need to grow by between 2.9% and 31.0% in real terms between 2018/19 and 2023/24, although there is no reason to believe these figures represent the minimum and maximum.

So far, the government has announced new strategies to tackle serious violence as well as serious and organised crime, and is planning to increase police funding by up to £970m in 2019/20, done in part in recognition of the pressures facing the police.

The government announced a substantial increase in Home Office spending (the budget from which police spending comes) for 2020/21 at the 2019 spending round – but has not made any firm commitment about the level of funding beyond that year. If police spending were to grow in line with Home Office spending up to 2020/21, and in line with unprotected day-to-day government spending beyond that, police spending would grow by 7.9% in real terms between 2018/19 and 2023/24.

A 7.9% real-terms increase in police spending would be a notable change of pace compared with the recent trajectory of spending in this area; if that recent trajectory were instead to continue, police spending would end up 0.8% lower in real terms by 2023/24 than it was in 2018/19. An increase of 7.9% would be more than enough – by some £700m – to meet demand should it rise at the same rate as population growth.

However, if demand rises in line with recent growth in police-recorded crime rates, the government would need to spend an extra £3.1bn on top of what is implied by current policy. If it chose not to provide additional funding, police forces would need to find ways to become more efficient if they are to continue providing the same scope and quality of service.

There is little scope to make further cuts to staff costs, though, and since it may be hard to get police officers and staff to do even more than they already are, it seems unlikely that forces could increase efficiency as much as would be needed if demand rises at this faster rate, and if no further funding was forthcoming.

Forces have managed to do more with less in the past few years, but this was mainly achieved through restricting pay rises. The pay cap has now been lifted and there are no indications that it will be applied again, given growing dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions, and the growth in the rate at which police officers are leaving – from 4.7% to 7.1% between 2009/10 and 2018/19.

Although there is potential for some efficiencies in areas like procurement, it is unlikely these would be sufficient to meet demand. The government aims to achieve £100m in procurement savings cumulatively over the next three years,[110] far short of what might be needed if demand rises in line with crime.

In parallel to funding announcements, the prime minister has pledged to recruit 20,000 new police officers, but even with this increase there are concerns this will not be enough to help the police meet future demand.

Some of the new recruits will be deployed within regional and national police functions, including serious and organised crime and counter-terrorism, rather than local forces.[111] Concerns have been raised that some forces would therefore have fewer recruits than initially expected – and needed.[112] The chief executive of the College of Policing also noted that extra officers alone “will not be enough to meet the future demands we face as a service”,[113] with the chief inspector of constabulary arguing that it would be more efficient and effective to invest in digital technology.[114]