Law and order


The 43 police forces operating in England and Wales respond to crimes, gather intelligence and undertake preventative work such as patrolling. Forces also deal with incidents which are not direct responses to crime, including responding to mental health incidents, investigating missing persons and referring children to local authorities’ social care departments.

Police spending has fallen sharply since 2009/10. It is not clear how demand has changed because victim-reported crime has fallen over this period while police-recorded crime has increased. Overall police performance – as judged by inspection reports – has improved, although other indicators – such as public confidence in the police and the length of time taken to bring charges – have deteriorated.

There is evidence that the police are struggling to maintain performance with current levels of spending. Police forces have drawn down on their reserves every year since 2014/15, and total police reserves are now 9% lower in real terms than they were in 2009/10.

In his first major domestic policy announcement, Boris Johnson announced that the government will recruit an additional 20,000 police officers over the next three years, but the government has yet to confirm how this will be funded, and whether the total police budget will increase to pay these new officers’ salaries.

Criminal courts

Criminal courts in England and Wales are run by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice. Between 2010/11 and 2017/18, spending by HMCTS fell substantially. It increased last year but was still 18% below 2010/11 levels in real terms. The number of cases received by criminal courts has also fallen substantially over this period but there are a greater share of complex cases which take longer to hear – that is, cases involving sexual and drug offences. Therefore, overall demand has fallen less quickly than spending and courts have had to make efficiencies to maintain the timeliness of their services.

Reductions in the time it takes to process cases and the total case backlog suggest that criminal courts have become more efficient. But there are widespread concerns about the quality of justice dispensed by the courts – whether cases result in ‘just’ outcomes. It is not, however, possible to assess these claims with the data that is currently available; evaluating these claims should be a priority for the Ministry of Justice.

Despite the various law and order policy announcements since Boris Johnson became prime minister, the government has yet to announce whether funding for criminal courts will rise. The plan to recruit 20,000 additional police officers is likely to result in more cases being investigated and prosecuted, so adding to pressure on the criminal courts.


There are 118 prisons in England and Wales. The vast majority of these (105 prisons) are run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS). The remaining 13 are being operated by three private companies: G4S, Sodexo, and Serco. Between 2009/10 and 2015/16, prison spending fell by 21% while the number of prisoners slightly declined. The previous government began to reverse spending cuts after 2015/16 but spending in 2017/18 was still 12% below 2009/10 levels.

Prison safety has declined dramatically since 2012/13. The number of prisoner assaults on other prisoners, and on staff, are both more than twice as high as they were in 2010. ‘Protesting behaviour’ incidents – including prisoners taking hostages and barricading off parts of prisons – have also risen substantially since 2012/13. The rising percentage of positive results from random drug test samples – from 8% in March 2010 to 10% in March 2019 – further indicates increasing drug use within prisons.

The number of prisoners gaining academic qualifications also fell. In 2017/18, 40% fewer prisoners achieved a level 1 or 2 (pre-GCSE and GCSE-level) qualification in maths than in 2010/11 (6,520 vs 10,950) and 47% fewer achieved a level 1 or 2 qualification in English (6,260 vs 11,760).

Despite the recent increase in funding and prison officers, prison safety has not yet improved. The large increase since 2016/17 in the number of prison officers hired has meant that the prison officer workforce is now substantially less experienced than it was. Between 2009/10 and 2018/19, the share of prison officers with fewer than five years of experience increased 28 percentage points, from 22% to 50%. Although prisons have been able to meet their recruitment targets, growing retention problems suggest some signs of workforce pressures, which could undermine performance. The share of prisons officers leaving each year rose from 8% to 12% between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

Last August, then Prisons Minister Rory Stewart undertook a high-profile project to reduce violence and drug use in ten prisons. This was largely successful, but replicating it across the whole prison estate will require extra spending in every future year, beyond the already-announced government plans to provide £100m to prisons this year to boost security. Staffing and maintaining the extra 10,000 prison places that the government has pledged to build would also require additional money each year.