Planned government spending cuts will see at least 22,000 police jobs being lost, leaving the public protected by the lowest numbers of officers since the 1970s, according to a private estimate circulating among police chiefs.
The figure, obtained by the Guardian, is much higher than previously known, and means the number of police officers in England and Wales could fall to nearly 100,000.
The estimate being provided to chief constables is based on the lowest expected cut of 25% in the funding that government provides for policing between now and 2020. At present there are about 125,000 officers working in England and Wales.
After the budget in July from the newly elected Conservative government, the chancellor, George Osborne, told unprotected departments, such as the Home Office that funds the police, that their cuts would range from 25%-40%.
Senior Home Office officials and police have met in a “gold group” to formulate arguments to the Treasury ahead of its decision about how much more each department should save. The money each government department receives is announced in the comprehensive spending review which is due to be announced in November.
One senior officer told the Guardian: “This time a greater part of the reduction will be borne by police officers.” One police chief added that the cuts will mean fewer officers and a pruning back of neighbourhood policing and proactive prevention work which stops crime levels rising.
Privately, police chiefs believe the public do not appreciate the scale of cuts and what they will mean. They are resigned to further cuts given the wider cuts to public spending and are working on the basis that their funding will have been slashed by at least 40% or more from 2010 to 2020.
An estimated 17,000 officer posts were eliminated in the last round of cuts under the Conservative-led coalition government between 2010-15.
The estimate is not the only one circulating among senior officers. An alternative projection suggests the level of officer losses could be higher at 30,000 in the next five years across the 43 police forces in England and Wales.
Last month there was controversy after Sara Thornton, the chair of the body representing police chiefs, said a police officer may not attend every burglary. Police sources privately argue that the public does not accept rationing in policing.
Police chiefs say policing will change, even more so if higher cuts in the next five years approaching 40% are imposed, because there are no longer any easy efficiency savings to make.
The cuts faced from 2010-15 were met by efficiency savings, selling buildings, and losing civilian staff. Privately, police chiefs accept that in 2010 they were able to do without 12% of the budget and they had got used to times of relative financial plenty under Labour. However, they argue that the era of cuts without impact on the service have long gone.
In 2010 when the cuts started there were 143,734 full-time police officers, as well as 16,900 police community support officers (PCSOs), and 83,000 civilian staff. Now there are 125,000 police officers, and in total 35,000 staff and officers lost from 2010-15.
The small Sussex force, which dealt with the Shoreham air crash, is planning to lose at least a further 500 officers. Matt Webb, chair of the Sussex police federation, which represents rank and file officers, said: “We stripped back other costs last time. To keep making these savings at some point you have to reduce staff costs.”
He said Sussex police was considering reducing or ending its response to low-level incidents such as shoplifting where little is alleged to be stolen, and non-residential burglaries targeting businesses or storage units. West Midlands police, the second biggest force, estimates it will have nearly halved in size in a decade, down from 14,000 total staff in 2010 to 8,000 in 2020, again assuming the lower level of cuts.
Greater Manchester police is expecting a similar reduction in personnel.
Mike Penning, minister for policing, crime, criminal justice and victims said: “Police reform is working. Over the last five years, frontline services have been protected, public confidence in the police has gone up and crime has fallen by more than a quarter, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales.
“There is no question that the police still have the resources to do their important work. What matters is how officers are deployed, not how many of them there are in total.
“The changes the government have made since 2010 have made it easier for the police to do their job by cutting red tape, scrapping unnecessary targets, and giving forces the discretion to use their professional judgement. Decisions on the operational deployment of resources, such as PCSOs, are matters for chief constables, in association with police and crime commissioners.”
The Conservatives say they have cut the money that policing cost the taxpayer and have also cut crime. The government’s position was set out in a speech that the home secretary, Theresa May, gave to the Police Federation just after the Conservatives won the general election in May.
“We have reformed your pay and pensions, reduced police spending, and yes, there are fewer officers overall,” May said. “But – despite the predictions of the federation, and despite the predictions of the politicians who wanted to sell you a false dream of ever more spending – crime is down by more than a quarter since 2010, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales.”
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