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Audit Commission - Watchdogs find police could save up to £1 billion

Three national watchdogs, the Audit Commission, HMIC and the Wales Audit Office, have found that the police in England and Wales could save up to £1 billion (12% of central government funding) without reducing police availability. In two reports they outline where savings can be made, the impact on the police and public, and likely impact of any further cuts.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC)'s report, 'Valuing the Police' shows that only 11% of the police are visibly available to the public, despite year-on-year increases to budgets for the last 40 years. HMIC warns that with looming budget cuts, the availability of the police to the public will be even further reduced, unless there is a total redesign of the police.

In the joint report - 'Sustaining value for money in the police service' - the three organisations show where savings can be made: breaking down silos with forces working together, and a more efficient match between risk of crime and the number of police on duty to deal with peaks and troughs in demand.

It notes spending on the police was £13.7 billion in 2008/09, which is 47 per cent more than 1997/98. 80 per cent of this is on staff. Some forces have shown how £270 million could be saved across the service with greater use of civilian staff.

HMIC's report warns that, while 12% won't be easy to find, savings beyond that would lead to a reduction in police availability. This would mean fewer police on the street and fewer police to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls.

Better procurement (such as buying forensics services, fleet vehicles) could save around £100 million, and up to £140 million could be cut from back office costs. Some forces have collaborated to save millions: Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire have a joint Major Crimes Unit, while the four forces in Wales worked together and saved £3.3 million on purchasing goods and services in 2008/09. Higher spending police forces are not necessarily better than others, the joint report concludes.

In 2008/09, 32 of the 43 police forces spent less than the previous year. But in ten of 16 forces visited for the joint report, the approach to efficiency was 'unlikely to address the emerging financial challenge'. HMIC's report shows that only one in five forces had made adequate preparations for budget cuts - one in three forces had made insufficient preparation.

Although crime has reduced by 45 per cent since 1995, modern policing is more than tackling crime: it involves dealing with organised crime, anti-terrorism, antisocial behaviour, victim support and child protection. HMIC found that demands on today's police have changed considerably. Increased bureaucracy and specialisations have drawn officers away from the front line - at a time when the public have been clear about wanting more police visibility. Over the last four years, the number of warranted officers working in the community has fallen by 1,429 - despite the number of police officers rising. HMIC warns that a total redesign of policing is required, providing a new framework that protects the current 11% of police available to the public.

Michael O'Higgins, Chairman of the Audit Commission, said:

'Police forces will need strong leadership from politicians, police authorities and chief constables if they are to save money without reducing service to the public. Better value for money in policing will be a challenge, but it is possible. Many police forces have shown how to save money and actually improve performance while maintaining public confidence - some have even done this with fewer police officers. And greater local scrutiny of police spending should help the higher spending forces.'

Sir Denis O'Connor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said:

'The challenge for the police service is to reduce spending without reducing public confidence. Our reports show that whilst some forces are getting ready for the budget cuts we know are inevitable, many forces have yet to make adequate preparations. We are today challenging the police, managers and politicians who make strategic decisions about the future of policing in England and Wales, to use our reports to examine their choices thoroughly so that the public's safety and well-being are not put at risk.'

Auditor General for Wales, Gillian Body, said:

'It is more important than ever to achieve the best possible value for money while providing the highest level of service for taxpayers. Police forces which spend more are not any better than others - some have even managed to save millions of pounds by greater use of civilian staff.'

The joint report also finds that, to make big savings and maintain performance, forces need a transformational approach and must start with a threat, harm and risk assessment. Police spending should reflect success in reducing crime. Local assessments ought to identify the priorities, considering changing crime patterns to decide where investment is needed and where forces can reduce spending.

HMIC's report found that police shift patterns are not in sync with the public's desire for police availability - more police were available on a Monday morning than a Friday night. The report shows that public confidence increases relative to the number of police working in the community.

Calling for a redesign of policing to deal with budget cuts, it says there should be a 'relentless drive to challenge all spending', including support, operational and front-line. Police availability should be a priority, put as 'nurturing the thin blue line', and reform should be locally lead. The report promotes a 'new architecture' with central government and the policing sector working together to carefully distribute cuts.

Notes to editors

  • Some police forces and authorities are the subject of good practice case studies in the joint report, including: Derbyshire; Cumbria; Surrey; Gwent; Surrey; Gloucestershire; Norfolk; Essex; Kent; Hertfordshire; West Yorkshire; the Metropolitan Police Service.
  • In summary, the joint report says:
    • Police will have to cope with less money
    • Public expectations of policing quality will not reduce
    • Savings decisions should depend on threat, harm and risk
    • To make big savings, forces need to choose transformational approaches
    • Police authorities and forces need to overcome barriers to change
    • Forces need to build on better procurement
    • Back office savings are possible
    • Better collaboration between forces can save money
    • Up to £1 billion could be saved
  • In summary the HMIC report says:
    • Through a time of increased budgets, the police have been successful in achieving the measures set for them - reducing crime and improving public confidence.
    • Fewer than 11% of police are visibly available to help the public.
    • A re-design of policing is required to deal with budget cuts.
    • A re-design has the potential to save 12% of central government funding, while maintaining police availability.
    • Cuts beyond 12% would almost certainly reduce police availability unless it were prioritised over and above everything else the police did.
  • The Audit Commission is an independent watchdog, driving economy, efficiency and effectiveness in local public services to deliver better outcomes for everyone. Its work across local government, health, housing, community safety and fire and rescue services means it has a unique perspective. The Commission promotes value for money for taxpayers, auditing the £200 billion spent by 11,000 local public bodies. As a force for improvement, it works in partnership to assess local public services and make practical recommendations for promoting a better quality of life for local people
  • HM Inspectorate of Constabulary is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and rigorously examines the effectiveness of police forces and authorities to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects and regulates all 43 police forces in England and Wales.
  • The Wales Audit Office covers all sectors of government except those reserved to the UK government. The Auditor General for Wales, as head of the Wales Audit Office, either directly audits bodies such as the Welsh Assembly Government and the NHS or, as in the case of local government, appoints auditors to do so. Its work is to promote improvement so that the people in Wales benefit from accountable, well-managed public services that offer the best possible value for money.

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