Morning Call: pick of the papers

The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Tories keep swiping, but Ed Miliband is an elusive target (Daily Telegraph)

In the political hall of mirrors, Labour’s policies are becoming ever harder to attack, says Mary Riddell.

2. Austerity will give Tories an electoral edge (Financial Times)

Conservative spending cuts are decreasing the opposition’s client base, says Janan Ganesh.

3. The elastic middle has to be defined, once and for all (Guardian)

Politicians should be clear about who is really struggling, says Gaby Hinsliff. It's not those who have been forced to kick their Waitrose habits.

4. Obama is not to blame for Middle East anger (Financial Times)

The policies pursued by Obama mean that the US is much better positioned to deal with anti-American violence, writes Gideon Rachman.

5. Is this Britain's last coalition government? (Independent)

Coalition often works well at local level, writes Steve Richards. But several factors, including the electoral system, may limit how many national ones we get.

6. Parties must stop playing unhappy families (Times) (£)

A toxic combination of troubled history and flawed political genes is afflicting all sides at Westminster, writes Rachel Sylvester.

7. Overhauling exams: lessons in nostalgia (Guardian)

A lurch back to a world where a three-hour written paper is the be-all and end-all risks jettisoning advances in education, says a Guardian editorial.

8. China is flexing its muscles: time to worry (Independent)

It would be crazy if a bunch of five uninhabited rocks precipitated a military conflict between two of the world powers, says Dominic Lawson. That doesn't mean it won't happen.

9. The welfare state is broken – so what’s next? (Daily Telegraph)

To promote prudence and responsibility, we should return to mutual aid societies, argues Philip Johnston.

10. Liberal Democrats should beware a pact with Labour (Guardian)

Working for a future coalition with Labour is deeply dangerous for our identity as a Liberal party, writes Malcolm Bruce.

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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation