Few now remember it but there was a time when David Cameron promised no cuts to front-line services. The weekend before the general election he memorably told Andrew Marr:
Any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: "Here are my plans," and they involve front-line reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the front line.
If further evidence were needed of the dishonesty of this pledge, the news that 16,200 police officers will be cut by 2015, including 2,500 front-line officers next year, provides it. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary [HMIC] estimates that a total of 34,100 officers and staff will lose their jobs, considerably higher than the initial figure of 28,000.
The Home Secretary, Theresa May has persistently claimed that the police can cut costs without harming frontline services. On 31 October she told Marr: "[W]e know that it is possible for the police to make significant reductions in their budgets without affecting frontline policing." But the independent report from HMIC makes it clear that many forces, having already cut back on back office staff, have no choice but to reduce office numbers. Here's the key paragraph:
The forces planning to cut the greatest proportion of police officer numbers were not necessarily those facing the largest estimated budget cuts. One reason for this is that some forces with only moderate cuts have been forced to reduce officer numbers because they had already slimmed down non-frontline functions (which predominantly comprise police staff) before the CSR period.
It's worth noting that front-line staff are defined as "... those who are in everyday contact with the public and who directly intervene to keep people safe and enforce the law."
Significantly, the HMIC report rejects the government's claim that there is no direct link between falling police numbers and levels of crime. It predicts that a 10 per cent fall in officers will lead to a 3 per cent rise in property crime. In London, for instance, burglaries, robberies and muggings have all increased for the first time in years, even before the full force of the cuts is felt.
Ministers, one expects, will argue that rising crime is inevitable in these austere times. But it's not an argument that they ever accepted from Labour when in opposition. A surge in crime, as David Cameron will be all too aware, could yet provide a focus for public anger.