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3 August 2021

The public deserve an effective police force – if only the government would give it to them

Boris Johnson’s “crime week” was heralded with great fanfare, but it masks a decade of cuts and underfunding to creaking criminal justice services.

By Louise Perry

In the last week of July we witnessed the government’s “crime week”, intended to reassure the public that we should expect an imminent crackdown by a government that claims to take crime seriously. If only it did. 

The papers were filled with jolly pictures of Boris Johnson and Priti Patel meeting police dogs (“Do you have to worry about romantic urges?” the Prime Minister asked of one dog handler, no doubt reflecting on Dilyn the Jack Russell’s penchant for humping visitors to Downing Street). And a video of Johnson grappling comically with an umbrella during the unveiling of a memorial to fallen police officers was widely shared on social media. Oh how we laughed. 

The policy announcements were also laughable, in a very different way. We were told that offenders doing community schemes would have to wear hi-vis vests, even though they are already required to do this. Victims of crime were promised that a “named officer” would be assigned to every case, even though an OIC (“Officer In the Case”) already fills that role. And regardless, neither a named officer nor an OIC is of any use if he or she isn’t given the resources needed to investigate a crime. As Simon Foster, the police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said of this policy:

“After a decade of cuts, during which my force has shrunk by a quarter, and community policing has been dismantled, it is the height of hypocrisy for the government to talk about wanting communities to have named police officers.”

We were also told that 20,000 new police officers would be hired within the next three years – less impressive than it seems given that more than this number have been lost over the course of the past decade, many of them experienced officers who have retired or left for other jobs. Replacing these older officers with newbies may be cheaper for the government, but the cost is a permanent loss of expertise. 

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The Prime Minister spent “crime week” attempting to woo disgruntled police, speaking of the importance of “supporting our police, loving them, showing that we’re looking after them”. And yet most police officers don’t feel especially loved. One police chief, when asked if the new policies would cut crime, responded bluntly: “No, but it will waste some officers’ time.” 

“Crime week” coincided with another announcement: there will be a pay freeze for police earning more than £24,000. Meanwhile, NHS staff will receive a 3 per cent pay rise and firefighters and local government workers 1.5 per cent in recognition of their contribution during the pandemic – not much, of course, but something. 

[see also: The Tory crime strategy is either lock them up or lock them down − and neither one is working]

Can it be a coincidence that the only emergency service not enjoying a pay rise is also the only emergency service that cannot legally strike? UK police lost the right to take industrial action and join a trade union in 1919, and attempts by the Police Federation to reinstate that right have failed thus far.

The Federation has taken what action it can in response to this new pay freeze, announcing it no longer has confidence in the Home Secretary, and withdrawing support and engagement from the Police Remuneration Review Body. But these efforts come at the end of more than a decade of cuts that has left policing in disarray, and which the Federation has proved incapable of blocking.  

A brief overview of the damage: overall police officer numbers fell by 14.3 per cent between 2010 and 2019, from approximately 143,700 to 123,200 officers, while around 50 per cent of Britain’s police stations with front counters are now no longer available to the public. Ministry of Justice funding was cut by 25 per cent during the same period, while half of magistrates’ courts and more than a third of county courts were closed. The criminal justice system is straining at the seams. 

The effects of these cuts are visible both at the large scale and the small. For instance, there is still a bus stop called “Paddington Green police station”, but there is no longer a police station there, not since 2018 when it was closed. Earlier this year, 19-year-old Ahmed Beker was stabbed to death within sight of its doors. 

Another disused police station, this time in Failsworth, Greater Manchester, was in 2019 found to be in use as a cannabis farm. Incredibly, this is not the only case of a drugs gang physically claiming a space left vacant by the retreat of the justice system: in the north-west, there were reports to the chief crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal that one organised crime group ran a former police station as a pizza restaurant which was really a front for the distribution of drugs (“extra toppings”). 

This should be a national scandal. When the Prime Minister speaks of a “blitz on crime” he ought to be met by howls of derision. And yet the devastating effects of police cuts have a way of falling through the political cracks. Those on the liberal left who support high levels of public spending tend to dislike the police; and many politicians on the right who talk tough on law and order are reluctant to cough up the necessary cash. 

And yet the polling on crime is unambiguous: 70 per cent of the general public think the criminal justice system is not harsh enough, while only 3 per cent think it is too harsh. Meanwhile, an average of 74 per cent of adults in England and Wales express support for their local police force, with black Caribbean respondents – the ethnic group with the lowest level of trust in police – still expressing majority support at 54 per cent. 

The government knows this, which is why “crime week” was heralded with such fanfare. The public both want and need an effective police force. If only the government were prepared to give it to them. 

[see also: How will the SNP solve Scotland’s tragic drugs crisis?]