The two worst-performing police forces in England and Wales are Humberside and Northamptonshire, Home Office inspectors said.
Theyalso reported concern that forces are failing adequately to protect vulnerable people, such as victims of domestic violence, missing persons and child abuse victims. Worries were also expressed that forces are performing poorly when managing sex offenders and dangerous individuals.
These findings, published yesterday, were part of the Home Office's Police Performance Assessments, which rate forces from excellent to poor in seven categories. An unofficial league table compiled from the results places Northamptonshire and Humberside as joint bottom for the second year running - although their performances are improving. Nottinghamshire was third worst.
The best-performing force was Staffordshire, followed by Northumbria. London's Metropolitan Police - which accounts for nearly a quarter of the national workforce - improved significantly.
The overall figures for 2005-06 showed only a "slight improvement" of less than one per cent compared with the previous 12 months.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the Government's chief inspector of constabulary, said one of the main areas of concern was how the police dealt with vulnerable people. The four areas they examined were domestic violence, child protection, the management of dangerous and sex offenders, and vulnerable missing persons. He said that, overall, the standard of care for these categories was of concern, and the inspectorate would focus on the issue next year.
Within the 43 forces in England and Wales eight had the lowest "poor" score, 32 the next lowest, "fair", three were "good", and none scored the highest level of "excellent". Among the badly performing forces, Northamptonshire was found to be so short of domestic violence staff that nine emergency cases had to wait four weeks before police contacted victims. The force was also criticised for not fully training some staff who manage low and medium-risk sex and dangerous offenders. In the West Midlands force, some officers are having to deal with more than 150 child protection cases a year - more than double the recommended level of 60. In Bedfordshire, no domestic violence officers are on duty at the weekend.
Ministers and police chiefs argued yesterday that it is unfair and misleading to draw up a "league table" because forces cover very different geographical areas and most deal with different social issues. Tony McNulty, a Home Office minister, said he was "very encouraged" by the statistics and that there had been "real, sustainable improvement".
He denied that the aborted police force mergers programme had been a distraction and that forces could have shown greater improvement if it had not existed. He said attempts to collate data into what he called a "crude" league table of forces were "invidious".
Humberside Police's chief constable, Tim Hollis, said he was frustrated with the ranking, and added: "I know it does not reflect the sheer hard work and commitment my staff has put in."
Police force rankings
The Government's Police Performance Assessments rate the 43 forces in seven different categories.
They are: Reducing crime, investigating crime, promoting safety, providing assistance, citizen focus, resource use and local policing. Each "excellent" rating is worth three points, according to the Home Office. "Good" is worth two, "fair" is worth one and "poor" carries a minus one rating.
The ranking, in ascending order, is:
3 POINTS: Humberside, Northamptonshire
7: Bedfordshire, Cleveland, Warwickshire
9: Greater Manchester, Gwent, Norfolk
10: Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, South Wales, Suffolk, Wiltshire
11: Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall, Kent
12: Avon and Somerset, Essex, Hampshire, Merseyside, Metropolitan Police, South Yorkshire, Sussex, West Midlands
13: Durham, Leicestershire, North Yorkshire, Thames Valley, West Mercia
14: City of London, Dorset, Dyfed-Powys, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, North Wales, Surrey, West Yorkshire
18: StaffordshireReuse content