Police numbers at lowest level for a decade


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The Independent Online

The number of police officers has fallen to its lowest level in a decade as a police chief warned cuts had left his force "on a metaphorical cliff edge".

There were more than 6,000 fewer officers in England and Wales at the end of September last year compared with the year before, more than 9,000 fewer police staff, and more than 900 fewer community support officers.

But the number of specials - unpaid volunteers - rose by more than 2,500, the Home Office figures showed.

The figures were published as Gloucestershire Chief Constable Tony Melville became one of the most senior officers to speak out against the Government's budget cuts, warning his force was "in the middle of the perfect storm".

"Never before in my 34 years of policing have I experienced an issue which has galvanised staff and officers in the way that this has and I feel compelled to respond," he said.

"We are cutting much, much deeper than was ever intended or required by the CSR (comprehensive spending review).

"So in a small force, a series of local decisions have combined to take us to a metaphorical cliff edge much more quickly than others."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said: "These are astonishingly hard-hitting words from a chief constable who has been put in an impossible position by the Government."

His comments were a "deeply damning indictment" of the scale of the cuts and the Government "must heed the serious warnings from chief constables and police officers across the country before it is too late", she said.

"David Cameron and Theresa May are letting down communities and turning their backs on the police. They should be battling to cut crime, but they are just cutting the police instead.

"The Prime Minister's decision to cut policing too far and too fast when many crimes are increasing is putting communities at risk."

But Downing Street said it would be "simplistic" to suggest a direct link between falling police numbers and the increase in violent crime revealed earlier this month.

Policing Minister Nick Herbert said: "The strength and quality of frontline policing cannot, and should not, be measured simply in terms of officer numbers.

"What matters is not the total number of officers employed, but how officers are deployed.

"The best forces had twice the visibility and availability of those at the bottom of the table. So spending isn't the sole issue."

He went on: "By changing shift patterns, targeting resources better, reducing time-wasting bureaucracy and using initiatives such as hotspots or problem-oriented policing, forces cannot only continue to deliver within reduced budgets - they can continue to cut crime.

"There were around 25,000 officers in backroom jobs, giving forces plenty of scope to save money while still protecting the front line.

"In fact, forces are protecting neighbourhood policing, and the proportion of the police workforce on the front line is rising."

The figures showed there were 135,838 officers in the 43 police forces, fewer than at any point since 2002.

A further 423 officers were seconded to central services, taking the total to 136,261, with 2,610 officers in the British Transport Police.

Police staff numbers fell by almost 9,000 (11.3%) to 69,407, while the number of police community support officers (PCSOs) was down by 907 (5.5%) to 15,469, the data showed.

But the number of special constables went up by more than 2,500 (15.5%) to 19,366.

Only one force, Surrey, increased its officer numbers, up 97 (5.2%) to 1,961.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said the fall in numbers was not surprising given "the context of a constrained funding environment and a sustained recruitment freeze across most police forces".

Greater Manchester Chief Constable Peter Fahy, the Acpo lead for workforce development, said: "This is a very difficult time for most police forces with significant reductions in staff and the challenge of managing redundancy and change programmes.

"Workforce morale is understandably affected by the pay freeze and increase in pension contributions."

But he added: "On the positive side, many forces have started recruiting again or will do so in the next financial year.

"The service is realistic about the current economic crisis but will need to seek new ways of working and new approaches to reducing demand and cost as this loss of experienced staff continues."

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, said: "Forces may have to rethink and reduce the range of services that they provide in order to make ends meet.

"We must ensure that whilst we ask our police service to do more for less, we do not allow the loss of 6,000 officers in the past year to affect the level of service the public receives."

But the Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers in England and Wales, asked: "How can we possibly provide the same level of service to the public if we are losing thousands of officers?"

Paul McKeever, the federation's chairman, said: "Today's announcement is just the tip of the iceberg, as we will see even fewer police officers available as we embark on policing the biggest security event this country has ever seen - the Olympic Games."