Police patrols in danger of being 'eroded' by budget cuts, despite drop in crime

Overall crime in England and Wales down 9 per cent on last year but reported rapes are up 2 per cent

The police service faces fundamental changes to the way it operates after a report out today revealed that five forces will struggle with further budget cuts after the anticipated loss of nearly 32,000 jobs across England and Wales by 2015.

A report by the police inspectorate said that forces had generally coped well with 20 per cent cuts over five years but warned that local patrolling was in danger of being “eroded” and could have an impact on crime prevention programmes. The report also raised concerns that the response times to 999 calls were rising in some areas.

The study was released after the Office for National Statistics reported a nine per cent fall in recorded crime for the last year, despite a rise in rape offences and a 27 per cent increase in fraud. The Government said the figures were vindication of radical reforms that had seen budget cuts and the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners.

However five of the 43 police forces in England and Wales will struggle to find further cuts after March 2015, according to the report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary. They include two of the smallest forces, Lincolnshire and Bedfordshire, which have fewer options to trim budgets and raises the prospect of police mergers in a radical change to the policing landscape. West and South Yorkshire and Northamptonshire also faces future problems.

The Government has opposed such changes and the election of 41 police and crime commissioners  appeared to steer the debate away from senior police demands for fewer forces. But in a speech earlier this month, the policing minister Damian Green said he had “nothing against them (mergers) in principle where they are supported by PCCs and the local community.”

The HMIC report said that the failure of forces to collaborate represented a major lost opportunity in cutting costs, but chief inspector Tom Winsor warned that mergers involved a “serious degree of disruption and expense”.

He highlighted some forces where there had been “mergers by osmosis” such as Kent and Essex which has a joint serious crime command. “Working smarter – doing things in different ways – will be necessary,” he said. “That will include greater measures of collaboration between forces and with the private sector and other parts of the public sector.”

However, the HMIC report raised concerns that in some areas, police and community support officers – who do not have the powers of arrest – have taken over the role of local patrolling. There was also evidence that volunteer specials were plugging gaps following the expected loss of 15,400 police officers by 2015.

“In some areas, the neighbourhood is being stood up by PCSOs,” said Zoe Billingham, HM inspector of constabulary.

"We have found a considerable variation in the approaches taken by forces - and in some cases this leaves us with concerns about how some forces will manage in the face of further cuts.”

The report said most forces have plans in place to balance their books and of increasing the proportion of its workforce on the frontline. It also emerged yesterday that the number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen for the fourth consecutive year - by 3.4 per cent or 4,516 - taking the total to its lowest level since 2002. The figures were revealed as Steve White, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, claimed some officers were being forced to work 14 days straight due to numbers being stretched.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the figures were good news. "I think we should congratulate the police. As a Government we have asked them to do more with less resources. They have performed, I think, magnificently and I think all the work that has gone into crime prevention has helped as well.”

"This is good news, that Britain is getting safer as well as stronger."

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said there was "worrying evidence that the service provided by the police is being hollowed out as 15,000 police officers are being cut".

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