Vigilante warning as forces cut 1,700 posts

At least 1,700 police officers, mainly on street patrol, will be cut because of new cash limits.

Chief Constables warned yesterday that a reduction in service and a less visible police force could drive the public into the arms of second-rate private security firms or vigilante patrols.

News of the cuts will come as an embarrassment to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who has promised more police on the beat as part of his law and order package. But yesterday the country's senior officers said frontline services, such as spending time with victims, were more likely to be cut as forces met the "demand-led" calls on their resources such as answering rape and murder calls and dealing with prison riots.

The warnings came after the Association of Chief Police Officers surveyed all 43 police forces in England and Wales on the effect of the new formula for police funding.

John Hoddinott, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, (Acpo) acknowledged that police were one of the few winners in last year's Budget round with a 3 per cent increase. But he said only four forces could improve services and 17 maintainservices.

The increase, taking the police budget to over £6bn, has been swallowed up by inflation, last year's spending commitment, an ever-increasing pension demand, and the need for the first time to set aside a contingency fund for demands such as policing long-term road or port protests. Until now local councils were able to underwrite such costs.

The cuts in policing levels will not mean redundancies, but some forces have already frozen recruitment.

Forces had been expecting to lose about 800 of the 126,500-strong force but the effect of the new budget formula has more than doubled that figure to 1,700 plus 200 civilians.

David Shattock, chairman of Acpo's finance committee, said: "The consumer will look towards the unregulated private security industry; the one man and his dog who might just have come out of prison."

Mr Hoddinott said: "We will not be able to provide the service that we would like and if we are not then there are those who will step in to fill the breach and that is not good news for the public."

Some hard-hit forces, such as Dorset and Thames Valley, have lobbied Home Office ministers, who have promised to look again at the budget formula. Mr Hoddinott said that following a study in his force area, Hampshire, ministers might be persuaded that the public wish to spend more on the police.

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