The next set of crime statistics could make for uncomfortable reading for Home Office ministers. For nearly 20 years, Britain, in common with much of the western world, has experienced a steady fall in numbers of offences. This has been variously attributed to better burglar alarms, more CCTV and fewer young men in the population.
But there are signs that the line on the graph is about to point up again. Recorded crime edged up by 2 per cent last year – although other measures said it was still falling – and figures next month are expected to confirm the trend. That will leave Theresa May and her team with difficult questions as they prepare to push through further reductions in police spending.
For five years they have been able to argue that cuts to budgets and manpower – English and Welsh forces have cut spending by more than £2bn since 2010 and have lost some 17,000 front-line officers – have not affected the fight against crime. As a result, law and order barely featured in the election campaign.
With Ms May back in the Home Office, Chief Constables and Police Commissioners face more tough decisions as George Osborne carries out the Tories’ election promise to shave £13bn from departmental spending over three years.
Over the last five years, police chiefs have responded to financial pressures by freezing recruitment, closing under-used stations and reducing spending on equipment. Many forces have reduced costs by pooling resources, while others have collaborated with the fire and ambulance services in the drive for savings.
Ms May insists there remains scope for further economies without affecting the quality of service. Ministers are also pressing ahead with the introduction of time-saving technology such as wearable video-cameras.
But her optimism is not shared by many within the force. The Police Federation claims the service is “on its knees”, while Sir Hugh Orde, the former president of Association of Chief Police Officers, has warned the policing system could be near a “tipping point”.
Jack Dromey, the shadow policing minister, argues: “Another five years like the past five will inevitably see crime once again rising after a generation of progress.”
The Home Office fiercely disputes the claim, insisting that any rise in numbers is down to the willingness of people to come forward over previously under-reported and complex crimes such as historic sex abuse and online fraud.
Last week the National Audit Office accused the Home Office of not properly assessing the potential damage of a further round of cuts.
The department replied that forces would continue to get the resources they need to do the job. But the new crime figures could cast doubt on its “more with less” philosophy and push law and order up the political agenda.