Magazine article Public Finance

Talking Tough Costs Money

Magazine article Public Finance

Talking Tough Costs Money

Article excerpt

Almost unnoticed this week, Labour broke a manifesto pledge. Of itself, it might not have been of the greatest importance, yet it is a harbinger of things to come.

Instead of the 24,000 police community support officers promised by the government at the general election last year, local police authorities will instead receive enough money to cover just 16,000.

So what, you may say. Indeed, reading the parliamentary written statement from police minister Tony McNulty, announcing next year's police budgets for England and Wales, you could be forgiven for not noticing any change at all.

The funding, part of this year's local government settlement, amounted to £315m for neighbourhood policing in 2007/08, an increase of 41% on this year, according to the Home Office, which seems generous enough.

But McNulty added: The home secretary and I accept the argument put forward by the police service itself that the delivery of neighbourhood policing does not necessarily need 24,000 PCSOs. This settlement therefore provides continuing support towards 16,000 PCSOs in 2007/08.'

McNulty said the reason for this change of heart was an acceptance of arguments by chief constables to be given greater flexibility and freedoms to decide locally the best way to deliver 'visible, responsible and accessible policing'.

But there is something odd going on here. Neighbourhood policing is meant to be the key element of Labour's third-term law and order package, delivering Tony Blair's 'Respect' agenda. Surely, the police could be just as flexible, and more able to deliver visible patrolling, if they had more PCSOs, not fewer?

The other explanation, of course, is that the Home Office has simply not got the money to do what the manifesto promised.

It is an open secret in Whitehall that Chancellor Gordon Brown has increasingly looked askance at the money he is having to spend on a succession of Home Office initiatives, many of which either do not work or have the perverse effect of costing even more, for instance by pushing up prison numbers. John Reid, the home secretary, has another clutch of criminal justice measures about to go through Parliament, yet his departmental budget is now frozen in real terms for the next three years.

From this he has to fulfil a pledge to provide 8,000 more prison places, overhaul the Immigration and Nationality Department, roll out neighbourhood policing, introduce identity cards and tackle antisocial behaviour.

This should all be done within existing budgets because the Home Office has had plenty of warning of the squeeze going on. …

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