Magazine article Public Finance

Force to Reckon With

Magazine article Public Finance

Force to Reckon With

Article excerpt

THE LAST TIME the Conservatives returned to office after a long period in opposition, there was one group of public sector workers above all that they were determined to keep on their side: the police. Almost the first decision the incoming Thatcher government took in 1979 was to implement in full the recommendations of the Edmund-Davies inquiry into levels of police pay, which had fallen markedly compared with those of other state employees.

In some cases, the increases amounted to nearly 40% and thousands of new officers were recruited, many of whom are now retiring exactly 30 years later. The goodwill the Tories bought paid dividends when the police were on the front line of dealing with some of the consequences of their policies, notably the inner-city riots of 1981 and the miners' strike a few years later.

In marked contrast, today Prime Minister David Cameron is presiding over a cut in police budgets and numbers just as political tensions once again spill over into street protest and as Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's plans to reduce the prison population risk pushing up the crime rate for the first time in 20 years. Furthermore, the terrorist threat level is the highest it has been for some years amid concern that some sort of Mumbai-style attack is being plotted.

John Yates, head of Scotland Yard's specialist operations command and the country's most senior counter-terrorist officer, has gone so far as to question what he called 'eye-watering' cuts and their impact on the task of keeping the country safe. He warned that anti-terror policing both in London and elsewhere faced cuts at a time when the Met's principal focus is now turning to the 2012 Olympics in London, which is considered a major terrorist target. As if this were not enough, the police are about to undergo the most profound structural reforms since the 1960s with the introduction of elected commissioners. This is potentially a toxic combination: is it one that might come to poison Cameron and the coalition?

A consistent theme of the government is that it is possible to cut deep into planned budgets without harming frontline services. Shortly before the election, Cameron appeared on the Andrew Marr Show on BBCl and was asked what would happen if his ministers came to him proposing cuts that harmed the front line. 'They would be sent back to their departments to think again,' he said. The clear impression given - a pledge, Labour calls it - was that in the necessary retrenchment of public spending in order to reduce the deficit, the front line would not suffer. But was it ever going to be possible to cut 20% or more off most department budgets in four years without some impact on the front line?

There were always two obvious difficulties with Cameron's statement. In the first place, the definition of the front line is by no means clear. And secondly, it is not departmental ministers who make the decisions on what happens to it: they can cut the overall budget - but how that then affects services is a matter for local managers and finance officers.

As Cameron and his coalition partners are about to discover to their political cost in 2011, it was an easier pledge to make than to deliver. Part of their problem stems from the different understandings of what comprises frontline services. Where policing is concerned, most people consider the front line to mean the beat officer and the neighbourhood police station, neither of which are especially prominent any more. Senior officers, however, regard the non-uniformed CID and some back-office employees, such as IT staff, as equally important to tackling crime - and so they are. The dilemma, though, is that the public is clamouring for more visible policing- beyond the community support officers in big town centres - just as overall numbers are starting to fall for the first time in 12 years.

The police themselves have undergone something of a Damascene conversion in recent years to appreciate the importance of a routine uniformed presence on the streets without which people fear - indeed, have witnessed - an increase in antisocial behaviour. …

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