The Home Office must urgently address a lack of a plan for policing and “significant gaps” in its understanding of demand for police services, the National Audit Office has said.
The spending watchdog has highlighted an urgent need for the Home Office to improve how it monitors and addresses demand for police services.
The department had “no overarching strategy of its own” for policing, which holds it back from ensuring funding goes where it is most needed, the NAO said. Its probe found there had been a 19% drop in police funding since 2010, which meant forces had to reduce staff numbers.
“The way the department chooses to distribute funding has been ineffective and detached from the changing nature of policing for too long, and it cannot be sure overall funding is being directed to the right places,” the report said.
The department must develop a strategy setting out its long-term goals for policing, including multi-year funding settlements to provide financial stability, informed by better data collection and analysis, the NAO said.
At the moment, its accountability system statement fails to clearly set out measures to determine that the policing system is working, what information it uses to monitor forces’ financial health, or how it would respond to forces’ financial or service failure.
By contrast, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’s statement sets out exactly how the ministry gathers information on the financial sustainability and effectiveness of local authorities, which, like police forces, are run by locally-elected bodies.
To support the strategy, the NAO urged the Home Office to improve its collection and use of data, which also compared unfavourably with MHCLG. It said the department could learn from the housing ministry, which collects and analyses data regularly to improve its understanding of local authorities’ finances.
“Understanding the scale of financial risk and where it lies is important, as intervention after a failure is likely to be more costly than preventing the failure in the first place,” the report said.
The department should identify how collecting and reviewing data could enable it to catch “emerging signs of financial stress”, the NAO recommended. This could include reviewing capital spending alongside the level of financial reserves.
The report also concluded that severe delays to the department’s planned rollout of upgraded IT services have also increased costs to police services. The majority of the funding for the upgrade is expected to come from savings generated by the introduction of the Emergency Services Network, an improved communications system, but as of June the programme was already at least 15 months behind schedule.
Elsewhere the report criticised the move to cut funding equally among forces without considering the full range of demands on police time, the efficiency of forces, levels of financial reserves and the ability of forces to raise funds locally through council tax.
Auditor general Amyas Morse said: “The financial sustainability of police forces and their ability to deliver effective services is reliant on the Home Office understanding national and local demands and allocating funds fairly.
“There are signs that forces are already experiencing financial strain and struggling to deliver effective services to the public. If the Home Office does not understand what is going on, it will not be able to direct resources to where they are needed, with the risk that the situation could get worse.”
Responding to the report, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Our decision to empower locally-accountable police and crime commissioners [PCCs] to make decisions using their local expertise does not mean that we do not understand the demands on police forces.
“In addition, the report does not recognise the strengths of PCCs and chief constables leading on day-to-day policing matters, including on financial sustainability.”