The Home Office must improve its understanding of the impact police cuts are having across the country in order to inform its bid for additional funding at the upcoming Spending Review, the Public Accounts Committee has said.
In a report examining the effect of police funding reductions, MPs found the number of officers and staff has fallen by nearly a fifth since 2010, meaning the 43 forces in England and Wales are under increasing strain and cutting back on areas including neighbourhood policing.
Despite the pressures, MPs said the Home Office has not demonstrated strategic leadership of the policing system and has acted too slowly in response to known financial sustainability problems.
As the department prepares for the 2019 Spending Review, MPs said it needs more robust information on both crime and non-crime related demand for police services to inform its bid for funding.
Committee chair Meg Hillier said: “The ‘thin blue line’ is wearing thinner with potentially dire consequences for public safety. Public confidence and trust that the police will respond to calls is breaking down.”
The results are stark, she said. “The police and crime commissioner for Merseyside told us that the impact of austerity had been immense, causing the loss of force-wide resources such as robbery and street-crime squads.
“In Devon and Cornwall, neighbourhood policing has been hit to the extent that the PCC believes ‘our communities do not feel safe’. The chief constable of Durham told us the public feel let down.
“Last week, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council added her voice to those concerned about what over-stretched forces can realistically be expected to do. This cannot continue.”
As a result, the Home Office must get on with fixing the flaws at the heart of its approach to policing, she said.
“In particular, the Home Office must improve its understanding of the real-world demands on police, and use this information to inform its bid for funding from the Treasury. And when it secures that funding, it must distribute it effectively.”
The Home Office assessed forces’ financial resilience in 2017 and is doing so again as it prepares for the Spending Review, the committee said. However, its approach does not provide systematic and regular monitoring but relies on HM Inspector of Constabulary to report on whether forces are efficient and effective.
This does not amount to an assessment of financial sustainability, the report stated. “We are not convinced that the department would be able to say, at any given time, how financially healthy the police system is, or which forces are most at risk of failing to deliver an effective service because of their financial position.”
Hillier also said it is “wholly unacceptable” that the Home Office has accepted for more than three years that the current police funding formula needs to change, but has no firm plans to do it.
“If it is to convince police and the public that it is serious about addressing their concerns then it should set out a plan as swiftly as possible,” she added.
“The messages from communities and police forces across the UK are clear. The government must act now.”
Responding to the report, the Home Office said priorities and pressures will always vary across different parts of the country, and it is right that chief officers and police and crime commissioners set priorities in their areas.
The funding formula will be looked at again during the next Spending Review.
A spokesperson said: “We are on the front foot in engaging with the police and recognise the changing demands they are facing.
“The government’s balanced approach to the economy has helped ensure there is £1bn more of public money going into policing than three years ago and the home secretary has been clear that he will prioritise police funding." The £1bn figure includes funding for areas other than day to day policing, including the counter-terrorism police grant.
“As the chancellor noted in the Budget, we will review police spending power at the provisional police funding settlement in December.”