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Tuesday, 18 December, 2001, 10:36 GMT
Q&A: Police numbers

The Home Office has released figures that show for the third consecutive period, the total number of police officers on the streets of England and Wales has increased.

What do the latest figures on the strength of police forces tell us?

As of September 2001 there were 127,231 officers in England and Wales. This represents an increase of 2.1% on last year and the biggest increase in 20 years - 2,617 additional officers.

If the new recruits were shared equally between the 43 constabularies, it would mean an extra 60 officers per force.

The figures also mean that recruitment and retaining of officers is outstripping wastage, the major problem that has continually dogged governments which have pledged to boost numbers.

Which police forces have benefited from this recruitment drive?

Thirty-eight of the 43 constabularies have more officers than a year ago.

The biggest winners have been North Yorkshire (7.5% increase), North Wales (7%) and South Wales (7%).

London's Metropolitan Police has taken on the largest number of extra officers, totally 680 or 2.8% of its total serving force.

Fourteen of the forces now have an office strength of record levels.

Where do problems still lie?

The most significant area of concern remains wastage - the number of officers who leave every year.

In the past year, 9,020 officers joined the police but 6,160 left. While some natural wastage is expected, this figure is 5% up on the previous year. The majority of the departures were retirements but 18% were resignations.

The question that this raises is what happens after 2003/04 when the current round of extra spending on police recruitment comes to an end. Will the numbers begin to decline again if officers are not satisfied with the conditions of the job?

What about ethnic minorities in the forces?

At the moment there are approximately 3,100 officers from ethnic minority backgrounds, an increase of 10% on last year.

The average proportion of all ethnic minority officers across all forces is 2.5% compared with a national target of 7%.

West Midlands has the highest representation (5.1%). In London the proportion has risen to 4.4% compared with a target of 25%.

But generally, the main recruitment figures are good news for the government?

The total number of police officers has been a contentious issue for many years and ministers will be relieved by today's news.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have sought to persuade voters that their party would be the one most likely to boost recruitment to the police and provide highly visible Bobbies on the beat.

Before the general election, Labour pledged to take police numbers to a historic high of 130,000 by 2003/04. These latest figures indicate that the government is heading towards that target.

Why is police strength such a big issue?

Opinion polls suggest that the general public wants a visible police presence on British streets.

But the past decade has seen a rollercoaster ride in police strength.

The total number of officers fell substantially under both the Conservatives and Labour before staring to rise again in the past year.

In 1991, there were approximately 128,000 officers in the UK. By March 2000, English and Welsh forces had a total of 124,170 officers - some 2,500 fewer policemen and women than when Labour came to power in 1997.

So what's changed since then?

Labour said the fall between 1997 and 1999 was inevitable because it initially stuck to Conservative spending plans after taking office.

In 1999, the government announced spending to recruit 5,000 officers.

This move descended into a political row when the Conservatives obtained a Treasury memo which indicated that the recruitment would only be enough to cover wastage.

A year later, the Home Office emerged as one of the big winners of Chancellor Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review, taking away an extra 2.5bn.

The then Home Secretary Jack Straw pledged 450m to recruit another 4,000 more officers over three years.

So how has recruitment fared?

One of the government's major aims has been to enhance the image of the police and encourage young people to regard the service as a good career decision.

In August 2000 the government launched a 7m nationwide recruitment campaign which attracted 57,000 inquiries in four months.

More than a year later, the figures show that these inquiries have been translated into officers and training colleges remain full.

What's the money like?

This, say many police officers, is part of the problem.

They argue that the average officer's salary does not compare favourably with other careers.

Police officers earn approximately 19,000 on completion of basic training. Within 10 years this rises to 26,000 at current rates.

But police officers say they are among those key public sector workers who are being priced out of the housing market in many areas, principally inner London and south-east England.

Ministers say they are trying to tackle this with an initiative which provides 8,000 key workers with 250m of help towards buying a home.

What about police morale?

The Police Federation, the body that represents rank-and-file officers has spoken of a crisis in the nation's police stations. For years they have complained that officers are tied up with too much paperwork which keeps them off the streets for hours.

At the same time, there is anecdotal evidence that many in the service do not value "beat bobbies" as much as the public do.

The latest controversy is Home Secretary David Blunkett's planned police reform package to change pay, conditions and introduce more civilians in to the service.

Police Federation chairman Fred Broughton said this week that there is "widespread discontent" among officers at Mr Blunkett's proposals.

While ministers, the public and the police themselves will be welcoming the current increase in recruits, nobody yet knows whether or not Mr Blunkett's proposals will prompt other officers to vote with their feet and leave.

See also:

17 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Q&A: Police reform white paper
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