Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Police spending in England and Wales 'to fall by 500m'

police generic
Officials believe forces should make purchases together

Police forces in England and Wales have been told to make annual savings of more than £500m by 2014.

A government White Paper says forces should pool resources in forensic work and procurement to save cash.

Senior officers have warned against plans to save £70m by cutting "vital" overtime. Ministers insist front-line policing will not be affected.

It comes as a report revealed officers are spending no more time on the beat than they were two years ago.

Former Police Federation chief Jan Berry - who prepared the Home Office-commissioned report - said patrol officers had told her that problems with bureaucracy may have worsened.

Many of the 27,000 hand-held computers given to officers to cut down on paperwork were ineffective because they lack the right programs, she said.

Danny Shaw
Danny Shaw, home affairs, BBC News

At the heart of the intractable problem of police bureaucracy and inefficiency is a number: 43. That's how many police forces there are in England and Wales, each with its own chief constable, uniform and computer system.

Jan Berry says efforts to cut red tape are being hampered because forces operate in different ways and have distinct priorities. The Home Office says savings can be made if forces collaborate more and standardise procurement.

That may be so. But there's an argument - hinted at in the White Paper - that the most effective way to achieve savings will be to merge some of the 43 forces.

When Charles Clarke tried to do this in 2005, before he was sacked as Home Secretary, the plans foundered on the issue of money: Mergers require up-front funding; only later on will there be savings.

Now, with public finances so stretched, it's hard to see where the cash will come from.

Mrs Berry also said chief constables - fearing damage to their reputations from low clear-up rates - had been reluctant to adopt a scheme giving officers more discretion when dealing with less serious crime.

"It should be about what matters to the public not what matters to senior officers," she said.

The scheme, piloted in four areas, involved officers warning youths about petty crime such as vandalism and asking parents to pay for any damage, instead of arresting the youngsters.

Opposition politicians say more must be done to free up officers from paperwork.

Unveiling the White Paper, Home Secretary Alan Johnson said "record" levels of funding were guaranteed until next year and his "absolute priority" was to maintain front-line policing numbers.

The paper spells out how the police will be expected to save £100m next year, rising to £545m annually by 2014. This would represent about 5% of the total government grant police receive.

The pojected savings include £400m on IT efficiencies and £75m on administrative costs. The police helicopter fleet will be reduced by a fifth, while some forces will be given incentives to merge.

"Police forces are collaborating to find ways to jointly procure - whether that's on uniforms, whether that's on cars, whether that's on air-support services," Mr Johnson told the BBC.

"There are always opportunities to do more."

About £400m was spent on extra policing hours last year but President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde, warned against too many cuts.

"Only sergeants and constables are paid overtime. Where the need is, is at the front line so I think we need to be careful about salami-slicing the budget," he said.

"We need to give chief officers the freedom to spend their money wisely, to focus on the front-end of policing, and overtime is a vital part of that."

'Hard trick'

Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said he understood the financial pressures on the government.

However, he said it would be a "hard trick to pull off" to ensure cuts did not impinge on front-line services.

"The public expects officers to be there when needed and sometimes that means overtime is going to have to be paid."

Other proposals include encouraging single patrolling to maximise visibility and engagement with the public, although the federation says that already happens routinely in many areas.

Former Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair said the reforms did not go far enough and that a royal commission - a non-party political inquiry - should look at restructuring the service.

Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said police were "swamped with time-wasting bureaucracy".

"It's got to change. We need to free up police and get them back on our streets fighting crime," he said.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said "countless reviews" had failed to improve police efficiency.

"The only way to cut red tape is to make proper use of voice-recognition technology, hand-held computers, and civilian keyboard operators," he said.

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