Numbers up: But police chiefs fear future cuts
The government must reconsider merging police forces and fund them properly, says a cross-party committee of MPs.
The Home Affairs select committee said forces also needed to think again about police back-office functions and using the private sector.
Its report details wide variations in officer numbers and schemes designed to make forces more efficient.
Some chief constables back mergers, but the idea was scrapped four years ago amid a row over the costs.
The most recent Home Office figures showed there were more than 147,000 officers in England and Wales in 2009 - up 5% over five years.
POLICE STRENGTH 31 MARCH 2009
80,542 support staff
16,831 Police Community Support Officers
14,469 special constables
Figures for England and Wales only
But despite the headline figures, almost a third of the forces have cut officer numbers - and many others are concerned that they will have to do the same because of financial pressures, irrespective of the outcome of the general election.
The Association of Police Authorities warned the committee that a 10% cut in funding would mean a loss of 5,800 officers - although forces might be able to cut 5% without losing officers.
The MPs said mergers of some forces should be explored - and that the Home Office had to fund it properly. Figures shown to the committee indicated that merging the relatively small Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire services would cost £20m - but ultimately save almost £15m a year.
The committee said the Home Office's voluntary mergers fund, set up to help forces look at options, was a "drop in the ocean".
"We urge the government to consider how forces and authorities can be assisted with managing the up-front costs of reorganisation," it concluded.
"The long-term financial benefits should make this area of investment a priority."
The committee added that the private sector could take on some work and that police authorities needed more freedom to raise local taxes.
The Home Office scrapped tentative merger proposals in 2006 after rows over whether the forces or central government would pay for the plans. A White Paper at the end of last year put voluntary mergers back on the table and forces have been told to save £500m by 2014.
Police minister David Hanson said: "We must ensure we get value for money and that is why we set out savings opportunities for the police service in the White Paper.
"By working smarter and working together forces can deliver even more for the money they receive."
But Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling accused the government of hypocrisy.
"It claims to be protecting policing financially but behind the scenes is making cuts, which is reducing the number of officers in many parts of the country.
"It always seems to be saying one thing and doing another, in the hope that no-one is looking."
And Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats said: "This report is right to suggest that there needs to be a full and frank discussion about police numbers and budgets in the current economic climate.
"The Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to putting more police on the street. The other parties should make clear what their intentions are."