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Monday, 23 April, 2001, 11:02 GMT
Do we have enough police?

The public wants Bobbies on the Beat - are they being delivered?

Policing and police recruitment In Scotland is a matter devolved to the Scottish Parliament and executive and is therefore not an issue for MPs at Westminster. For policing in Northern Ireland see the section on the peace process.


Last year, the magazine for rank-and-file officers, Police Review, reported that some inspectors were working such long hours that colleagues were organising "whip rounds" to supplement their pay. It painted a picture of a police service in crisis - but are things really that bad?

The past decade has seen a rollercoaster ride in police numbers - as they have fallen substantially during both Conservative and Labour governments and now, finally, begun to rise.

At the end of September 2000, there were 124,614 police officers in England and Wales.

Although this was a 0.4% increase on six months earlier, there were still about 2,500 fewer police officers than when Labour came to power in 1997.

In 1999, after sticking to two years of Conservative spending plans, the government pledged to fund an additional 5,000 officers on top of normal recruitment.


While this sparked a political row (more later), it was followed in 2000 by another announcement for 4,000 more officers after the government made police recruitment a spending priority.

While Wales's forces have been largely unaffected by this recruitment crisis, London's Metropolitan Police has been the worst hit.

It lost almost 1,500 officers between March 1999 and 2000 but only recruited 994.

The force's commissioner, Sir John Stevens, has now announced that the current recruitment policy is working and the Met is on its way to hit the manpower target set by London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

Police recruitment in Northern Ireland and Scotland is dealt with separately by the Northern Ireland Office and the Scottish Executive respectively.


POLITICAL ROW

Labour's attempts to tackle the issue of police numbers led to a row following the party's 1999 conference pledge for 5,000 extra officers.

The Conservatives revealed a Treasury memo showing that the recruits would only be enough to keep police levels constant.


Jack Straw blamed officials for the mistake. But, crucially, he conceded to MPs that he could no longer say that police numbers would rise by the end of the Parliament.

At the time, Mr Straw sought to blame the previous administration, saying that Labour had no choice but to stick to two years' worth of Conservative spending plans on taking office because of the allegedly parlous state of the public finances.

This, inevitably, meant that that numbers would fall under Labour for the first three years. The Conservatives have vehemently denied this allegation.

In July 2000 the Home Office was given 450m in the Comprehensive Spending Review to recruit 4,000 more officers over three years.

The latest recruitment statistics, released in April 2001, show that this cash and an unprecedented 7m national recruitment campaign (attacked by some officers as a panic measure) is leading to larger forces.

The campaign attracted 57,000 inquiries in four months and there are now 7,000 recruits going through training college.

This represents a 77% increase on the previous year and, crucially, is above the expected officer wastage rate by some 1,600 officers.

If recruitment remains on target, then total police strength could hit a historic high by 2004.


POLICE MORALE

But while the government says that it has now pledged enough cash to deal with the backlog, officers themselves have spoken of a morale crisis in the nations' police stations.

Writing in December last year, the Police Federation's chief Fred Broughton said: "Morale is the worst I have ever seen it.

"I have been to meetings ... packed with ordinary police officers saying: 'What the hell is going on?'"

Officers have complained that they have equipment that isn't up to the job and the Police Federation claims the workload has increased by 40% in recent years.

And while the Home Office stresses that only 1% of all police officers resign, four out of 10 police retirements are on "ill health grounds".

One of the bitterest issues within police circles remains the 1994 scrapping of the special housing allowance to new recruits.

Jack Straw has introduced an income supplement for London officers by way of compensation but a regional campaign for housing allowances continues.


ECONOMIC PRESSURES

But there is perhaps another issue effecting police recruitment. It wasn't so long ago that popping on the blue helmet was a good career move.

But police officers say that today's starting salaries cannot compete with those offered in a relatively buoyant job market.

This, in turn, affects the way police themselves regard the job.

The Superintendent's Association recently called for a "massive cultural shift" because almost half of beat coppers, those most valued by the public, want to move to more glamorous non-uniform posts.

With all of this in mind, the Police Federation is still calling for a Royal Commission arguing that well-staffed, equipped and highly visible constabularies are crucial to meeting public expectations.

POLICING IN SCOTLAND

Scotland's policing is a devolved matter dealt with by the Scottish Parliament.

Since 1997, the strength of the Scottish police forces has declined slightly - from 14,961 officers to 14,722 officers.

Between 1999-2000, 600 officers left the Scottish forces - but the constabularies recruited only 437 to replace them.

The official Inspector of Constabularies (HMIC) has been concerned enough to comment: "While it is a matter for individual chief constables, it is clear that recruitment is falling short of the number of officers leaving the service."

HMIC also warned that the routine policing could be affected by another drop as experienced officers join the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency.

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