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Thanks to austerity the modern policeman’s lot is not a happy one

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. 

If Gilbert and Sullivan were writing today would they cite not only the “enterprising burglar” and his “felonious little plans” but also the misery of payday loans and the need to take a second job as a driving instructor? 

According to a new survey by the Police Federation, almost half its members worry about their finances and 12 per cent feel they don’t get paid enough to cover essentials. 

Eight per cent of respondents say they have taken a second job – up from six per cent of those surveyed last year. That implies around 10,000 police officers are doing something on the side to make extra money, whether taxi driving, plumbing or fitness training.

“[It] clearly cannot be right or acceptable that those employed to keep the public safe cannot make ends meet or put food on tables for their families,” says John Apter, the Federation’s chair.

Apter also links government cuts to rising violent crime rates. “We are in crisis and that is a direct result of the pressure the government has put on by a reduction in funding,” he says.

That’s a verdict echoed by Labour, which has pledged to recruit an extra 10,000 officers by 2022.

It’s not particularly surprising to see the Federation pressing for more money for members. The police are part of a swelling chorus of public sector anger over eight long years of government-imposed pay restraint.

Is the police service in as dire a condition as the Federation claims? And is government austerity to blame? The data point unambiguously to a major squeeze. Spending on individual forces in England and Wales is down by between 10 and 20 per cent. The number of full-time equivalent police officers has collapsed from a peak of 144,000 in 2009 to 123,000 last year.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the median annual pay of a police officer last year was £ 40,616. In 2010 it was £ 38,464. That’s a rise of 6 per cent. But prices have risen 15 per cent over the same period, meaning officers’ real terms average pay has fallen by close to 10 per cent.

Are drastic cuts in numbers responsible for recent increases in violent crime? Are real terms pay reductions creating a demoralised and increasingly ineffective force? It’s difficult to be categorical. Looking back over recent decades, there’s no clear correlation between police numbers and reported crime. Police numbers and funding rose strongly in the 2000s, when recorded crime was falling. But that was a continuation of a longer term trend which began in the mid-1990s and which was seen across the Western world.

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows no clear association since 2010 between the scale of cuts in each force and key performance measures from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Yet a rise in reported stress levels among officers certainly coincides with the cuts. The recent disturbing spike in violent crime such as robberies is also consistent with police forces being overstretched.

A leaked internal report from the Home Office suggested the fall in police numbers “may be an underlying driver”. The most recent independent police pay review report highlighted a “significant reduction” in new recruits in 2016.

And the new home secretary, Sajid Javid, has broken with the denials of his predecessor Amber Rudd and pledged to fight the Treasury for more “resources” for the police.

Other austerity policies in recent years have contributed to a growing and more complex workload for the police. “Many of the problems the police are now dealing with – homelessness, mental illness, children leaving home – were previously picked up by other departments of local government,” points out the University of Sussex’s Richard Disney, someone who has studied the economics of UK policing in depth.

Even if, being generous to the government, austerity did succeed in squeezing some inefficiency out of the police, it’s a strategy that has now pretty clearly run out of road. Further cuts to funding and real terms pay reductions for officers really will hollow out the service.

If the modern police officer’s lot is not a happy one, ultimately, the same will be true of the public.


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