Police forces across the UK have undergone significant changes over the past five years to play their part in reducing public sector expenditure and the central government deficit. Last month, the inspector of constabulary paid tribute to police leaders, officers and civilians for their ability to absorb those cuts while crime has continued to fall and maintaining public satisfaction.
John Shaw: nuanced debate needed
However, it is clear that there are still significant reductions to come. The Home Office is not protected from additional financial constraints over this Parliament and the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will set out the scale of the challenge in detail. All this comes on the back of the shocking attacks in Paris which means that the public are rightly concerned about the level of spending on security to keep them safe.
The debate about police funding is frequently cast as a choice between investment – meaning more cops – versus cuts, which lead to fewer officers and greater risk to the public. This presumes that the structures remain static and organisational processes are unchanged.
While the great strength of the British policing model is undoubtedly the focus on local policing, there is a debate on whether the support functions need to be duplicated across 43 forces. For example, in contrast to the DVLA model where we have one licencing body for the country, there are 43 offices – one for each police force area – managing speeding tickets. This is replicated in the areas of finance and procurement to name but two more areas. There are important questions around whether these could be brought together on a regional or national basis to increase efficiency and help secure greater economies of scale.
It is also vital that we discuss the kind of work we want police forces to be doing. For many years local authorities have outsourced their finance and HR functions. Similarly, while no-one would want anyone other than a police officer to make the decision on the detention or release of a suspect, there is a case that the police could partner with others to deliver work like finance and HR.
In Lincolnshire, one of the many of the administrative and support functions now delivered by G4S as part of a strategic partnership, signed in 2012, is within the custody suite. Not only does this cost less but it has released six sergeants for other duties. It has also introduced more checks and balances into the detention process as custody sergeants have the space to take a strategic look at the performance of their department. For example, instead of booking a detainee into the police station as well as completing and signing-off risk assessments, custody sergeants in Lincolnshire now focus purely on police work in terms of reviewing the on-going risk to the detainee and monitoring whether they should still be detained.
There are hard choices ahead for police leaders and police and crime commissioners but the debate should be much more nuanced than a simple choice between cops or cuts. In a world of shrinking budgets where the vast majority is rightly spent on people, maximising performance and minimising spend on support functions allows forces to spend more on police officers so they can continue to cut crime and keep the public safe.John Shaw is Managing Director, G4S Public Services