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18.09.15

Home Office failures cast doubt on efficiency of local police forces

The Public Accounts Committee has blamed the Home Office’s “hands-off” approach to police forces for its hindered ability to deliver services, claiming it does not understand the true impact of cuts on local policing.

In its first report of the new Parliament, looking at the financial sustainability of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, the committee expressed concern that the department lacks sufficient information on the impact of fund cuts to police capability at local level.

Yet it said there are also gaps in the knowledge of local forces themselves on the current and future demands they face – which is essential for the Home Office and crime commissioners to assess whether police have the right skills and resources.

There is also limited information on the impact of cost reductions made by government departments on the police’s workload, and it is not clear how indispensable structural reforms will be made within the devolved delivery model.

Speaking as the committee published its first report, Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “Neither the Home Office nor local forces really understand the impact of cuts to local policing. Too often cuts to services lead to ‘cost shunting’ with the police acting as the default support provider.

“Central government funding to police and crime commissioners was cut in real terms by 25% between 2010-11 and 2015-16 and there is understandable concern about forces’ ability to fight crime and focus on the work that matters most to the public.

“Evidence suggests most forces lack essential information they need to plan for the future – a situation described as ‘startling’ by HM chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Tom Winsor.”

She added that there is no “meaningful” system in place to make sure senior officers have the business skills needed to run the “highly complex, multi-million pound organisations” under their command. The report recommended that the Home Office should require essential business skills needed to manage forces effectively, forming a joint view on the role and remit in each area “as a matter of urgency”.

Hillier said that outsourced services to private companies receive “inadequate scrutiny” and it is impossible to determine whether arrangements are at all valuable. She said the department must develop a clearer mechanism for assessing the long-term value of outsourced services and encourage arrangements that let forces adapt to evolving needs.

“Compounding these concerns is a one-size-fits-all approach to funding cuts, which fails to take full account of local circumstances and the diverse demands placed on frontline officers. Devising a new funding formula sensitive to the realities faced by different forces must be a priority for the Home Office,” she said.

According to her, it is “sobering” to face the fact that those tasked with making decisions about policing priorities might lack the skills needed to do their jobs effectively, particularly at a time of long-term funding uncertainties.

Recommendations

The Home Office is responsible for allocating grants to police and crime commissioners, who decide how much is injected into police forces and crime reduction initiatives. Commissioners are funded by the central government through police precept collected with council tax in relevant force areas.

The committee put forward a series of recommendations in their report to address what “must be seen as a significant failure” by the Home Office to provide commissioners and senior officers with the necessary tools to run their squads.

This included demands that the Home Office get rid of its “hands-off approach” to forces as it can limit their ability to ensure valuable services. Instead, the department should set out proposals for forces to make significant savings through structural reforms and assess the legal implications of these changes alongside evaluating local accountability.

It called the formulaic process by which the department allocates funding to commissioners “ineffective”, with results undermined by a decision to allocate equal funding reductions to all commissioners irrespective of local particularities.

The report recommended that the department should make sure the funding formula accounts for the specific demands of police services, the scope of savings, local circumstances such as precepts, and the levels of reserves. The new formula should be introduced for 2016-17 after sector-wide consultation, but changes to the formula should be announced as soon as possible to give forces enough time to plan around it.

It criticised the lack of information over the impact of these cost reductions, saying the Home Office must enforce proper data collection as well as work with other departments to ensure their spending decisions are not borne by the police service. HMIC should also identify the scope for joint inspections of services where cuts could impact policing.

To address the lack of information on current and future demands police forces face, the Home Office should work with the College of Policing to enforce a common standard for measuring demand, ensuring this is used nationwide to provide comparable and accessible data. Hillier dubbed this a matter of urgency.

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