Police chiefs have attacked the policing minister’s suggestion that Government budget cuts could be achieved through simply improving procurement, freezing wages and increasing council tax.
Chief Constable Chris Sims, the head of West Midlands Police, Britain’s second largest force, said the political rhetoric had changed from the need for fundamental reform just a few months ago to simple steps that could now be taken to solve the problems.
Policing Minister Nick Herbert suggested earlier that, on top of 12 per cent savings through efficiencies, forces could make the rest of the 20 per cent cuts by imposing a pay freeze on officers, increasing the police precept in council tax and procuring equipment together.
But Mr Sims warned: “I think there’s a danger that we make this look a comfortable set of changes and we don’t prepare ourselves, our staff and most importantly the public for a degree of radicalism in the way the policing service is delivered.
“I am absolutely confident that we can do this, that we can maintain output and delivery, but we can’t hide from the fact that this is going to change the way that policing is seen and delivered.”
Speaking at the launch of the Commons Home Affairs Committee inquiry into policing, Mr Sims said: “I just want to observe a growing inconsistency in the way that we are describing the financial cuts.
“If we go back a couple of months I think we were really clear that this was a generational change, a real step-change in funding that would require us to make a radical review of police processes, to consider how many people we employed and how we operated, and we were absolutely up for that degree of radicalism.
“What I observe of late is that we seem to be slipping in to a description where actually the cut isn’t as is being said.
“But that if you simply look at things like procurement, if you consider that the freeze in police wages, if you think about precept and increasing precept (the cuts could be achieved).
“It would take a seven per cent increase in precept to replace one per cent in grant. I don’t foresee that that is going to happen in the climate that we’re in.”
He admitted more work could be done on procurement to cut costs, but said: “It’s not the panacea, as was said earlier, to the funding gap that we’ve got.”
Mr Sims was speaking after Policing Minister Nick Herbert told the seminar in Cannock Chase that by raising the precept, forces could take the average saving they need to make “down to 14 per cent in real terms”.
Mr Herbert said: “The position is one that I think forces can deal with and takes us close to the 12 per cent savings that... could be made by forces through efficiencies.
“Once you also factor into account the changes we expect in relation to the two-year pay freeze, which we believe police officers... will accept, and the further ability of police forces to procure equipment together, which we believe will make further additional savings, we believe that this circle can be squared.”
But he admitted the West Midlands force was one of those that raised more from central Government funding than through its precept and that the average savings were not uniform across all forces.
“The point I was trying to make is the cut in central Government funding is 20 per cent in real terms over four years but forces don’t raise all of their money from central government funding,” he said.
Mr Herbert went on: “The changes which the Government is asking the police service to make are not optional, they are essential.
“The challenges that we have identified are inescapable.”
Nick Gargan, acting chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency, added: “There’s more to procurement than simply paying less for goods and services.
“If we adopted an approach that was genuinely radical and said we would procure things centrally that would take people off the head count too.”
Shadow home secretary Ed Balls told the meeting: “I have to say I’ve never seen a circle squared before and I’m not sure whether the commitment to frontline policing is going to be consistent with these cuts.”
On the suggestions that the police precept could increase, Mr Balls added: “I would be surprised voluntarily if that’s what communities are going to accept and councillors are going to suggest.”
Mike Cunningham, chief constable of Staffordshire Police, added that the cuts would have to mean a “root and branch” review of how forces can maintain the level of service while reducing numbers.
“Structural changes of themselves will not be sufficient,” he said.
“What will be required is a root and branch review of how we deliver service.”
Collaboration with forces and public sector agencies “is developing a new urgency”, he added.
There was a “very real risk that partners will retrench”, he said.
“Partners will look at their own financial circumstances with a view to shedding responsibility.
“Never has there been a more critical time for the opposite to take place.
“It is our responsibility going forward to negotiate effectively with partners for a much more joined up approach to service delivery.”
He went on: “It seems to me going forward there will be a requirement to be more focused than ever on what our communities need from us and expect from us.”
There must be a “relationship of trust between police and local communities” and the Staffordshire force was “seeking to preserve our presence in neighbourhoods as it currently is”.
Shift patterns, deployment practices, call handling, dispatch and investigation processes will all have to be reviewed, he said.
Explaining the reasons behind the committee holding the seminar in Staffordshire, Mr Vaz said: “We don’t just believe in sitting in Westminster hearing from the experts.
“We feel that a role for the select committee must be to go in the country and talk to people about issues like policing.”