The Police Service of England and Wales is suffering the biggest cuts of any in Europe. Police Forces are being asked to do more with less. Almost 16,000 police officers have already gone and the police workforce will have reduced by 34,000 by the time of the General Election. With the thin blue line stretched ever thinner, the public is seeing ever fewer Bobbies on the beat. Now, in a report released today, the government's own watchdog, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, is warning that neighbourhood policing is at risk.
Neighbourhood policing is the bedrock of policing, local policing with local roots working with local communities to build relationships of trust and confidence both to identify those guilty of crime and to prevent crime and divert people from crime.
It was a Labour government that built neighbourhood policing, putting 17,000 Police officers and 16,000 PCSOs on the beat. There followed a generation of progress, with crime falling 43% under the last Government.
It was Sir Hugh Orde, the President of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who warned eighteen months ago of the consequences of undermining neighbourhood policing. A "tipping point" might come, he said, whereby crime would once again start to rise. It was Lord Stevens, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the Chairman of the Independent Commission on the Future of Policing, established by the Labour Party, who said that we are in danger of "returning to a reactive and discredited model of policing". Now the HMIC has warned that neighbourhood policing is being eroded.
Following the publication of the Stevens Commission in November 2013, I have visited almost thirty towns and cities, part of a fifty-strong tour, doing that which David Cameron and Theresa May should have done, but failed to do, listening to local people and local police officers. Yes, as the HMIC says, the police have coped thus far with mounting problems as the thin blue line is stretched ever thinner and they should be commended for doing so. That has, however, been at a heavy price. Police sickness has soared with, as I saw first hand in Reading, the Thames Valley Police Service last year recording its highest stress related absences in seven years.
Time and again, I have seen evidence of neighbourhood police teams hollowed out. The excellent neighbourhood police officers in Lowestoft told me how increasingly their team was a sergeant and PCSO with police constables pulled away to deal with response and 999 call outs.
In Darwen and Rossendale, I heard concerns over the Lancashire police service acknowledging in future that it could not attend, if called out, less serious crimes. Local Rossendale people told me 'why report a crime unless it is then properly investigated.'
In Redbridge, impressive local people engaged in Neighbourhood Watch said that they no longer had quite the same contact with the police with whom they have worked for years because, as one said, they are "more and more stretched".
Nationwide I have seen response units and community safety teams cut back, meaning neighbourhood police officers are in cars responding to calls rather than working their beat and preventing crime. And, with the exception of Labour Wales, I have heard all over the country of PCSOs being cut. Almost one in four have gone since 2010.
And the inevitable consequences? But a fortnight ago local people in Hull and Humberside expressed their concern that crime was once again on the rise after so many years of progress. Violent crime up 6%. Sexual crime up 8%. Burglary up 8%. Shoplifting up 15%. What one officer called austerity crime. People that would never have stolen before stealing bread and milk to feed their family and nappies for their babies.
The government is in addition presiding over a growing justice gap. Violent crime, domestic violence, rape and child abuse, all are up but prosecutions and convictions are down. More violent and sexual crime and more criminals getting away with it.
The HMIC Report confirms that neighbourhood policing is in danger of existing on paper only. The bitter irony is that the British model of neighbourhood policing is celebrated worldwide for its effectiveness. Police forces from all over the world come to our College of Policing to learn lessons from our neighbourhood policing experience. Now, here in England and Wales, we are witnessing what works and what is popular with the public being progressively undermined by a Government out of touch with the public and the police.