Cutting costs or crime?

The need for some degree of reform in the structure and operation of the 43 police forces in England and Wales has been acknowledged for quite some time. A Home Office White Paper on police reform in 1993 questioned whether the existing structure was the most appropriate for the then present and emerging threats facing the UK police service. A year later the Police and Magistrates Court Act 1994 provided the Home Secretary with the power to amalgamate forces.

Events such as the 7 July 2005 bombings in London and Hurricane Katrina in the US are potential examples of phenomena that could expose the limits of the current police force organisation. Police advisors have also raised concerns about the increasingly sophisticated scale and nature of organised criminal gangs, as the breadth of their operations sometimes cut across a number of force regions, and the inequality that exists in the resources available to forces due to their differing sizes.

However, the proposed changes have met with considerable opposition from the Association of Police Authorities (APA), opposition politicians and a number of chief constables. Some of this opposition arises from institutional resistance to change, which the Home Office has tried to overcome by setting an extremely short timescale for implementation. However, there are also serious and credible issues to be addressed in justifying the change and setting out the proposed solutions.

The need for change

The report Closing the Gap, by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), concluded that the current force structure in England and Wales is no longer 'fit for purpose' to provide key protective services. In its assessment of force capabilities, the report identified seven areas under the title of protective services against which each force was assessed. These areas were examined to measure force capability to counter crime that impacts across divisional and force boundaries (identified as level two crime by the police service's national intelligence model). These seven areas were:

  • counterterrorism and extremism
  • serious organised and cross-border crime
  • civil contingencies and emergency planning
  • critical incident handling
  • major crime investigations (homicide)
  • public order
  • strategic roads policing
The most compelling reasons for change to force structures are the ability of the police to respond to major incidents in co-ordination with other emergency services, and to effectively co-operate in the investigation of serious crime. These protective services fall into the intermediate tier of policing and, as such, are beyond the remit of the basic command unit, the lower tier dedicated to the delivery of local policing. The Serious Organised Crime Agency has been established for the upper tier, crimes of a national or international nature. The agency is aimed at providing high quality intelligence, in addition to removing duplications of service and inefficiencies across the existing structure.

Closing the Gap found that the intermediate level of policing was broadly inadequate. Smaller forces were seen as poorly equipped to face the identified existing and emerging challenges, and were also faced with having to fill gaps that had resulted from the reorganisation of the upper tier.

Expansion in the use of forensics and other technology is likely to place an increasing burden on force budgets, as technical capability and associated benefits make more investment necessary. Forces need to have equal access to the best skills and resources available, not just where the demand is greatest.

Strategic forces

The concluding recommendation of the report, written by HMIC, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Secretary, states that strategic forces with a minimum force level of 4,000 police officers or 6,000 total staff tend to deal with reformation better. Significantly, it further argues that structural change alone is not sufficient, and that the configuration of forces is also vital to any change.

The Home Office has submitted a list of preferred options for restructuring to forces. This list includes the creation of between 12 and 19 strategic forces, and the possibility of collaboration between the Met and City of London as an alternative to a strategic force. With the exception of Wales, all regions have a number of force merger configurations to consider. The resultant sizes of these forces range from 3,311 to 19,632 (excluding the existing Met and City of London forces), with the possibility of two resultant forces below the 4,000 officer threshold.

The defined level of 4,000 has been questioned by a number of police forces, including West Mercia Constabulary, which commissioned a statistical critique of this aspect of the report by Professor Anthony Lawrence of Warwick University. This report argued that the data used in the Closing the Gap, and its justification of the 4,000 officer threshold, was questionable. Significantly, it notes that variability in the performance of protective services at different force levels does not appear to have been accounted for. It argues that to make a realistic assessment of the result of force mergers, existing relative performance at different levels must be considered.

There is little doubt that larger forces are better equipped to deal with level two crime because they have greater resources of personnel, and hardware and technical capability. Larger forces are used to dealing with large-scale criminal enterprises and their capability has developed accordingly. For example, organised crime at this level is concentrated in those areas where the key markets exist. The only two forces with excellent ratings for both level two crime and serious and organised crime in the 2004/2005 HMIC Baseline Assessments were London's Met and Greater Manchester Police, which cover such areas and have the greatest numbers of police officers and staff.

The major metropolitan areas have benefited from the Government's general grants, which Dr Tim Brain, the chief constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary, observes have averaged GBP156 per head of population, compared to GBP107 for the non-metropolitan areas. He makes the case that, in this regard, deficiencies identified in Closing the Gap for some forces are not sufficiently explained by their size, but also by historical funding linked to the conditions in the area. Indeed, the formula used to determine Home Office grant levels provides for policing needs at a particular level, so to some extent the capability of a force is a function of its particular requirements.

It is not surprising that smaller police forces are less well equipped to provide protective services than the largest, given the relative funding, demographic and geographic factors involved. The benefits of creating strategic forces are in three key areas: cost savings associated to economies of scale; an overall enhanced capability for the provision of protective services; and a more centralised structure allowing for co-ordination with other forces and national bodies.

Financial implications

The APA and a number of chief constables have expressed particular concern about financing the restructure. It is estimated that restructuring entirely along the strategic force model will cost around GBP500 million, and the APA has indicated this cost will be met almost entirely by police forces. While the report estimates annual savings of GBP70 million, there is little solid information to support these predictions, and a considerable amount of risk and uncertainty associated with merging forces that will have varying degrees of compatibility and relative resources and therefore different funding requirements.

The HMIC report indicated that the net present value of merger savings could amount to GBP2.25 billion over 10 years, although the levels of investment in raising the standards of protective services assumed in this calculation were not clear. However, it is clear that simply merging forces will not result in an enhanced capacity in protective services in itself, and further investment will be required.

Policing through and after

A number of the larger forces which police significant metropolitan areas, and are therefore the leaders in terms of the amount of level two capability crime, have expressed concerns that this capability would be undermined by mergers with forces which are weaker in these areas. This is a legitimate concern in assessing the impact on policing in the short-to-medium term, but is not a barrier to change.

The reforms are aimed at serious and large-scale crime and propose little direct benefit to local policing. The successful basic command unit is to remain the vehicle through which local policing is delivered, and no changes to it are proposed. The potential risk to local policing arises in regard to the role of the police authorities and the local relationships that exist between the force and the community, which may be lost if measures to keep this are not integrated into particular reform packages.

Any restructure of police forces has corresponding implications for changes in the structure of police authorities which provided the necessary checks and balances and have oversight over forces' spending plans. It is not the case that restructuring police authorities, in their current form, along the lines of potential strategic forces is the best option as the fundamental role of the authorities is to ensure local accountability in the functioning of the forces. If authorities are to retain at least their current level of effectiveness, then there must be full consideration of the organisational changes required within their structures where strategic force mergers occur. This needs to be recognised and implemented on a time scale that complements that of force mergers.

The APA has recently submitted proposals to the Home Office outlining its concerns and proposing 'federations' of forces in cases where mergers into strategic forces are considered inappropriate. This option is discussed in the Closing the Gap report, and would allow for the provision of protective services under a number of framework agreements between forces. Effects on local accountability would be minimised through the retention of existing force structures and the costs of mergers avoided.

The negotiations currently taking place should result in clarification of issues surrounding the financing of specific mergers. This is essential if forces and the country as a whole are to be convinced of its merits. It may be that a slower pace is necessary in some cases, and this is where proposals for federations of forces may be more appropriate. The Government has so far succeeded in keeping the pressure on to ensure reform takes place, but should be wary of blindly pushing through blanket changes in the face of opposition based on legitimate local and financial concerns.

Garry Hindle is head of International Homeland Security and Business Continuity at RUSI's Homeland, Security and Resilience Department.

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