Crime-fighters under pressure as units closed

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The looming closure of major crime-fighting units, deep cuts to the criminal justice system and doubts over elected commissioners are putting more pressure on police forces with shrinking budgets, a Yorkshire chief constable has claimed.

Tim Hollis, who leads Humberside Police, said Ministers had asked senior officers to save money but their plans to shut the Forensic Science Service (FSS) and the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) could end up costing forces more.

The changes were on top of budget cuts for prisons, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), courts and probation teams, as well as health bodies and charities, all of which have made it harder for police to plan ahead, he added.

The FSS, due to close in March after the Government claimed it was losing £2m a month, will stop accepting new work from October, meaning chief constables face a race against time to find private companies ready to analyse evidence from crime scenes.

Some 1,650 jobs are under threat, including 200 at a laboratory in Wetherby, although the Home Office has confirmed it is considering options to retain the Yorkshire operation for continued use by the region’s forces.

Mr Hollis, a vice-president of Britain’s most powerful police body, the Association of Police Officers, said chief constables had been “surprised at the rapidity” of the Government’s decision.

“The FSS did something like 78 per cent of our business and it is a tall order to expect the private sector to take that on,” he said. “There are some risks to dismantling what was regarded internationally as a very good service.

“Some of the problems in forensics in the past have led to miscarriages of justice and we do not want to see those repeated.

“The service has responded very positively to the challenge, both regionally and nationally, and I am satisfied that we will find a solution but, whenever you change a system, some things will be better and some things will not be as good.”

Mr Hollis questioned Ministers’ decision over the NPIA, which provides technical support to forces across the country and was one of dozens of agencies earmarked for closure in a “bonfire of the quangos”.

He said: “This government is encouraging police forces to do more joint work and collaborate to get benefits of scale, so it is a little ironic that a national agency, which was wrongly seen as a quango, has been told it will cease trading at the end of 2012.

“It is likely that forces facing budget cuts are going to have to buy in services previously provided by the NPIA.”

Mr Hollis said criminal justice agencies had reorganised to save money, which meant the Humberside policing area no longer had a dedicated courts manager or Chief Crown Prosecutor.

The CPS in Yorkshire is run from Leeds, he added, while his force’s cases were dealt with by a court service covering an area from the Scottish border to south of the Humber.

“The ability for criminal justice agencies to work quickly together as we saw after the riots, when suspects were arrested, charged and sent to prison within four days rather than four months or two years, was quite dramatic,” Mr Hollis said.

“But the landscape keeps changing and it is very hard to have a consistent conversation when all the key players are changing and people are moving elsewhere.”

Mr Hollis suggested the situation would be complicated further by the introduction of elected police commissioners.

“With this government seemingly in favour of the idea of payment by results,” he said “everyone has an interest in what criteria police commissioners will use when it comes to distributing the money they receive. Could much of the money go to the East Riding at the expense of Hull, or Leeds instead of Bradford?

“There is general uncertainty about the cumulative impact of the cuts and there is general uncertainty about commissioners.”

A spokeswoman for CPS Yorkshire and Humberside said its administrative budget, which covers salaries and running costs, was being cut by £3m by 2014 as part of plans to make national savings of 25 per cent. She said that cutting 42 Chief Crown Prosecutors to 13 had saved frontline jobs.

The director of operations at West Yorkshire Probation Trust, Mark Siddall, said the organisation was facing a cut of between 10 and 15 per cent over four years.

He said the service was investing more in its projects working with prolific offenders and those convicted of serious crime, but low-priority offenders could be seen in groups of 10 rather than one-to-one to save money.

A Home Office spokesman said the department was “confident” that the wind-down of the FSS would not adversely affect the criminal justice system. A police-led ICT company was being set up to deliver better value for money.