The number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen to its lowest level in a decade, prompting fresh warnings about the effect of budget cuts on crime fighting.
Home Office figures showed 135,838 officers in the 43 police forces across England and Wales at the end of September last year, more than 6,000 fewer than the previous year and fewer than at any point since 2002.
The figures also showed the number of specials – unpaid volunteers – rose by more than 2,500 over the year.
The fall in officer numbers was revealed as Policing Minister Nick Herbert announced he would compel all forces to join a National Police Air Service (NPAS) that will save £15m a year. The move means South Yorkshire will lose its own police helicopter.
Across Yorkshire’s four forces, the number of full-time officers dropped by 572 to 11,530 with West Yorkshire reporting the biggest fall of 310 down to 5,363. At the same time, West Yorkshire was also one of only seven forces to increase its number of police community support officers (PCSO) with an increase of 19, up to 747.
Assistant chief constable John Parkinson denied the force was replacing officers with PCSOs, adding that their numbers were partly reliant on funding from local councils which had been secured during the year.
Civilian staff numbers across the 43 forces fell 11.3 per cent, down by almost 9,000 to 69,407. One of the biggest falls was recorded by North Yorkshire where numbers dropped by 20 per cent – nearly twice the national average – to 918.
North Yorkshire’s temporary assistant chief constable Iain Spittal said the reduction in police staff was the result of “decisive action” taken to deal with inevitable large scale redundancies quickly rather than spread them over several years of budget cuts.
But York’s Labour MP Hugh Bayley warned: “These cuts will mean some police officers will be pulled back to the police station to do work which civilians previously did which is both a costly and bad use of their time.”
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper described the loss of over 700 police officers in Yorkshire and the Humber region since the general election as “shocking”.
She attacked Prime Minster David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May for “letting down communities and turning their backs on the police, adding: “The Prime Minister’s decision to cut policing too far and too fast when many crimes are increasing is putting communities at risk.”
But Downing Street said it would be “simplistic” to suggest a direct link between falling police numbers and the increase in violent crime revealed earlier this month.
Policing Minister Nick Herbert said: “The strength and quality of frontline policing cannot, and should not, be measured simply in terms of officer numbers. What matters is not the total number of officers employed, but how officers are deployed.”
Meanwhile plans to compel forces to join the National Police Air Service (NPAS) will leave South Yorkshire reliant on aircraft in Derbyshire, West Yorkshire and the Humberside force area.
The county’s police authority opted out of the scheme last year, but Mr Herbert’s move would force it to sign up to a deal that involves slashing the number of helicopters and air bases by a third across England and Wales.
Rather than each force having its own helicopter patrolling its region, the new national service will be operated from a central command centre.
South Yorkshire’s new Chief Constable, David Crompton, said he would study the announcement to see whether there was “any room for negotiation”.
“I do not think that all is immediately lost on this one and I do not think anybody is giving up on this, certainly not me.”
Police authority chairman Charles Perryman said: “We don’t disagree with the NPAS proposals in principle, but we require reassurances from Government that the national scheme will not reduce services to the county. Despite repeated requests for additional information from the national police air support team, nothing has been received.”