Tom Richmond: Taking axe to ‘back office’ will tie up officers with paperwork

TOTAL savings of at least £170m. The loss of 775 front-line posts. Vacancies frozen. And 1,570 support staff to lose their jobs as the thin blue line becomes even thinner across Yorkshire. Welcome to the future of policing in David Cameron’s Britain.

It is only when the cutbacks at the region’s four police forces are added together that their potential impact becomes clear. These cumulative figures are also just the beginning; they are the first phase of the coalition’s five-year plan to eradicate the budget deficit. Even more efficiencies will be required.

The challenge is to balance two conflicting priorities – a need to combat crime and the Government’s duty to bring the deficit under control. Labour’s “blank cheque” approach to policy-making has passed.

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Yet, as the police fulfil their remit, Ministers find themselves increasingly out of sync with the reality on the front line and the public’s wishes. Their approach may need to be reappraised.

From their perspective, Ministers have two primary criticisms of the public sector – including the police. There is not enough collaboration and too much money is wasted on “back-office” functions that are not necessary. These arguments, which underpin the whole spending debate, need to be placed in a Yorkshire policing context.

The record of this region’s four forces stands up to scrutiny on both counts – and still requires cuts on an unprecedented scale.

Take collaboration. The creation of several region-wide specialist teams has the potential to save many millions of pounds and help the police to combat cross-border crime, lead the fight against drugs and organised crime and also co-ordinate counter-terrorism work. It goes further. Specialist road traffic teams are also being merged to save money. In short, steps to reduce overheads are happening and more are planned This needs acknowledging.

So, too, is a recognition that costs can be reduced through procurement. This is why there will now be one common uniform for all four constabularies – it saves the money after the loss of a visual local identity was deemed a price worth paying. Patrol cars and protective equipment, like vests and batons, will also be bulk-ordered because this makes financial sense. Another Ministerial box ticked, and countless jobs saved.

Equally, two non-uniformed staff will lose their job for every uniformed officer being axed. Again, this meets coalition criteria; Whitehall’s wish to protect front line staff is being upheld.

Yet it is the precise definition of “front-line” staff that goes to the heart of the issue – and the looming difficulties for chief constables and the Government.

The Ministerial mantra defines “front line” staff as uniformed police. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means their colleagues in “back office” roles – the 1,570 people losing their jobs locally in this category – are less important.

If only it was this simple. As Geoff Ogden, a former head of Humberside Police, told the Yorkshire Post: “This is poor phraseology. In many cases, back office work – public protection and child protection work – is front-line policing. Ministers have been badly advised by their staff.”

He is right to highlight this, although Sir Norman Bettison, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police and whose own room for financial manoeuvre has been constrained by his force’s lack of financial reserves, has stressed that homicide, counter-terrorism and child protection work will not be jeopardised.

His challenge is striking a balance between crime-fighting and maintaining public confidence as the corrosive effect of drip-fed announcements resonates with taxpayers.

In many respects, the next set of crime statistics, and the public’s perception of policing, will indicate whether crime can be cut, and streets made safer, with fewer officers.

For, despite Ministerial utterances, police will have to prioritise far more calls – even though Home Office-led initiatives like crime mapping, and elected commissioners, are supposed to give the public greater sway and influence.

A house burglary will always take precedence over a random break-in at a garden shed, in part because the latter’s wooden fabric does not normally harvest forensic evidence to catch criminals. It is difficult for the police to argue otherwise – despite the misery caused to the victims. This is the new reality.

The public’s expectation that all calls are followed up is also no longer assured, particularly follow-up visits after crimes. The likelihood is that manpower will be targeted at those offences, and areas, that offer the best chance of yielding convictions. Is this right?

Equally officers will spend more time in court, a result of cutbacks to the legal system and Probation Service, and processing every crime, and details requested by the Home Office, onto a computer to sustain the new police maps.

In West Yorkshire, this alone was previously the work of 122 “back-office” staff. These posts are now going, with front-ine officers taking on this bureaucratic role, when Ministers from all parties have been advocating less paperwork for the police.

Is this what Mr Cameron wants, and will he think again? The Prime Minister’s response is awaited with interest – by both police chiefs and those voters who believed that a Tory-led government would lead to policing being reinvigorated, rather than decisions being taken which run contrary to the public interest.