The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) highlights major flaws in the way the Home Office assesses forces’ financial stability and calls for it to begin “systematic monitoring” immediately in a critical report published today.
“Forces are finding it harder to deliver an effective service and there is a risk that problems with forces’ financial sustainability may not be spotted soon enough,” it says.
“We are not convinced that the department would be able to say, at any given time, how financially healthy the police system is, or which forces are most at risk of failing to deliver an effective service because of their financial position.”
The latest warning about the precarious position of police budgets echoes the findings of the National Audit Office in September, and comes after Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority to declare itself effectively bankrupt earlier this year.
Police forces, like councils, are barred from going into deficit, but the report says the risk lies in whether they could find themselves failing to serve the public, with many forces’ reserves dwindling amid reducing budgets and increased workloads.
It says neighbourhood policing has borne the brunt of cuts and public confidence in the police “is being severely dented”.
PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier said: “The ‘thin blue line’ is wearing thinner with potentially dire consequences for public safety. Public confidence and trust that the police will respond is breaking down. This cannot continue.”
The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said the situation now amounted to “a national scandal”.
Chairman John Apter said: “What will it take for the Government to take its head out of the sand and do something about it?”
West Yorkshire Police was one of the forces to give evidence, with the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, warning the situation will “significantly threaten the financial sustainability of the service” unless more money is found in next year’s Spending Review.
Figures released yesterday show Yorkshire’s four police forces have seen their cash reserves fall by more than a fifth, or £44m, in the past two years, as chiefs use the money to prop up policing.
North Yorkshire had the region’s lowest reserves level, both in real terms and in proportion to its funding levels, at £10.9m.
A Home Office spokesman said: “We are on the front foot in engaging with the police and recognise the changing demands they are facing.”
He said the Government’s balanced approach to the economy had ensured there was £1bn more of public money going into policing than three years ago, and the Home Secretary had been clear that he would prioritise police funding.
Meanwhile, eight Conservative and Labour MPs from the region have written to Home Secretary Sajid Javid amid concern that increased police pension contributions could force Humberside Police to lose 132 officers.
The MPs asked for a meeting to discuss the prospect of losing the frontline officers in the next two years if extra pension contributions had to come from existing budgets.
They said the area’s crime commissioner had worked to focus resources on the frontline, but they were “extremely concerned” this would be undermined if no further funding was found.