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What does Wednesday’s Budget tell us about the direction of public spending on policing and the criminal justice system?



Sophie Davis, Director of Research

Friday 8 March 2024

On the face of it, the portents are not good. 

Part of how the Chancellor has been able to justify further tax cuts today - and still meet his (already loose) fiscal rules - has been by promising to keep public spending down tomorrow.

The Treasury is assuming spending will rise by 1 per cent/ year over the next parliament. But with bigger increases already baked in for health, defence and childcare/ schools, ‘unprotected’ departments, of which the Home Office and Ministry of Justice are two of the most obvious examples, will face much more significant cuts. Sam Freedman calculates these will equate to 3.3 per cent cuts/ year, or 13 per cent over the parliament.

This is at a time when serious violence has risen, but charge rates and public confidence in the police have plummeted; with record backlogs in the courts; with a prison system that is full to bursting point, and with a probation service that is struggling to fulfil its core function of keeping the public safe. Battered by a perfect storm of rising demand, austerity and, latterly, the pandemic, to say these services are stretched would be an understatement.

Now of course, more money is not necessarily a guarantee of better outcomes. There are undoubtedly further efficiencies that the police, courts, probation etc could make, for example, through better use of technology and/ or more effective ways of working. Indeed buried away in yesterday’s Budget is a promise to establish a Centre for Policing Productivity - something that has the potential to deliver transformative change, if given proper teeth and backing from the centre.

Nonetheless, cuts of this scale would be very challenging to deliver, particularly given the headwinds described above. In truth, the government probably doesn’t think they’re deliverable either - the political push-back would be enormous. (The fact they are penned in for after the election is a good indicator of how serious the government is about this). 

Whether or not these cuts actually come to pass, we should be under no illusions; the starting gun for the next Spending Review has just been fired. All of us who have an interest in an effective police service and criminal justice system need to start making the case for a spending settlement that is sufficient to meet the scale of the challenge.

Our in-house think tank Crest Insights has published plenty of reports which illustrates how big this is - from the courts backlog (which began pre-pandemic) to the deep-rooted causes of serious violence. You can find them at


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