Published 25 November 2015
As the fallout from the Paris attacks continues, the debate about police cuts has shot back up the political agenda, having barely featured during the General Election campaign. According to the Resolution Foundation, the Home Office is set to be one of five ‘big losers’ from the Spending Review, facing cuts of 30 per cent or more. Applying reductions on that scale to the Home Office’s budget would probably result in police officer numbers falling to levels last seen in the 1970s.
Theresa May has consistently (and rightly) argued that officer numbers is a poor measure of policing performance. Moreover, George Osborne can point to other decisions he has made – to protect counter-terrorism budgets and to increase spending on cyber-security – as proof that the government is not soft on security. But events in Paris, both the attacks themselves and the French government’s response, have made those arguments harder. The fact it is no longer just police unions and Labour politicians calling for a re-think on police cuts, but a growing number of Conservative politicians, surely increases the chances of last minute adjustments to the Home Office’s settlement.
Yet the re-emergence of a familiar argument over police cuts masks a more significant and longer-term development: the growth of a new consensus around preventing crime.
The cost of incarceration and reoffending
After years of being reliably ‘tough on crime’, Conservative politicians have recently begun following their American cousins in embracing an agenda that might better be described as ‘smart on crime’. For Conservatives, who hold an innate scepticism of large government institutions, there is an inescapable logic. The state spends £36,000 a year locking someone up, yet nearly half of those people will be back inside within 12 months. Many of them come from a handful of deprived local areas, yet the agencies operating in those areas have little incentive to invest in programmes to prevent them from offending, since they don’t pay for the costs of custody. Michael Gove’s new team in the Ministry of Justice understand this acutely, which is why they are taking a long hard look at the design of the criminal justice system, including how to align incentives so that prevention is encouraged.
Labour, too, is opening itself up to criminal justice reform, though on the left, the spur for change is coming from below rather than from above. Labour-controlled authorities like Greater Manchester have already shown what can be achieved by pooling local budgets and investing in intensive alternatives to custody – reducing both the rate of incarceration and reoffending. Tony Lloyd, who now combines the responsibilities of Police and Crime Commissioner with those of Mayor, has long argued that with greater discretion over custody and probation budgets, he would be able to shift resources ‘upstream’, thus reducing demand on the system later on.
More support for crime prevention needed
Of course nobody understands these arguments better than police officers themselves. The lack of adequate mental health provision often leaves the police as the social service of last resort, having to detain people under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, even when no crime has been committed. Some police forces have experimented with a system of ‘triage’, embedding mental health professionals in command and control rooms, custody suites and cars, so that those arrested can have their needs assessed, and where necessary, be diverted toward a course of mental health treatment. In Leicestershire, it has seen a 40 per cent reduction in people detained under the Mental Health Act and is saving police and the NHS nearly £10,000 a month.
There is also a growing understanding of the role schools could and should be playing to prevent crime. Last week the Early Intervention Foundation published research showing that children and young people at risk of gang involvement can be identified as young as seven. Aggression, running away from home and truancy are all strong indicators of future youth offending. Getting the right support to these children at the earliest opportunity is vital, so that they can receive a school-based or family-focused programme and be steered away from a life of crime.
As we enter a week when police cuts are likely to dominate the national policy debate, we should keep our eyes on the long term prize – a system which prevents crime, rather than simply reacting to it – and for which there now appears to be widespread support. If we can achieve that, it will not just mean fewer lives wasted, but safer communities and lower costs.