top of page

Spending Review: why the stakes have never been higher for policing and justice



Harvey Redgrave, Chief Executive Officer

Friday 31 July 2020

The results of the Spending Review for 2020-23 are to be announced in the autumn. For policing and justice, the outcome will be critical.

This autumn, the government will announce the outcome of its Spending Review (SR) for 2020-23, an event occurring every three years as part of the UK government’s budget-setting process. To those uninitiated in the jargon of Whitehall, the SR is the process which determines the amount of money different government departments will have to spend in order to deliver public services over the next three years.

In theory, the process is largely technocratic, providing an opportunity for the government to prioritise finite resources, informed by detailed analysis of the demand services face and the future cost of providing those services. In practice, the SR is inherently political, influenced by partisan considerations, organised lobbying and unplanned events. Indeed, many see the SR as an exercise in brinkmanship and ministerial manoeuvring.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between those two extremes. If a department wishes to emerge successful from a Spending Review, it will invariably need to demonstrate a strong grip of the numbers underpinning its bid for resources and have answers to some basic questions. How much do services cost now? How much is demand projected to grow? What is the relationship between spending and outcomes? But analytical rigour will need to be combined with political nous. Persuading sceptical Treasury officials to inject more cash into a public service requires a strategy, underpinned by a coherent and disciplined set of public messages about the risks (of not spending enough) and opportunities (if spending is increased).

For policing and justice, the stakes could not be higher. This blog identifies five areas to consider for autumn's Spending Review.

1. Policing – what we have, we hold

Six months ago, policing leaders could have been forgiven for allowing themselves grounds for optimism for the first time in a decade. The Prime Minister won a comprehensive electoral mandate, partly off the back of a promise to recruit 20,000 additional officers. This, combined with a one year Spending Review hastily convened prior to the election (which in hindsight looks to have been relatively generous to policing), suggested that the thin blue line could expect to thicken out a little.

But, to put it mildly, the world is a very different place today. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and work and we are only in the foothills of how this will ultimately play out within the economy. While the Chancellor has said he will do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect people’s jobs, he has also been clear that the current size of the deficit is unsustainable: at some point the money will need to be paid back, either through lower spending or higher taxes. Policing will not be immune from this. As a result, the police will enter the forthcoming Spending Review in a largely defensive posture - keen to hold on to what they have, rather than expecting an injection of additional resources.

2. Police accountability – who calls the shots?

In recent years, there has been a lack of leadership and grip from the centre of government on crime. While the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) provides much needed local accountability, this was accompanied by a general ‘stepping back’ by the Home Office, which appeared to have become a department without a clear sense of vision or purpose on crime, treating it as an almost entirely devolved matter.

Since last year’s election, the Home Office has demonstrated its intention to play a more muscular role. Soon after he entered Downing Street, the Prime Minister announced a new National Policing Board - chaired by the Home Secretary - to set the long-term strategic direction for policing and hold Chief Constables to account for delivery against the government’s objectives. More recently, the Home Secretary flexed her muscles by announcing a review of the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) role amid suggestions that the review might be used to dilute the power of PCCs.

Meanwhile, the Policing Minister has made clear that additional spending will not be unconditional: the government will expect the police to make clear ‘measurable improvements’. The Home Secretary has been blunter, telling a conference of chief constables that there can be “no excuses” for failing to cut crime and reductions in offending “are non-negotiable”. Ministers may see the SR as an appropriate vehicle for introducing these targets in order to hold policing -and the rest of the criminal justice system - to account.

3. Police demand – a fairer slice of the pie?

In November 2018 the Public Affairs Committee chided the Home Office for being poorly equipped for the (then) forthcoming Spending Review. The Committee suggested that this was a function of having a weak understanding of police demand in particular, and police finances more generally. To quote the PAC report directly, ‘the Home Office must improve its understanding of the real-world demands on police, and use this information to inform its bid for funding from the Treasury. And when it secures that funding, it must distribute it effectively.’ The Chair went on to say that it was ‘wholly unacceptable’ that the HO had accepted for more than three years that the current police funding formula needed to change, but had no firm plans to do it.

Nearly two years later, there are signs that the message may have finally landed. A number of police forces (not least those supported by Crest) have worked to improve their understanding of current and future demand. More recently, the Home Secretary has suggested the funding formula will be reviewed.

That said, we have been here before. While everyone can agree that the current formula is in need of reform - relying on an outdated methodology to assess need/ quantify demand - there is no consensus as to what a better formula would look like. Inevitably, any new system for distributing funding will create winners and losers. Using the SR to make progress on funding reform would show that the Home Office is finally biting the bullet.

4. Justice – clearing the backlog?

This Spending Review will therefore be a test of whether the government truly understands how demand on the CJS works.

It is widely understood that the justice system is in crisis. On almost any measure, outcomes are worsening. Victims are waiting longer than ever to get justice in the courts, self-harm and violence within prisons are at record levels, and the probation service has failed to have any impact on reoffending. This was largely the case before COVID-19 struck, but the pandemic has exacerbated these problems still further. For example, since the beginning of lockdown, the backlog in the courts has grown from under 450,000 to more than 500,000 outstanding cases.

Ministry of Justice officials are acutely aware that with recorded violence continuing to grow, and the police under pressure to improve shockingly low clear-up rates, pressure on the justice system is likely to increase at a time it is least able to cope. This Spending Review will therefore be a test of whether the government truly understands how demand on the CJS works. Too often in the past, there has been a failure to appreciate how changes in one part of the system can impact other parts of the system and/ or how costs can be shunted between agencies. In an unusually frank session of the Justice Select Committee, the outgoing Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, suggested that the Department’s Spending Review bid in 2015 had been based on flawed numbers, hamstrung by ‘ambitious and unrealistic’ savings targets which left it begging the Treasury for handouts.

Put crudely, there is little point recruiting extra police officers and demanding they catch more criminals if there isn’t the capacity to effectively prosecute, sentence, incarcerate and rehabilitate them. Talk of merging the Ministry of Justice with the Home Office appears to have quietened since COVID-19 struck, but ensuring a joined up approach to criminal justice reform remains an imperative for this government.

5. Capital – a more modern estate?

The Spending Review isn’t just about ‘current’/ revenue spending, which encompasses spending on the wages of those working within public services. It also sets the envelope for ‘capital’ spending, which covers physical assets like roads, bridges and buildings. Unlike schools and hospitals, which were the subject of considerable capital spend during the 2000s, the policing and criminal justice estate is old and increasingly unfit for purpose.

In particular, the prison estate, which includes many dilapidated prisons built during the Victorian era, is widely considered to have been the subject of underinvestment. Indeed government has itself acknowledged this in a White Paper published in 2016: ‘the physical environment that many staff and prisoners face on a daily basis is not fostering the kind of culture or regime needed for prisoners to turn their lives around’. However, while the 2015 Spending Review was premised on the concept of ‘new for old’ (with a commitment to replace old prisons with newer ones), the Justice Secretary has recently announced the government no longer intends on closing older prisons. Will the Spending Review confront this challenge head on?


The forthcoming Spending Review represents both an opportunity and a test for government. The opportunity is to provide policing and other parts of the criminal justice system with the financial certainty it requires to be able to function effectively. But it is also a test of whether government truly understands how demand on the criminal justice system works. The pressure on policing to improve outcomes will drive demand on the Crown Prosecution Service, which will in turn feed through into demand on the courts, prisons and probation service at a time when the operating model of these services looks to have been broken by COVID-19. In order to succeed, the Spending Review must think about the criminal justice system as an integrated whole, rather than simply a collection of individual agencies.


bottom of page