8 June 2017

You haven’t been told the full story on police numbers


It’s election day so, if you haven’t already, go and vote. Yes, you, exercise your democratic rights because your forebears spent rather a lot of effort in ensuring that you have them.

Polling day is a good time to reflect on what the politicians have been saying to us during the course of the campaign. My particular favourites have been the various rows about police numbers. No, not just the (now ill) Dianne Abbott thinking that a policeman cost 50 pence a year to feed and that. But the general screaming match that has been going on.

A vile murderer blows up teenage girls and we’re told that the Tories have cut police numbers. Bearded nutters stab pub goers and we’re assailed again with speeches about cuts to our safety being driven by austerity. And yet it’s not, in fact, obvious that there have been any cuts to police numbers. There are ways that you can present it in which there have been, that’s entirely true, but presentation is what makes politics, not facts.

One example comes from a former rep for the Police Foundation. Some 20,000 staff have been lost in the past 7 years we’re told. We must have more neighbourhood policing and that just requires more warm bodies out there. All of which is a bit of a surprise to those of us who have been arguing for more street policing only to be told that is all old hat now. Far more efficient to have them leaping in and out of cars as than having them pottering along the pavement.

But then the rep for the Police Federation which, for those who don’t know, is the union policemen aren’t allowed to have. The job of a rep for which is to say that there should be many more Police Federation members being paid ever-escalating amounts of money. This isn’t something to complain about. That would be like whining that the pitbull won’t let go of your ankle; this is what they are for.

But it is worth examining whether these claims of ever fewer police are in fact true. The answer being up to a point Lord Copper. There have indeed been fewer warranted police over the past decade or so. That can be seen here, from 138,000 or so in 2004 to 124,000 odd in 2016, the peak being 144,000 (all rounded numbers) in 2009/10. A fall of 20,000 is thus accurate as long as you don’t want to tell the whole story.

To be informative you might want to mention the effects of the Brown Terror and his determined expansion of the number of people who receive state pay. Again, as with the pitbull, there’s no point in whining about a Chancellor creating a voting clientele, that’s what they’re for.

But if we look at the longer time series we see that 124,000-odd is about the level of police in 2000/01, before those spending taps were turned on. And my how we trembled in fear of being murdered in our beds in the 70s and 80s when numbers were substantially below that.

So another telling of the story is that we’ve simply been trimming back that Brown overspend. That would be equally partial of course, but perhaps more informative.

But perhaps we’d like to be really informative? At which point we should probably try mention Plastic Plod, the PCSO, something invented and brought into being in 2002. PCSOs, being non-warranted, are not included in any of the above numbers of police. Yet we’ve had, variably, 14,000-16,000 of them over this same time period. In 202, the number was 14,500, for example. Note again we had none of these pre-2002, also that they are not counted in the numbers for police officers.

Now we can tell a fuller story. We do have fewer police officers than we had very recently, but we’ve more policing than we had when the IRA were still running riot. The two real changes are a reversal of Brown’s state employee expansion and the introduction of the PCSO. And we really must include plastic in our count of coppers mustn’t we? For if they’re not doing at least a modicum of the work of a police officer then why the heck have we got them?

And those democratic rights you’re to go out an exercise? Yes, do so, but wouldn’t it be just wonderful if all those elected use numbers to tell a more accurate story?

Tim Worstall is senior fellow at the Adam Smith Institute