By Bob Duncan
Police numbers in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest level in almost a decade, while officer numbers in Scotland have simultaneously reached an all-time record high.
Figures from the Home Office released yesterday reveal that full-time equivalent officers in the 43 forces in England and Wales fell by 5,000 (3.6 per cent) compared to a year earlier, and have fallen by 9,625 since the 2010 general election.
Westminster Policing and Criminal Justice Minister Nick Herbert said the reduced numbers were a result of "necessary savings" as part of the deficit reduction programme.
He added: "We inherited a situation where there were some 25,000 officers not on the front line," he said. So there was plenty of scope for forces to make savings while improving performance, as forces are showing as they continue to drive down crime."
But Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents rank-and-file officers, said the figures "do nothing to reassure us or the public we serve", and urged the government not to "gamble" with public safety.
“Despite accusations that we were scaremongering, the harsh reality of the consequences of a 20% cut to the police budget is now hitting home,” he said.
Nigel Rabbits, Chairman of Devon and Cornwall Police Federation which is one of the forces most affected, said that by 2015 the force would be one of the "sparsest" anywhere in Europe. "Morale is really low. Officers come to work to do the best job they can but if they haven't got the right tools and haven't got officers to support them they are fearful for the public's safety and their own safety. That is being exaggerated now every day, every day there are fewer officers."
Critics of the cuts and the way they are being implemented in Devon and Cornwall in particular are alarmed by an increase in the crime rate flagged up in a recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC).
The report reveals that recorded crime was up by 3% for the year ending December 2011 compared with December 2010. Robbery was up by 12% and burglary by 11%.
HMIC also named three forces – the Met and Lincolnshire as well as Devon and Cornwall – as potentially not being able to provide an efficient or effective service.
Shadow police minister David Hanson said it was "deeply worrying" that nearly 10,000 officers had already been lost to budget cuts since the last general election.
However, in a speech to the police Federation Conference on 15 May 2012, Labour's Shadow Home Secretary, Evette Cooper, said: "Labour has said repeatedly since before the election that the police budget would have to be cut. We supported 12% cuts."
In stark contrast figures published last month for Scotland show 1,202 extra officers have been recruited since 31st March 2007, when the SNP were elected to government – a record number.
Commenting on the Scottish figures, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "I warmly welcome today’s statistics showing the highest ever number of police officers in our communities the length and breadth of Scotland.
"Crime is at a 35 year low, fear of crime is down, the risk of being a victim of crime in Scotland is falling and is lower than in England and Wales. People are feeling safer in their communities and these record police numbers prove that this Government is delivering on its commitments to protect police services and deter crime.
"The figures will obviously fluctuate slightly over time but we are protecting police officer posts and investing in our communities when in England and Wales officer numbers are predicted to decrease by 16,000."
In response to the figures published yesterday by the Home Office, the Scottish Police Federation tweeted: "Police numbers in England & Wales fall to lowest levels in nearly a decade we observe that they are at record levels in Scotland".
This was quickly followed by: "Nearly 10,000 fewer police in England&Wales in last 2 years alone. @scotgov recognises importance of police and at record levels in Scotland #justsaying"
At the recent Police Federation conference, Paul McKeever, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: "Not only do our Scottish colleagues have the support of their government, they have no [Tom] Winsor, they have no professional body and no loss in police officers – but what they do have had is a fall in crime."
SNP MSP John Finnie said the contrast in police numbers north and south of the border could not be more clear.
Mr Finnie, a former police officer and member of the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, said: "The figures could not be more stark between Scotland and England & Wales – police officer numbers south of the border are at a nine-year low as they are at a record high in Scotland.
"Whilst police officer numbers are cut where the Westminster Tory-led government makes decisions, the Scottish Government has delivered and retained over 1,000 extra police officers for Scotland.
"The Scottish Police Federation has recognised the difference between the two governments and the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales has previously urged the Home Secretary to follow Scotland’s lead.
"Thank goodness Scotland can make independent decisions that affect our police forces in Scotland instead of leave them to a Westminster Tory-LibDem government making drastic cuts in frontline policing."