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Pension squeeze to send policing 'back to the 1970s', chiefs warn

And then there was ?no internet, social media, mobile phones driving the changing nature of crime?
Published - 23/10/2018 By - Nick Hudson - Police Oracle

Senior officers across England have spoken out at the “crippling” impact Treasury demands to increase pension contributions will impose on a service now facing further swingeing cuts to officer numbers.

Policing leaders have reacted with incredulity at a declaration by Prime Minister Theresa May a few weeks ago that the “end of austerity" had arrived, as she promised bolstering spending to prop up ailing public services.

As they come to terms with renewed squeezing of budgets up to 2021, they claim the reality of a technical change to calculations of pensions – costing an extra £417 million and a potential 10,000 positions – means a return to numerical totals last seen nearly half a century ago.

Since 2010 the government has cut police funding by a fifth, but the “utterly extraordinary” act “at such short notice” from pension changes alone equates to a potential shedding of 500 officers for the West Midlands force; the lowest officer level in Greater Manchester’s 44-year history with the first cuts in numbers for eight years; and a £24 million shortfall in West Yorkshire’s finances. 

For Merseyside, Chief Constable Andy Cooke paints the grimmest of pictures – warning that the latest blow to policing’s coffers has turned his much-vaunted force from “proactive” to “reactive” in dealing with violent crime – and left officers “struggling to provide a service” and fighting to preserve their “mental and physical wellbeing”.

Since 2010, Merseyside Police has lost more than 1,100 officers. The proposed pension changes would lead to the force technically losing a further £5 million from its budget in 2019/20; an additional £7 million in 2020/21 and an ongoing £12 million per annum thereafter – effectively cutting a further 300 officers and leaving just 3,172 officers to provide a service across the whole region.

CC Cooke said: "The impact of the proposed changes on police officer pensions cannot, and should not, be underestimated.

“The police service is already stretched to the hilt and I can say with good authority that the reductions we have seen in officer and support staff numbers has had a devastating impact on the service we are able to deliver to our communities.”

He said: “It is incumbent on me to ensure that those who will make the final decisions in relation to the pension changes understand the crippling impact these changes will have on policing.

“In the last fortnight in Merseyside my officers have responded to a spate of firearms discharges which have resulted in the murders of two young men.

“In the past we were able to invest resources into proactive investigations and disruption of those involved in firearms on Merseyside and this resulted in significant decreases in discharges on our streets.

“Now we are in the unenviable position of reacting to discharges, which isn’t right – it puts the public at risk. We are reactively policing our streets.”

And while alarm bells sounded around a service heading for meltdown, former Justice Secretary Liz Truss – now Chief Secretary to the Treasury – appeared to wash her hands of any ‘responsibility’ for the fallout from the pensions hike.

In a House of Commons plea, shadow policing minister Louise Haigh asked Chancellor Philip Hammond the estimated cost to each police force of the “revision of assumptions on public sector pension contributions”.

Ms Truss’s reply, on his behalf, dismissed the question, arguing: “The Treasury does not collect data at the level of individual police forces” before pointing out it to “works closely with the Home Office on all aspects of police funding”.

For England’s second biggest force – West Midlands – Chief Constable Dave Thompson has called for an emergency budget to address finding £22.6 million by 2021.

He has accused ministers of “getting their maths wrong” and warned that the changes would have “a significant impact” on the level of policing across the region.

Addressing the pensions changes at the West Midlands police and crime commissioner's strategic board meeting, CC Thompson said: "This is utterly extraordinary. I don't think I have ever seen anything dropped on us at such short notice.

"In relation to police officers there is a significant impact. There is a reduction of approaching 500 officers.

"Clearly our intention is not to do that, but let's be realistic, that is a huge amount of money we are talking about."

His words came as PCC David Jamieson said cuts to the West Midlands force since 2010 had now hit £175 million.

He warned: “To standstill West Midlands Police needs £17 million and a further £25.2 million to increase police numbers by 500 to make the real difference to crime that we need.”

On the pensions’ crisis, he added: “The government needs to listen to senior officers and ensure this does not create an additional huge pressure on already over-stretched budgets. This is one of my biggest financial concerns going forward.

“If common sense does not prevail, I fear officer numbers will end up falling at a time when everyone accepts they need to rise.”

Greater Manchester will have lost 591 officers by March 2021 and leave the force with numbers of 5,709 – against a planned 6,300.

The potential figure of 5,709 would be the lowest level since the formation of Greater Manchester Police in 1974 when it started with 5,544 officers.

Chief Constable Ian Hopkins said: “Clearly we would always look to save money without job cuts, but the reality is 83 per cent of our budget is people and after eight years of efficiencies across all parts of the organisation which has seen us make reductions of £183 million there would be little alternative but to cut posts, both officers and staff.

“We are already seeing the public in large numbers complaining about the lack of police visibility, responsiveness and proactivity.

“This would just get worse as we would have to further prioritise against threat, harm and risk, screen out more and more crime.

“Essentially we would just have to focus on providing a response function, a serious and organised crime capability and a custody function as the core capabilities of policing.

“1974 is incomparable to policing in 21st century. In 1974 there was no internet, social media, mobile phones all of which have driven the changing nature of crime.

“This along with the international terrorist threat, crimes with an international footprint such as people trafficking and the importation of controlled drugs just mean you cannot compare 1974 to today.”

West Yorkshire is currently reviewing its medium term forecast in the light of the pensions debacle.

The force says it is “clearly concerned” at the prospect of having to find even further savings and the impact on public service that would have.

Nigel Brook, assistant chief officer, said: “We assess the extra pension cost alone as £6.6 million in 2019/200 and £17 million in later years.

“This is the equivalent of 150 officers and 400 officers respectively, which will require us to find further budget savings to offset.”

At either ends of the scale, pressures are mounting too. The Met – according to London Mayor Sadiq Khan – has calculated it will face £130 million of new costs every year and a potential loss of 2,000 officers due to the changes while Staffordshire Chief Constable Gareth Morgan has had to apologise to officers and their families for cancelling rest days to cover Stoke’s Championship game with Birmingham last Saturday – as the force is no longer able to use overtime for pre-planned events.

Staffordshire – down 600 officers and staff since 2010 with an ongoing review of front officer counter opening hours – will have to make additional savings of £6.6 million by the end of 2020/21 to cover the pensions’ bill.

Policing Minister Nick Hurd told Police Oracle last week that he wants to solve the problem.

He said: “I’ll have something to say on that, hopefully, in the budget settlement [in December] and comprehensive spending review [next year].

"We’re working it through with our friends in the police system to try to make sure that that’s affordable, that we can absorb it without undermining the recruitment plans of PCCs and chiefs.”

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