Letter to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary on Ministers’ use of police availability figures

Dear Sir Denis,

Further to our conversation and your letter yesterday I very much welcome the opportunity to put on record to you my concerns with the manner in which Ministers are quoting your July report ‘Valuing the Police: Policing in an age of austerity’.

You will be aware that Ministers have regularly cited a figure contained in this report that, at any one time, 11 per cent of full police service strength is spent working visibly and available to the public in order to make a wider point about police bureaucracy and imply that the other 89 per cent of police time is wasted in the back office.

In doing so they seek to defend their decision to impose funding cuts of 20 per cent over four years, front-loaded so that the vast majority of the cuts will fall within the first two years.

The Government used the statistic in this way in their recent White Paper saying:

A report published this month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) called Valuing the Police shows that the result of this bureaucratic form-filling, over prescription and central guidance is that only 11 per cent of police officers are available to the public at any time.
Home Office, White Paper “Policing in the 21st Century”, 26 July 2010

The Home Secretary has gone even further, claiming that it was time spent on bureaucracy which “meant” that only 11% of police time was spent “available on the streets”:

… what we’re also doing is actually removing vast amounts of bureaucracy that have tied the police up and meant that at any point in time we know – again from HMIC – only 11% of those police officers that I’m talking about are available on the streets.
Theresa May, The Andrew Marr Show, 31 October 2010

The statistic has been cited in this manner at all levels of government including by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Policing and I attach a number of examples. The clear implication we are invited to draw is that the direct cause of 11 per cent of police activity being spent “visible and available” is bureaucracy and other wasteful activities.

This argument is simply not supported by the facts as your report sets them out.

The 11 per cent figure in your report refers to just one part of police activity, albeit one which is important to the public.

The context in which Ministers are using this figure, to imply this equates to all valuable operational policing, ignores the approximately 50 per cent of police officers who are engaged in important work that is not classified as “visible” but which can include CID and organised crime work, as well as those specialist units that work to tackle crimes such as drug trafficking, domestic violence and child abuse as well as firearms officers and wider support functions.

It also ignores the fact that, in order to make a wider point about shift patterns, the 11 per cent figure in your report is a percentage of total police officer strength including those officers – the majority – who are naturally off shift at any one time over a 24 hour period.

Using this figure to make a wider point about excessive police bureaucracy is, in my view, to corrupt the figures and erroneous.

It is for this reason that at the Home Affairs Select Committee seminar on policing in Cannock last month, which I know you also attended, at the Association of Police Authorities (APA) conference in the same week and yesterday in the House of Commons I have criticised the Government for using the statistic in a manner which I have described as an absurd slur on the police.

As we discussed yesterday, my purpose in raising this issue is to ensure that these figures are used for the purpose for which they were intended. My criticism has not been of the way HMIC compiled its figures or of your report, but of the way Ministers have used them. It is not my intention to draw you into what is, in reality, a political dispute between me and Home Office ministers.

Your research makes an important contribution to discussions on the future of policing, including your recent work which has demonstrated the limit to the cuts that can realistically be found without hitting frontline policing. Your research on police availability, including the figure in question, also raises some legitimate questions about shift patterns.

It is vital that the important work of specialist units, detectives and other vital functions that officers carry out to tackle and prevent crime is not dismissed in the way that Government ministers seem so determined to do. The full range of police work should be recognised.

As I have said I very much welcome the opportunity to put this on the record. Visible neighbourhood policing, which I believe is very important, is not the only worthwhile function of frontline and operational police officers. It is an insult to the police to suggest that it is and I believe the Government is misusing your research in order to do so.

I am copying this letter to the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing.

Yours sincerely,

Ed Balls MP

Further examples of how Ministers are using the 11% figure

“We believe that significant savings can be made. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that only 11% of force strength, on average, was visible and available at any one time, because officers are spending too much time tied up in the red tape that the hon. Gentleman created when he was Minister.”
Nick Herbert, Hansard, 1 November 2010

“Well, Opposition Members want to know the facts about Greater Manchester police, and these are the facts about Greater Manchester police. Guess how many people are involved in IT in Greater Manchester police: 225. This is the debate we ought to be having: how do we get resources from the back office on to the front line? How do we do it when right now only 11% of police officers are on the streets at any one time? That is the mess we have inherited; that is the mess we are going to clear up.”
David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 17 November 2010

“I think we all want more visible policing; it cannot be right that the system we inherited from Labour means that only 11% of police officers are ever seen on our streets at any one time. That is wrong and it must change.”
Nick Clegg, Prime Minister’s Questions, 10 November 2010

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Posted December 8th, 2010 by Ed

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