The ongoing onslaught of austerity has hit all parts of London’s public sector hard, but perhaps none more than our police service. The government may claim that austerity is over, but the reality is very different: £850m of cuts to the Met have come from Whitehall since 2010 and with more to come the total is set to top £1 billion by 2023. Police spending per head has fallen faster for the Metropolitan Police than for any other police service, tumbling from £423 in 2013/14 to just £337 four years later.
This is despite the Met facing a unique set of challenges as a direct consequence of serving our capital city. It protects parliament and the monarchy, safeguards major football matches and has responsibility for ensuring that demonstrations of all sorts pass off peacefully and safely. It provides diplomatic protection and facilitates state visits. The Met’s work is vital to our reputation as a world city – a place where people can visit, enjoy and do business in safety.
At the same time, the Met is being asked to do more for a greater number of people than ever before. Crime and the complexity of it is rising across the country and London is no exception. We’ve seen increased reporting of historic sexual offences, a rising threat of terrorism from both religious extremists and the Far Right, and a growing number of crimes committed online, resulting in an expanded need for digital evidence gathering. And with police officers dealing with more hidden crimes such as modern-day slavery, while also being left to pick up the pieces because of the stress austerity has imposed on youth and mental health services, it’s little wonder that the strain is starting to show.
At every turn, resources are stretched. The Met is facing a perfect storm of cuts and circumstances.
In recognition of the unique role police in London play, the National and International Capital Cities (NICC) Grant provides additional funding to the Met and to the separate City of London Police. But even here, the actual funding though falls far short of what is required: Home Office own figures show that the Met receives £95 million a year less through the NICC than it needs to in order to fulfil its additional duties and ordinary Londoners are left to pick up the tab.
Possibly the most visible consequence of cuts is that police officer numbers have fallen. In March 2010, the Met had 33,367 officers serving a city of just over eight million people, but by December of last year this had fallen to 29,693 while London’s population population had risen to over 8.8 million. Inevitably, this leads to stark choices having to be made. As Met commissioner Cressida Dick put it to the House of Commons home affairs select committee, the Met needs either “more money”, a “smaller mission” or a “greater risk appetite”. It cannot be right that central government has starved our police of funding to such an extent that a greater tolerance of risk to public safety could be mooted as a serious proposition.
One consequences of all this, of course, is that police staff are having to work harder than ever before. Jigsaw team offender managers, who deal with registered sex offenders, are handling more than 100 cases each against a target of 50 and it was reported in October that Sapphire command – the specialist team for investigating rape and serious sexual offences – has caseloads of 25 offences per officer. The target is fewer than 15.
The shortage of police officers also means that those we do have are increasingly asked to work longer days and often have their rest days cancelled. Between January and September 2018, 328,010 rest days allocated to Met officers were called off. In the aftermath of serious incidents, we often hear stories of increased police deployment. It’s important to remember that this means the same number of officers working longer shifts or losing their time off in order to provide reassurance and help keep the public safe. And as police budgets shrink, cancelled rest days are at risk of becoming the “new normal”. An increasingly tired police force risks public safety and wellbeing of officers alike.
In February, a Police Federation survey found that almost eight out of 10 police officers across England and Wales reported feeling under stress or anxiety in the previous 12 months. In London, 73 per cent of officers said there weren’t sufficient staff to manage the demands faced by their team or unit, while 62 per cent of respondents said their workload was either too high or much too high. It is, perhaps, unsurprising that voluntary redundancy for Metropolitan Police officers grew from 294 per annum in 2010 to 653 in 2017.
The Met is doing a commendably good job in difficult circumstances. A new health and wellbeing policy has been developed and the organisation has partnered with Optima Health to deliver support and counselling. There’s also excellent work being done at local level to deal with spikes in particular incidents – last year’s crackdown on moped crime, for instance, yielded some outstanding results. But it remains the case that only an end to austerity and the return of adequate funding for our police will enable the sustained uplift in police numbers required and give the Met the capacity it needs.
Good work too is being undertaken at City Hall, where the Mayor is doing everything he can to protect frontline policing, providing an additional £234 million investment in the Met in the coming year. London Assembly members are putting pressure on the government to give our police the resources they need. I’ve proposed motions in the Assembly – passed unanimously – calling for better equipment, fair funding and improved police pay. Our message is clear: in the context of a rising population, the endless pattern of growing caseloads and diminished funding from Whitehall is simply unsustainable. It cannot be allowed to continue.
Unmesh Desai is London Assembly Member for City & East constituency and a member of the Assembly’s police and crime committee.