Taxing times for the county's police force

Thursday, 15 March, 2012

Are you happy to pay more Council Tax to fund Suffolk Constabulary?

The Suffolk police precept- that’s local tax to you and me-was increased to fund the police this year. That’s what Suffolk Police Authority decided recently.

In these tough economic times I am surprised that there has been no media outcry at this increase. After all, politicians like me have argued for a FREEZE in Council Tax.

The Police Authority (which is to be abolished next November and replaced by a Police and Crime Commissioner who you get to elect) faced a headache. If they did not raise the tax by 3.75%, then uniformed officer posts would go.

In the House of Commons last month, I argued that police authorities should squeeze efficiencies from existing budgets in order to protect front-line officer posts. At a time of financial uncertainty, we all accept that there must be constraints on public spending. That’s just being responsible.

That’s why every major public service- not just the police- is having to rein in spending. If anyone wants more spending on any part of Government let’s understand where that would have to come from.

Yes, that’s right. You, the British taxpayer.

Police cuts are being talked about in apocalyptic tones. This is really overdone. Let me explain why.

Suffolk businessmen ask me what the Suffolk police budget is and what the cuts amount to. They compare the police cuts with the cuts they are having to make in their companies.

Suffolk’s police cost roughly £129 million per annum. This year Suffolk Constabulary has outlined cost savings in 2012/2013 of £7.3 million; in 2013/14 of £3.7 million; in 2014/15 of £2.3 million; and in 2015/16 of £0.9 million.

Local businessmen say to me that such savings are very modest by comparison with what they have to cut from their company budgets when times are tough. Businesses discover unnecessary or wasteful spending they never knew about- because they have to find savings in order to survive.  If they didn’t, they’d go bust.

Now, of course the police are not a business. They can’t go bust, obviously. But the point is still valid: sooner or later every organisation-public, private or voluntary sector- has to cut its cloth and live within its means. 

Between 2000 and 2008 there were years of plenty- or so it seemed. The police received a staggering 20 per cent real terms increase in their budget. That spending splurge made the British Police Force the best resourced it has ever been in the history of this country. Unfortunately, those year-on-year increases, whilst very welcome at the time, were made when we thought we had the money on a sustainable basis. It was a boom period for the economy.

But it was a mirage, as we all know to our cost. As a country we were spending money we could not afford in the long term. That has necessitated a painful adjustment. We all feel it, whether we are in public service or the private sector.  

It’s true that Suffolk has the second lowest cost per head for policing out of the 43 forces in this country. And the Chief Constable of Suffolk Constabulary, Simon Ash, has told me that he is concerned about the impact current spending constraints will have on his force.

The Chief Constable and the indefatigable Chairman of the Police Authority, Councillor Joanna Spicer, have done good work in finding savings already. Approximately 60 per cent of the savings will be achieved through “collaboration” with Norfolk Constabulary. That means sharing services- and thus sharing the cost- of training, human resources and payroll services, IT, custody facilities and much else besides.

That’s one of the reasons I asked the Home Secretary to visit Bury St. Edmunds last week- to see how a rural police force like Suffolk has to work more efficiently when money is tight.

More needs to be done to get police officers out of the back office and on to the frontline. This does not necessarily mean that we need more police officers. But it does mean we need existing police officers to spend more of their time actively and visibly on patrol on our streets. They must not be burdened by useless bureaucracy back at the station.

I am the first to admit that the current Government has still a long way to go in relieving our hard-working Suffolk police officers from red tape and other burdens that get in the way of doing what they are trained to do and want to do. Preventing crime. Detecting crime. And providing reassurance to the public by a visible presence in our towns and our villages.

Here’s an amazing fact. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary calculates that in the UK at any one time only 11% of police officers are actually available for “visible policing”. That means at any one time of the day 89% of officers are NOT visible to the public. This must change. If more officers are moved from middle and back office roles to the front line there is no inevitability about a fall in police visibility.

According to opinion surveys, 9 out of 10 Suffolk residents feel safe. And that has something to do with Suffolk Constabulary’s good work with finite resources.

To be frank, I did not detect strong support from local Council Taxpayers for a rise in the police tax in order to fund an increase in the police budget. But the decision has been made to raise the police precept.

You may be happy to pay higher local tax for a bigger Suffolk police budget. Or you may think the police tax should be frozen and the police should get by with what the Home Office gave them.

Either way, I believe families have to live within their means. Shouldn’t our great public services do so as well?