Talking tough costs money

1 Dec 06
PHILIP JOHNSTON | Almost unnoticed this week, Labour broke a manifesto pledge.

Almost unnoticed this week, Labour broke a manifesto pledge.

Of itself, it might not have been of the greatest importance, yet it is a harbinger of things to come.

Instead of the 24,000 police community support officers promised by the government at the general election last year, local police authorities will instead receive enough money to cover just 16,000.

So what, you may say. Indeed, reading the parliamentary written statement from police minister Tony McNulty, announcing next year’s police budgets for England and Wales, you could be forgiven for not noticing any change at all.

The funding, part of this year’s local government settlement, amounted to £315m for neighbourhood policing in 2007/08, an increase of 41% on this year, according to the Home Office, which seems generous enough.

But McNulty added: ‘The home secretary and I accept the argument put forward by the police service itself that the delivery of neighbourhood policing does not necessarily need 24,000 PCSOs. This settlement therefore provides continuing support towards 16,000 PCSOs in 2007/08.’

McNulty said the reason for this change of heart was an acceptance of arguments by chief constables to be given greater flexibility and freedoms to decide locally the best way to deliver ‘visible, responsible and accessible policing’.

But there is something odd going on here. Neighbourhood policing is meant to be the key element of Labour’s third-term law and order package, delivering Tony Blair’s ‘Respect’ agenda. Surely, the police could be just as flexible, and more able to deliver visible patrolling, if they had more PCSOs, not fewer?

The other explanation, of course, is that the Home Office has simply not got the money to do what the manifesto promised.

It is an open secret in Whitehall that Chancellor Gordon Brown has increasingly looked askance at the money he is having to spend on a succession of Home Office initiatives, many of which either do not work or have the perverse effect of costing even more, for instance by pushing up prison numbers. John Reid, the home secretary, has another clutch of criminal justice measures about to go through Parliament, yet his departmental budget is now frozen in real terms for the next three years.

From this he has to fulfil a pledge to provide 8,000 more prison places, overhaul the Immigration and Nationality Department, roll out neighbourhood policing, introduce identity cards and tackle antisocial behaviour.

This should all be done within existing budgets because the Home Office has had plenty of warning of the squeeze going on. Brown made it clear in the summer that extra spending would have to come from savings. But providing 8,000 prison places will, on its own, gobble up the lion’s share of any trimmed fat, even assuming it is possible to achieve.

The Home Office has dropped a proposal to convert a former Army barracks in Dover into a jail after local objections and there are no plans for any new prisons. Scope for the expansion of accommodation on existing sites is limited.

A few years ago, the Prison Service had the excellent idea of selling off some of its inner-city Victorian establishments, such as Wandsworth or Wormwood Scrubs, realising huge profits and using the money for a network of purpose-built jails. But this idea could only work if the prison population was low (otherwise where would the inmates go while the new jails were built?); and each would be fought tooth and nail in any case by local residents. Nothing has happened.

Reid’s 8,000 places might not be needed at all, of course, if the prison population falls. Achieving this was meant to be government policy for the past four or five years.

The courts were encouraged to sentence more offenders to community penalties but because these were not trusted to be either a proper punishment or to help rehabilitation, they were not used as much as ministers hoped.

Since last year, it has been possible for the courts to sentence violent or sexual offenders to indefinite terms in jail. More than 1,000 of these sentences have now been handed down and the result will be to keep people in jail for much longer.

The consequences of the money drying up have been apparent for some time. The planned mergers of the shire constabularies were abandoned partly because the cost — estimated by the Association of Chief Police Officers at £500m — was unacceptable.

These are troubling times for the Home Office as it tries to juggle a tight budget against the political imperatives of a government that wants to show its toughness through more law and order measures.

Brown might find more money for the Home Office in his Pre-Budget Report next week. But Reid — a possible rival to Brown for the Labour leadership — should not hold his breath.

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