Arrest rates and victim satisfaction levels are on the slide amid signs police are struggling to deliver an effective service, a major new report warns.
Whitehall’s spending watchdog also flagged up reductions in the percentage of crimes resulting in charges, and proactive work to tackle offences such as drug trafficking and drink driving.
Publishing an in-depth review covering forces in England and Wales, the National Audit Office said it had found indications of “stress” in the system.
Since 2010, funding and staffing levels have fallen, while police are now confronting rising levels of recorded “high harm” crimes and a heightened terror threat, the assessment noted.
It warned that the Home Office’s “light touch” approach means it does not know if the police system is financially sustainable.
Sir Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “There are signs that forces are already experiencing financial strain and struggling to deliver effective services to the public.
“If the Home Office does not understand what is going on it will not be able to direct resources to where they are needed, with the risk that the situation could get worse.”
While no police force has failed financially, the report highlighted indications that the sector as a whole is “finding it increasingly difficult to deliver an effective service”.
It detailed how:
– The time it took to charge an offence increased from 14 days for the year ending March 2016 to 18 days for the year ending March 2018;
– The proportion of crimes which resulted in a charge or summons fell from 15% in March 2015 to 9% in March 2018;
-The arrest rate fell to 14 arrests per 1,000 population in 2016-17, down from 17 per 1,000 population in 2014-15;
– Police are carrying out less “proactive” work, with fewer breathalyser tests, motoring fixed penalty notices and convictions for drugs trafficking and possession since 2010;
– Survey data shows the proportion of victims who were not satisfied with the police response rose from 29% in the year ending March 2016 to 33% in the year ending March 2018.
The findings will fuel fresh debate over Government’s approach to police funding, and the service provided by forces.
Last week, analysis by the Press Association revealed hundreds of thousands of residential burglary, vehicle theft and shoplifting investigations are closed without a suspect being identified.
The total police budget for 2018-19 is £12.3 billion.
Overall funding to forces – a combination of central government grants and council tax – has fallen by 19% in real terms since 2010-11, according to the NAO.
The main way that forces have managed financial pressure is by reducing the size of their workforces, the report said, citing figures showing falls of 40%, 21%, and 15% in the numbers of PCSOs, police staff and officers respectively between 2010 and 2018.
In March last year, police held £1.7 billion in “reserves” – cash set aside for specific costs or “exceptional” events.
This was down by 20% compared with two years earlier.
The NAO disclosed that in November an internal Home Office report concluded that forces were facing increased pressure in meeting demand for police services.
“While the department assessed that pressure is currently at a manageable level, it identified a number of forces that were high-risk in terms of future resilience,” the watchdog said.
Plans to reform “ineffective” arrangements for allocating police funding are on hold, the NAO said, adding: “We cannot conclude that the Home Office’s oversight of the police system is value for money.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “Our decision to empower locally-accountable Police and Crime Commissioners to make decisions using their local expertise does not mean that we do not understand the demands on police forces.
“In addition, the report does not recognise the strengths of PCCs and Chief Constables leading on day-to-day policing matters, including on financial sustainability.
“We remain committed to working closely with police and delivered a £460 million increase in overall police funding in 2018/19, including increased funding for local policing through Council Tax.”
Home Secretary Sajid Javid has pledged to prioritise police funding in the next spending review.
Addressing the Police Superintendents’ Association on Tuesday, he will emphasise his commitment to ensuring forces are “equipped to deal with the changing crime landscape”.
Chief Constable Dave Thompson, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for finance, said: “While policing continues to provide a good service, today’s National Audit Office report recognises that forces are under increasing strain as they deal with rising crime, demand that is more complex and an unprecedented terror threat with fewer officers.”
Shadow policing minister Louise Haigh said: “As violent crime surges and police resources are stretched to the limit, the Home Office has been relying on guesswork.”
Meg Hillier, who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, urged the Home Office to “get a grip” on police funding.