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More public spending, good. Less public spending, baaa-ad. The great police numbers debate.

By Tim Montgomerie
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Boris Johnson has an election to fight in less than a year and has decided to challenge the Home Secretary's assertion that you can cut the police budget without necessarily reducing frontline police numbers. This is what he told BBC Radio 4:

"If you ask me if I think there is a case for cutting police budgets in light of these events then my answer to that would be no - I think that case was always pretty frail and it has been substantially weakened. This is not a time to think about making substantial cuts in police numbers."

Technically this isn't at odds with the Home Office position (and he's said all this before (eg October last year)). The Home Secretary is imposing budget costs but has argued that this should not necessarily lead to cuts in the frontline if police forces streamline their operations. Nonetheless, Downing Street will be anxious that - yet again - Boris has appeared to upset the apple cart at a difficult time.

BlairGibbs__Head_and_Shoulders__small Blair Gibbs, Head of the Crime and Justice Unit at Policy Exchange - and, significantly former aide to policing minister Nick Herbert - has issued a strong critique of Boris' position. He begins by saying the police already have adequate resources but aren't using them efficiently:

"The police response to the London riots would not have been different if there were a few hundred extra officers on the Met payroll.  It is always more important what you do with the officers you have, and the tactics they use, than how many you hire. In short, deployment trumps employment and it is just not credible to argue that policing is hampered by a lack of resources. The police have never been better resourced in terms of officer numbers and staff support.  We do not use those record resources well enough, and key assets are wasted - like the 600 sworn officers who work in the Met control room - but the answer is not to pour more money in."

By playing the numbers game, continues Gibbs, Boris Johnson is reducing the pressure for necessary reform:

"If the Mayor wants to play the numbers game and thinks the answer is hiring more cops then he can run on that platform in May and ask Londoners to pay for it by putting up his share of their council tax.  But it would be better for him to focus on the shortcomings in police leadership, improving the deployment of officers, and making Scotland Yard much leaner by getting cops out of offices and back on the frontline where the public expect them to be."

Andrew Haldenby of Reform will no doubt despair at Boris Johnson's position, too. In a recent piece for The Telegraph he noted that  "the default position across government, from the Prime Minister downwards, is to answer a particular concern by pointing out the level of government spending." Few ministers "bravely make the case that there is no link between spending and results". Two who did, he wrote, are Theresa May and Nick Herbert.

I'm divided on this issue. Politically I'm with Boris. As basic duties of the state, defence and law and order will always be top priorities for me. It's hard for him - so close to an election - to make the intellectual case that tighter budgets won't lead to less policing. Intellectually, however, I'm with May, Herbert, Gibbs and Haldenby. We can get much better use out of the existing spend and because of the fiscal crisis, we need to.


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