The Committee adds that across the board the service needs more support from Government to allow the service to find new ways of maximising service levels and efficiency, such as involving the private sector, or exploring force mergers.
Although figures provided to the Committee by forces in England and Wales show overall rises in both the number of police officers and the number of police staff employed across the service over the past five years this varied significantly across forces with 13 forces reporting a reduction over the same period.
On the basis of provisional financial information from the Government, some forces are planning to cut officer numbers in the next financial year. The position after 2011 is unclear as the Government has given no indication of funding settlements after that, but all forces believe they will have to make significant spending cuts.
The Committee is pleased with the police service’s commitment to protect frontline policing, which incorporates the kind of visible policing activity so valued by members of the public.
However, there is a limit to the efficiency savings that can be made from rationalising back-office support. Given that almost 88 per cent of police budgets are spent on the workforce, the Committee says forces should pursue innovative means of service delivery that can allow it to operate with a reduced workforce if necessary.
One of the major barriers some forces face in maximising their resources is the current distribution of the police national grant, which means that just under half of them receive less than they are allocated under the funding formula. The Committee says that rather than tweaking its application, it may be time to review the entire means by which money is allocated to forces.
The Government’s cap on council tax rises for this year at 5 per cent will allow forces to use their council tax precept to raise funds for service delivery improvements. However the Committee believes local police authorities should have the discretion to raise funds according to their needs, provided this is done in consultation with stakeholders such as local residents and local authorities.
The Government has accepted the Committee’s previous recommendation to mandate collaborative action between forces where appropriate in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness. It has also become clear to the Committee that voluntary mergers can enable forces to make substantial savings.
However it says the Home Office’s voluntary merger exploration fund of £500,000 is a "good first step" but is a "drop in the ocean" compared to, for example, the likely £20m costs of the potential merger between Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.
In the right circumstances, the private sector can provide the police with expertise they may lack, value for money in service delivery and a source of up-front investment. The Committee says the Home Office and the National Policing Improvement Agency should take a pro-active lead in determining appropriate forms of and a consistent approach to private sector involvement in police support services.
Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, chair of the Committee said:
"We are pleased with the commitment we have seen from police forces to maintaining the visible front line service that is so important to the public. However, there is only so much forces can do cutting backroom services and other parts of their budget, especially when they are being hamstrung by uncertain funding."
"Obviously these are difficult times financially, but the Government and the various national police authorities must provide serious support for innovations such as collaboration, mergers and using the private sector and where necessary, invest properly in the measures that can bring long term efficiency savings.
"Forces also need more say in raising their own funding, they are after all providing a local service at local level and are best placed to determine where and what resources are needed."