The chancellor’s declaration that “now is not the time for further police cuts, now is the time to back our police” was widely regarded as his major “rabbit out of a hat” surprise at a time when cuts of up to 20% had been expected.
But Sir Andrew Dilnot, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, ruled that despite Osborne’s claim to be providing “real-terms protection” for the police, forces actually faced a £160m real-terms cut in their Whitehall funding in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
A House of Commons analysis estimated that the £160m cut was equal to the salaries of 3,200 police officers over the two years.
Osborne and the home secretary, Theresa May, have insisted their pledge not to cut police budgets holds good if police and crime commissioners across England and Wales make up the shortfall by pushing through the maximum allowed increase – 2% – in their share of council tax bills, known as the police precept.
But several forces including Greater Manchester, West Midlands and the home secretary’s own Thames Valley have warned that even with maximum increases in their police precept they face cuts to budgets including losing officers.
Dilnot said in a letter sent to the shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, who raised the issue with him and copied it to the Home Office, that an investigation by the Statistics Authority found the chancellor was wrong to claim real-terms protection in Whitehall funding for the police.
“We agree with the findings of this analysis [by the House of Commons library] that between 2015-16 and 2016-17 there has been a decrease in this element of police funding in real terms,” said Dilnot.
He added that Osborne “could have done more to provide greater clarity about the data” in his autumn statement. “Providing a definition of the precept and implications about the precept amount change would also have been helpful,” he said.
Burnham called for Osborne to apologise when he stands up next week to deliver his 2016 budget.
“On the eve of his budget, this is a highly embarrassing rebuke for the chancellor. He personally promised police forces that their budgets would be protected. We now know that that is not the case. Government funding is being cut in real terms and the local precepts won’t make up the shortfall.
“Next week, he should apologise to the house, correct the record and find extra money to honour his promise,” said Burnham.
Greater Manchester’s police and crime commissioner, Tony Lloyd, resigned himself to presenting a “cuts budget” after losing £8.5m in real terms in Whitehall police grants and has said he will raise only an extra £3.5m from the full use of the precept freedoms.
The Thames Valley police commissioner, Anthony Stansfeld, is to see a real-terms cut of £5.2m in Whitehall funding and has said that “even with a 2% increase in the council tax precept next year to maintain the level of our income, and with the £15.6m of savings, we will still lose 95 officers next year.”
West Midlands police face losses of more than £10m in real terms and will raise only £3.3m from their precept rise.
However, ministers continue to insist the increases in local police precepts should be counted as part of the chancellor’s promise not to cut police budgets. “As the chancellor set out in the autumn statement, overall police spending will be protected in real terms. Police spending will increase from nearly £11.4bn this year to £12.3bn at the end of the spending review period,” said the policing minister, Mike Penning.
“This is an increase of just under 8%, or £900m in cash terms, and a protection in real terms over the course of this parliament – if police and crime commissioners maximise their precept.”
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