March 16, 2011 • 4:19 pm

How do you check a claim that contains terms that have no meaning? This is exactly the problem Full Fact has been trying to grapple with ever since the effects of cuts in police budgets became a point of contention..

Ministers have insisted that the reductions in staff numbers should not have to affect “front line” officers. Labour MPs have claimed that this is already happening.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Leader Ed Miliband clashed over the issue last week, with Mr Miliband insisting that the Association of Chief Police Officers had forecast 12,000 “front line” jobs would be lost (see our factcheck).

The PM insisted that ACPO were “not talking about front line officers”. Indeed they weren’t. Well, not specifically anyway. But they weren’t “not talking” about front line officers either. So neither side could justifiably say that the other was wrong.

The point is that ACPO weren’t working to any fixed definition of ‘front line’ and nor, it seems, is the Government.

A Freedom of Information request put into the Home Office asking for definition has, according to the Daily Telegraph admitted: “There is no formally agreed definition…although these are terms in relatively common use across the police service.” 

A Home Office spokesman quoted in the report did attempt to flesh this out.

“Although no fixed definition exists, frontline officers and staff are generally those directly involved in the public crime fighting face of the force. This includes neighbourhood policing, response policing and criminal investigation.

“Middle office services include a variety of functions which provide direct support to the frontline, such as police training and criminal justice administration.

“Back office services are those which keep police forces running smoothly such as finance and human resources,” he said.

That the Home Office has asked Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to establish a definition, suggesting that this general delineation is not deemed sufficient.

HMIC told Full Fact last week that information on this definition should be published later this month.

Leaving aside the issue of how the police can plan to protect a loosely defined front line, the need for a definition is crucial for public confidence in claims being made by all sides of the debate about the fate of forces.

Until then, there will no benchmark with which to assess claims about the sparing, or sacking, of these “front line officers”.

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