February 2, 2012 • 3:20 pm

“The fact is that the percentage of officers on the front line has actually increased. We inherited a situation where there were 6,000 uniformed officers performing back-office roles in the police.”

David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 1 February 2012

The highly charged topic of policing reappeared at Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, with David Cameron facing questions over a reduction in the number of officers on the beat.

In response to this attack on his front-line policing record, the Prime Minister claimed that the proportion of police officers on the front line was in fact increasing. When the Coalition Government came to power, he claimed, there were as many as 6,000 uniformed police officers performing back-office roles in the force.

But where do these figures come from?

Analysis

To begin, it is worth laying down the facts about police officer numbers as a whole.

Recent statistics confirm that, on 30 September 2011, there were 136,261 full-time equivalent (FTE) police officers in England and Wales, excluding 2,610 more from the British Transport Police but including those seconded to ‘central services’. If we include the BTP, this gives a total of 138,871.

Since the statistics only provide snapshots of the numbers at the end of March and September each year, it is difficult to be precise about the number of officers the Coalition Government inherited from the previous Government.

To take the March 2010 figures as the best approximation, there were 143,734 FTE police officers and 2,677 from the British Transport Police, although this excludes 501 seconded to central services. The comparable total is thus 146,912 for police officer strength.

However, defining which of these are ‘front-line’ and ‘back-office’ is a less precise art, as Full Fact has explored in the past. Following a report last year by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), however, a workable definition was pinned down.

The data in the table above is drawn from national estimates from 2009/10. If we apply the proportions for officers and Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) as a proxy for ‘uniformed police officers’ to the figures from March 2010, we can get an idea of how many would have been defined as ‘back-office’.

Taking the total police officer strength in March 2010 and the data from HMIC gives a total officer count of 7,346 who could have been defined as having a ‘back-office’ role. This is very close to the Home Office’s own estimate of 7,297, although their figure excludes the British Transport Police.

This suggests that the Prime Minister’s 6,000 figure might even have been on the conservative side.

However, it is important to note that ‘back office’ and ‘front line’ are not exhaustive categories, at least according to HMIC’s definition. Mr Cameron has conflated these categories before.

The chart below illustrates this, albeit for the total workforce rather than officers alone. According to its public survey, the front-line included not only the high-visibility officers but also the ‘specialists’ and even some ‘middle officers’. 

This demonstrates that figures on ‘back-office’ roles are not the same as those not on the front line. So if Mr Cameron’s point was to express the number of officers not on the front line, the figure he cites as having inherited could be higher still.

Assessing how the number of front line officers compares to now is difficult as HMIC’s proportions are drawn from 2009/10 data. However, police preparedness inspection data from November last year sheds some light.

The data estimates that, at the end of 2009/10, there were 135,856 front line police officers and PCSOs. However by the end of 2010/11 this number had fallen to 130,541 – a decrease of over 5,000 front line officers, and also represents a marginal reduction as a proportion of all officers.

However without more recent data, this may not necessarily reflect the current direction of front line police officers.

Conclusion

The analysis of the proportion of back-room officers by the Home Office and Full Fact indicate that the Prime Minister’s estimates are broadly accurate although appear to underestimate the actual numbers in March 2010. Since this is not precisely at the election, we cannot say for sure the precise number of such officers ‘since the election’.

Data from last year indicates that the number and proportion of front line officers is decreasing, however more recent data from specific police forces may paint a different picture. As such, we will only know the accurate figures when the relevant data is made available.

UPDATE (8/02/2012)

The Home Office have now provided Full Fact with a table outlining the latest estimates:

The data verifies a slight increase in the proportion of front line officers, from 82.9 per cent in March 2010 to 83.3 per cent in March 2011. A recent analysis of front line officers was provided here.

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