Have 5,000 'visible' police officers lost their jobs since the election?
Yvette Cooper: "Time and again Ministers have promised us that the frontline would not be hit and in fact the Prime Minister himself told us that the frontline was increasing. These figures show us the truth — over 5,000 officers lost already from jobs like emergency response, the 999 calls, the kinds of calls people depend on…"
Nick Herbert: "Well actually we don't recognise these figures, they're not official figures and I always think it's better to wait for the official audited figures to come out and the report from the Independent Inspectorate of Constabulary."
Murnaghan, Sky News, 11 March 2012
Labour caused a stir over the weekend when it claimed to have unearthed figures showing that over 5,000 'visible' police officers, including those that respond to 999 emergencies, had been cut from the frontline.
Appearing on Sky News on Sunday, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper argued that this was proof that the Government was breaking its promise to protect frontline policing, and that cuts to police budgets were biting on the beat.
However later in the same show Policing Minister Nick Herbert seemed to cast doubt over the figures. So can we have confidence in Ms Cooper's claim?
Labour's news release on the subject sourced the figures to "new House of Commons Library analysis of FOI requests to all of the police forces in England and Wales." However the figures don't appear on the Library's website.
We therefore got in touch with the Shadow Home Secretary's team, who confirmed that the Freedom of Information requests and responses were handled by them, with the analysis done in tandem with the Library.
They also provided us with a force-by-force breakdown of their findings which show that, between March 2010 and the most recent period for which there is available data, there has been a net reduction of 5,261 'visible' officers.
This represents an average drop of six per cent, although variations on a force-by-force level range from a six per cent increase in numbers to a 32 per cent drop.
(The term 'visible' officer is used as defined by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) as those performing tasks such as "responding to 999 calls, attending traffic accidents, patrolling neighbourhoods." According to HMIC these make up 61 per cent of all officers and PCSOs.)
However the calculations are complicated slightly by the fact that, of the 43 police forces, only 13 were able to provide data to December 2011. The remaining 30 could only give figures to March 2011.
Taking the period from March 2010 (which is a close if imperfect proxy for 'since the election') to March 2011, there was a total reduction of 3,504 visible staff.
These figures are actually in the public domain, as they are compiled by HMIC as part of its annual data returns (the relevant data is known as ADR 601).
So while Nick Herbert is right that the figures for 2011/12 have not yet been officially collected, the data used by Labour does use the same starting point.
It is of course possible that when full figures are available for all forces for this financial year the 5,000 drop identified by Labour may be mitigated by increases in staff numbers in those forces not covered by the December data.
It is worth saying on this point that none of the four forces that recorded an increase in visible police numbers between March 2010 and March 2011 provided figures for December 2011. Equally however it is possible that the 5,000 figure provided by Labour may prove to be an underestimate when the full figures are available.
Police numbers and crime
Ms Cooper did however make a slight error elsewhere in her appearance on yesterday's Murnaghan.
Referring to the likely impact of a reduction in police numbers, he told the Sky News anchor that:
"research done by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, they are an independent organisation, and they said, they predicted that the scale of cuts to the number of officers would mean an increase in crime."
However regular Full Fact readers will know that this isn't quite what the Inspectorate has said.
The report in question was released in July of last year, and found that:
"A summary of existing studies would put the elasticity of property crime [emphasis added] in relation to police numbers at approximately -0.3 — that is, a 10 per cent increase in officers will lead to a reduction in crime of around 3 per cent."
Ms Cooper certainly isn't alone in conflating the impact on property crime with crime levels in general. As Full Fact found at the time, the mistake was made by several national news outlets too.
While we can't yet get a complete picture for the number of 'visible' police posts lost beyond March 2011, the figures put together by the Shadow Home Secretary do provide a partial glimpse at some of the changes that have occurred since then, and her figure is the best that is currently available.