I find myself caught somewhere between incredibly angry and wearily lost for words.
A week or two ago, Sajid Javid – the current Home Secretary – pledged that, if he became prime minister, he would put 20,000 more police officers on the streets.
Speaking on the radio a few days ago, Boris Johnson suggested that “it is vital that they (the police) are properly funded… I thoroughly agree that we need more police out on the street.” In fact, he agreed with the suggestion that 20,000 more officers were needed.
Yesterday on social media, another of the Conservative leadership contenders, Jeremy Hunt, accepted bluntly that “police cuts went too far.”
20,000 is of course the (significantly rounded down) number of police officers cut from forces in England & Wales since the coalition government came to power in 2010. (Actually, 44,000 is an even more telling number. It’s the one, supplied by the National Audit Office, that includes PCSO and Police Staff cuts.)
And here we are now, presented with the words of three men who have played senior roles in the government of the last nine years, who have ambitions to lead that government themselves, and who appear to be in absolute agreement about the fact that the government has been entirely wrong about policing. They have, finally, accepted the overwhelming need to put back what has been taken.
But where the hell were they whilst the damage was being done?
Until comparatively recently, police officers who warned of the inevitable consequences of the government’s approach to policing were accused of “crying wolf”. They were told that crime was down and that police reform was working – two assertions that were repeated endlessly as justification for everything the government was doing.
Except that crime isn’t down and police reform isn’t working. Completely the opposite is true in fact. And now, a succession of would-be prime ministers are flailing to undo a series of devastating harms that are entirely of their own making. It’s almost as though the people who understand policing – those who have done the job and who love the job – knew what they were talking about. It’s almost as though government policy of the last nine years has been driven by nothing more than ideology and ignorance.
And all of it has come at a staggering cost – not just to policing, but to us all:
- Crime is rising – certainly crime of the most serious kinds.
- Demand is rising – not least as a consequence of the gaping holes that have appeared in the delivery of other frontline public services. And the cost of austerity continues to be greatest for those least able to bear it.
- Risk is rising – with, it seems to me, more police officers being more seriously assaulted more frequently than I can ever recall (with significant insult added to substantial injury in the form of derisory court sentences handed out to many of those convicted of attacking them).
- Police sickness is rising – not least as a result of the inevitable trauma and stress that officers are exposed to. People are breaking under the loads they are being asked to carry.
- Public concern is rising – not least as a consequence of the decimation of neighbourhood policing in most parts of the country.
I talk about policing because policing is what I know. But you will find parallels across the public sector – in health, in education, in youth services, in adult social care and so it goes on. And the consequences are catastrophic. Put simply, people are dying out there.
So you’ll forgive me if I take no comfort whatsoever from the words of a handful of politicians fighting over the keys to Downing Street. Enough. They’ve talked too much already. It is their actions that will define them now.
As ever, it seems important to me to reiterate the point that the current opposition are as much of a train wreck as the current government. This should never be about party politics. Policing is too important for that.