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Budget threat to police numbers; Authority faces 'last resort' cuts to plug pounds 30m black hole: Future clouded in uncertainty.

Byline: BENROSSINGTON

THE number of police officers on the streets of Merseyside could be cut from next year to plug a potential pounds 30m budget black hole.

With the Gover nment looking to make massive savings across the public sector, Merseyside Police Authority, who control the police purse strings, estimate they could be facing a funding gap of between pounds 5m and pounds 30m between April this year and April, 2013.

During a similar situation in the 1990s, when pounds 20m had to be shorn from the budget, Merseyside lost some 600 officers.

They have stressed cutting officer numbers would be "the last of last resorts" but, in the current financial climate and uncertainty, nothing can be ruled out as tough decisions have to be made. In December, Home Secretary Alan Johnson unveiled a government White Paper ordering police across the UK to make savings of up to pounds 575m over the next four years. But police authorities have not been given any budget guarantees by Whitehall past the end of the 2010/11 financial year, leaving them in the dark about the situation they face in the future. Optimistic estimates put the funding shortfall at pounds 5m by 2012/13, the middle ground would see savings of around pounds 16.5m needed, while the worst-case scenario would be a gap of some pounds 30.1m. That would equate to around 9%-10% of the total police authority budget. Police officers cannot be made redundant because they hold the Office of Constable and are not employees of the police authority. So any cuts in officer numbers would have to come from "natural wastage" - resignations, disciplinary sackings, retirements and deaths - where the out-going officer would not be replaced. Police staff are civilian employees and so can be made redundant by the force. On average, around 200 officers leave Merseyside police every year. In recent years, the authority have made savings that have seen 480 of those lost officers replaced, but the recruitment drive to add yet more extra officers has now been put on hold. The force currently has around 4,560 officers. But now they face the possible prospect of having to undo all that work. Paul Johnson, Merseyside police authority treasurer, said: "We know we are broadly OK for the next financial year, but after that it is crystal ball gazing and we have to come up with our best guesses for a range of scenarios because we are getting no indications from Government, other than that cuts will be made. "They have said the police will be protected when compared to other public sectors, but we don't know how much protection that will mean. "We are making provisions, but there is no point in fully addressing the worst-case scenario now, because it might not happen. This is what we are hopeful of. "It is the absolute last of the last resorts that this authority would want to start looking at the levels of police officers and PCSOs but, if we cannot find the money elsewhere, that is the only place left for us to go. "Around 84% of the authority's expenditure is people-related. The remainder is on supplies and services, which we have consistently driven down to the point where it becomes harder and harder to continue to find those savings. "I feel very uncomfortable about flying into this unknown.

"Everyone likes certainty. Even if it is certain bad news, it is better than not knowing because at least we can plan for it." The authority cannot go to the local tax payer to bail them out. An extra 1% on top of the annual rise in council tax would, because of Merseyside's low tax base, only generate around pounds 500,000 - a drop in the ocean compared to the money that has to be found. And any attempt to push through inflation-busting increases in the tax precept would see them capped by the Government and forced to re-bill the community with a lower percentage, as happened last year in Surrey. Ian Leyland, secretary of Merseyside Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, said: "We understand it is early days, but clearly there are difficult times ahead and it will be difficult to maintain the current number of police officers. "We will work with the authority and the new Chief Constable to make whatever savings we can manage, but we should consider cutting backroom services first, those that do not impact directly on the public, before any cuts to frontline staff. "Front-line delivery is and always should be a priority. "We have worked really hard to increase the number of officers over recent years and the public have seen the difference with a fall in crime and they have given us positive feedback. "We wouldn't want to lose that after getting on to such a strong footing. "But, if it comes to it and cuts are inevitable, we have got to look at working practises and how the job is done. "Police officers are already working to 100% to provide the service now and, if cuts are made and numbers reduced, something will have to give."

Crime in Merseyside drops for fourth year in a row

CRIME in Merseyside continued to fall for the fourth year running. According to the latest Home Office figures, the region saw some of the biggest decreases in crime across England and Wales. The British Crime Survey also said the public are confident in the job being done. Between July and September last year, overall crime was down by 8.3%, equating to 2,393 fewer crimes in Merseyside, compared with the same three months the year before. The British Crime Survey, also released yesterday, said 56% of people thought the police and their partners were dealing with crime and anti-social behaviour. The Home Office figures saw incidents of violence against the person down by 6.4% (315 fewer incidents); robbery down by almost 10% and burglary down by 1.4%. Gun crime dropped by 40.7%, with 37 fewer incidents, and serious violent knife crime saw a 20.6% reduction, with 47 fewer incidents. Vehicle crime was also down, according to the official figures. Home Secretary Alan Johnson said: "These crime statistics are a tribute to police forces." Whitehall aims to bring in cost cuts in drive to save pounds 545m from police bill WITH Whitehall under pressure to save millions on the pounds 6.2bn annual police budget, a raft of cost-cutting measures were announced in a recent government White Paper. In December's announcement, Home Secretary Alan Johnson laid out plans which included slashing the annual pounds 480m police overtime bill by pounds 70m, improving back-room efficiency to make pounds 75m in savings and making overall cost cuts of pounds 100m in the first year, rising to pounds 545m by 2014. Also among the proposals were suggestions officers patrol neighbourhoods alone as opposed to in pairs, making them more approachable to the public, and making further savings across the board by ordering uniforms, body armour, vehicle fleets and computer systems in bulk to go out to several forces at one time. The police helicopter fleet would be reduced by a fifth, while some forces would be given incentives to merge. Mr Johnson said "record levels" of funding were guaranteed for the next financial year and maintaining front-line numbers was an "absolute priority". The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Police Federation both warned against making too many cuts, saying it would be difficult not to impinge on the front line.

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Title Annotation:News; Front Page
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 22, 2010
Words:1267
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