The ‘mini budget’ just over a week ago fell like a hand grenade – an explosion that is impossible to control or contain with many unintended and damaging consequences. It had implications for policing, though perhaps the most serious are yet to be understood.
If we put the matter simply, it goes like this.
The government wants to do a number of things which involve spending more (on defence and to hold down energy costs, for example). It needs the money to do this – £45bn for energy alone. However, a major source of its income (tax) it wants to forego. It wants to give money back in tax cuts. This is a circle that cannot be squared. The government thinks it can be squared because it believes that tax cuts will (eventually) cause the economy to grow. People will spend again, business will pick up, and so tax revenues will increase, in the long run. So, there is a short term – a few years? – problem: not enough money coming in. Usually, we would get an independent view on the sums involved and whether the plan makes overall sense from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), but for the moment they have not been invited to comment.
When the OBR does report I have no doubt that it will say that if the overall spending plans are to look anywhere near credible, the government has some hard choices to make.
If tax rises are ruled out, it can cut spending in some areas of activity and switch the funding to where it wants to give increased support – like defence. Or it can borrow.
It was when the size of the borrowing required became clear that the people who lend the money became alarmed. They were like those bank managers back in the day who decided whether we could be given a loan or not and on what terms. The terms turned out to be very expensive, loading huge debts and their repayment onto future generations of taxpayers; and this produced turmoil. In order to calm the markets, the government began to talk about not raising benefits in line with inflation and finding ‘efficiency savings’ – cutting the amount of money available for government departments to spend. But now it was boxing itself in. Which departments would be making ‘savings’ since some had already been promised substantially more money not less.
This is where I started to get nervous for policing. If one of the departments that has to ‘save’ – make do with less – is the Home Office, where most of the money for policing comes from, will that ‘saving’ be passed on to police and crime commissioners and chief constables. Will we receive less funding in real terms or inadequate funding from the government in the coming year?
This is my expectation. If the Home Office is squeezed, ministers will squeeze us in turn. Then we have a choice. We can reduce our spending – do less – or use our reserves or put up our local tax, or a combination of the three. What we cannot do, of course, is what the government intends to do: massive borrowing for day-to-day spending. We have a debit not a credit card.
In South Yorkshire we have no ‘spare’ reserves. Many are earmarked to pay the legacy costs of the Hillsborough football disaster (civil claims) and the cost of investigating non-recent child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. If, therefore, in order to balance our books, I have to ask the Chief Constable to find significant savings, I don’t envy her the task. I have already asked the force to make £7m of efficiency savings, so this will be in addition to what they are currently doing. But most of police spending is on salaries of officers and staff. So where do we spend less? Fewer neighbourhood officers? Fewer detectives? Fewer operators for 999 and 101 calls? Every possibility seems unthinkable.
And in the present cost of living crisis, with so many people struggling financially, how much more would people be willing and able to pay for policing from council tax? There are no easy answers.
This is the toughest time for budget-making I can remember. It’s the volatility and uncertainty that makes everything so difficult. As we prepare the budget for 2023-2024, what assumptions do we make for inflation or government grant or the cost of borrowing? I am not looking forward to the coming months as we set the budget and precept.
And all because a hand grenade was lobbed with not too much thought about the consequences.
Out and about
The time of mourning for the late Queen restricted my visits considerably. But for the past week I have been out and about across all districts – meeting Thurgoland Parish Council, seeing Mini Police at Hilltop Academy in Edlington, talking to residents and councillors at the Worsborough Crime and Safety Group, visiting the Aspire Boxing Club in Sheffield, to name a few.
The visit to the boxing club was of particular interest because Ronny Tucker, who runs it, had asked me and Kate Josephs, the Chief Executive of Sheffield City Council, to come and respond to a presentation on knife crime by Alison Cope. We met in the gym with the boys and girls who box there.
It is an unusual club in having no subscriptions. Ronny points out that the club is in an area of deprivation and he doesn’t want anyone unable to come because they can’t afford subs.
As with all boxing clubs, the young people were very polite and very respectful towards one another and visitors. ‘We don’t allow any egos here’, Ronny said.
The anti-knife crime presentation was very powerful. Alison, from Birmingham, began by saying that she had worked in many schools across the country. When she spoke to ten-year-olds, one of the first things she did was to ask them how many young people they thought carried knives in their school or community. She asked us to guess what the children said.
The shocking answer was that most of them thought that up to 70% of their fellow students carried a knife!
She then told the story of a boy whose life could have worked out well, but who was caught up in a situation that eventually led to his being stabbed. His story destroyed many of the myths we might have about the sort of young people who are the subject of violence. She also described in some detail how he had slowly bled to death, calling for his mother. Then, in a heart-stopping moment, she revealed that she was his mother. The young people who listened in silence throughout looked stunned.
I have heard many presentations from people with ‘lived experience’, but usually this has been from men who were once involved in gangs or drugs or violence who have subsequently turned their lives around. They have often told their stories in a fairly matter of fact, ‘blokeish’ way, emphasising the violence involved in ways that came close to glamourising it. But Alison’s appeal was emotional: she spoke about her feelings as a mother – her pride in watching her son doing well, her anxiety when getting involved in situations that finally led to his death. Some of the boys were tearful – which I have never seen before.
As she spoke, she also talked about the many anti-knife crime campaigns that have been run over the years by many police forces and organisations, explaining why in many cases they would not have worked, and in others why they would have the opposite effect of the one intended. She showed posters from several campaigns and made the point that presenting young people with photographs of knives would frighten some and cause others to believe that every other teenager was carrying a knife and so perhaps they should as well. She challenged us to ensure that we knew what the effect of a campaign was before we committed to running one. We knew what we wanted to achieve, but did we know whether it had the effect we intended?
There are many anti-knife crime campaigns running in schools across South Yorkshire at the moment. I only hope they can all meet Alison Cope’s challenge of being sure that they know what the outcome will be.