Paris attacks lead to surprise ring-fencing of UK police funding

Outcome of campaign by senior officers was sealed by need to reassure public

The chancellor’s surprise decision to provide real-terms protection for police spending over the next four years was greeted with delight by chief constables and police commissioners across England and Wales.

The spectacular U-turn after four years of coping with a 20% cut in Whitehall funding followed a campaign by senior officers which, in the end, was sealed by the political need to reassure the public in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.

The chancellor stressed that part of the extra £90m to fund the police would be used to train more firearms officers to deal with the potential terrorist threat.

The small print of the Treasury’s blue book makes it clear that the decision comes with a couple of strings attached. The real-terms protection for police budget will only be delivered “when local precept income is taken into account”, ie when council tax increases are used to make up some of the difference. Some forces could still face deep cuts depending on the outcome of a postponed shake-up of how Whitehall police grants are distributed between urban and rural forces.

Sara Thornton, chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said they were delighted with George Osborne’s reprieve: “The chancellor is right when he says that we protect the public and he has therefore protected police budgets. We are grateful.”

The home secretary, Theresa May, is determined to maintain the pace of her police reform programme and the government intends to use some of the extra money for a “transformation fund” for those forces with strong efficiency and reform proposals.

Nearly £1bn is also to be invested in a 4G emergency services mobile communications programme so officers can access databases – including streaming live body-worn video and filing fingerprints and witness statements on the move.

But this is not to say that the officially “unprotected” Home Office budget has escaped unscathed. May faces a 5% cut in her overall budget by 2020, including a 30% cut in the administration budget.

The major target in the Home Office appears to have been the immigration and borders system, which is to be made “fully self-funding” by 2020. The first step in this process involves replacing £300m of Treasury funding with massive rises in “targeted visa-fee increases”. In return the government promises to introduce a more efficient online visa and passport service.

The small print in the Treasury blue book also places a renewed question mark over the funding of the 20,000 Syrian refugees due to be brought to Britain over the next four years. While £460m from the overseas aid budget is to be available for “the full first-year costs” of supporting the refugees, only a further £130m will be available to fund local authority support for the period beyond that.

The unexpected closure announcement of Holloway women’s prison, the largest women’s jail in Europe, was the main feature of the Ministry of Justice’s 15% budget cut.

The justice secretary, Michael Gove, said Holloway had been selected as the first jail in his “new-for-old” prison programme because it was “inadequate and antiquated” and female offenders should serve their sentences in more humane conditions.

Gove has previously referred to the “new-for-old” programme as a way of replacing “ageing and ineffective Victorian prisons”. Holloway had not seemed the most obvious candidate. It was first opened in 1851 but it had been completely rebuilt by 1985.

It does, however, qualify under the chancellor’s other major criteria for the scheme – that it be sited on “prime real estate land”. Holloway will be the first closure under the scheme, which will see the prison sites sold off to build some 3,000 new homes. The funds are to be used to build nine new prisons – five of them by the next election.

Gove said Holloway would close by next summer, giving time for alternative places for the 500 offenders to be found at HMP Bronzefield in west London and for HMP Downview in Sutton, Surrey, to be reopened.

The Prison Governors Association said Holloway had improved significantly over the last five years and its closure left them with some major concerns. But prison reformers, including the Howard League and the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed the decision.

The Ministry of Justice settlement will see a further £80m a year taken out of prison running costs on top of existing savings of £300m a year. The chancellor also committed to using £700m of receipts from renegotiating the budget to fund a digital programme for the court system and release land for a further 2,000 homes. The autumn statement contains no reprieve from controversial criminal court charges.


Alan Travis Home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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