Crime and Justice

If Britain has a shoplifting epidemic, blame Theresa May

By slashing police budgets, the former prime minister and home secretary gave criminals a licence to cause chaos

October 06, 2023
In the 11 years after 2010, the Met suffered a real-terms cut of £700m. 
Image: Benjamin John / Alamy
In the 11 years after 2010, the Met suffered a real-terms cut of £700m. Image: Benjamin John / Alamy

Does the apparent epidemic of shoplifting worry you? It rather scares me. I’m haunted by the multiple videos we’re now seeing of—usually—burly young lads helping themselves to whatever they fancy as shop owners or their inaptly-named security guards stand helplessly by. 

In the same way that broken windows are said to send a signal about a neighbourhood, so unchecked shoplifting seems to say something about a country. Britain is not exactly a lawless place, but the impression is certainly growing that you can get away with anything—up to and including daylight robbery—and a police officer will do little more than give you a crime reference number.  

Every time I read about the police not doing what we were brought up to think they would do I think of Theresa May. Are you old enough to remember the chainsaw she took to police budgets back in the fond old days of austerity?  

All departments were under orders to make swingeing cuts, but May, then home secretary, seemed to take a special relish. “We're not talking about a spending freeze or a reduction of one per cent or two per cent,” she proclaimed in 2010. “The cuts will be big: they will be tough to achieve… I will be ruthless in cutting out waste, streamlining structures and improving efficiency.” 

She was as good as her word. While the defence and education budgets dropped by 7.5 per cent and 11 per cent respectively, May ordered up an 18 per cent chunk out of police budgets. And that inevitably fed through into a precipitous fall in police numbers. Within six years, 20,000 police officers had left the service.  

Structures were certainly streamlined: in London alone, more than 120 police stations closed, meaning there were fewer places for the public to access local police services and report crimes. Goodbye Dixon of Dock Green, welcome to an automated response line. Your call is important to us.  

Few of the depredations in public service after the subprime mortgage-triggered crash of 2008 felt good, but these cuts felt especially ominous, even at the time. Academics argue about the correlation between real crime figures and the number of officers available to deal with incidents (just as economists can’t decide if George Osborne’s austerity measures needed to be quite so brutal). But it’s a fair assumption that not many people—faced with the prospect of losing 20,000 experienced police officers—felt reassured. 

And who’s to say they were wrong? Within a day of being made prime minister in 2019, Boris Johnson announced an exciting new plan to battle the rising murder rate and growing knife attacks which had slightly undermined the Conservatives’ reputation as the party of law and order.

His solution? Hire 20,000 more police officers.  

You’d be inclined to say “You couldn’t make it up,” only those words feel drained of meaning in the week we learned we’re blowing the thick end of £40bn on a train from Birmingham to a station which—checks map—seems to be round the back of Wormwood Scrubs prison. 

Maybe voters have very short memories and could not be expected to remember the forced exodus of exactly the same number of officers just a decade previously.  

So, 20,000 out and 20,000 in. But what kind of officers were lost, and what was the calibre of the new recruits? 

Earlier this year Baroness (Louise) Casey delivered her review into the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer. It is worth reading in full, but chapter two is especially revealing in its narrative and data around what happened to Britain’s major police force in these years of enforced austerity. 

In the 11 years after 2010, Casey reported, the Met suffered a real-terms cut of £700m—down 18 per cent on 2010, or enough to have employed 9,600 extra police constables.  

The number of police community support officers halved. I think I’ve already mentioned the 124 closed police stations. The typical Basic Command Unit (BCU) is running at 25–30 per cent below already contested “agreed” resourcing levels—and that’s before sick leave or holidays.  

Casey found that frontline policing is now reliant on officers with less than two years’ service. The average BCU was (2022 figures) comprised of 30 per cent probationers. In CID the proportion of probationers last year was over 40 per cent. 

The cuts in police budgets, Casey found, were exacerbated by London boroughs having to reduce their spending on community safety by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2016. London boroughs’ spending on crime reduction within this timeframe fell even more dramatically—by 58 per cent. 

The shoplifters and petty muggers and burglars won’t have read the Casey report, but they have their own lived experience. And that experience tells them that the chance of being nicked is vanishingly small. Shoplifting is up around 25 per cent, with the police extremely unlikely to show up.

Theresa May’s recent well-received book on political mistakes does not reflect on this chapter in policing. Nor does the subject receive a mention in Janan Ganesh’s biography of George Osborne (though you’ll be pleased to know the Met has found an officer to look into the 2,000 historical artefacts that have disappeared from the British Museum, which he chairs). 

So it’s one for future historians. Meanwhile, we are left watching nightly news bulletins of stuff being looted from corner shops and supermarkets. It’s a crime that has effectively been decriminalised. And that makes me nervous.