Boris Johnson’s policing pledge: the key will be delivering beyond the frontline

20,000 extra officers is good news but the government must address urgent questions around logistics, coordination, and the resourcing of other services

July 31, 2019
Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Victoria Jones/PA Archive/PA Images

A key campaign pledge by Boris Johnson was to recruit 20,000 more police officers in England and Wales. On taking office, Johnson announced that recruitment would start “within weeks,” to be completed within three years. 

This marks a U-turn in Conservative policy, under which sweeping cuts have expunged more than 20,000 officers from forces in England and Wales since 2010. Urgent appeals by police leaders for resources went unheeded—despite evidence of rising crime and violence, more offences going unanswered, and a crisis in police wellbeing. In 2018, among many others, a House of Commons Home Affairs Committee inquiry stressed the alarming impacts of the cuts.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has now acknowledged the urgency of “giving the police the resources they need.” While the pledge has been welcomed by police leaders, however, it raises questions around practicalities.


It is unclear, for example, how 20,000 officers will be trained, vetted and equipped, when years of austerity have eroded the back-office capacity, facilities and infrastructure needed to deliver this. Across England and Wales, more than 600 police stations have shut since 2010 in the largest closure programme in policing history.

Nor is it clear what roles the recruits will fill. Pitched as an “unprecedented drive to deliver more frontline officers,” the initiative appears focussed on a visible policing presence in communities. Certainly, the need here is critical: the Home Affairs Committee found that, on average, forces had lost a fifth of their neighbourhood policing capacity since 2010.

But effective policing is about much more. Crime is growing in complexity, placing new demands on law enforcement. To consider just one aspect of this, criminals are using technology in more sophisticated ways, yet the Home Affairs Committee found that “forces are failing to meet the challenges of the digital age.” Resources are urgently needed in specialist units focused on digital investigation and cybercrime, among other areas. This is not to mention the pressing need for more supporting police staff, whose numbers have been decimated alongside those of officers. 

None of these less visible aspects have been mentioned in relation to the recruitment drive. But failing to adopt a system-wide approach, in favour of a voter-friendly focus on the frontline, could undermine its effectiveness.


Similarly little detail has been offered on the “new national policing board” due to oversee recruitment. Chaired by the home secretary, the board will purportedly “hold the police to account for meeting this target” and “drive the national response to the most pressing issues.”

This suggests a return to a more centralised, Home Office-led approach, after years of delegating decision-making to Police and Crime Commissioners. It follows the damning Home Affairs Committee indictment that "policing is suffering from a complete failure of leadership from the Home Office.” Patel describes the board as “the start of a new relationship between the government and the police.” Yet the extent to which this will address the coordination challenge is unclear.

The problem is embedded in the very framework for fighting crime in England and Wales. In the case of serious and organised crime, the overall response can—theoretically—involve more than 100 different government, law-enforcement and other agencies, including the National Crime Agency (NCA), Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) and 43 police forces. Yet existing legislation does not clearly delineate responsibilities across these local, regional and national levels. The Policing and Crime Act 2017, for example, covers collaboration between emergency services, but not how forces, ROCUs and the NCA should interact.

The corresponding lack of coordination has impeded efforts to disrupt organised crime and deliver frontline services. In June 2019, the National Audit Office found that the efforts of agencies involved “were disjointed and uncoordinated,” and “duplicated” at each level. The response was hampered by a “lack of clarity and consistency for allocating work.” Police and Crime Commissioners were found to face competing demands from local constituents, and regional and national counterparts. As such, reports have called for a “root-and-branch review of policing … [focussed] on the reallocation of responsibilities … at local, regional and national level.”

The success of the new board will depend on the extent to which Patel’s “new relationship” addresses these fundamental issues. The recruitment drive must be viewed as part of a longer-term vision of reform. It must be part of a broader response to funding shortages not only among forces, but also at national and regional levels.

Cuts elsewhere Finally, the uplift in numbers should not be viewed separately to the shrinkage of other public services. Since 2010, cuts to mental health services and local ambulance trusts have routinely made police the first responders to a range of non-crime issues. Analysis of FOI requests in October 2017 revealed that 23 forces in England and Wales dealt with 215,000 mental health cases in 2016–17, a 39 per cent increase on the previous year. Policing uplifts are unlikely to be effective where cuts to other services force officers to routinely cover duties for which they lack resources and, often, training.

The PM is correct to prioritise the crisis in policing. However, the challenge requires a coherent, system-wide response beyond the visible frontline. Whether the impending drive represents the start of such a response remains to be seen.