In the Media

Hard truths and a black hole await the Met

PUBLISHED August 9, 2012

The party is almost over. There's just the weekend to get through and then the police service across the UK can heave a collective sigh of relief and reflect upon a job well done. Not just well done, though - brilliantly done. The Government, and the media for that matter, has been pretty quiet about praising the policing effort thus far; it's to do with not being brave enough to nail colours to the mast before the end - just in case something goes wrong. That's the way of the world. I suspect, however, that some of those involved will be quietly peeved that this superhuman policing effort, involving thousands of officers and support staff, will not be remarked upon until it's all over.

Irritating as this may be, it will soon be forgotten as the reality of post-Olympic life begins to kick in. After every party there is the hangover to contend with, and the Met, in particular, will be waking up next week with a very sore head. The Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, and his senior team are facing serious problems on a number of fronts. The financial position is desperate and, combined with a mass exodus of experienced staff, it will result in their queuing at the pharmacy for industrial doses of pain relief.

Let's look at the budget: savings of around £500 million have apparently already been identified, but delivering them over the next three years will be a harder job. That is not all. In a recent report, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O'Connor, highlighted the Met as being one of three forces that were facing significant problems balancing their books. In the Met's case there is a further black hole of economies that have still not been identified, let alone delivered.

Although it's clear the Government needs to make savings, I am far from certain that people - accountancy geeks in the Met, the London Assembly and the Mayor's office aside - understand just how big a challenge this is. This report was the equivalent of a profits warning for one of the country's leading PLCs. According to Sir Denis, £769 million is the amount the Met needs to save by 2015, of which £537 million is "planned". Please note the terminology - "planned", not delivered. There is an additional gap of £232  million. While the police service as a whole has made a pretty good fist of delivering savings pledges in recent years, this is of a completely different magnitude from anything seen before.

The Olympics have provided a suitable excuse to put off the inevitable. Cuts before the event were never going to be politically or operationally sensible. But now it's different: the savings have got to be delivered, and with an organisation that is based on people - about 80 per cent of the total budget is spent on salaries - that can only mean one thing. Jobs are going to have to go. The question is: which ones? The obsession with police numbers and the fact that it is nigh-on impossible to make a police officer redundant means that we are going to see more and more police being moved into back-office roles, replacing unfortunate civilian staff who don't have similar employment rights (an ironic position for a Government obsessed by front-line visibility).

All this is likely to provide the first big test of the relationship between the Commissioner and the Mayor. Say what you like about the old Police Authority (and plenty of us did), it did exercise proper and intrusive oversight of the budget. It had independently minded members who understood the concept of profit and loss, and did not mind pointing this out. The Met is funded by a number of different grants, some of which, such as the one for counter-terrorism and security, cannot be touched when it comes to calculating these reductions. One therefore has to wonder how the new relationship is going to work, when these cuts are going to come from the main central grant and thus hit hardest and disproportionately the very areas that the Mayor will have wanted to avoid - local policing delivered by uniformed and detective officers.

If this was not enough to cause collective migraines in the senior ranks, you then have the problem of delivering a decent service. The report that exposed the financial challenges also identified that satisfaction levels with the Met were lower than elsewhere, which is undoubtedly to do with the biggest problem of all.

The leadership required to deliver this is about to be decimated by the largest exodus of experienced personnel in living memory, mostly former colleagues of mine who have hung on to see the Olympics through but who now have decided to hang up their boots. Great for the budget, some might say, but when it comes to having the right staff to deliver performance, or respond to a crisis, you want those who have been in the bear pit, not ones displaying "L" plates. All in all, a heady mix. More Panadol, please.

John Yates is the former UK Head of Counter-Terrorism