'Brexit is distracting us from the impact of austerity'

The policing crisis may turn government heads away from Brexit and force them to acknowledge that austerity is biting across the public sector, writes Bernard Trafford

Brexit funding

British policing is “on its knees and facing extinction” according to a Police Federation report. Slashed budgets have almost eradicated neighbourhood “bobbies on the beat”.  Officers, frequently dealing single-handedly with situations that require two, are under stress. As a federation spokesperson commented wryly on radio, officers don’t need wellbeing sessions to help them cope: they need more colleagues on the job.

This latest doom-laden forecast hasn’t dominated the media yet, but, notwithstanding Brexit, I’m pretty sure it will. After all, the public wants to feel protected: if police patrols are rarely seen, and crime figures rise, the electorate is unhappy. I suspect government will eventually be forced to act – beyond the recent permission given to police commissioners to add an extra 20 quid or so to council tax bills from April in order to boost the budget a bit.

Law and order generally gets to the top of the queue. When crime kicks off in the streets, everyone’s aware, TV cameras are swiftly on the spot, senior ministers dragged into studios to be grilled, and government has to respond – though I wouldn’t bank on it doing so quickly.

Police officers I know are indeed demoralised, holding things together by the skin of their teeth: achieving the impossible, day after day, while their leaders’ bizarre fear of criticism seems, to those on the front line, timorously readier to encourage complaints against them than to support them in their challenging roles.

Anyone working in education can see how this situation is mirrored in schools. Yet, somehow, education loses the battle for column inches in the media. Perhaps the effects of cuts are less immediately obvious. Or do schools paper over the cracks even more skillfully, their strenuous efforts furnishing a fig-leaf for government parsimony?  

Still, on 4 March Parliament will finally debate schools’ chronic underfunding, in response to a petition signed by 70,000 people. Yet will even that win change? Government’s predictably robotic response suggests not, repeating its mantra that more money’s going into schools than ever before. It concedes: “We do recognise that budgets remain tight.”  Then spoils it: “That is why we are supporting schools and headteachers to make the most of their budgets and reduce costs…”

It’s scarcely worth engaging with such contemptible complacency. Teachers, true professionals, have always tightened their belts as governments squeeze. In the end, though, they can spread the butter only so thin before the gaps show. (The same is true, of course, of the health service. I hope its overworked and undervalued staff will forgive me for only this brief mention of them – I can’t tackle all society’s problems in one piece).

Whether you think austerity was necessary will depend on your political viewpoint. As it happens, I don’t think a nation should wantonly incur debt upon debt: eventually, it must balance its books if it is to achieve lasting prosperity for all. Nonetheless, it’s not true that there’s no money, though we’re often assured that’s the case. There’s £2bn for HS2, and still more to bankroll overspends on that and on Crossrail. The hapless Chris Grayling fleetingly found £13m for a contract with a ferry-less ferry company. Michael Gove squandered £15m before not moving the DfE from Sanctuary Buildings. Two aircraft-carriers are costing billions. There is money.

There will never be enough money to fund everything we might like to. But there is money in the world’s sixth-largest economy, and politicians are elected (and paid) to set priorities and make choices, hopefully good ones, not to utter blandishments, evasions, lies.

So will the 4 March education debate bear fruit? Come to that, will the Police Federation report prove the more powerful voice, and shine a spotlight on all the current underfunding of vital services?

I fear that, by contrast, those respective ministries and their political bosses will continue, ostrich-like, to bury their heads in the sand while they blunder on with Brexit.

No change there, then.

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