The Home Office is in the dark about whether cash-starved police forces are in danger of running out of money, a damning report warns today.

Auditors raise the alarm about the impact of eight years of austerity, warning forces are “experiencing financial strain and struggling to deliver effective services to the public”.

Their report paints a picture where more criminals are escaping injustice, while the police are forced to cut their targeting of speeding or drunk motorists.

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However, the National Audit Office (NAO) has also sharply criticised the Home Office for failing to effectively monitor the “financial sustainability” of forces.

It attacks the department’s “light-touch approach”, which means that the way it “chooses to distribute funding has been ineffective and detached from the changing nature of policing for too long”.

“There are signs that forces are already experiencing financial strain and struggling to deliver effective services to the public,” said Amyas Morse, the NAO’s head.

“If the Home Office does not understand what is going on, it will not be able to direct resources to where they are needed, with the risk that the situation could get worse.”

The report comes after the president of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales warned that the service is close to being in “a perpetual state of crisis”.

Chief Superintendent Gavin Thomas condemned a “void” in future plans for the police, saying: “Policing is now utterly reliant on fewer people working longer and harder. That exploits police officers and defrauds the public.”

It also comes after Sajid Javid, the home secretary, agreed the police could be forced to call in the army to tackle public disorder if a no-deal Brexit sparks food shortages.

Now the NAO has warned that “the Home Office’s decision to take a light-touch approach to overseeing police forces means it does not know if the police system is financially sustainable”.

Forces cannot legally go bust, but at risk is their ability to provide “an efficient and effective service”, the report says.

The NAO noted that total funding to police forces, from Whitehall grants and council tax, has fallen by 19 per cent in real terms since 2010-11.

As a result, the number of police officers had fallen by 15 per cent, yet “the department has not forecasted what impact this will have on forces’ ability to meet increasing demand”.

Forces had also slashed their reserves for “exceptional events” by 20 per cent since March 2015 – reversing a 49 per cent increase over the four years before that.

The proportion of crimes that resulted in a charge or summons fell from 15 per cent in March 2015 to 9 per cent in March 2018.

There had also, since 2010, been “fewer breathalyser tests, motoring fixed penalty notices and convictions for drugs trafficking and possession”.

The time it took to charge an offence increased from 14 days for the year ending March 2016 to 18 days for the year ending March 2018.

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said: “Sustained funding cuts have resulted in almost a fifth fewer police officers and staff than eight years ago, yet the government does not seem to understand the impact of this on local policing.”

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