PUBLIC safety is being put at risk as police forces struggle to plug gaps in other services, a watchdog has warned.

Sir Thomas Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, has warned in his annual report that forces are increasingly used as a service of 'first resort' to help those with mental health problems.

Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw said sustained Government cuts had resulted in police being increasingly expected to ‘pick up the pieces’ for other cash strapped services.

He said: “Years of austerity have caused critical damage to our public services, putting the police under unbearable strain.

“Demands on forces are rising around issues like mental health, online fraud, sexual exploitation as well as emerging crimes like modern slavery and this vital work needs resources.”

Since 2010 Lancashire Police has had to make savings of £76million a year which is estimated to reach £92m by 2020.

Mr Grunshaw said: “The resources need to be there for officers to do their jobs but other services have to be at full strength so people’s lives aren’t falling apart, leaving the police to pick up the pieces.”

Sir Thomas said: “The first obligation of the police is to prevent crime.

“This is not only because this makes society safer - both in reality and in perception - but also because it is far cheaper to prevent a crime than it is to investigate and arrest the offender after the event.

“In some forces police officers end up acting as first responders when no ambulances are available, this is a worrying trend.”

Sir Thomas said that the 'severe' lack of mental healthcare provision was having a major detrimental affect on already stretched forces.

There were almost 240,000 incidents in England and Northern Ireland last year in which mental health issues were handled by police, figures released earlier this year suggest.

Sir Thomas said: “The severe problems in mental health provision in this country are not only failing those who need treatment; they also create an unacceptable strain on the police and imperil public safety.

“Police are often being used to fill the gaps that other agencies cannot.

"This is an unacceptable drain on police resources and it is a profoundly improper way to treat vulnerable people.”

He called for a service-wide mechanism to maximise effective use of technology and establish common standards.

He said: “Until we have dissolved the remaining technological and human barriers that prevent agencies from obtaining and using the information that others hold, lives could yet be shattered or even lost.”