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Battle between the PolFed and the government rages on

Posted: Wed Oct 24, 2012 10:31 am
by Bert Moffat ... es-on.html

The battle between the Police Federation and the government on police reform rages on

Across the country this week, leaflets will drop through letterboxes encouraging the public to vote for a police and crime commissioner for their area.

The idea is to make police forces in England and Wales (though not London) more accountable to local residents.

The new commissioners will be able to hire and fire chief constables. They will, within terms set by the Government, control police budgets.

And they will be able to set priorities for the local force — though they will not be able to interfere in operational matters.

However, not since Labour’s idea (spearheaded by John Prescott) to give England regional government ran into the ground through public indifference has an election seemed so irrelevant to voters.

A survey has predicted that no more than 18.5 per cent of those eligible to vote will bother to take part on November 15 — and the former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord (Ian) Blair, has urged a boycott to make the new arrangements unworkable.

Lord Blair was sacked by Boris Johnson — who, as Mayor of London, is and will remain the capital’s commissioner — so he has an interest. But other than the leaflets, no attempt has been made to inform the public about this exercise in Coalition ‘localism’.

No taxpayers’ money is being given to individual candidates to publicise themselves. You have to go online — if you can — to read about them, and to learn, for example, that the Labour candidate for the Humberside job is none other than Lord Prescott himself, now aged 74 and looking for another public sector salary.

The elections are, in fact, a mere sideshow in a much greater battle between the Government and the police — or rather their trades union, the Police Federation — over police reform.

Both sides are seeking to win over public opinion: neither has yet succeeded.

It goes without saying that most police officers are brave and dedicated public servants who do what they do out of the highest motives and to the highest standards.

They can be, and are, killed in the line of duty — as two unarmed policewomen were in Manchester last month.

They do a vital and under-appreciated job in supporting the victims of serious crimes, as well as solving some of them.

Now, their representative body, the Police Federation, is irate about the report compiled by Tom Winsor, a lawyer and former rail regulator who has just become HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary.

That, in itself, was a red rag to the federation: Mr Winsor is the first man from outside the force to do a job usually done by a former chief constable.

He was asked by Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to review police pay and conditions, with a view to improving the service to the public and creating better value.

He reported in two parts — the first on short-term changes, the second on longer-term reform — and his findings caused outrage.

He proposed saving £1.1 billion on pay between 2011 and 2014, with £625 million redirected to front-line policing.

The pay of officers doing the most dangerous and most demanding work would rise; that of those on restricted duties — deskbound, often for reasons of health or fitness — would, in some cases, fall.

The second part of the review, published last March, said that pay should be linked to performance rather than length of service.

This caused fury in the federation: a fury compounded by other proposals in the review. These included accelerated promotion, compulsory fitness tests, more demands being made on officers on restricted duties, the ability to make an officer redundant, and raising the retirement age to 60.

At this point, war broke out between the federation and the Home Office.

The federation said the review had left its members in ‘utter dismay, consternation and disillusion’, and would ‘undermine the very foundations of British policing’.

On the home page of the federation’s website, a policeman is quoted as saying: ‘I joined the job to make a difference, to protect the vulnerable and stamp out unfairness. Now it seems it’s me who is vulnerable and who is being treated unfairly.’

The findings have gone to arbitration, and the new police commissioners — and the public they represent — must wait to see who blinks first.

The federation is balloting its members about seeking the right to strike — a dramatic move, given that since 1919 the police have been banned from going on strike.

Anyone who wondered why the federation pursued Andrew Mitchell after his altercation at the Downing Street gates with the ferocity it did now knows the answer.

In short, the rum bunch who will make up the ranks of the new commissioners could hardly be taking their posts at a worse time.

Looking at the collection of superannuated councillors, failed MPs and retired officers from the Armed Forces who are standing, you wonder whether they have the slightest idea what they are letting themselves in for.

Apart from the political battles raging over the police, the new commissioners will have to work with restricted resources.

The Government has cut funding by 20 per cent as part of the wider deficit reduction programme, which makes setting budgets a nightmare.

They must also depend on the goodwill of the officers in their area — officers who face a three-year pay freeze, increased pension contributions and the loss of 34,000 police and civilian jobs.

Morale is poor. Of course, one important job for the commissioners will be to attempt to improve the reputation of the police in the eyes of the public, which has a lower opinion of the force than at any time in living memory.

Hardly a month passes without further blows being dealt to its reputation. Some are crushing, such as the fabrication of details about the Hillsborough disaster.

Others are on a smaller scale, yet still horrific, such as the death of news vendor Ian Tomlinson, a passer-by at a protest who was knocked to the ground in an unprovoked attack by an officer who had already been found guilty of misconduct.

Earlier this month, an elderly blind man was Tasered because an officer mistook his white stick for a samurai sword.

The public tend to meet the police only when being told that there isn’t a prayer of catching their burglars or when being stopped for a minor traffic offence.

Little wonder that their stock is not high — a point conceded last week by the head of the Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, when he ordered his officers not to display tattoos to avoid seeming ‘thuggish’.

All these issues are absent from the new Government leaflet about the elections for police commissioners, which ignores the dispute between the Home Office and the federation. Indeed, most of its contents deal with how to fill in the ballot paper.

We don’t yet have a law in this country that nullifies any election with a dismally low turnout. Lord Blair’s boycott call is irresponsible, for even if there is a turnout of 3 per cent, we shall have elected commissioners — and they will serve their term with no mandate, no credibility and precious little genuine accountability.

Above all, though, they will remain in limbo until Mrs May decides how far to implement Tom Winsor’s report, and the Police Federation decides how militant it wishes to be about it.

That battle is nowhere near over. It will be brutal, and it could yet make the commissioners’ jobs all but impossible.