I spy disaffection amongst police officers – but who caused it?

In addition to today’s public sector strikes over pensions we see a march in London of 32,000 off-duty police officers showing how strongly many officers feel about the cuts in policing and the changes proposed in the Government’s Winsor Review.

The Government’s response to the fuel dispute was to cause panic in the hope that Trade Unions and Labour would get the blame. Nick Herbert this morning described public sector strikes as “unnecessary and futile” and made clear that he sees no point in further dialogue – he has made up his mind. An un-named Government spokesperson said:

 “We think the reductions in spending on the police are challenging but manageable and that the police will still have the resources that they need to do the important work that they do.”

It’s just not true. Efficiency savings will help, but the cuts will be real and felt by officers who feel under pressure and communities who will feel abandoned.

The Government’s behaviour is wrong on so many levels. Strikes don’t help anyone and are not a step anyone takes lightly. I joined the strike called by GMB (my union) and Unison last November over public sector pensions, but it wasn’t what I “wanted” – what I wanted was for there to be proper negotiations before changes were made. The failure to commit to listening to those who disagree with their proposals is troubling. Small wonder, in the circumstances, that many police officers are considering whether they want to push for the right to strike, to make a stronger statement.

The willingness of workers to withdraw their labour, and the interest of some police in doing so too, does demonstrate the strength of feeling and employers should take note. But the focus should be on ensuring proper negotiations regarding changes, where each participant takes account of the others’ perspectives rather than trying to “win”.

All police officers hold the Office of Constable. It is legally an independent office, not a position of employment which is why it does not come with normal employment rights. Government regulations and determinations set rules as to how officers conduct themselves both on and off duty i.e. in their private lives. Winsor’s proposals would shift this balance but to what purpose? Saving money is part of it, but the willingness of the Government to make changes that cost significant sums (most notably the introduction of elected Police & Crime Commissioners!) shows that this is not just about saving money. Indeed the Government’s central argument that we’re all in it together to tackle the deficit has been blown out of the water by their decision to cut taxes for the rich. As always politics is about choices and the Government are choosing to attack policing.

Which brings me back to the question in the headline. The term disaffection is an important one because Section 91 of the Police Act 1996 makes it a criminal offence to cause, attempt to cause, or do any act calculated to cause “disaffection amongst the members of any police force”.

Overall it does feel as though the Government is actually setting out to cause disaffection. Ministers know that the cuts they are imposing on the service are far in excess of what can be achieved by efficiency savings – they have the evidence from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary. Winsor’s proposed reforms are much more focused on saving money than on ensuring that the police service is fit for purpose.

The Police Federation have been careful not to do anything that would lay them open to the charge of causing disaffection – Ministers much less so. Candidates for Police & Crime Commissioner need to be careful too for a variety of reasons. It may be tempting to play to the gallery – reinforcing views sometimes expressed along the lines of “they are not around when you need them” and that officers are unfit and lazy. Being “tough” can be seen as the way to win – and in the meantime everyone forgets that it is the loss of officers and staff that is causing the thin blue line to be stretched too thin.

What is needed is a fundamentally different approach – a co-operative approach. A co-operator starts from the assumption that we have a common interest in achieving outcomes, not that there are two sides in an industrial dispute and only one can win. The Police Federation have accepted the need to change terms and conditions – it is about the how, not whether. Most officers and staff want to do their best and want inefficiency and poor performance amongst a minority to be tackled. And for that very reason, it is right to negotiate the changes. Presumably when he came up with the idea of cutting pay for those who are on restricted duties, Tom Winsor thought he was getting tough with shirkers – not the guy who was interviewed on the march who took months to re-learn how to walk after an injury on duty or women officers who are pregnant. A civilised society and a responsible employer looks to support people in these circumstances. But it is only when you sit down and talk these things through with those affected that the full impact of the proposals in his 121 recommendations and mammoth report become clear.

There is a different way of tackling the issues too – regular fitness tests and support to improve as has been in place for years in North Wales rather than a punitive approach. A national voluntary severance scheme to address changing requirements could be seen by all as a fair approach and would make compulsory redundancies unnecessary.

All Police & Crime Commissioners should want a highly motivated workforce, delivering for the public, not a workforce that is disillusioned and only still in the job because the Government’s economic policies have ensured that alternative jobs are hard to come by.

The Government must take full responsibility for the resources it provides or fails to provide – in North Wales for example, we already pay the highest council tax precept for policing outside London and yet the overall budget for policing is average. So no Commissioner will have a “good” choice to make – especially as council tax hits the poor hardest.

Commissioners will need to work with officers and staff at all levels to find better and cheaper ways of doing things. And I for one would want to ensure that the police do not take the easy option of withdrawing from “community policing” because to do so will undermine the public confidence which is so important to securing public goodwill and support. Instead I would want to ensure that police and communities work together to ensure that the police focus on what is important instead of wasting time at meetings which rehearse the same issues over and over again.

If I am elected Police & Crime Commissioner, I am intending to focus on reinforcing the need for engagement or two-way communication between the police and the communities they work for through “walkabouts” with elected representatives, local police officers and PCSOs in the hot spots for crime and anti-social behaviour. I’m not expecting to tell them what to do at these meetings – I am expecting them to tell each other and come up with joint solutions. My role will be to reinforce the importance of an on-going dialogue and to ensure that problems are being addressed by joint work on the ground.

That’s the deal, as I see it. Policing by consent means the police rely on public co-operation rather than the threat of force. But this needs to be reinforced through regular dialogue and firm action to tackle wrong-doing. The public need know that force will only be used when it is needed and that its use will be proportionate, and that officers are working hard on their behalf. And police officers need to know that the Office of Constable will be upheld by securing agreement on changes to its terms and conditions not imposing them.

2 thoughts on “I spy disaffection amongst police officers – but who caused it?

  1. Pingback: Who will the Home Secretary turn to for an independent, experienced view on policing matters? « Tal Michael

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