Page last updated at 15:09 GMT, Wednesday, 19 May 2010 16:09 UK

Police rank and file hear Theresa May's plans

By Andy Tighe
BBC home affairs correspondent

The new Home Secretary, Theresa May, has given her first speech since taking office to the annual conference of the Police Federation of England and Wales in Bournemouth.

Theresa May and police officers
Theresa May's appointment as home secretary came as a surprise to some

This was the first opportunity that rank and file police officers had to hear what lies in store for them under the new government.

After years of Labour home secretaries, endless policing initiatives and thousands of new laws, many police officers were hoping for a quieter life.

Paul McKeever, Police Federation chairman, said: "For the last 20 years we have had nothing but change. We have reached initiative fatigue. We want to be left as professionals to get on with the job that we do."

And although Theresa May is only a week into her new job, that appears to be one lesson she has already learned.

Her predecessors, she said, had tied the police up in red tape and undermined their professional responsibility. Now things would be different. She was not going to tell them how to do their job any more than she would tell a surgeon how to operate or an engineer how to build a bridge.

Past clashes

Refreshing words for many Police Federation members who remember the numerous run-ins with previous home secretaries.

There was the Bobby Lobby, when more than 20,000 police officers marched on London to protest against Jacqui Smith's refusal to backdate their pay award.

A few years before, there were similar scenes when David Blunkett tried to force through a change in working conditions and allowances.

And Charles Clarke's dreams of regional force mergers were a nightmare for most officers, envisaging years of upheaval and the elimination of historic local constabularies.

Of course, all these home secretaries were Labour. The big question at this conference was: "How different would things be under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition?"

How many times have we heard about a bonfire of red tape?
Police Federation official

One of the few things that delegates already knew about Theresa May was that she once infamously called the Conservatives "the nasty party".

Just how nasty was the new home secretary going to be when it came to the issue closest to most of their hearts - police pay and numbers?

There were precious few words of comfort.

Yes, the new administration would respect the current pay deal, but that expires this year. And beyond, they could expect a wholesale review of remuneration and conditions. There could be no guarantees that current staffing numbers would be maintained and a chilly warning that "like other departments and organisations, we need to make sacrifices too".

The days when the old Labour government, determined to shed its soft-on-crime image, increased its spending on the police from £9bn a year to £14.4bn, are long gone. There are now a record 143,770 policemen and women in England and Wales, not to mention 16,507 community support officers. But for how much longer?

Many officers look worryingly at London, home of the UK's biggest force, where the Conservative mayor Boris Johnson has already announced a £16m cut over the next three years, which means axing 455 police officer posts.

Creeping 'civilianisation'

The home secretary's pledge to do away with pointless bureaucracy and form-filling was predictably well-received. Though veterans of previous home secretaries' promises were wondering aloud whether it would produce the kind of cost-savings that Mrs May seems to be hoping for.

"How many times have we heard about a bonfire of red tape?" one world-weary Police Federation official asked.

And if it means hiring more civilian staff to do back-room jobs previously done by uniformed officers, the federation is hostile. It views what it calls creeping "civilianisation" of the police service with considerable suspicion.

There was also some concern about the home secretary's undisguised determination to increase public accountability of the police. Chief constables would no longer be answerable to the Home Office, but to directly-elected individuals who would set local policing priorities.

She promised no interference with operational policing and no politicisation of the police. And a clear link to what local people want from their force would be far better than constant meddling from Whitehall, she said.

Tough times

But Ian Leyland, secretary of the Merseyside Police Federation, said he was worried that officers pursuing long, complicated investigations could come under pressure from directly-elected officials to get swift results.

And Mark Barrett from Wiltshire Police Federation told the conference: "An elected commissioner is a political animal and he will act for the interests of whoever put him into power."

Another of the Conservatives' key manifesto pledges - scrapping ID cards - will have caused few tears to be shed among most rank and file officers. Though if Theresa May had announced today - as the Liberal Democrats once promised - to spend the money saved on hiring 3,000 new police officers, she could have got a standing ovation.

In fact, the police are well aware that tough times lie ahead. And in the view of many delegates, the new home secretary earned some credit today for not trying to pretend otherwise.

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