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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 May 2007, 02:18 GMT 03:18 UK
Analysis: Policing and politics
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News home affairs, Blackpool

John Reid
John Reid: Defended strategy to frontline officers

A home secretary's annual visit to the Police Federation can be one of those lion's den moments as he faces a unified and potentially grumpy lobby representing a service at the heart of public expectations.

So when outgoing Home Secretary John Reid received some boos and mild heckling during his speech to 1,000 rank-and-file officers in Blackpool on Wednesday, he probably wasn't that surprised.

But what lies behind those boos, and some of the tough questioning he received from the conference floor, is what ordinary officers say is a growing mood of discontent and frustration over critical issues.

If those issues can't be resolved, then the government may face pressure from police officers to change the law allowing them the same rights as other public sector workers - namely the right to strike.

The Police Federation of England and Wales, essentially the union for officers, was founded in 1919 to ensure there would no repeat of the strikes in Merseyside and London in the previous year.

The police struck an all-important deal over pay at the end of the 1970s. It recognised their unique role in society and indexed their pay to an average based on private sector salaries. It's a deal they have long thought fair.

Now that is changing, with the new system indexing their pay to the public sector.

They believe this undermines the historic recognition of their unique status as "Crown servants" - and puts them in the same boat as other public sector workers.

And if that is the case, say some members, perhaps they should also have the same rights to industrial action, instead of the threat of up to two years in jail if they walk-out.

Supportive public

Mr Reid, who leaves the Home Office when Prime Minister Tony Blair steps down, came to Blackpool and vehemently denied pay was being eroded.

And he warned that should the Police Federation raise the spectre of strikes, the public would hardly be supportive of one of the key services none of us would like to be without.

Police officers speak out over morale and crime fighting.

That's something the federation's head Jan Berry recognises. But at the same time, she says ministers must understand the frustrations of frontline officers.

"It is extremely finely balanced," she says.

Delegate Andy White, from West Mercia, was applauded when he told Mr Reid that officers should march to Buckingham Palace to appeal directly to the Queen, over the heads of politicians.

And in a conference floor electronic vote, 77% of constables said they wanted to re-open the debate on the right to industrial action.

Away from the conference hall yah-boos, individual officers talk of frustration over central government targets and a sense, in their mind, of losing a traditional discretion that lies at the heart of policing by consent in a liberal democracy.

Delegates in the bars talked of the Home Office's drive on performance statistics leading to officers feeling pressured to seek quick wins by clearing up minor issues, rather than the hard slog of more serious crimes.

Others said they welcomed the record-high of 140,000 in police numbers. But they added that specialisation, such as the growth of squads tailored to key areas such as child protection, was sucking resources from the frontline.

'Three targets'

That however, is not a picture the home secretary recognised.

He insisted he only set three targets on walking into the Home Office: cutting crime, solving more crimes and increasing public confidence in the police.

Mr Reid said he had halved the performance indicators and expects his successor to continue that work.

STRIKE ACTION?
Jan Berry
Start treating officers like public sector workers and don't be surprised if 140,000 police officers start demanding the same industrial rights that others enjoy
Police Federation chairman Jan Berry

He said that officers should not confuse gripes over targets with the Home Office's reform agenda for the police. Over time, he argued, officers would get more technology, such as mobile devices for information on-the-go.

At same time, he said, there needed to be more efficient, modern ways of working. He zeroed in on the Police Federation's complaints about police community support officers.

On the one hand, he argued, police officers complain about low level "rubbish stuff" that takes up crime-fighting time - minor social ills that can be dealt with on patrols.

On the other, he said, the public value this service as visible policing that improves their streets. The answer had been to please both sides by creating community support officers.

The Police Federation doesn't see it that way. It wants more money spent on more frontline officers. It has also repeated a call for a Royal Commission on policing, saying it may hold its own inquiry if the government doesn't oblige.




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