Page last updated at 19:08 GMT, Tuesday, 20 May 2008 20:08 UK

Police's warning shot in pay row

By Andy Tighe
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

Police tape
The law was changed after the police last went on strike in 1919

Members of the Police Federation in England and Wales have voted in favour of lobbying ministers for the right to strike. How likely are officers to walk out?

It's perhaps fitting that the police should have come to Bournemouth in Dorset to voice the growing view of many of them that they should be allowed to take industrial action.

Not far away, in the county town of Dorchester, stands a memorial to the famous Tolpuddle Martyrs, imprisoned and transported for starting a trade union.

And it's to the history books that one must turn to find out about the last time the police went on strike - in 1919.

That brought the Army out on the streets and a change in the law prohibiting officers from ever withdrawing their labour again.

With no industrial muscle, police pay soon fell behind that of other workers. It wasn't uncommon for some officers to receive state benefits.

Special arrangements

In 1979 a committee chaired by Lord Edmund-Davies concluded that things had gone too far.

In recognition of the ban on striking he proposed special pay arrangements for the police.

In future their wages would be linked to the salaries of non-manual workers in the private sector.

It's an arrangement that served the police well. The pay of a constable just out of basic training increased by over 30% in the last 10 years.

And the government says that in most parts of the UK there are few problems with staff recruitment or retention.

Hardened opinions

But recently attitudes have changed. A review of police pay carried out by Sir Clive Booth recommended a new pay review body and a different index for pay parity that the Police Federation said would erode officers' pay.

And Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's refusal to backdate the current 2.5% pay rise for officers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was widely regarded in the ranks as little short of treachery.

Hence there was a huge turnout for the rally in central London in January when more than 20,000 officers marched past the Home Office.

Soon afterwards, the Police Federation applied for a judicial review of the home secretary's decision.

Since then, opinions seem to have hardened. Officers in the rest of the UK complain that they are around 250 a head worse off than their colleagues in Scotland whose pay award was fully backdated.

But the saving to the government has been in the region of 30m. And a highly visible group of public sector workers has been held within the Treasury's inflation targets.

Sense of anger

So what do the men and women who voted for the right to take industrial action really expect to achieve?

The Home Office is quite clearly not prepared to allow police officers to act like trade unionists.

In a tart statement, an official noted that prison officers and members of the armed forces face similar restrictions.

And older officers in particular admit they would be extremely reluctant to go out on strike under any circumstances.

Some of their younger colleagues are more radical but lobbying for the right to take action is not the same as taking action itself.

Principally, the vote seems to be a deliberate shot across the bows of a government which many Police Federation members have come to regard as hostile.

They want ministers to understand that the fact that the rank and file are talking about industrial action is a measure of the sense of anger they feel.

Not quite the spirit of Tolpuddle, but not a push-over either.


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