16 May 2012

Police officers turn on Theresa May over cuts

The Home Secretary is heckled as she addresses the Police Federation. Officers wave placards declaring “enough is enough” in protest at funding cuts.

Police officers have shown their opposition to the government’s sweeping reforms to police pay, pensions and conditions by telling Theresa May that cutting the service by 20 per cent is “criminal”.

Policing has had to take its share of the cuts for the good of the economy, she insisted, along with every other part of the public sector; telling the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth that the only alternative to cutting pay would have been even steeper job losses. The changes, she claimed, were in the interest of the future of policing.

The silent treatment

But that was not what the police wanted to hear. More than a thousand officers sat through her speech in stony silence: some heckling Mrs May as she told them: “It is because the police are crime-fighters that we will never privatise policing”. One officer called out: “You already are”.

Another delegate, Dave Bennett, won a huge round of applause as he challenged the home secretary, branding her “a disgrace”, while Ian Pointon, from Kent Police Federation, said the reforms would see “the end of policing by consent”.

The depth of police opposition towards the changes was revealed last week, when tens of thousands of off-duty officers marched through Westminster against plans to make savings of £1.5bn by 2014-15, with the loss of 16,000 jobs.

Officers say morale is sinking fast over the prospect of huge changes to pay and conditions, which will mean they have to work longer, and pay more into their pension funds. They are also opposed to what Federation leaders call the “wholesale privatisation” of the service, under plans to outsource back office functions and other roles to private security firms.

Rank and file fury

Rank and file officers have vented their fury on blogs like the Anti Winsor Network, which was set up to oppose the recommendations in Tom Winsor’s reviews into the future of policing. The former rail regulator called for a complete overhaul of the way forces are run, including lifting the ban on compulsory redundancies, rewarding officers who take greater risks in front-line roles, while cutting other payments and allowances.

Other proposals are aimed at “professionalising” the police, requiring new recruits to have at least two A Levels, and allowing high-flyers to enter at inspector level, rather than working their way through the ranks, with promotion based on skill and merit, rather than time served.

Senior officers have also voiced their concerns in public. Gloucestershire Chief Constable Tony Melville announced he was stepping down at the end of the month, in opposition to the election of police and crime commissioners. He warned that further budget cuts would put the force on a “metaphorical cliff edge”.

Peter Fahy, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, has also spoken out, with officers claiming they are already “stretched beyond capacity”, while Devon and Cornwall’s Stephen Otter warned crime rates could rise if there were fewer visible police officers patrolling the streets.

Commons clash

In the Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband clashed with David Cameron over the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, saying it was little wonder that the police were “absolutely furious” at his broken promise not to slash their budgets. Mr Cameron insisted the Home Office was putting more police on the front line, a claim that Channel 4 News has already called into question.

And it is unlikely to satisfy the thousands of officers who have shown unprecedented opposition to the cuts, which, they say, could put public safety at risk, and leave the government “on the precipice of destroying a police service that is admired and replicated throughout the world”.