Blair Gibbs

Tackling the last great unreformed public service

Tackling the last great unreformed public service
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The Home Office has an ambitious police reform agenda and is overseeing challenging budget reductions, but they are also forging ahead with plans to introduce real workforce modernisation.  The serious and credible reviewer, Tom Winsor, will publish his independent report next Tuesday.  

Winsor’s review will cover pay, conditions and other aspects of employment that will set the framework for a new settlement when the current 3-year pay deal expires. Expect police overtime and shift patterns to be another major focus of the review.  

David Cameron himself, who once boldly described the police as “the last great unreformed public service” is firmly committed to this agenda. As a special advisor at the time of the last failed attempt – the Sheehy Review in 1993 – Cameron is only too aware of how difficult this is and how vulnerable Ministers can become if they appear to be challenging the police unfairly.  

Central to the Government’s message has been fairness – that the police are not being unfairly singled out, but neither can they be immune.  A public sector pay freeze applies to them too, and if anything it will help forces protect some jobs.  But fairness cuts both ways and Winsor must address some fundamental questions.

Is it fair that officers can retire after thirty or thirty five years, when the rest of the population is being asked to work longer? Is it fair that police officers are paid a salary that recognises the risk of their frontline job, but one which increases every year, regardless of their skills or even whether they are frontline anymore?

We have to properly value our police, but the balance may have tipped too far in one direction. Respecting and the police is less about financial reward and more about lifting the burdens of audit and regulation that successive governments have placed upon them; the bureaucratisation of their daily activities that stop officers from crime-fighting – the role most joined the force to do.

The police do a difficult and dangerous job for which they deserve proper recognition, but one thing they are not is underpaid. Remuneration in England and Wales is relatively generous, certainly compared with officers in Australia or New Zealand. So offensive was the suggestion that our police were not badly paid that when I said as much at a recent ‘Inside Government’ conference the Police Federation members in the audience orchestrated complaints and won an apology from the conference organisers for such an outrage. Suffice to say being honest about police pay is a thought-crime the Police Federation does not tolerate.  

There are some signs that ACPO and police leaders recognise the need for reform. We will know on Tuesday if the police service as a whole is prepared to face up to modern realities, or whether they will close ranks and fight for the status quo. If they choose to resist, and if Police Federation members have the appetite, Theresa May and Nick Herbert will need the stomach for the fight.

Blair Gibbs is the Head of Crime & Justice at Policy Exchange