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22 September 2011

Policing is too important for politicians to play with

We face grave circumstances, says the chairman of the Police Federation.

By Paul McKeever

With the Labour party conference fast approaching, there is the inevitable flurry of backroom activity that comes hand in hand with such events. Interest groups from all spectrums will be clamouring to meet and petition MPs, exchange business cards and solidify alliances. It is also an opportunity for political parties to build bridges and take up causes. Ed Miliband took up the cause of policing at the close of August with the launch of a national campaign against police cuts.

We obviously welcome his announcement. We are gratified to see politicians realising the gravity of the situation and the dangerous path that the government has embarked upon. However, reading the latest opposition press releases and hearing the Labour leader speak would perhaps lead the less informed to believe that Labour had no intention of cutting the police budget. Reading some of their press materials one would be forgiven for thinking that if Labour were in power they would in fact be increasing the police budget. This is obviously untrue.

Let us be under no illusion, we face grave circumstances. This is no time to be playing political games. Labour in power would be cutting the policing budget too; twelve per cent in fact. This figure, reached by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, is one that we also recognise as achievable. But let’s not dress this up as something it is not; it is still a cut none the less. Tough decisions are having to be made and would have to be made regardless of who was in power. The cause of policing is not a band wagon to be jumped upon; it is a foundation of stable, British society. What we need is the mature consideration of facts, rather than the knee jerk consideration of political opportunity. It is too important an issue to be treated as such.

The Police Federation is often portrayed as intransigent, the police service often described as an unreformed monolith. This is both unfair and untrue. We have gone to considerable lengths to facilitate this government in its efforts to bring the budget deficit down. We were one of the few public services who actually tabled a comprehensive and far reaching efficiency programme. We tabled a fiscally prudent agenda at this year’s Police Negotiating Board. We even proposed cash savings from police pay that equated to those proposed by the official side, identified by the Winsor recommendations. It was rejected and it was made clear to us that this was about more than just money.

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The Police Federation has increasing felt like a political party amidst an ideological battleground. Policing seems to have become an intellectual playground for those to tinker with as they see fit. It is too important an issue to be treated as such. The Labour party are now calling for an independent review of British policing. It is not the Royal Commission we asked for, but we welcome it all the same. After all ,we have been calling for a Royal Commission for over a decade now.

I cannot emphasise enough that we recognise that this country is in dire financial straits and that a Royal Commission will take time and cost money. We are often told that the problems of policing are in the here and now and that they need to be dealt with head on, that a Royal Commission “is for situations when a problem is a long way off and its answer unclear”. We agree. That is why we tabled efficiency savings that would deal with the budget problems of here and now, to buy time for us to have a full and frank discussion about the future of our police service.

The government’s proposals for this country’s police service, whether you agree with them or not, present a fundamental philosophical shift. The results of the last election meant that no single party’s manifesto was endorsed but that a compromise was reached. All three parties had very different visions for policing. That’s why we need our government to go to the public up and down this country and ask them what they want from us, be this through their elected representatives in parliament or through a Royal Commission/independent review. It’s the democratic thing to do; it’s the right thing to do.

Paul McKeever has been Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales since May 2008.

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