It’s never easy for a government minister to challenge the police. Crassly, condemning the police can seem like “coddling criminals” – the opposite of the “tough” stance most recent Home Secretaries have wanted to project.
So it is particularly noteworthy that home secretary Theresa May, a minister with more rightwing credentials than many of her cabinet colleagues, today launched a broadside against the Police Federation. She told its conference in Bournemouth: “I can announce today that this [public] funding will be stopped altogether from August.”
She was referring to the government funding given to the Police Federation by the Home Office. These public funds pay for the salaries and expenses of the chairman, general secretary and treasurer of the Police Federation, and, according to May, they will now be put into a new fund for Police First, a scheme to attract top graduates into the police force.
The federation, which represents 126,000 rank-and-file police officers in England and Wales, has already had its annual government funding reduced from £320,000 to £190,000. And now it will receive zero from a government whose top ministers have been on the brink of all-out battle with the police for years.
May made her announcement after listing a number of scandals that have plagued the police force in the last few years. She referred to high-profile cases like the death of Ian Tomlinson, allegations of corruption in the investigation of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, payments to police by journalists uncovered by the Leveson Inquiry, and Plebgate.
The final example is perhaps the most important. Only yesterday, Andrew Mitchell, the former Tory chief whip whose career was torpedoed by an altercation with police at Downing Street, reopened the wound.
Mitchell is calling for full disclosure of the transcripts of the misconduct hearings against officers involved in the case, in which he was accused of calling the officers “plebs”. In a letter to the Met chief Bernard Hogan-Howe, Mitchell claimed that a policewoman on duty in Downing Street on the night of the altercation texted a friend a couple of days before the incident saying, “I can topple the Tory Government.”
The Plebgate affair has seen a string of police officers sacked, while Mitchell, who has always denied making the comments, says he was stitched up by the police.
It has caused a headache for the Tory party leadership, not only for the internal turmoil of a frontbench resignation. “Plebs” was a word that struck a chord with voters, making the rest of the exchange, including the swearing to which Mitchell has admitted, irrelevant.
This scandal may well have been the straw that broke the bobby’s back for the home secretary, who has long clashed with fellow politicians and the police over law enforcement. She was at odds with the prime minister during the London Riots in 2011, by saying the police were right not to have used rubber bullets. And earlier this year, she again clashed with Cameron when saying the police’s controversial stop-and-search powers should be curbed. Her stance was said to have been dismissed by Downing Street in case it made the government appear “soft on crime”. She hasn’t managed to have a curb of stop-and-search powers included in this year’s Queen speech.
May has clearly been looking for the opportunity to discipline what she sees as a chaotic, over-mighty police force, and Plebgate has provided her with the public and political appetite to do just that.
She told the stunned auditorium that it was unacceptable that the Police Federation received public funds when sitting on “vast reserves” worth tens of millions of pounds. She warned the organisation that it would have to “face up to reality” and reform, or the government would would have to intervene and make changes. The Home Office is about to inspect the group’s finances.
She said: “The federation was created by an act of parliament and it can be reformed by an act of parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you.”
The Chair of the Police Federation, Steve Williams, who’s standing down this month, attacked the media for “negative story after negative story”. He also addressed some police concerns to the home secretary:
Home Secretary – we cannot police the complexities of the 21st Century with resource levels we had in the 1980s.
Home Secretary, we all know that policing commands a rather small budget in the overall grand scheme of government spending.
Please do not put savings before the ability to provide a policing service to the public at whatever level they require and rightly deserve.
But this battle is about more than just money.