Sunday, 25 March 2012

When the police want the right to strike you know something has gone badly wrong.

Evening all; under plans contained in the Windsor review the lot of a policeman (or woman) soon really won’t be a happy one.

The Police Federation is to ballot its 135,000 members on whether they want the right to strike in response to government plans for a 20% cut in funding for the service and the widest ranging reforms of how it operates for thirty years. Included in this is the suggestion, made in the Windsor review that Chief Constables should be able to make officers redundant to cut costs.

The review says that for some staff associations, including the Police Federation, the absence of the right to strike is seen as the reason for protecting their members from the risk of compulsory redundancy. It challenges this claim citing as an example the armed forces, members of which don’t have the right to strike but can be made redundant.

Speaking about the review to the BBC this week a spokeswoman for the Home Office said ‘We must tackle the deficit and police forces need to play their part in making savings. We believe this can be done whilst protecting front line services.’ She added that the government would ‘consider the proposals in the independent Windsor review carefully, ensuring that the remuneration and status of police officers continues to reflect the important work they do.’

Even by the impressive standards set by the civil service this statement lifts mealy mouthed piety to a truly Olympian level.

The Police Federation, the national committee of which unanimously supports its members having the right to strike, will hold a rally before its conference in May so that, as a statement says, ‘police officers, friends, families and supporters can show the strength of their feeling against the budget cuts being applied to policing and the consequences for public safety.’

If you dress to the left politically there is something deeply ironic about the idea of the police going out on strike. Who will ‘kettle’ the people who usually do the ‘kettling?’ Maybe they’ll have to take turns at beating themselves up on the picket line.

Facetiousness though shouldn’t blind the left or anyone else to the seriousness of what this means. The idea of the police going on strike would only a couple of years ago have been unimaginable; now there is an outside chance of it actually happening.

There is a good reason why we pay police officers good salaries and generous pensions, because we also ask them to do the things we either can’t or won’t do. Not just the truly awful things like picking up the pieces (often literally) after road traffic accidents, but the niggling repetitive things like dealing with persistent anti-social behaviour or being a verbal punch bag for angry burglary victims who think the theft of their TV should be treated like the crime of the century.

These so called reforms will do nothing to make the police more efficient, in fact they could do irreparable damage to the service. Take 20% from the budget of any organisation and it will inevitably have to radically alter the way it operates, cut back on almost everything in order to continue delivering the most basic level of service, meaning that much of the work the police do to build links with often hostile communities will have to stop. As a result they will become an organisation that reacts to problems instead of trying to tackle their potential causes in a proactive way; a sure recipe for disaster.

If Chief Constables are given the power to make their officers redundant they will almost certainly end up doing so, just as once given the power to raise fees to £9,000 all but a handful of university vice chancellors did so. This is because these days such positions are often held by ambitious middle managers who can be easily strong armed by the accountants rather than people who understand the service their organisation delivers, be it teaching art history or catching criminals.

Incidentally saying that police officers should constantly live under the shadow of redundancy because soldiers, sailors and members of the RAF do is nonsense; one staggering act of ingratitude does not justify another.

These cuts are yet another example of the obsessive myopia afflicting the government; in the absence of anything resembling a vision for the sort of country they want Britain to be cutting the deficit at all costs has filled the resulting vacuum. This is allied with a uniquely Tory pig headedness that sees only policies that cause pain as being effective and equates a reasonable willingness to consider and change the course of your actions where appropriate as a sign of incipient weakness.

Perhaps after their epic year long battle over NHS reform the government thought the police would be an easier target for their cut at all costs tactics. In their fevered imagination they perhaps saw the late Jack Warner touching the brim of his helmet and stoically getting on with things, ours not to reason why, at least not to reason why when the orders are given by people who went to Eton and Oxford.

What a surprise it must have been for them to find out that modern police officers aren’t all cosy clichés; instead they’re professional men and women with an understanding of their value and the values they uphold. There is very little likelihood the police ever will go on strike, the fact though that they are willing to discuss the idea of withdrawing their labour should make a government that is increasingly remote and complacent think again about how and what it cuts.

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