Disconnected – The Future of the Police Federation

Last week, the Police Federation of England and Wales met for their annual conference in Bournemouth. The previous year, delegates experienced a “hair dryer” moment as the Home Secretary unleashed a speech so powerful and hurtful that those of us in that auditorium were simply blown away.

There was much anticipation that there would be more of the same this year but what played out was far more subtle.

It was an interesting week for a variety of reasons but not least of all it showed that, despite its willingness to reform, the Federation has an uphill, even existential, battle ahead of it. It also showed a series of disconnects which I will try to outline.

The Chiefs 

The theme of conference this year was #Cutshaveconsequences and in the lead up to the event itself some press pre-releases outlined the chairman, Steve White’s, concerns about how future cuts would lead to a more paramilitary style of policing as officers would need to turn up to fewer things, better protected and probably only when called for rather than undertaking pro-active patrol.

There are many officers on the front line who will agree that cuts are having consequences and that this, rather unpleasant view of the future, is something that they can relate to as a distinct possibility.

It is not a view shared by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC)

Indeed, on the very eve of conference, the NPCC Chair, Sara Thornton, issued a statement which countered much of what the Fed had been saying in the previous days which said that they didn’t recognise that vision of the future and that “despite the challenges, we are not a service on our knees.”

This statement had to have been timed to undermine the Federation as it was issued the day before they met. At the very least it was designed to offer a more optimistic view of the impact of cuts which sought to provide counter-weight to the Fed’s own gloomy picture. The Chief Constables and the Federation are not delivering the same narrative – Herein lies disconnect one.

The Ear of Government 

The Think-Tanks had been invited to partake in a session on the Tuesday called The Political Challenge. We heard from Policy Exchange and Reform, both of whom spoke passionately, if not rather simplistically, about their vision of the future of policing.

We must remember that both of these organisations have the ear of ministers and their theories have formed the basis of government reform over the last five years (and indeed in the previous government.)

It would seem that the expectation is that the police must continue to do more with less and any protestations that all you get for less – is less, will be taken as a signal of intransigence.

The answer is technology. Or so they say. Facial recognition and computerising forms (as well as mobile data) will revolutionise policing in hitherto unexplored ways. The point that you still need people to act upon the computer’s information and, indeed, input it was swept aside. It was pointed out that 16,000 laptops didn’t save London from the riots but this was also shrugged at.

We must learn to love predictive analytics, a computerised system which crunches data and tells you where the next crime series will occur. You can then place officers there and either prevent it or catch the bad guys in the act.

I have a few issues with predictive analytics. It’s not like we haven’t been doing something like it for years but in order to deploy officers into crime hot spots or future crime hot spots you need one thing – police officers.

They are currently so busy chasing crimes which have happened and calls coming in that there is little capacity for targeted patrol.

“Ah!” Say the enthusiasts “If you send the officers there instead there will be less crime.”

“But,” say the pragmatists “who answers the calls in the meantime.”

I am not against predictive analytics but to start using them you need a lot of spare cops. Once demand starts to fall THEN you could potentially reduce the number of officers but we have already lost 17,000 and it strikes me that predictive analytics should have happened first.

Furthermore, I am yet to see what predictive analytics can offer to spot those crimes which are increasing but happen behind closed doors. Domestic abuse and Internet fraud. To be fair, I think this point is recognised by both the speakers from the Think Tanks but I worry that faith is being put into an expensive system which focuses mostly on crimes which are already less common and falling.

I was dismayed to hear the chap from Policy Exchange talking about “incentivising crime reduction.” It is as though the trauma James Pattrick went through was for nothing. Fortunately, it wasn’t.  We all know that incentives distort policing and that is something the Home Secretary is unlikely to buy into.

The point is this, and I am guilty of it myself in that paragraph – the Think Tanks paint a relentlessly optimistic picture of a cheaper and more effective future – the Fed send warnings about the dangers of it all. We are the negative ones and the Government don’t want to hear it – and that is disconnect two.

The Electorate

These speakers were joined by shadow policing minister, Jack Dromey MP.
It was here that I had my own conference moment. I had been busy tweeting the debate for those not present when suddenly, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the compère, read out one of my tweets.

“Nathan Constable has tweeted, to a lot of followers, that this is all meaningless and irrelevant, you’re talking like you haven’t just lost the election.”

Mr Dromey did seek to answer that by telling us that their role in opposition would be to stand against further cuts. However, that didn’t work over the last five years and the Conservatives now have a majority government. The fact remains that the the public, whether they realise it or not, have chosen a government who believe in a smaller police service, with an unprotected budget, governed by politicians in the form of Police and Crime Commissioners.

There was much debate about this on social media. Pointing out the unfairness of an electoral system where a party can control a country when 63% of the population didn’t vote for them. But the electorate know this – it’s how we have run elections in the UK forever. We were offered proportional representation a couple of years back and declined it in a referendum.

This system of government was in place under Labour, who threw money at the police, but very few police officers complained about the electoral system then.

We all know that crime and disorder didn’t feature on the electorate’s radar during the campaign. Despite the best efforts of some to raise the topic it barely registered. There are three things on the minds of the voting public at the moment – the NHS, immigration and the economy.

The situation with regards crime and disorder is simply not pressing enough in people’s minds and until it is we can be ignored. This point was superbly made by Greg O’Conner from the New Zealand Police Association.

He spoke on the last day and said that, historically, police “unions” across the world have been in the “fear of crime industry”. It’s true of history and it is true now (#Cutshaveconsequences) and it used to work but evidence is there across the globe that it isn’t working any more. In New Zealand, in South Africa, in America – this tactic simply isn’t working.

Mr O’Conner pointed to the situation in New York where the police there couldn’t get a raise for five years. Why? Because they had no leverage. Mayor Gulliani knew that crime was down and he knew the public knew that crime was down so any dire-warnings from the police simply carried no weight.

It is the same here.

“Cuts have consequences” say the Federation.

“Where are they?” Say the Government

“They’re coming”

“Like they were when you said this in 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2010. Crime has fallen continually since then. Where are the consequences?”

The problem with this argument from the Home Secretary is that in most of those years there was continued investment in the police, often budget increases. 2010 was the first time budgets were cut and so far the public are not seeing any adverse effect. Which allows others to accuse the Police Federation of scaremongering.

I spotted the “crying wolf” phrase becoming common about six weeks ago. It had begun to creep into newspaper articles so it came as no surprise to hear the Home Secretary use it in her speech.

It is a gamble to accuse us of such but until such time as something negative happens (which history doesn’t suggest will happen) we will be ignored. Unfortunately we have deployed this argument so often that no-one believes us any more.

It was pointed out that that particular parable ends with the boy and the sheep being eaten. This raised a cheer but the only reason that happened is because everyone ignored the boy when there really was a wolf as he had pretended to often before.

There was no wolf in 2002, 2005 or 2008 – if there is one now then no-one believes us and this is disconnect three. 

The Members 

So far I have shown that the Chiefs have a more publicly optimistic view of the future; that the government prefer to listen to the optimistic visions of think-tanks and that the public are not experiencing the effects of crime to such a degree that it is barely spoken of and so do not recognise the cuts have consequences narrative (thanks also to an almost universally anti-police press.) The Fed is disconnected from all of them at the moment and is fighting to gain a voice.

However, it has a bigger problem and that is with its own membership.

This played out hugely over social media during conference with numerous people questioning the need for a conference at all, accusing some of squandering funds, asking why we even gave the Home Secretary an audience at all and even suggesting we turn our backs on her.

Those saying the latter have clearly learned nothing from the last time she received a hostile reception. When “compulsory severance” remains a possibility it would be wise not to induce the wrath of the person whose decision it is.

This last week alone I have seen calls for the Fed to wind up conference permanently, sell up its headquarters and refund all the subs. It might as well give up and close its doors now if that’s how people feel.

But why do people feel like that? It is because, as far as they can see, the Fed put up no resistance to the Government changes to pay and conditions.

I can assure you that they did but the Federation was made weak to be weak. In 1919 it was created so as to prevent any future police strike. Officers at the time, and who can blame them, took a large pay increase for signing away their industrial rights. Those rights wouldn’t be needed for over 90 years and the restrictons placed way back then had never truly been tested in the face of a determined government. Until then, the cuts have consequences, fear of crime industry argument had been enough to dissuade previous ministers. As I have said, that line doesn’t wash any more.

“So,” say some “let’s have a ballot on industrial rights” which we then did. It didn’t pass because the Fed put up a minimum 51% of membership (not voters) must support it and not enough people voted.

“Foul!” Some cried “it should have been a vote where, of the votes cast, the single biggest answer got the say!”

Wait a minute – isn’t that the same electoral maths which so many are decrying as unfair in the recent election?

If 70% of the population didn’t vote Conservative – then about an equal number of police officers did not vote to strike. Same maths – same principle.

In any case, the ballot was badly timed. It should have been held after the Home Secretary announced her decision on the PAT on compulsory severance IF she had opted for it. It still remains the best time to roll the dice again – if or when such an announcement comes. And only then.

Why? Because if compulsory severance isn’t on the table and you win the case for industrial rights guess what comes with it – compulsory severance. That’s how it works folks – you might gain the right to strike but in the same package the employer gets the right to sack.

The pensions thing was, sadly, a lost cause. Yes, the police pensions were enshrined in legislation but no government can bind the hands of its successor and all it would take was for a government to change the law. This has happened numerous times since 1919. Could the Fed have sought legal recourse – it could have and arguably should have. They could at least have used the “we tried everything argument.”

But, considering that even under the old rules of the Police Negotiating Board this did not include negotiating pensions. Despite this, Ian Rennie managed to secure a place at the table and argued strongly enough to turn something utterly horrendous (the original government offer) into something which was merely bad. It still remains better than anything else on offer and it could have been so very much worse.

Am I happy about it? No.

Do I realise what COULD have happened? Yes.

Whatever happened to that website set up by someone offering to take the government to court over this by the way?

Police pay and conditions are enshrined in law and regulated. I’m not sure that there are many organisations who have this problem. What the last government did was choose to change the law which they have the right to do and, for the reasons given above, the public were never going to rise up to protect them. Why should they – they were all in the same boat 10 years ago.

Where the Fed have got it badly wrong, and believe me Steve White knows this because we have talked about it, is in its communication with members. It is rubbish, it has been rubbish for years and it needs to improve immediately.

The organisation can’t even talk directly to its membership because of ridulous obstacles that the Normington reforms will address.

The Fed needs to be shouting, very loudly indeed, about what it is doing for its members locally and nationally. We should be very vocal about how much of the annual subscription is spent on legal fees. The Hillsborough figures alone are staggering.

The work of Hampshire Fed Chair, John Apter, in improving the support for officers assaulted on duty should be lauded and replicated nationally. This is leadership of the first order. John’s officers now know that the Fed, their Chief, their SLT’s and the CPS are now all joined up and unified in dealing with this when it arises – which is often.

So much goes on that members simply do not know about and that has to change. Members do not understand what the Fed can and cannot do. Many still think we are a union. Most have no idea what their reps are doing on a local or national level. A lot simply do not see the point of the Federation.

This – is disconnect four. 

The Future

To those calling for the end of the Federation, be careful what you wish for. Remember it is the Government who determine what the Fed looks like. The Home Secretary threatened to change it around us and we should be thankful that we are, at least, being given the opportunity to reform ourselves.

No government in Britain will willingly allow its national police force to have a union. It undermines the entire purpose of the police and, in the UK, would undermine the independent office of constable. If we fight for it we get compulsory severance. I simply cannot see it happening.

What other alternatives exist? None. Some suggest that the College of Policing could assume the role but they have already said they aren’t interested in dealing with the pay and conditions of officers. Not sure I want them fighting my corner with that level of indifference.

It’s not a case of the Fed saying “we’re the only party in town” and carrying on regardless. This isn’t good enough and we need to take the members with us. Normington should make this easier going forward but there is a lot of repair work and explaining to do first.

As well as explaining the past few years we now need to explain why it is in all of our interests to accept the Home Secretary’s offer to sit at the table and help design the future of policing rather than opting for an all out assault in the vain hope of legal victory. The answers are in this blog:

1. The Chiefs are saying something different

2. The Think-Tanks have the ear of the government and all of the influence.

3. The shroud-waving isn’t working and it won’t until such time as something catastrophic happens.

4. The public are not on side and, under our well established democratic electoral system, have voted for this government and its policies on policing – based on what they had seen so far.

Right now, the Federation is on the wrong side of the government, the wrong side of opinion, the wrong side of the argument and the wrong side of its members.

A classic no-win, but the Home Secretary has said quite clearly that she will simply move ahead without Fed involvement. An ultimatum? Absolutely but one which could very easily be delivered – especially with a majority government. An offer? Yes – quite frankly it didn’t have to be made.

Steve White said it himself, there were 1200 policing experts in that conference hall and there are 120,000 more out there doing the job. The Fed needs to become the “think-tank of choice” for any government and if not this one then the next.

With a new narrative it could allow more influence and more leeway. Use academia and evidence (something the Paul McKeever Scholarship has started and needs to be widened) to present convincing studies of what does and does not work in policing and with regards pay and conditions.

The other option involves complete withdrawal from the process, a confrontational and adversarial relationship which we know simply does not work and we cannot win and the unfettered and unchallenged concepts of Think-Tanks such as “incentivising crime reduction” going through on the nod.

Not everyone agrees with this view but I am convinced, knowing what I know, that it will be from this position that the Police Federation can act in the best interests of its members in all future discussions.

The bigger challenge now is convincing the members that this truly is the best option on the table.

For that to happen, the Fed needs to get infinitely better at communicating and now. Preferably sooner.

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4 responses to “Disconnected – The Future of the Police Federation”

  1. Darren Townsend says :

    Superb and enlightening..thank you.

  2. bernardrix says :

    Really thought-provoking blog, Nathan. Would welcome a chat – my contact details are here http://copacc.org.uk/contact/. Bernard

  3. Christopher Hearn says :

    Has Nathan hit the nail on the proverbial? – Oh YES!!!

  4. Retired says :

    Nail hit on head, well done. At the moment the fed, and the police service as a whole, have been comprehensively outmanoeuvred on the PR front. We lost the battle and no one listens to us any more. This must be changed. As an ex-fed rep I have to say the fed looks, and sounds, to outsiders like a 1970’s trade union, and look what happened to them. I still shudder at the amount of time the fed spent debating the death penalty in the 80’s and 90’s.
    Shroud waving never worked with me, When I had people saying ‘but people will die’ I would say ‘well, probably not’. If you want to influence the government you need cast iron facts, figures and academic research. Emotional appeals will not work. As others have said TM is a hostage to fortune and she has been incredibly lucky so far but ‘events dear boy events’.
    It seems to me that crime is not as much of an issue at the moment as it was about 20 years ago. Crime is there but it is changing.
    The fed needs more professional advocacy backed up by solid facts and figures and the service also needs to accept that received wisdom might not be the best option otherwise we will continue to appear as backward and introverted.

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