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What is the problem with the Police Federation?

DES KEENOY takes a look at some of the difficulties facing the representative body for police officers

We’ve heard a lot of questions about the Police Federation lately. Theresa May told its conference in Bournemouth last week that the organisation would have to reform “top to bottom,” or else. 

To many the federation can seem an opaque yet powerful body. 

I was a federation representative for 24 years and it can be a complex, difficult and onerous as well as powerful and influential position. 

It is usually a job, at the lowest level at least, that no-one else wants, as it interrupts your private life and can also interrupt your career progress. 

Few understand how the federation arose outside of the mainstream of the trade union movement.

To answer this let’s step back to 1918 and 1919. The Great War was at an end. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and German empires had fallen in a confused heap of recrimination amid the spectre of communism and the nascent seeds of fascism were in the air. 

The winners, the British empire and its allies, were faced with the return of millions of war-weary and cynical soldiers, themselves the survivors of an unrecognised step change in methods of waging war. 

The Establishment was absolutely aghast at the possibility that Bolshevism and its demands would return with the troops.

Back on the home front, after years of low pay and disregard, the police and prison officers were on strike. 

Chaotic and inconsistent pay, usually less than that of an agricultural worker, families claiming poor relief, no decent pensions at all and the disrespect of the upper classes as a given had brought them to this action. 

Savage discipline and low pay were the root cause, but it is true to say that there was a great deal of union activity in the country as a whole during this period, adding to the febrile response of the government of the day.

A successful strike in 1918, followed by another in 1919, led to better pay and conditions and the establishment of the Desborough inquiry. 

This was generally favourable towards the officers’ claims. While the leaders of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) thought they had de facto been recognised by the settlement, this was not the view of the new Commissioner for the Metropolis, serving soldier General Macready, who was determined to ensure that only a body designed by officialdom would be there to represent the “rank and file.” 

Thus the Police Federation was formed as a result of the Police Act of 1919, not by its members but by the government. 

NUPPO, now outlawed, called another strike but there was little support this time round and every single officer who went on strike was dismissed from the force and lost their pension. 

The crucial difference between the Police Federation and all other representative trade associations is its creation by the government, coupled with the inability to strike and to engage in direct industrial action, making negotiation over pay and conditions a far more delicate and involved business than for other trade unions. 

In the late 1970s, following another huge decline in pay and conditions, with officers’ families still having to claim relief and state benefits and recruitment falling, the Edmund Davies report gave pay rises to officers which reversed the decline in numbers and raised morale greatly, demonstrating vividly the way in which police pay and conditions were generally ignored except when they simply could not be. 

Spite and class disdain reappeared once more, however, when in 1981 the Home Office decided that we were overmighty subjects needing to be put in our place and raised pension contributions overnight by 3 per cent with no change to benefits at all, thus at a stroke removing most of the pay increases and making the police pension the most expensive pension to purchase in the whole country, at 11 per cent of salary each month.

I was at the Home Office one day when I heard the phrase “overmighty subjects” used in respect to police officers as well as “who do they think they are, professionals?” when commenting on the fact that the Metropolitan Police wore white shirts, not blue. In fact the Met wear white shirts — wait for it — because they are cheaper than blue.

So what of the federation itself, how is it getting on? Sadly at the moment it is not fit for purpose and has lost its way. 

Let us be clear. It has had a lot of fantastic success over the last 90 years. Aided by the general incompetence of senior police management, it was simply smarter than its opponents in negotiation. 

But it was designed to fail, with an unwieldy formulation of each rank having the same proportion of the vote no matter how many of them there are. Thus the inspectors could combine with the sergeants to keep the pesky constables in line. That was the idea — to keep us divided.

It’s important to bear in mind that there is one crucial difference between the police force and many other jobs. It is not actually a job. Officers are not employees, they hold a crown office. To get up the ranks you have to start at the bottom. All officers are only constables (thus chief constables, but still constables). 

Over the years all the ranks have worked together and voted together as one in negotiation. 

But lately this has become more and more difficult to achieve as officers of the national committees have become more and more remote from their electorates and precious about their personal advancement. 

This has meant that the headquarters and boards are a seething mass of rivalries, jealousies and plain hatred within and across the ranks. 

At a high level, no matter what is going on in the lower ranks, to seriously come up with a new arrangement seems to be beyond the ken of a great number of those elected to higher office, as can be shown by the recent events and resignations at the federation. 

It is my personal view that the federation has become a mirror of those it has to negotiate with, rather than holding fast to what really does make its members strong — the support of the general public whom they are sworn to serve through the crown in Parliament. 

Yet for officers the federation is still a great help, simply in supporting them when they are under attack from any and all sides. 

The huge proportion of funds spent in legal fees is the largest expense of all and shows how vital it is in defending members.

To this day the Police Rehabilitation Centres are wholly financed by officers’ contributions each month to the federation, so that injured officers can get back to work before an extended absence means they drop to half pay and then no pay. There is no government support outside of the NHS for injured officers.

It is such unsung but essential support that proves officers need a representative organisation that defends them.

Des Keenoy was a Metropolitan Constable from 1977-2009 and is a former chairman of the Metropolitan Constables Branch Board.

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