Current events over the case of Andrew Mitchell, who was forced out of his job as Government Chief Whip after a disagreement with a police officer, has focussed attention on the Police Federation.
The Federation is a very odd organisation. It was set up by the Police Act 1919 in a panic after a police strike. This Act prohibited strike action by police so the Federation is not described as a trade union although it functions in every way as a union in the way that it represents and negotiates for its members.
The Federation is actually far stronger than trade unions usually are. It has a total closed shop of uniformed police officers. It is possible for an officer to decline to pay subscriptions and so not have legal representation or other benefits, but they remain members of the Federation so long as they remain in the service at the rank of Chief Inspector or below. In reality it is extremely rare for a police officer to even withdraw from paying subscriptions. The institutional and peer pressure on anybody taking such a stand would be enormous.
The fact that the Federation is a national body and all police belong to it undermines the claimed autonomy of the forty three police forces in England and Wales. These forces are supposed to be accountable to the newly elected Police Commissioners, but the terms and conditions of the uniformed staff are rigidly enforced to a national standard by the Federation and the reality of local influence is minimal.
In tandem with the fiction that the Federation is not a union, it is claimed that police officers are not employees, but crown warrant holders. By way of this title it is claimed that police officers have an independence from government and even their own chain of command in that, for example, an officer cannot be ordered to arrest a person if they believe that the arrest is not necessary. This is an entirely empty concept of no practical value.
The police are a little like the Church of England in denying that their staff are employees, but if it quacks like a duck it is a duck and this duck is a real quacker. Police Officers apply for the job in the way of any other job. They work for a salary over a career period after which they get a pension. If they want to leave at any time they hand in their notice just like any other employee and if they misbehave they are subject to discipline and possible dismissal. The fact that they go through a little ritual at the end of their training in which they take on the ‘office of constable’ makes no difference at all to these facts.
The Police Service, the Police Federation and, to a certain extent, individual police officers want to be regarded as special and to be treated preferentially to other services and staff. Of course it is true that policing is a fundamental necessity to preserve the freedoms of citizens to go about their lives in safety and to have their property protected when they are unable to adequately do so themselves, but there are a whole host of agencies in society that make up this protection. The police are a major component, but they are not the whole and they should not be regarded as a class apart.
When you start to examine the peculiar nature of the police perception of their identity it becomes clearer why the Federation was, and is, so venomously opposed to the creation of Police Community Support Officers (PCSO’s) and to the change of some roles, like scenes of crime work, to civilian activity rather than for uniformed officers. PCSO’s are recognised as normal employees and they can belong to unions if they so choose. Civilians with crime scene expertise can detract attention or even overshadow the police officer in the crime domain which they consider to be exclusive to them. This resistance to change is much more fundamental than the response of any normal union to changes in the workplace.
We do not yet know, and it is very likely that we never will know fully, whether there was a conspiracy involving Federation members to undermine a Cabinet Minister,but we do know something of the mindset that allows them to think it is a good thing to be offensive to Home Secretaries who attend their conference, to aggressively lobby government ministers and members of Select Committees. I have no objection to any person or organisation robustly campaigning, but it takes on a sinister tone when a central plank of that activity is to assert that the integrity of a police officer must never be questioned or that the selfless commitment of the service must be taken as being beyond doubt.
There are dangers in being a police officer and the appalling murder of two of them at the time of the Mitchell affair was much to his disadvantage. Sadly, many jobs involve great danger. Apart from the military, death and serious injury is more common in quarrying, construction and other heavy industrial occupations than in the police. It is a comparable occupation to many others in that respect.
Some reference needs to be made to integrity. I first became aware of police corruption in the 1960’s. I was living in London and police at that time routinely took free food and drink from pubs, clubs and restaurants. Those who were reluctant to provide were given a hard time and the more generous ones were not troubled by licensing laws or were not noticed if they assaulted an unwanted customer. My politics were different when I was younger and I took part in CND marches. When demonstrators were arrested they frequently had items planted on them so that they could be accused of violence. Unfortunately for the police, many of the demonstrators were strong, articulate people who were able to expose theirs lies and deceits. This was not what they had been accustomed to among the general public. Nevertheless, many demonstrators received wrongful convictions which they were unable to overturn.
More recently we have been made aware of the wholesale changing of evidence relating to the Hillsborough tragedy. This could not have been done without the orchestration of the police management, but also it would not have been allowed to have happened without the agreement, endorsement or support of the Federation.
There are plenty of other examples which could be given to show that automatic acceptance of the truthfulness of police accounts cannot be given. Despite all of this the Federation were happy to appear on national television angrily accusing Mitchell of impugning the integrity of police despite the fact that he had apologised to the officer he had the altercation with and not making any claims that the officer was untruthful. The Federation rage was really that they, or any of their members, could be challenged at all.
The police have become more exposed to public scrutiny over the last fifty years. As a consequence police performance has improved, but there still needs to be major change in the service to make it fit to meet the public need in the twenty first century. The Police Federation is a major obstacle to that change.
Individual police officers should have the freedom to join, or not join, a union of their choice. Society should not be at risk of being without a police service because strike action or other failures to perform. This issue needs to be dealt with contractually rather than by a specific law making police different from all other employees.
The police are an essential part of maintaining safety and order in society, but they are not the only ones. When firefighters strike they place people at risk. If we go back to the winter of discontent under the Callaghan government, refusal to work by many public employees resulted in substantial hazards from unprocessed waste and other work not done. Organisers of such action are already responsible under common law for wilfully endangering public safety. All that is lacking is the will of the state to prosecute. As an additional protection, contracts of employment for providers of essential services could include express conditions making the withholding of labour gross misconduct which would result in dismissal.
It is time to repeal the Police Act 1919 and with it see the Police Federation cease to be a statutory organisation with guaranteed membership.
Although Andrew Gilligan is dealing with the problem of police failures and corruption rather than the issue of the illegitimate statutory position of the Police Federation, this article does help put the subject in further context: