Britain's police constables are topping up their salaries by thousands of pounds every year – in some cases more than doubling their annual pay – by making large overtime claims, an investigation by The Independent has discovered.
Freedom of information requests responded to by 35 of the 51 forces in England, Scotland and Wales showed that more than 12,000 PCs claimed more than £6,000 each in overtime last year – a 20 per cent increase on their salaries.
Officers in some of the country's rural forces earned upwards of £25,000 in overtime alone. Nearly 500 made more than £15,000 on top of their salaries. One London-based PC earned more than £90,000 – an increase of at least £50,000 on his salary.
The amount of overtime being handed out to frontline officers raises questions about whether the country's police forces are adequately staffed, whether departments are being properly managed, and whether officers who regularly work 60 or 70 hours a week to top-up their pay can perform as effectively as they might otherwise.
Many PCs are earning more than chief inspectors and superintendents – officers three and four ranks above them. The chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Keith Vaz, described the findings as "troubling" and pledged that the committee would investigate.
Police overtime is believed to cost the 43 police forces in England and Wales about £485m a year. It is paid at time-and-a-third to officers who stay on at the end of their shifts, time-and-a-half for those who agree to work rest days with fewer than five days notice, and double-time for those who work bank holidays.
For officers to double their salaries, they would have to work at least 50 per cent more hours or, at most, 75 per cent more. So officers on a 40-hour week would have to work at least 60 hours, and perhaps 70 hours, to double their incomes. The starting salary of a PC in forces outside London last year was £22,105, rising to a maximum of £34,706 after 11 years' service. Salaries in London are given "London weighting" of about £8,000 meaning that the highest basic salary any Met PC could achieve is about £42,000.
The Independent asked forces to reveal how many Police Constables earned more than £40,000 and to indicate the actual earnings of officers, as opposed to their salaries.
Officers at the Met earned the most in overtime. A total of 2,296 PCs in the capital earned between £50,000 and £60,000; 339 earned over £60,000; 53 more than £70,000 and 12 grossed over £80,000 – at least £38,000 more than their salaries. These amounts were likely to be higher than other forces because some Met PCs perform roles such as royal protection officers and so spend long periods outside the UK.
Devon and Cornwall, and Avon and Somerset, had Britain's highest paid PCs outside London; three officers from those forces earned more than £60,000 in 2007-08 meaning they each claimed at least £26,000 in overtime.
Across the UK outside London last year, at least 9,353 PCs earned over £40,000 after overtime was factored in. The force with the most high earners was the West Midlands, which had 1,398 of its 6,816 officers taking home more than £40,000. In the Thames Valley region, a third of all PCs – 1,031 out of 3,022 – earned more than £40,000.
Hertfordshire had 25 PCs taking home more than £50,000 – the highest number of PCs in any force earning such money outside the Met. Two of them earned £59,000. Bedfordshire had 22 PCs picking up more than £50,000, seven of them earned more than £55,000. All of these officers are on contracts with salaries of no more than £34,000, meaning the rest was gained in overtime.
Put into context, a Chief Inspector's starting salary is £50,499 while a Superintendent earns £60,749. The Met PC earning over £90,000 took home more than £15,000 more than a chief superintendent who sits six ranks above him.
Mr Vaz said: "My overriding concern is with the safety of allowing police officers to work such a vast amount of overtime. Police officers need to be alert and I do not believe that an officer working enough hours to warrant an almost doubling of their salary can be properly effective.
"The use of overtime within the police force can be beneficial and cost effective when considering the wider financial impact of employing and training new officers. Yet, there is a definite limit to which overtime should be relied upon. Those forces in which the use of overtime is extensive should seek to increase their recruitment numbers."
Simon Reed, the vice chairman of the Police Federation, the body which represents Britain's police constables, admitted that the public would view these figures as an example of public sector workers accumulating wealth at taxpayers' expense, but said the blame lay with supervisors within forces and not the individual officers.
"Overtime can be quite an efficient way of fulfilling shortfalls in resources," he said. "There are some officers who do very little, but clearly there are others who are doing quite a lot. When you get officers doing excessive amounts of overtime, it suggests to me that the department is understaffed.
"People will no doubt think that these figures make officers look greedy, but you will probably find that in many cases the officers are being directed to do this and may not actually want to. Rather than volunteering, they are being coerced by their line managers."
He added: "Officers earning nothing in overtime will look at these figures and think 'I would like that kind of money' but they have to realise that that person is spending a lot of time at work. Most officers realise this and they would rather be at home. I do not think you will find a lot of officers being jealous."
Overtime: Top 10 forces
Percentage of PCs earning more than £40,000
*Met ......... 39 per cent
*Thames Valley ......... 31 per cent
*Bedfordshire ......... 25 per cent
*Cambridgeshire ......... 25 per cent
*Northamptonshire ......... 25 per cent
*Suffolk ......... 24 per cent
*Hampshire ......... 22 per cent
*Dorset ......... 22 per cent
*Devon and Cornwall ......... 21 per cent
*Gloucester ......... 21 per cent