Steve Williams: 'I've been called a traitor, a dictator and an emperor'

The Police Federation chairman tells Paul Peachey why rank-and-file officers turned against him

He has been called a traitor, a dictator and a malign presence behind a stitch-up to tighten his grip on power. He faced a no-confidence motion within months of taking charge, and when he stood up to give his maiden speech as new leader of the Police Federation, he half-expected to be booed.

It was not, Steve Williams accepts, much of a honeymoon period. But then, the year that gone before had not exactly been a breeze for an organisation that had taken on the Government – and emphatically lost.

Battered over the role of senior members during the “Plebgate saga”, and forced to confront the major changes to the role of the policeman, it was clear that business as usual was not an option for his organisation. But beware reform of a 133,000-strong organisation that had become – in the mind of the public and government – a symbol of vested interest, militancy and opposition to every change in officers’ generous pay and working conditions.

“It was met with some resistance,” said Mr Williams, a quietly spoken detective from Wales. “We wanted to adopt a different approach from the more vociferous membership who wanted us to go nose-to-nose with the politicians. It was apparent to me, that was not working.”

Mr Williams, 54, took over as chairman in 2013 after a bruising year for the organisation that represents officers to the rank of chief inspector. After the 2010 election, the Conservatives pushed through a programme of reform and the leadership of the staff association had to face a new reality.

An independent review by the former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, recommended cuts to starting salaries for constables and other changes strongly opposed by the federation.

It resulted in the Home Secretary, Theresa May, facing a hostile grilling at the group’s 2012 annual conference, when she was subjected to sustained barracking. Scathing messages sent in by members scrolled across a screen behind her as she addressed the 1,000 members.

One delegate told her that she was a “disgrace” and officers held banners saying “Enough is enough”. The Government – which considered the protests childish – refused to shift its agenda despite the complaints of the rank-and-file.

This year, Ms May and Mr Winsor – the bête noir of the federation – were treated more respectfully.

“It cost us dearly; it lost us a lot of friends politically and publicly and couldn’t be repeated,” said Mr Williams of last year’s conference. “Over a period of time, we were seen as Luddites, not prepared to change, and militant.”

Even as the leadership was changing, the federation was engulfed by a further controversy after elements within the federation conducted a campaign against the former Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, after allegations that he called officers on duty at Downing Street “plebs”.

The campaign contributed to Mr Mitchell’s decision to quit, but his claims that officers angry about the cuts may have conspired to bring him down led to a further damaging focus on the federation.

Mr Williams’ first act on taking over in January was to announce an independent panel to review the structure of the federation. Officials said they wanted to rein in the excesses of some of their branch chairmen to present a coherent negotiating position to the Government. But the plan was met with resistance from an organisation divided on lines of rank. Mr Williams, a former detective inspector with the North Wales force, faced a motion of no-confidence from constables within the organisation. The motion was defeated but highlighted the level of opposition to his plans.

“I was called, a traitor, a dictator and an emperor,” said Mr Williams. “Nothing could be further from the truth but it has been a very difficult start to my chairmanship. That said, we have the review and we await with interest what those outcomes are going to be.

“I think we have turned the corner as an organisation. I believe we have come through the eye of the storm.”

He is confident that the federation will be cleared of any wrongdoing over Plebgate despite contentions of some of Mr Mitchell’s supporters that the federation was involved in a conspiracy against him.

“We now need to make sure that on any policing issues the Police Federation has a key role – not just on pay and conditions but being the voice of policing.”

He points to a meeting with David Cameron, the first between the head of the organisation and a Prime Minister for five years, as a sign that the Government was willing to engage with the new leadership. A government source said the changes at the top had been noted and referred to the unruly previous conference that made it hard “to create a climate of respect”.

Clear disagreements remain between the federation – a staff association without the powers to strike – and the Government.

Mr Williams opposes plans that would allow chief constables to make officers redundant, which he describes as a “game-changer”. He highlighted the difference between pay-offs for chief constables, and constables, who would not be able to touch their pensions until the age of 67.

He ticks off a series of issues that he will be addressing over the coming months: sentencing, budget cuts, the accuracy of crime statistics and the privatisation of elements of traditional police work.

He is worried that as police cuts continue to bite, the essential skill base of the police will decline and is concerned that young talent brought in at higher levels under government fast-track proposals will fail to command the respect of those who have gone through the ranks.

He is concerned that policing will fail to attract the calibre of recruits necessary with a starting wage of £19,000 proposed by Mr Winsor. However, the father-of-five recognised in parts of the country with high unemployment, policing would remain a hugely attractive prospect with its generous pension provision, career progression and job security.

He said that his membership’s attitude had already changed towards him after his conference speech “when I told them a bit about myself: a cop who had gone through the ranks, both uniformed and detective.

“On the second day when I got up, there was a total change in the mood of the room. As I took to the stage I had a standing ovation. I had expected to be booed.”

Police Chief: A Day in the Life

His normal working day starts early with meetings and briefings related to the smooth running of the criminal justice system, and includes giving evidence to committees  on issues ranging from the reform of the police to Welsh devolution.

Today, he is due to set out his priorities to the federation’s leadership for the coming year, which will include sentencing, concerns over the recording of crime statistics and the issue of recruitment with a new round of budget cuts imminent. Representing constables, sergeants and inspectors, he will be also involved in talks with his counterparts representing superintendents and chief officers about the future of the service.

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