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Howard acts to soothe police fears of reform: Service told change is needed, but will not be rushed. Terry Kirby reports

MICHAEL HOWARD, the Home Secretary, yesterday tried to calm police anger over the Sheehy report by signalling the Government's willingness to listen to objections.

In advance of today's police rally at Wembley Arena, he said the report's recommendations were 'not writ in stone'. Although he emphasised that the police service had to change, there was 'no need to rush'.

More than 10,000 police officers from all over the United Kingdom are expected to attend today's rally, at which speakers are expected to be bitterly critical of the report's recommendations for fixed-term contracts and replacing a national annual pay award with performance-related pay.

Although the rally has been organised by staff federations representing lower ranking officers, representatives of the chief superintendents, whose rank faces abolition under Sheehy, will also be on the platform.

At the weekend, chief constables, who stand to benefit from performance bonuses of up to 30 per cent, rejected much of the report, saying some recommendations were 'unmanageable' and that it would damage the morale and ethos of the service. The Home Office would need the support of chief constables to implement Sheehy.

Yesterday, Brian Weight, Chief Constable of Dorset, became the latest chief constable to voice individual opposition, saying claims that Sheehy would put more officers back on the beat were 'farcical'. Under Sheehy's recommendations on 'affordability and value for money' Dorset would lose more than 40 officers, most of whom were in operational rather than administrative roles. 'The loss . . . of such experienced and front-line officers is unacceptable,' Mr Weight said.

Mr Howard, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, emphasised that he was very keen to have a dialogue. 'These are very important and far-reaching changes and I don't want to rush them.'

But he added: 'I am clear that we have to change and that we have to have new arrangements which will make a much more direct and strong connection between the responsibilities and rewards and which will reassure the public and the taxpayer that the pounds 6bn being spent on the police every year is well spent.'

Later, while campaigning for the Conservative candidate in the Christchurch by-election, Mr Howard said he wanted to achieve the objectives set out by Sheehy, including establishing a link between pay and performance. 'If I can meet those objectives in some other way, I am prepared to listen. But the police will not have a veto,' he said.

The Police Federation, which represents officers up to chief inspector, yesterday welcomed the prospect of talks, but warned that time was short. The Home Office is committed to a Police Bill in the autumn, comprising the structural reforms, any Sheehy recommendations which are favoured and a new disciplinary system.

Any backtracking on the report will be seen as a snub both to Sir Patrick Sheehy, the chairman of BAT Industries, who headed the inquiry, and to Mr Howard's predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, who commissioned the report. Sir Patrick made it clear he expected most of the 270 recommendations to be adopted and said they should be implemented by January 1995.