Police heckle Clarke over reform plans: Home Secretary given mixed reception during speech to federation conference

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The Independent Online
KENNETH CLARKE was subjected to brief outbursts of jeering and heckling yesterday as he sought to reassure police that their role was not threatened by his plans to reform the service.

The Home Secretary offered nothing new in his speech to the annual Police Federation conference in Blackpool where the 2,000 delegates were in angry mood over his proposals to change disciplinary procedures, officers' pay formula, and the constitution of the police authorities.

He told delegates: 'Let me make it crystal clear - it is the structure (of the service) that needs reform not the policemen and policewomen who work within it.'

Earlier, he had heard the retiring federation chairman, Alan Eastwood, warn that rank-and- file officers were 'disillusioned, discouraged, disappointed and dismayed'. On Tuesday, delegates of the 126,000-strong federation, which fears discipline changes will alter officers' special status, drew back from calling for full trade union status, including the right to strike.

Mr Clarke said he accepted officers were not 'ordinary employees', but that did not stop the need to change a disciplinary system, which was too cumbersome, legalistic and lengthy.

He was applauded when he said: 'We need a sensible and fair system for getting rid of bad officers but which does not leave the good officer fearful for his or her job.' However, when he asked: 'Do we need the criminal burden of proof and all the rules of evidence in every case of misconduct at work?', delegates shouted back: 'Yes'.

Earlier, the conference had backed a call for federation leaders to negotiate the issuing of firearms to more officers because of Home Office 'reluctance' to provide improved defensive equipment and training.

Mr Clarke accepted that police needed greater physical protection during routine duties, and said several new styles of baton were being tested. But he was adamant that the American side-handled baton should not undergo trials because of its 'extremely aggressive appearance'.

Mr Clarke also rejected criticism from Mr Eastwood that his proposal to alter the constitution of police authorities would mean a 'Home Office takeover'. He maintained that he intended less interference and had no intention of trying to centralise power.

Responding to police claims that criminals were laughing at the legal system, he agreed there was a need to make it more effective. 'Criminal justice is too important to be treated as an elaborate game, governed by strange rules, unnecessary control or bureaucratic procedures.'

Afterwards, Mr Clarke dismissed the jeers and insults and said he had been given a harder time at nurses' conferences when he was Health Secretary.

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