Blunkett wins over police with apologies

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Indy Politics

Home Secretary David Blunkett today achieved a remarkable turnaround in front of a hostile audience of rank–and–file police officers by admitting that he had "made mistakes" in his reform programme.

More than 1,000 officers listened quietly to his speech rather than repeating the heckling and jeering doled out to his predecessor Jack Straw last year.

Mr Blunkett later thanked them for the "maturity and dignity" they had shown, but others said his performance at the Police Federation Conference in Bournemouth was a "grovelling apology".

The response given to Mr Blunkett surprised Home Office spin–doctors and Federation leaders alike.

Federation Chairman Fred Broughton said it had been "quite remarkable" and said he would have to "take soundings" from his members to analyse feelings towards the Home Secretary.

Mr Blunkett said in his speech: "I think I have made mistakes.

"I am not saying I have got everything wrong because I would be out when I go to Downing Street this afternoon.

"An enormous amount of change has been demanded and mistakes have been made, but I honestly believe together over the years ahead we can provide the answer to the tabloid headlines by delivering a world–class police service that is understood and supported by the community, which is recognised and supported by the ministers and in which you and your members are proud to serve."

But leader of the Metropolitan Police Federation Glen Smyth, who has been one of the fiercest critics of Mr Blunkett's controversial pay offer and his plans to introduce civilian wardens with police–style powers, said: "It was a grovelling apology."

Mr Blunkett said after walking up to the podium to give his speech: "It felt like walking the plank."

Observers have been predicting that he would get a "very rough ride" from the representatives of 126,000 frontline officers, and even Mr Blunkett himself said earlier this week that he expected it to be a difficult speech.

Early in his address today, the Home Secretary told delegates that errors were made in trying to push a pay deal through too quickly.

"And yes, not to have fully understood the history which means that every article that is written is placed at my door," he added.

It was also a mistake to have put forward a scheme which would have cut police officers' overtime rates – a part of a deal which was dropped by the Home Office last week.

"In conclusion we came up with a better solution," he said.

But the Home Secretary launched a robust defence of his police reform programme in general and placed an emphasis on politicians working with officers to achieve improvements.

He also announced several schemes likely to appease angry officers, including a review of the amount of red tape which burdens those on the beat and a new £4 million "kick–start" for a police occupational health scheme to help cut sickness in forces.

In the end the Home Secretary won applause from the audience four times during his speech and at its close.

Later at a press conference with Mr Broughton, Mr Blunkett said: "Can I put on record my own appreciation to the maturity and dignity with which I was received.

"It's a great credit to the police service and the Federation that they responded in that way.

"The feeling that exists over recent months could easily have led to people expressing themselves in a different way."

Mr Broughton told reporters that he stood by a number of strong criticisms he made of Mr Blunkett's tactics in recent months and said members' anger was justified.

But he added: "It was quite remarkable – the dignity of the response to the Home Secretary this week.

"The Home Secretary spoke from the heart about what he is trying to do and the police service is trying to do the same thing.

"We saw what happened – they received him warmly and applauded when he left."

Asked if the Federation had today agreed a hesitant truce with Mr Blunkett, Mr Broughton said: "It's really significant that we put 1,000 police officers together in an event like this and they responded in the way they have. That is what the police service is.

"There was a problem last year and that might have been the way Jack Straw delivered his speech. He managed to antagonise people."

He said he wanted to speak to colleagues before commenting further about the response to Mr Blunkett, adding: "It surprised many of us.

"A lot of people were anticipating one reaction and we got the reaction we got.

"I think we will reflect on that.

"What we have done is clear the air on what's happened in the last year.

"We have got to make the pay and conditions package work."

After criticism of his planned community support officers, Mr Blunkett today said that the civilians – who will be given powers to detain members of the public using force if necessary – could be regarded as a pilot scheme.

"There's no point pursuing something if in the end it doesn't work," he said.

He repeated that it was police officers themselves who had asked for the scheme and that it could be an important development in some parts of the country, but was keen to point out that no police force will be required to set up the new scheme.