A bitter dispute between frontline police officers and the Home Secretary was defused yesterday when David Blunkett admitted he had made mistakes in recent pay and conditions negotiations and insisted he was not "looking for a fight".
Mr Blunkett had been expected to receive a rough ride at the Police Federation annual conference in Bournemouth after he was accused by leaders of rank-and-file officers of causing unprecedented "resentment and anger" among their members and giving secret briefings against them. He was accused of breaking "the bond of trust" by breaching confidential agreements and of trying to privatise parts of the police service.
Mr Blunkett appears to be increasingly bruised by a series of confrontations with the police service. His proposals for civilian patrollers were criticised by many chief constables and in March there was a 10,000-strong rally in central London by officers unhappy with his reform plans.
Clearly stung by the criticism, Mr Blunkett made a conciliatory speech in which he admitted he had "made mistakes." He told the 1,000 delegates: "If you get it wrong it's on my head to say so. I'm not looking for a fight and I'm not looking for headlines in tabloid or other newspapers."
He accepted that his proposals to cut overtime pay substantially had created "suspicion and havoc and could have been handled in a more appropriate way". He said he had tried to rush through the negotiations on pay and conditions, which resulted in a 10 to 1 rejection by the police, and led to a new offer under which overtime would be cut by only 5 per cent a year for the next three years.
He also announced a review of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which protects suspects' rights, in an attempt to streamline the procedures and cut red tape. The move was immediately criticised by civil rights groups concerned that important procedures that protect people from possible abuse by the police could be removed.
Mr Blunkett joked at the beginning of his speech that he felt as if he was "walking the plank" into a hall filled with hostile officers. But after a skilful address in which he gave the appearance of being humble and conciliatory while making few concessions, he won lukewarm applause from delegates.
Thirty minutes earlier, Fred Broughton, the federation chairman, was clapped loudly when he told the Home Secretary: "The Home Office campaign of denigration caused resentment and anger of a kind I have never experienced before in my 30 years in the service. In recent months, the level of anger, frustration and bitterness in the service has been overwhelming. If you want to gain the confidence of the police service, it is not enough to launch a new initiative every other day and handle the media well."
But despite predictions that the Home Secretary would endure a repeat of the conference heckling suffered by his predecessor, Jack Straw, Mr Blunkett managed to appease many of his critics. Glyn Smyth, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: "He has lanced the boil for now. It doesn't take much to say you are sorry, but it certainly makes a difference. We all make mistakes."
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."Reuse content