Protesting police officers descend on Westminster

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Thousands of rank and file police officers converged on Parliament today to protest about proposed reforms to the service.

Off–duty officers from across the UK voiced their frustration with plans to cut pay and introduce new community wardens with police–style powers.

Home Secretary David Blunkett, the target of much of the anger, met Police Federation chairman Fred Broughton in a bid to resolve the row.

At the same time he announced there were now a record 128,748 police officers in England and Wales.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said the Government wanted to work with the police to deliver change and improvements.

"We hope the police will welcome the fact that there are more police now than there have ever been.

"This is not about cutting pay, it is about looking at how pay structures can be changed and where savings are made they are ploughed back into police pay."

Mr Broughton warned that officers believed the police service was "in crisis" but said his meeting with the Home Secretary had been "encouraging".

"We are getting a very positive feeling from ministers on what they are saying about pay and we are in conciliation and that's going to make progress in about a week," he told reporters at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster.

Mr Broughton said police officers were not proposing a strike at this stage but conceded it would be up for discussion later.

He welcomed the rise in the number of officers, but said they believed there should be nearer 140,000.

Ending the plans for the wardens, called Community Support Officers (CSOs) would be a "constructive start to try and come to a solution", he added.

The mood of those at the protest, which has cost the Police Federation some £200,000, was peaceful.

A queue snaked around the Houses of Parliament as officers waited to meet their MPs, and they shouted support as two open–topped double–decker buses passed bearing banners reading: "Fair play for police."

Their feelings were summed up by Ray Egan, 64, a retired officer from the West Midlands force, who said: "I have spoken to officers all over the country and morale is lower than a snake's belly."

He came dressed as John Bull with a banner saying: "New Labour the boys in blue are sick of you – bullies don't scare us we take them on."

West Midlands Police had more than 400 off duty officers at the day of action.

Joe Tildesley, chairman of the West Midlands Police Federation, said: "The feeling is that there's a lot of anger and frustration with the Government at the present time."

Several hundred members of the Scottish police federation marched up to conference centre led by a troop of bagpipers.

Dino Imbimbo, leading 800 officers from Thames Valley Police Federation, said outside Parliament: "We are here to get the message across to parliamentarians and the public that we are not against reform."

About 100 members of the Essex force met five of their MPs. Afterwards, Sgt Steve Smith, from near Basildon said: "They clearly listened. What they are actually able to do I don't think any of us know."

Anarchist protesters also joined police outside the conference centre.

They handed out leaflets calling for officers to be given a "zero hour week" to give them time to read, play football and make love.