Charities: A case of forcing change: The National Police Fund

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THE National Police Fund (NPF) - a medium-sized charity for the force - might take heed of the recent recommendations of the Sheehy Inquiry.

The NPF's secretary, Ian Smith, agrees that it too needs shaking up - its methods of distributing money to past and present policemen and women in need are positively Byzantine. 'It is unquestionably slow. The system's underpinning principles are of correctness and accountability, which are still relevant today, but in the 1920s management flexibility was unknown,' he says.

The NPF owes its foundation to the Times newspaper which in 1926 organised a public subscription fund to acknowledge the hard work of the police force during the General Strike, but what is peculiar to the charity is that the posts of secretary and assistant secretary are provided by the Home Office: Mr Smith is a civil servant in the personnel section of the police department and works part-time for the NPF; his assistant Jayne Gosling organises the day to day running of the NPF's secretariat.

The trustees, who meet annually to discuss individual compassionate cases and general NPF matters, are representatives from English, Welsh and Scottish forces associations. A compassionate case is one where a past or present member of the force, or one of their dependants, asks the NPF directly for help. The NPF's investments stand at just over pounds 1m and provides about 50 per cent of the fund's income, with donations, mainly from legacies, providing the balance. These dropped to pounds 1,000 last year from pounds 50,000 the previous year.

One of the few recent compassionate cases - Mr Smith is concerned about the low level of activity in this area - is a police officer who, with his family, suffered a car crash. One child was killed, another was brain damaged and now attends a special needs school and it was for this the parents were seeking help. The award, a one-off payment, might be several thousands of pounds, says Mr Smith.

Only a small proportion of the NPF's expenditure - at present about pounds 60,000 a year - goes in this direction. Mr Smith suspects that this is because the NPF is not well known in parts of the force: 'We are reviewing the way we advertise the fund - the Association of Chief Police Officers prompted us about this. And we are making the application forms more user-friendly,' he says.

Interestingly, the Scottish forces seem more knowledgeable about the NPF than those south of the border: Ms Gosling feels this is because membership to the retired officers' association is compulsory in Scotland, but not in England and Wales. 'The welfare officers in each force therefore find it is easier to keep track of people who have retired and so the Scots make most use of the fund.' Mr Smith confesses that two Scottish welfare officers he spoke to recently knew considerably more about the NPF than he did.

The rest of the money is divided between 'quotas' and the educational fund. The latter is where the offspring of a member of the force might be helped with a grant of no more than pounds 700 towards their further or higher education. Usually the grant, which is assessed by means testing the family's income, goes towards the purchase of books. About pounds 18,000 is made annually in educational grants.

The quotas, which amount to pounds 45,000 and are distributed annually to each of the 50 forces in Scotland, England and Wales, can be placed into a force's benevolent fund for serving and retired officers to help those in financial difficulties, or into a force's retired officers' scheme. As an incentive, if a force chooses either of these routes then the NPF doubles the quota, presently calculated at 20p per head.

The quota can also be used to buy sports equipment or library books for a force. 'In the past we have provided several pool tables to help officers to relax,' says Mr Smith, who hints that he would like to see more imaginative use of the money.

Whether the Sheehy Inquiry will have an impact on the fund is yet to be seen: Mr Smith feels that the fixed- term appointments for senior officers, which might lead to earlier retirement, or the recommended redundancies in the middle ranks, are unlikely to have an effect. 'The fund wasn't designed as a safety net in those circumstances, We are dealing with the lower ranks mainly, constables and sergeants, and their families. However, we would always consider every case,' he says.

And while agreeing that the NPF does appear inefficient, Mr Smith still defends it: 'There is an argument that the National Police Fund - an oddity though it is - does fill a little niche of the welfare aspects of the police service that is unique. I haven't sensed a grass roots desire to change the fund's management - but Jayne and I feel that there are one or two things we could introduce.'