Stephen Pollard: The police are champion wreckers, but they won't defeat Mr Blunkett

'If the Police Federation thinks it can undermine the Home Secretary's proposals, it deludes itself'
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The Independent Online

Have a guess just what was in the pay package rejected on Friday by the members of the Police Federation. From what the organisation's chairman, Fred Broughton, was saying, it seemed pretty wretched: a cut in both the hours, and the rate, of police overtime. It was, he said, "divisive".

I say have a guess, because it's pretty unlikely you'd realise that the package, rather than cutting pay, included a minimum £400 pay rise for every police officer, a £1,000 rise for many, and a £5,000 rise for some – a £200m increase in total. Oh, and you certainly wouldn't guess that the deal was negotiated with the full support of the very same Police Federation chaired by the very same Fred Broughton who on Friday seemed to be positively exultant that his members had said "no thanks".

Given that Mr Broughton negotiated the package in December and has spent the two months since then doing his best to ensure that it was rejected by his members, and that the formal conciliation process now kicks in today, I'd say it's pretty obvious what he has been playing at. He never wanted to stick to the agreement and hopes to secure an even more lucrative deal for his members.

Well, good luck to him, I suppose. He is only doing his job and behaving as the leaders of professional associations usually do. Granted the police are different in that they are not allowed to threaten to strike, but now they are considering trying to overturn that ban in the courts.

It has long been a truism that it's not the TUC-affiliated unions that are the real obstacles to public-sector reform; it's those who like to think of themselves as being a cut above, such as the National Union of Teachers, the British Medical Association (BMA) and, of course, the Police Federation. If we are talking about "wreckers", the likes of Unison and the GMB are amateurs.

The Police Federation and its soulmates are past masters at taking a heavy mallet to reform proposals and then opening up their jacket pockets. As Ken Clarke put it to the BMA during his time as Secretary of State for Health: "Every time I mention the word 'reform', you reach for your wallet." The members of the BMA are past masters at slicing reforms apart and use the instinctive public support for doctors to the full. No trade union would have dared, as the BMA did in May of last year, to stage a press conference in the middle of an election campaign to reveal that 56 per cent of the 36,000 GPs were so disenchanted with Labour's handling of the NHS that they were prepared to submit their resignation. The BMA didn't think twice about it; they thought once, and deliberately chose the most damaging possible time to release a set of cooked-up figures designed solely to feather their own nests. As Mr Blair put it: "The BMA, like any trade union, is there to represent and promote the interests of its members". Quite.

The real story, though, is not how much reform the Government has been introducing, but how little. The Government certainly talks a big reform game. Two years into office, the Prime Minister spoke about the traumas he had suffered introducing public-sector reform: "People in the public sector are more rooted in the concept of 'if it has always been done this way, it must always be done this way' than any other group of people I have come across... you try getting change in the public sector. I bear the scars on my back after two years of government – heaven knows what it will be like if it is a bit longer." Yet what genuine reforms were there?

The only real public-sector reform during Labour's first term was the introduction of performance-related pay (PRP) for teachers, pushed through by David Blunkett as Secretary of State for Education. Indeed, it's no mere co-incidence that this latest bout of professional wrecking is happening on David Blunkett's beat. It was his success in selling PRP to teachers that made the prospect of him as Home Secretary so attractive to the Prime Minister.

Police management and pay structures have long been scandalously in need of serious reform. The last attempt was the Ken Clarke-commissioned Sheehy Report, and the Police Federation showed back then just what lay in store for Mr Blunkett by, uniquely, taking on and beating Mr Clarke, the then undefeated heavyweight champion of the public-sector reform world. You did not defeat Ken Clarke without graduating summa cum laude in wrecking.

Mr Blunkett has adopted exactly the same tactics as when he introduced PRP for teachers. In order to push through the principle, he effectively bought off resistance by ensuring that every teacher benefited. A rejection would have been downright stupid, and certainly self-defeating. So, not surprisingly, 197,000 teachers applied for a minimum £2,000 rise – despite the urgings of the NUT to reject PRP. Mr Blunkett simply went over the union leaders' heads and pointed out the large sums of money he wanted to give the teachers.

As he remarked after the NUT won a court ruling delaying the scheme's implementation, it was the first time that a union had gone to court to stop a pay rise. This time, however, there has been a pretty major failure of communication, so that most police officers don't even realise that their pay will rise, and that the Government is stuffing an extra £200m into their wallets.

If the Police Federation thinks it is going to underminr the broad thrust of the proposals, it is deluding itself. The Home Secretary is quite prepared to soak up their hostility and take them on. That is, after all, the point of his being Home Secretary. That's why he was put there.

Think about the various factors at play: rising street crime; a public that thinks that police officers are too stuck behind their desks or in their panda cars; a basic pay increase for every officer, and a large increase for most; a quasi-union that resists all changes. Only last week, Mr Blunkett showed he meant business by giving the Metropolitan Police commissioner a public dressing-down.

Who has, overwhelmingly, the most popular and convincing case? It's the advocate of change, not the defenders of a failing status quo. Add to that mix a determined Home Secretary who can play the "I'm on the side of the ordinary folk" card peerlessly, and it's barely even a fair contest.