After 30,000 police officers marched through London last week to protest against budget cuts, Theresa May could not have expected to get through yesterday's Police Federation conference unscathed. Sure enough, the Home Secretary faced heckling by an at-times hostile audience, one member of which told her she was "a disgrace". Meanwhile, on a more formal note, Federation chairman Paul McKeever warned that she risks "destroying" a police service admired across the world.
Strong stuff. And for all Ms May's assertions that the police service is not being picked on, it is not difficult to see why its members might feel particularly beleaguered.
First, is the introduction of elected commissioners to replace the nominated police authorities that oversee local forces and hold the purse strings. The aim is a valid one: to increase accountability and ensure closer attention is paid to local citizens' concerns. It is also a major shift of power away from Westminster. But while some senior officers are now warming to the idea, across many forces the plan still provokes fears of political interference in operational decision-making that the Government has failed to allay.
As if that were not enough, the changes come at a bad time for morale. In line with the squeeze across the public sector, police pay has been frozen, and the retirement age is being pushed back even as pension contributions are increasing. Equally controversially, police budgets are coming down by a fifth, a reduction which – given that some three-quarters of costs are salaries – can be met only by cutting staff.
Finally, on top of everything, are the Winsor reforms, which include such innovations as direct entry at senior levels (up-ending the tradition that every officer starts by walking the beat), and the introduction of greater specialisation.
All of which leaves the police force facing its biggest shake-up for decades. Resistance is, therefore, to be expected. But Ms May is right to stick to her guns. Individually, police officers are often stellar public servants. But the majority of forces are neither as efficient nor as accountable as they should be. Even without the need to tighten the government belt, it is high time for reform.
That said, the Home Office, too, must do its bit to ensure that "more for less" is not just a mirage. At this stage, serious questions remain unanswered. Is there, for example, sufficient scrutiny of the commissioners who will, between them, disburse £11bn of public money each year? Equally, is the department doing enough to help forces improve their efficiency rather than just slashing services? The risks are far from trivial: higher crime, failed investigations, even lost lives. But these are much-needed changes and Ms May must press ahead.