Leading article: Principle and public sector pay

The Police Federation, which represents 140,000 officers in England and Wales, is locked in a stand-off with the Home Secretary over her refusal to backdate a 2.5 per cent pay rise. After calling on Jacqui Smith to resign at an emergency meeting this week, the Federation now plans to challenge the law that bans police from striking. The mood of officers has not been improved by confirmation that their colleagues in Scotland will have their rise backdated.

Both the police and the Government have some right on their side. The Government is right when it points out that police pay, along with spending on the police and law enforcement generally, has risen substantially over the past 10 years of Labour government. Ministers would also be justified in noting although for obvious reasons they have declined to do so that the extra spending seems not to have resulted in a conspicuously greater number of police on the beat.

Crime overall may have fallen, but the widespread perception is that not enough has been done to tackle low-level crime and anti-social behaviour. As with the NHS and other areas of public spending, the extra money the Government has pumped in does not seem to have brought a commensurate return. Ministers are right to want more for the taxpayers' money.

But the police have some justified complaints, too. The paperwork required by the Government's preoccupation with targets has increased workloads. Many new recruits are lower-paid community support officers, rather than trainee police officers. Mostly, though, there is the matter of arbitration.

The whole point of arbitration is that the result should be binding. In accepting the award, but refusing to backdate it, the Government has wriggled out of its full obligation. In money terms, the discrepancy may seem small individual officers stand to lose around 200 but the police, indeed any other group of public sector workers, will be wary of entering arbitration if the Government tweaks any result it does not like.

The Prime Minister defended the decision yesterday by saying that it was "in the national interest" which is surely another way of saying that it was necessary if overall public sector pay rises were to be kept below 2 per cent. And he is right to want to hold that line. It is just a pity that the Home Secretary could not find a more adroit way of doing it.

The police know that they can count on public sympathy and the support of those sections of the media that advocate a hardline law and order agenda, and they will play that for all it is worth. But their pay has risen sharply in recent years, they must now accept the same restraints as everyone else.