Leading Article: A sledgehammer threat to the police

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS becoming increasingly clear that Sir Patrick Sheehy made a mistake in his proposal that the police should be subject to time-limited contracts. The anger expressed this week during a rally at Wembley of 20,000 officers was certainly justified in this respect. Sir Patrick, aware that 'contract' has worrying criminal associations for the police, prefers the term 'fixed-term appointment'. But his diplomatic language cannot disguise the reality of his proposals: they would mean the sack for some officers who do not fit the bill during periodic assessments.

Their performances would be reviewed first after 10 years and subsequently every five years, enabling superiors to weed out the incompetent, dishonest or redundant at regular intervals. It does not take a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether officers who merely fell out with their bosses might also find themselves hanging up their truncheons.

The police reaction to this and other Sheehy recommendations has been predictably hostile and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, should not be unduly worried by much of the opposition. He should back the essence of the Sheehy programme based on principles such as a commitment to rewarding the best officers, devolving management, reducing the number of ranks and abolishing overtime. But on the question of time-limited contracts, which cast the shadow of sackings over every individual on the force, officers make fair complaint. Sir Patrick has proposed a sledgehammer to crack a nut: there are other ways of removing the small group of individuals that does not belong with the police. It is not necessary to make the vast majority of able officers feel less secure about their careers.

Fixed-term contracts may discourage innovation as employees play safe rather than risk displeasing the higher ranks. Furthermore, poor motivation is rarely resolved by threats: praise is more powerful. Good management will spot the reasons that may lie behind an employee underperforming and will develop a person's strengths.

The fact that fixed-term contracts are a talking point should not make the Home Secretary opt for a fad which has not been widely adopted by private industry. Where such contracts have caught on, they are usually employed to provide cover for short-term projects, according to a recent survey by Industrial Relations Services, an independent research group. 'Short-term project' is hardly a fitting description for police work.

BAT Industries, of which Sir Patrick is chairman, does not use such contracts. Until recently, Sir Patrick enjoyed a rather more generous agreement that entitled him to three years' pay if he was sacked. It is understandable that officers, most of whom are keen to devote their entire working lives to the police, should be fearful that their careers could suddenly be truncated after a decade or more. There are better ways to bring the best out of our police forces.