The chair of the Police Federation, which represents almost 140,000 rank-and-file officers in England and Wales, raised concerns that increasing numbers of officers would leave policing as a result.
“Over the last decade, we have seen a real-term pay cut of around 20 per cent and other costs haven’t stood still – gas, electric and fuel costs all continue to rise, and national insurance contributions increased,” Steve Hartshorn told a conference in Manchester.
“Our members are told they are brave; they are told they do a unique job. They were thanked for putting themselves and their families in danger as Covid gripped the country, and yet that acknowledgement amounted to nothing.
“It’s frustrating to see and hear from colleagues who are struggling to feed their families and going to food banks.”
Mr Hartshorn addressed the home secretary directly during his speech, which received long applause from police officers gathered from across the country.
“Home secretary, what has gone wrong?” he asked. “Why are my colleagues one of the only groups of frontline public sector workers being penalised in their pockets?”
He said he was “angered” to hear of experienced officers leaving policing “not because they want to, but because they can’t afford not to”. He added that “this cannot go on”.
Mr Hartshorn told journalists he was hearing stories “day-in, day-out” about colleagues not being able to make ends meet, warning that policing would “lose a lot of very experienced officers to other industries” as the cost of living rises.
“We want them to stay but I fully understand why they do need to go. Ultimately, the government needs to start paying police properly,” he said.
The issue is also raising concerns that officers could become increasingly vulnerable to offers of corrupt payments from criminal gangs.
The Police Federation withdrew from the official police pay review body last year, saying it “no longer has confidence” in the home secretary following a pay freeze for officers earning more than £24,000.
Ms Patel said the body paid an important role in advising the government and urged it to engage, but Mr Hartshorn said its “hands were tied by the government”.
He said that because police are unable to strike by law, they were being “denied the employment rights” of other public sector workers. “The government cannot continue to treat the police as the poor relation of the public sector,” he said.
Police Federation delegates at the Manchester annual conference clapped and cheered an officer who asked why MPs’ pay had risen from £64,000 to £84,000 a year since 2009, while new police recruits had gone from just £22,000 to £24,000.
“Each sector has an independent pay review body – why is yours better than ours?” the officer asked. Another officer told the home secretary: “It’s about time you and your colleagues put your money where your mouth is and do something about the terrible state that our colleagues find themselves in.”
A female officer, a detective with 23 years’ service, gave an emotional speech about her struggle with pay and told how she had to borrow £40 from her mother last weekend for petrol and her children’s school lunches. “We are desperately struggling to do the job we love and to make ends meet at home,” she added.
Ms Patel said the police and politics pay panels were separate and had “different” considerations, including the fact that police can take their pension at a lower age, and committed to discussing pay with the Police Federation.
The chair called for the relationship between officers and the government to be reset. And ahead of the conference, the home secretary had announced that she would allow special constables to be armed with Tasers, but it was not among the federation’s priorities for change.
They included increases in pay and annual leave provision, better psychological support for officers and the tackling of delays in misconduct investigations.
In her speech at the Police Federation conference, Ms Patel highlighted the government’s push to recruit 20,000 more police officers, although the figure does not replace those lost since 2010 in austerity cuts or the detectives, experienced officers or specialists who left.
Ms Patel also hailed moves to extend the use of suspicionless stop and search and Tasers, saying she wanted to give police the “confidence to use their powers fairly, appropriately and in the right places”.
But she also said police need to work to “create a better culture and higher standards” following the murder of Sarah Everard and a wave of scandals involving sexual offences by officers and allegations of misogyny and racism.
“The public are in urgent need of reassurance,” the home secretary said. “I am unequivocal that unacceptable behaviour must be rooted out and called out. Lessons must be learned, and every necessary change must be made, without fear or favour.”
A public inquiry, led by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, is underway and will look at issues including vetting and countercorruption.
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