Priti Patel defends Boris Johnson after police anger over speech where officer fainted: ‘These things happen’

Home secretary admits Conservatives have not given police enough support but vows: ‘That stops now’

Lizzie Dearden
in Stratford-upon-Avon
Monday 09 September 2019 12:24
Police officer almost faints during Boris Johnson speech

Priti Patel has denied the government is politicising the police after the prime minister gave a speech surrounded by uniformed officers – one of whom fainted.

“I’m afraid these things do happen,” the home secretary told a policing conference on Monday.

“It is difficult to stand for a period of time – we were running late, there’s no doubt about that. But the fact of the matter is that the poor recruit that fainted, the prime minister and I did speak to her afterwards.”

Ms Patel said she and Boris Johnson visited the training centre in Wakefield to launch a recruitment campaign for 20,000 police officers.

Asked about allegations by The Independent that the appearance “politicised” police, she replied: “I don’t accept that because we were launching the recruitment campaign and that had been pre-planned, pre-organised and there wasn’t criticism of that while we were developing it.

“I think that’s important to say and officers and the police force knew that we were going to a policing venue to announce our campaign, and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

But the chief constable of West Yorkshire Police suggested he had been misled about the event on Thursday, lashing out at Mr Johnson for using his officers as a “backdrop” for a speech on Brexit and attacking Jeremy Corbyn.

John Robins said his force had been told that its involvement would be “solely about police officer recruitment”.

“We had no prior knowledge that the speech would be broadened to other issues until it was delivered,” the chief constable added.

He said two speeches were originally planned and officers were supposed to stand behind the prime minister during only the first, shorter speech to launch the recruitment campaign.

Mr Johnson was then due to attend a police helicopter base for a separate press conference on Brexit, without officers present.

But that visit was cancelled “minutes before” the first speech, leaving Mr Johnson surrounded by police as he tore into his political opponents.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow policing minister, said the prime minister had “used officers for a nakedly party political stunt, without their prior knowledge”.

In a letter to the cabinet secretary, Yvette Cooper demanded information on how the decision was made and said ministers must “respect the impartiality of the police and not ask them to do anything which would put it under question”.

The prime minister gives a speech in Wakefield against a backdrop of officers

Speaking at the Police Superintendents’ Association (PSA) conference on Monday, Ms Patel said she would be a “public champion” for officers.

“You have our support,” she told delegates in Stratford-upon-Avon. “It’s important to show that the wounds of the past are brought to some closure and effectively the police come first. From my perspective, you are my top priority.”

Ms Patel directly acknowledged the impact of years of Conservative budget cuts to policing, which resulted in the loss of more than 20,000 officers and has been blamed for causing rising violence and falling prosecutions.

“I’m ashamed to say you haven’t always had enough support, you have been overworked and undervalued, unable to do the job you love as well as you’d like,” the home secretary said. “That stops now.”

She called Mr Johnson’s pledge to recruit 20,000 extra police officers in three years “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to effectively reset the relationship between us”.

Police leaders have raised doubts over whether there will be enough suitable candidates or sufficient training capacity to hit the target in three years.

Analysis by The Independent suggests that more than 46,000 officers will have to be hired to both achieve the 20,000 figure and replace those leaving the service, while more than half of police forces are failing to meet recruitment targets.

Even if achieved, the uplift would still fall short of the 21,000 officers lost since 2010 – and there are no plans to reverse the separate decline of 15,000 police staff.

Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the PSA, said the ranks it represents had been cut by a quarter and caused the cost of maintaining the service “to shift from the organisation to the individual”.

“We now share a sense of nervous optimism as we see an opportunity to ensure that those leading the service, and who have been under significant pressure, are appropriately and properly resourced,” he added, calling for the increase to include 300 superintendents.

Ms Patel would not commit to bolstering their ranks by a specific number, but said the government would “provide the frontline leaders needed”.

She said she has accelerated work to establish a police covenant improving health and wellbeing, physical protection and support for families.

Following the death of PC Andrew Harper and statistics showing the number of attacks on police officers are rising, Ms Patel said she had asked for the Sentencing Council to look at increasing punishment.

“To cut crime, we need to strike fear into the hearts of criminals,” she added.

“We must work together to ensure that anyone who assaults an officer gets a sentence that truly fits the crime … that means bringing the full force of the law down on those monsters who prey on our police.”

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