This week the NPCC will meet and vote on the controversial topic of compulsory severance. A place they have been before when they actively campaigned for it a few years ago. In a nutshell, if the “ayes have it” and it is granted by government (legislation required), it would give senior police officers the ability to make officers redundant. Something they have never been able to do.
The office of constable is rather unique and not fully understood by many people outside the service. We are not employees and we have none of the industrial rights afforded to other workers. We are independent legal officials appointed by the crown. As such we are not a para-military service that does as it is told. We are empowered as individuals to refuse any instruction that we believe to be unlawful regardless of the rank of the person issuing that order. The constable is the bedrock of policing by consent and compulsory severance will irreparably undermine that role.
This topic is not new though. Sir Tom Winsor included it as part of his review at recommendations 46, 47 and 48. It was rejected by the Police Federation and taken to the PAT (Police Arbitration Tribunal) where it was also rejected. At this point the Home Secretary, who has the power to simply ignore PAT conclusions decided to accept it. The proposal was not taken off the table though ..
Of course this was, at least in relation to Winsor, a minor victory in what became swathing changes to UK policing. I’m afraid I’m rather sceptical when it comes to the government and fear this tactic was no different to a car salesman who decides he wants £3k for a car. He therefore puts £3.5k on the screen and allows himself room to be negotiated down to what he wants.
Of course the last few years haven’t been good for the PFEW and when a group of people (the members) feel disenfranchised and hurt they will look for someone to blame. Sadly, this blame was directed at the PFEW for not doing enough rather than the government who rightly deserved it. I’m not naive enough to think that the PFEW are perfect. In fact far from it, but what good work they have done has been lost in criticism and complaint.
The PFEW from this point went, in my view, into meltdown. The membership increasingly took to social media to vent their frustrations and the federation main office was not ready or prepared to deal with this level of communication (they still aren’t). As a consequence rumour, speculation and misinformation has filled the void and exacerbated the problem. I’ll be quite honest, I have been a critic of this poor response too and in my own way added fuel to the fire.
The years have then rolled on. The Home Secretary has faced boo’s, stoney silence and more recently, polite applause at the national PFEW conference. The reforms and cuts to policing have continued but as the PFEW were facing a crisis of confidence from the membership, the Home Secretary, like a master tactician then delivered her killer blow.
The PFEW was always set up to fail. It was never a trade union. It has only ever been a negotiating body that the government have the power to completely ignore at a whim. The PFEW had already set up the Normington Review to look at how they should reform. They had also agreed to adopt the report fully before the national conference but the Home Secretary forced this home by saying “reform yourselves now or I will do it for you”. The fact the PFEW had adopted the report was now a moot point. There could be no delay. Things needed to happen now and happen fast. Yet here was the skill of the Home Secretary. She knew the structure of the PFEW. She knew the archaic legislation that bound them. Despite the speed she called for and some in the PFEW knew we needed, it was not going to come easy.
The local branches don’t trust head office. Head office can’t tell the branches what to do with their members subscriptions and every minute step has to be scrutinised in great detail at committee level.. sometimes several layers of committees. There may be many in the PFEW who have wanted to run toward change and then focus back on members but found themselves trying to sprint in treacle.
Petty internal squabbles between branches and head office have severely restricted progress and hampered the efficacy of the organisation. This has led to even more upset by members. Local branches, used to acting independently, have continued to do so and started to make private arrangements to show their own strength of feeling about the reforms. This led to campaigns such as #cutshaveconsequences and #whatdowestop. Campaigns that have been taken up by additional branches in a piecemeal fashion that look like one campaign but is actually several that are individually financed, employing expensive consultants and are, in all honesty, largely unproductive. These are campaigns HQ have not been able to get involved in. This again looks like apathy and thereby increased the criticism of the centre by the membership whilst the branches burn your subscriptions with campaigns that have a large voice but the efficacy of a single crewed cop at a pub fight.
There is no single voice. There is no national strategy and poor national communications both to the media and the members. A newly reorganised communications team raring to get stuck in is being held back by the same internal wrangles. The net result is a fractured, disjointed organisation that is, overall, very weak, divided and failing. An organisation needing momentum that is being stifled by legislation and, from my perspective, some self interest and empire protection. Behaviour that in the long term is working against members interests. This is exactly where the Home Secretary wants the PFEW to be. Scrabbling around trying to sort out internal strife whilst she pushes reforms through. If the destruction of UK policing as we know it wasn’t so important you’d have to admire the skilful manoeuvre she has executed.
The vote is going ahead. The result could be catastrophic for policing as we know it. The Home Secretary has declined to implement it once but if it comes to the table with an NPCC endorsement it’s a different kettle of fish. Yet what will compulsory severance actually mean? In the short term it will allow senior officers to force expensive, experienced officers out of the service and replace them with cheaper ones. Further down the line it could lead to all sorts of issues as police officers move toward being employees but with no industrial rights to redress the balance.
Disgraced ex Chief Constable Nick Gargan once said “I want compulsory severance but have no plans to use it”. This was a scary phrase that implied to me a lie. I hope that NPCC officers, who are all constables, will vote this week and take a stand that supports the office of constable. Not destroy it.
In the meantime the PFEW have a dilemma and as time rolls on I fear the division between branches and HQ is becoming insurmountable. It’s going to take something extraordinary to get them all on the same side and supporting one another. Whilst they remain in this trap so beautifully placed by the Home Secretary the only outcome I can realistically see is their demise. They will be criticised for fiddling whilst Rome burns and those within who really want to make change and make it now will be thrown to the dogs as failures which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Branches and HQ need to put history, tradition and self interest to one side, join together and become a staff association with one voice, one message and a force for change. The alternate doesn’t bear thinking about.