The Police Federation of England and Wales will be concerned about the imminent findings of the independent review chaired by Sir David Normington, established in the wake of the plebgate affair. The chairman of the Police Federation, Steve Williams, has already said the review’s findings will be taken “extremely seriously”. If early speculation on the findings turns out to be accurate, there may be some significant procedural and accounting changes to be made – and a MORI poll of 12,500 police officers registered broad and deep support for ethical and organisational reforms.
Still, one can’t help thinking there is a political motive behind the forensic scrutiny of Police Federation’s activities given its unwavering support of those involved in the Plebgate affair – including PC Keith Wallis, who last week admitted to lying about what Andrew Mitchell said to him. There will be many in Parliament, across all parties, who will be looking for a scapegoat for their own words or actions.
In the midst of the scandal, Ed Miliband goaded David Cameron during Prime Minister’s Questions over his support for Andrew Mitchell and referred to him as “toast”. In retrospect, Miliband would have been wise to keep silent and await the outcome of the investigation rather than to try and score cheap political points. Let’s put that down to poor judgement based on a lack of experience. Were it not for parliamentary privilege, Miliband could be facing a defamation case.
Cameron hasn’t come out unscathed either, having stated that what Mitchell said was wrong. It appears that Mitchell is now largely vindicated, and it’s others wiping the egg from their faces. Still, the concerns of police officers themselves do indicate that the time may be right for sweeping federation reform.
Policing the police
On the whole, the federation does a sterling job at representing its members, some of whom may themselves be subjected to false accusations. Let’s face it, there are even some very good bankers out there – they’re not all bad apples, and the same goes for the police. Unless representatives of the federation were complicit in PC Wallis’s lying, which I doubt, they too will feel betrayed.
But the federation really does need to get its house in order, and defending the indefensible will do it no favours in the long-run. Like all employee bodies, it needs to protect the ethical integrity of the organisation and be prepared to contradict members when they’re in the wrong. Accordingly, the wide ranging remit of the independent review includes a focus on the question of whose interests the federation serves – the public, or just its members.
The federation is frequently and erroneously equated to a trade union, whereas it is technically a staff association. Police officers in Britain, like members of the armed forces, are not permitted to join trade unions. To an extent, the federation fulfils this role instead; it represents around 131,000 police officers up to and including the rank of chief inspector, and carries out many of the functions of a trade union. It negotiates with the employer side over pay, allowances, hours of work, annual leave, and pensions.
Senior ranks have separate bodies: superintendents belong to the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, and Chief Police Officers to the Association of Chief Police Officers. Police officers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own separate federations.
The police service has become increasingly fragmented; in 2002 police community support officers were introduced and carry out many of the functions of “beat officers”. This has led to a two-tier police service.
The 18,500 or so PCSOs in England and Wales, who are unwarranted “employees” rather than “officers of the crown”, have the right to join a trade union and to take industrial action. The majority of PCSOs belong to Unison with a minority belonging to the Public and Commercial Services union. There are also the thousands of civilian support staff, many of whom are members of unions.
One of the major problems created by the status of the Police Federation is the lack of independent procedural or financial oversight. Trade unions in the United Kingdom are regulated by the Certification Officer; once granted a Certificate of Independence, a trade union enjoys statutory entitlements. They are also required to submit annual returns to the certification officer which include membership numbers, financial accounts, and details relating to political funds. The federation is not obliged to do any of these things.
One of the pre-report criticisms is that 150 of its officials are serving police offers who only work for the federation, thus their activities are paid for by the UK taxpayer. This is similar to the full-time shop steward or works convener whose union work is paid for by the employer in the interest of promoting and maintain good industrial relations.
It is claimed the independent review team has not been able to scrutinise the “No 2 accounts” of federation branches. This lack of transparency is bound to raise questions about what the federation is up to. There may well be nothing amiss, but that won’t stop the growing speculation – or the right-wing media scaremongering.