Police pay: service fears and tin ears

Blog post

Police pay: service fears and tin ears

As the dust starts to settle following yesterday’s police pay settlement, several things seem to have come into stark relief.

First, with no more money for policing it immediately became clear that a zero-sum game is in play. Given that forces had only budgeted for a 1% pay increase, the additional 1% ‘bonus’ must come at the cost of one or more of: fewer jobs (and/or less experience), greater efficiency, service level cuts, or forces dipping into (rapidly depleting) reserves. Given that the efficiency horse has been pretty well flogged already, that probably means less policing for the public. As this dawned on the beneficiaries of the pay rise it clearly left a sour taste.

Second, with hopes of a larger pay increase having been raised, amid talk of the end of the public pay cap, the structure of the pay settlement –  below inflation, with a one-off ‘bonus’ – seems likely to have chipped away further at fragile morale. Cynicism will likely be redoubled in many corners of the  service. The Home Office, meanwhile, seems unmoved,  remarking recently that pay is “competitive” and highlighting that policing experiences low workforce turnover and high job application rates – apparently signs that all is well, and conspicuously ignoring poor morale and its likely impact on quality of service.

Third, both the NPCC and College of Policing seemed to demonstrate tin ears in their initial statements,  which should be a worry for everyone with an interest or stake in policing. Neither acknowledged the clearly apparent disappointment – even anger – of rank and file officers, nor the cumulative effects of long-term below inflation pay restraint. Instead, both quickly pivoted to talk about their shiny plans for the future, when it seemed everyone else was  talking about the present.

The NPCC statement, for example, hails a future in which “officers and staff are rewarded fairly for the work they do” by “linking pay to competence, skills and  contribution”. In a zero-sum world, however, there must  be losers as well as winners, while the question of whether current pay is fair reward remains moot.

(For their part, the Association of PCCs adopted the arguably sensible approach of saying as little as possible, and by doing so managed not muddy the waters  any further.)

Finally, fourth, I think the initial statement released by the College raises some interesting questions about whom they serve and what their role is. The College Statement on the pay award said “it is encouraging to see this recognition for our members”. Setting aside for now the (important) fact that it seems few (if any) rank and file officers themselves appear to have felt at all encouraged (something the College later acknowledged), the language of “our members” (however literally accurate) seems to be drifting towards speaking on behalf of their membership, none of whom have any say over the  leadership or messaging. There is a risk of blurring the relative roles of College, staff associations and Unison, which would, I think, be a mistake.

To conclude, these are worrying times for the  police service and the public they serve. Even acknowledging the baseline cynicism of police officers, probably expressed with feeling since 1829, there are signs that things really have been getting worse.

No-one goes into public service to get rich, but decisions about pay do inevitably express to an important degree how society – but especially those holding the political/financial levers – values that public service. Yesterday’s supposedly good news pay announcement could hardly have landed more badly, especially given the likely impact on service levels, while the need for emotionally intelligent leadership could hardly be clearer or its delivery more obviously awry. All really is not well.