It’s time for a review of police pay

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It’s time for a review of police pay

What motivates response officers to lace up their boots ahead of another arduous night shift, knowing they could get spat upon, assaulted or stuck for hours on a crime scene, have no time for meals and get off shift hours later than planned? What spurs a detective to log on to their computer knowing they’re facing an insurmountable workload of crimes they cannot hope to solve – and yet try anyway? It certainly isn’t the money. Interviews with cops suggests for many their main driver is goodwill – their willingness to go above and beyond to get the job done. Yet there are strong indications this goodwill is in short supply, and we could be about to learn what happens when it runs out.

Last Wednesday the Scottish Police Federation (SPF) announced a formal withdrawal of goodwill from 5pm on 1 July in response to a pay dispute. This has been described as the most overt demonstration of action since 1919, when the police were banned from striking after a series of walkouts caused by 100 per cent inflation and a huge decline in standards of living. In place of striking, officers in Scotland opted to “work to rule”, which involves refusing to start their shifts early or finish late unless ordered to do overtime, choosing to claim for every piece of overtime they did and declining to take personal protection equipment or airwave radios home. In effect, they only doing the work they’re paid for.

This action is response to an offered pay increase of £565 a year for cops (a two per cent rise for most officers and one per cent for higher-earners), which general secretary of the SPF Calum Steele said made the officers he represents feel they were held in “utter contempt” by the government and senior leaders. Mr Steele said the purpose of the industrial action was not to frustrate any investigation or further aggravate any victim’s experience but to “demonstrate to our employers just how much discretionary effort and free policing hours, they ordinarily take for granted”.

While police forces in England and Wales have not yet gone as far as withdrawing goodwill there are ominous signs. In the Police Federation’s 2021 pay and morale survey of nearly 30,000 rank and file officers, a record 92 per cent said they were not fairly paid for the job’s stresses and strains and 66 per cent claimed they were unfairly paid compared to other key workers; 95 per cent said their treatment had a negative impact on their morale and 58 per cent reported low morale, up from 48 per cent last year. The English and Welsh Police Federation has argued that over the past decade, there has been a 20 per cent real terms cut in pay –in 2010 pay point 1 for a police officer was £25,962 while in 2022 pay point 1 is £24,780. According to the Pay and Morale survey, in 2021 one in 10 officers regularly struggled to cover the cost of essential items. There have been reports of officers using foodbanks, and of probationers contemplating leaving the force because of the damage caused to their mental health and wellbeing of juggling the demands of studying for the degree course, working long hours and caring for children, all the while struggling to feed a family on their wage.

Of course police do not join for the financial rewards – studies have shown that most police officers have high levels of public service motivation, they do their work not for the money but because they believe it is of benefit to society. Yet this public service motivation only works if police officers feel the job is worth the sacrifices they make in terms of family, personal life and financial rewards. In contrast, perceptions of distributive unfairness have been shown to result in counterproductive behaviours intended to redress the perceived imbalance, such as withdrawal of effort, stealing from the organisation and other forms of misconduct. As former Ontario Police Commissioner Chris Lewis writes: “People do not work their hardest and treat people they interact with professionally when their morale is in the toilet”. It is at such times that officers will conduct inadequate investigations, make mistakes and treat victims, witnesses and suspects badly. This might explain, but of course does not excuse, poor victim service and the culture of sexism, brutality and misogyny that have blighted forces in recent years.

Mr Steele “guaranteed” public safety would not be harmed by the “removal of goodwill” but there is no doubt the service the public receives will suffer. In response to a 2014 study led by Dr James Hoggett into police goodwill following austerity and the Winsor reforms, one quoted practitioner predicted a negative effect on effectiveness and public confidence after just one week of work to rule. Extensive research on procedural justice shows that good policing relies on discretionary effort, the willingness to go over and above to get the job done, which in turn relies on individual police officers perceiving their organisation as fair and procedurally just. As one respondent to Dr Hoggett’s study said: “Officers constantly have to work outside of the regulations to get the job done. So called ‘goodwill’ will diminish if the constant erosion of pay and conditions continues, thus effectively disabling the police and our impact on crime and public confidence.” Some officers responding to the survey said that, long before this official withdrawal of goodwill, many had already decided only to do the bare minimum.

Many respondents to the 2014 survey blamed the government and the “disastrous and broken” relationship with the police for destroying this goodwill. This attitude persists in the latest Pay and Morale survey, in which 93 per cent of police officers stated they did not feel respected by the government. Last year the Police Federation and Police Superintendents’ Association withdrew from the Police Remuneration Review Body (PRRB) negotiations over the Home Office’s refusal to consider pay rises for police officers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak have argued that big pay rises in the public sector would be both unaffordable and inflationary, given the Bank of England’s fears of a so-called wage-price spiral setting in. However, a report from the Financial Times suggests that not all of the public sector were being treated equally and that Downing Street was willing to concede higher pay increases for nurses and teachers “who are likely to cause the most headaches”, mainly because they can strike while police cannot.

There is however a strong case for reviewing police pay in light of the government’s objective to support the “professionalisation” of policing.

The Winsor review in 2011 argued that there was no need to increase police pay since “Level of earnings is on a par with many white collar professions whose members require many more formal qualifications”. It is questionable whether that is any longer the case. With the introduction of the Police Education Qualifications Framework, new recruits do now have to attain such formal qualifications. Given all of the changes in police work over the last decade, the time has come to step back and consider whether the police pay structure is fit for purpose.

Any long term review of police pay also needs to recognise the challenges in particular sectors of the workforce. For example, such a review must address the “brain drain” of experienced investigators going to the private sector where they can earn much higher salaries without the same level of risk.

The police workforce has experienced significant change since the Winsor Review more than a decade ago. The next government should address whether the pay structure has kept pace with that degree of change and ensure police officers are fairly paid for their daily sacrifices.