SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 158 - May 2012

Profiting from crime

IN OCTOBER 2010, the Con-Dem coalition announced some far-reaching proposals for reorganising the police, such as directly elected police and crime commissioners. At around the same time, home secretary Teresa May commissioned two reports by lawyer and former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, into the pay and conditions of the police, including proposals to bring in ‘flexible’ management practices. In March, the second part of his review, which dealt with longer-term reforms, was published.

The first part of Winsor’s review particularly highlighted pay, as over 80% of police spending is in this area. In line with the government’s cuts in the rest of the public sector, his recommendations are mostly motivated by trying to save money. Winsor recommends that four out of ten officers should lose around £4,000 a year, as well as cutting most bonuses and allowances, while giving some increases to those on the ‘frontline’. These £1.1 billion of savings over three years come on top of the police already being affected by the public-sector pay freeze. This has provoked outrage, particularly among the lower ranks who are represented by the Police Federation.

For the past 90 years, when mass industrial action has loomed, governments have sought to give police officers improved pay in preparation for such events. The only time a similar pay cut was put forward was in the aftermath of the Geddes budget in 1922 – just a few years after the National Union of Police and Prison Officers had been crushed and its leaders driven out of the force in the wake of the 1918-19 police strikes.

Part two of the reforms promises an even bigger shake-up of the police force. In particular, it represents moves towards further privatisation. This should come as no surprise after delegates from 64 private security firms attended a conference to bid for £1.5 billion-worth of contracts to run services, such as crime investigation, detaining suspects, and the management of high-risk offenders, for West Midlands and Surrey police forces. In Lincolnshire, the private security firm, G4S, is trialling its ‘Street to Suite’ service where it picks up those arrested by police officers and delivers them to custody cells.

The very nature of the ‘office of constable’, which all police officers hold, poses difficulties which need to be overcome to facilitate privatisation of further police services. The contract notice already mentioned refers to them putting on the table all services that can "be legally delegated to the private sector", while "preserving the integrity of the office of constable".

This ‘office’ gives police officers additional and personal legal powers in relation to arrest and the use of force, rather than being derived from their employment. Indeed, police officers are separate legal entities rather than employees. Although this impartiality is more theoretical than real, it is the legal foundation of the jealously guarded ‘operational independence’ of the police. One significant consequence of this is that police officers cannot be made compulsorily redundant.

To get round this inconvenience for anyone seeking to make a profit, Winsor proposes introducing performance related pay, with disciplinary measures for those found to be in the bottom 10% as well as compulsory annual fitness tests. He aims to create a system of compulsory severance with pay-offs along the lines of the civil service compensation scheme (itself cut back to make it easier to fire civil servants). At present, a police officer has to have had 30 years’ service (a full pension allowance) before s/he can be compulsorily retired.

On top of the pay cuts being imposed by the government, it wants to introduce a new, lower starting salary for constables of £19,000, with a £21,000 starting salary for those enrolling after being community support officers (£3,000 below current CSO wages). The Police Negotiating Board, which currently sets pay and conditions for police officers, is to be abolished and replaced by a body without any representation of rank-and-file police officers, in effect removing the right to collective bargaining.

The Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers have opposing views on the reforms to pay and conditions, which are bitterly opposed by many ordinary officers. At the same time, senior officers fear the introduction of crime and police commissioners in November as a threat to their independence. An online columnist for the Economist noted last year: "In the past, the police have met opposition as one. No longer – and just how that may affect the reform process remains to be seen".

One of the reasons for the cohesiveness of the police in Britain has been the fact that all officers have had to rise from the rank of constable. One of Winsor’s key proposals, however, is for direct entry to senior posts. This creates the potential for the beginning of divisions on a similar basis as the armed forces with their separate caste of commissioned officers largely drawn from the elite. While looking towards graduates for direct entry to the rank of inspector, Winsor suggests that candidates for direct entry to the rank of superintendent could come from "the military, the security services, industry, commerce and the professions".

The combination of the attacks on rank-and-file police officers, which are designed to cut numbers, and the introduction of greater privatisation, including ‘frontline’ services, will greatly weaken the position within the police service of the ordinary constable. As the introduction of the second part of the report states, "police officers must come to think of themselves not as the blue-coated workers of the past, but the practitioners of a profession which requires skills and attitudes which are distinctly above those of factory workers".

The Winsor review seems to be driving at establishing an elite police officer corps, which will take care of more specialised tasks as well as those where the powers of the office of constable are required. At the same time, it would build on the inroads into basic police patrolling and other activities provided by the introduction of community support officers, and carry out such tasks with special constables or private security companies.

While the reforms aim to give the ruling class a more compliant and controllable force, the process to get there could create huge problems, particularly for the Tories as the traditional party of ‘law and order’.

The Police Federation was specifically established by the Home Office after the 1918-19 police strikes to undercut militancy by having equal representation of the three ranks it covers. By 2010 figures, 126,000 constables have the same representation at all levels as do the 26,000 sergeants or the 7,800 inspectors. Yet even this body has been forced under the pressure of the attacks raining down on it to begin campaigning for the right to take strike action, and is organising a protest ‘event’ on 10 May.

There is a further difficulty. Much of the report seems based on portraying the fundamental role the police plays in society as having changed in the last few decades. It states that "the operational experiences of a constable policing the public order disturbances of the 1980s are not necessarily relevant to his role as a chief superintendent with responsibility for the public order demands of the 21st century". This seems to suggest that the social explosions and mass workers’ struggles that both predated and followed the early 1980s riots are a thing of the past. As our class continues to fight against austerity and cuts they will soon learn their mistake on this count.

The police are part of the repressive capitalist state and will be used increasingly in the future against protests and strikes. But the attacks being prepared will foment grievances among ordinary police officers, opening up divisions within the police force and exposing the nature of capitalism as a rapacious system for profit, to the point of extracting it even from the very bodies there to protect the system as a whole.

Iain Dalton


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