The Police Federation is an organisation which represents all police constables, sergeants, inspectors, and chief inspectors in England and Wales. Its purpose is to: assist members; provide them with free legal advice; promote their interests and welfare; convey members’ views to government and other decision makers; and negotiate with them on their members’ behalf. The Police Federation currently represents 127,000 officers.
In the aftermath of the, still ongoing, ‘Plebgate’ row an independent review was ordered, chaired by Lord Normington, to investigate the working of the Police Federation. The report was published in January 2014, finding a “worrying loss of confidence and competence” within the Federation, and a serious “loss of influence” outside.
For those unaware, the ‘Plebgate’ row began on the 19th September 2012 when the then Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell had a row with police officers who would not allow him to ride his bicycle through Downing Street’s main gate. The officer involved alleged that Andrew Mitchell swore at him and referred to them as ‘plebs’ who should know their place. Andrew Mitchell denied using the word ‘pleb’ but admitted to swearing, and in October 2012 resigned from his position as Chief Whip because the publicity surrounding the incident meant he was unable to properly fulfil his duties.
The incident was claimed to have been witnessed by another officer, who was later found to have not been present when the incident took place. On the 6th February 2014 he was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment after pleading guilty to misconduct in a public office.
In a meeting with Andrew Mitchell, held weeks after the initial incident, three Federation officers claimed that Mr Mitchell refused to elaborate on what he said during the incident. A secret recording of that meeting, taken by Andrew Mitchell, revealed that he did in fact give an account of what he said, admitting to swearing but denying criticising the police or using the word ‘pleb’. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is now investigating the three police officers, among others, as to whether they lied about what was said. The Police Federation has described the investigation as unlawful and has announced that it is taking legal action against the IPCC.
Admittedly I found the initial accusation against Andrew Mitchell quite difficult to believe. At a time of nationwide austerity; budget cuts; job losses; and pay freezes for the police, and a general backlash against the perception of supposedly posh Conservatives. Given their opponents’ portrayal of wealthy and uncaring Conservative Ministers, it was too perfect an event for their critics, almost satirically cartoonish; perfect anti-Conservative propaganda.
The false witness, the lies to the media following the meeting with Andrew Mitchell, subsequent investigations and calls for apologies to be made to Mr Mitchell, and the Federation’s refusal to allow those officers involved to be investigated by the IPCC without interference, is hugely damaging to the image of the police, and points to an attempt to use their position to ruin the reputation of an MP.
Given this debacle, it is unsurprising that a review of the Police Federation was ordered, and its findings are less than flattering.
It is true, and worth remembering, that the Police Federation has had to deal with numerous challenges over the past few years. The Government have set about reforming policing through the introduction of elected local Police Commissioners, a new National Crime Agency, and the College of Policing to set standards for and increase the professionalism of the Police Service. This has been done with a dual focus and intent on: increasing the professionalism of the police; and crime fighting, with success measured by a reduction in the incidents of crime rather than a pursuit of wider social goals. Furthermore police numbers have been cut, pay has been “held down”, and there are changes to conditions, and pensions.
This being said, 91 per cent of its members want it to change. The report found that there was an “almost universal perception” amongst members that the Federation had been a “weak voice” during the reforms, and had a tendency to “oppose rather than engage” whilst putting ideas forward “too late to be influential.”
It would therefore appear that the Police Federation was putting in a poor show in two of its core tasks: promoting the interests and welfare of its members; and conveying their views to Government.
The report also found that the Federation had reserve funds totalling £64.5 million, £35 million of which was held by local branch boards, who operated almost akin to separate businesses.
With regard to Andrew Mitchell and the ‘Plebgate’ row, the report found that it highlighted the “extent to which some representatives feel they can pursue local action and campaigns regardless of the impact on the wider Federation and the views of their colleagues.”
Most worryingly the report claimed that allegations against the Police Federation, of making personal attacks on consecutive Home Secretaries (Andrew Mitchell and Tom Winsor) responsible for making changes to policing, brought the Police Service into disrepute and put its reputation for “impartiality and integrity” at risk.
This is exactly what the ‘Plebgate’ row has done. What was possibly an attempt to portray the Government as a group of elitist snobs, has in fact backfired with consequential allegations of officers using their positions in a discriminating, and in the case of at least one officer, illegal manner, to further a political agenda.
The consequence of which has been that since the incident, police reforms have hardly been discussed, and it has rather been the integrity of those officers involved which has diverted attention. It may be that the failings of the Police Federation caused these officers to feel that they had to take the matter into their own hands to discredit the Government and win the argument, but then again I have no desire to make excuses for their alleged behaviour.
However, the review did more than criticise the Police Federation, it was criticism followed by constructive recommendations, 36 in all. I shall only highlight a couple which are pertinent to the issues I have raised.
The first being, that the Federation should have a revised, core purpose to act in the public interest. This is surely needed to rebuild public confidence, and despite its current purpose, to look after the interests of its members, creating a potential conflict of interest, according to its members the Federation is not succeeding with that aim, so no conflict can presently arise. In any event the interests of police officers should not differ greatly from the interests of the public, unless something has gone wrong.
To introduce a 25 per cent cut in subscription fees to be funded by reserves, all accounts and expenses to be published, and national expenses guidelines established. Transparency in these matters is of course always welcome, accountability is seldom achieved without it.
Finally, the introduction of a new “performance and standards agreement” to outline what is expected of each Federation representative. Surely this would be beneficial, a benchmark by which representatives could measure their actions. But once again a clear signal to the public as to what is expected of the Police Federation and their officers.
The ‘Plebgate’ row continues to rumble along, whether the officers who still remain under investigation by the IPCC are cleared or not, the admission made by one officer about lying as to having witnesses the event, and the less than open and honest actions of others who met with Andrew Mitchell, have done great harm to the image of the police, and the poor performance of the Police Federation has only compounded the issue. However what they do have is an excuse, and an opportunity for real cultural change.