Last week the Police Federation voted unanimously to ballot their members on whether or not they wanted the right to strike. They argued that the reforms of police pay and conditions proposed by Tom Winsor to the Home Secretary leaves them with little choice. Whilst it is right that the Police Federation are advocating for their members this response is out of proportion, premature and is playing politics with public safety.
The last time the police went on strike was in 1919 and was because of their pay. A married Constable with five years' service and two children was paid £2 15 shillings, lower than that of the average unskilled labourer or agricultural worker. They were paid too little and it was right that their pay was increased.
Today, according to the Office of National Statistics, the median gross annual pay of officers is £40,402, almost double the UK average (£21,326). Over half (60%) of police officers receive a gross annual pay that puts them in the top 20% of earners in the UK. The predicament of today's police officers is far removed from the precedent set for them in 1919 and the right to strike should not be taken lightly.
It is the police officers' role in 'public safety' and the 'prevention of disorder or crime' that separates them (and the Army) from other public services and curtails their right to strike in Article 11(2) of the European Convention of Human Rights. This is with good reason, as there is clear evidence (see Sherman & Eck, 2002) that police strikes significantly increase crime and undermine public safety (this is also common sense).
Given the significant risks to public safety, any decision to even contemplate striking should be taken when all other avenues have been exhausted. They haven't been.
The Home Secretary has agreed to take forward Winsor's recent proposals, but they are a long way from being enacted. The next step is for the proposals to be negotiated by the Police Negotiating Board, where the Police Federation have a prominent role in defending the interests of its members. If, as is likely, there are points that are not agreed upon then they will be referred to the Independent Police Arbitration Tribunal (PAT) to pass judgement on the contended issues.
This process was set up, in part, to protect officers' inability to strike from being abused. Whilst the judgements made by the PAT are not legally binding on the Home Secretary, there is a strong political pressure for her to accept them (last time the Home Secretary accepted their recommendations in full).
That the Police Federation are campaigning for the right to strike rather than attempting to make the PAT's judgements binding is telling, and suggests that their desire for the right to strike goes beyond protecting their members from their current afflictions.
This is backed up by the fact that this is not the first time the Police Federation have campaigned for the right to strike. Back in 2008 they did so because the then Labour Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, increased their pay by 1.9% rather than their desired 2.5% (by refusing to back date their pay). This was before the financial crisis and before any of Winsor's recommendations for changes to officers' pay and conditions were proposed or enacted.
It is therefore a good thing that a change in law is required to enable the Police Federation's members to go on strike, as this will require political approval. It is very unlikely that this will be granted, especially before the negotiations on Winsor's recent proposals have gone through the proper process I described above. It would also require public support, which is equally unlikely to be granted given the importance the public in England and Wales place on public safety.
Yet despite this, the Police Federation should not be jumping the gun and playing politics with public safety. It is a necessary and healthy part of the negotiations that they are advocating strongly for their members, but to so at the expense of public safety is a step too far.