Police officers are protesting today in response to wide ranging government reforms to policing, including budget reductions and changes to their pay and pensions.
The reforms advocated by Tom Winsor in his independent review are – at over 1,400 pages and 183 recommendations – comprehensive, and necessarily so. The last significant changes to police pay and conditions were made over 30 years ago and the whole system of remuneration is now outdated, helping to sustain an inflexible workforce that does not make the most of its staff.
As well as rewarding an officer’s years of service over skills or the demands of a given role, the current arrangements are very generous. Today, according to the Office of National Statistics, the median gross annual pay of officers is £40,402. This is almost double the UK average (£21,326) and puts three out of every five police officers into the top 20% of earners in the UK.
Police officers deserve to be well remunerated as they perform a difficult and sometimes dangerous role, yet it is doubtful whether this pay system is affordable or fair, especially in the current financial climate.
Even the Police Federation has relented somewhat to the public mood on police pay with the Kent Police Federation Chairmen stating last week:
“It is absolutely no use fighting this government on the battle ground of pay. We will not get any public sympathy; they are having their pay cut; they are losing their jobs.”
Instead the Police Federation have sought to conflate the issue of budget cuts with pay reform, betting that voters will be more worried about having less officers, than having officers who are less well off. But the real driver of the protest is a resistance to any change to their remuneration.
Pensions are another important part of an officer’s remuneration, and an area that is ripe for reform.
The pension costs of officers are such that we are spending £1 in every £7 of total police expenditure on the pensions of around 118,000 retired officers. This pays for a full pension worth two-thirds of an officers’ final salary from as early as 49 years old, and is available for the vast majority (91%) of serving officers.
As well as looking to address affordability concerns in policing, there is a clear push within these reforms to make police forces more professional and meritocratic.
Tom Winsor strongly advocated that policing should be considered “on a par with law and medicine” such that it attracts “the best of the nation’s human capital, to serve the public in the noblest purpose of their protection and safety.”
This eminently sensible idea requires officers to be rewarded on the basis of merit over experience (which Winsor addresses) but also requires a starting salary that will attract the best applicants. Taken together, the Winsor reforms are important and long-overdue, but on this point one of his recommendations seems out of kilter, as he suggests there should be a reduction in an officer’s starting salary.
Today an officer will start on a basic salary of £23,259. Winsor suggests this should be reduced significantly to £21,000 for those with a police qualification or experience or £19,000 for those without.
This undermines the search for the best possible applicants and the drive for a more professionalised service. Instead of reducing the national starting salary the government would do well to go further than Winsor and instead consider introducing regional or local pay to ensure that pay rates better reflect local costs of living.
The overall direction of the government reforms is both sensible and necessary. Not all officers will lose out financially because of the Winsor proposals and those doing the hardest jobs will be better off.
It is perfectly understandable that some officers are protesting against changes that will affect their pension conditions and take home pay, however the dire state of public finances have necessitated these long-overdue reforms. There is no clear alternative but for the police to play their part and the relative generosity of police pay means the Police Federation have a much weaker case than they would like to admit to either their members or the public.
This article originally appeared on Speaker’s Chair