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Police: Strike Action

Volume 739: debated on Thursday 18 October 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision by the Police Federation of England and Wales to ballot their members on whether the legal prohibition on police officers taking strike action should be repealed.

My Lords, the Home Secretary has been clear that police officers cannot strike, and that is not going to change. As a civil emergency service it is vital that the service is able to discharge its duty to protect the public and to keep the peace at times of serious national and local disorder.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, with which I agree. However, I am more concerned to know how we got to this place. I should point out to the House for the avoidance of doubt that this Question was laid down before the imbroglio concerning the Chief Whip in the other place came either to my notice or to public notice. My supplementary question is in three brief parts. First, in 93 years this is the first time that the Police Federation has balloted its members: does the noble Lord believe that that indicates a breakdown in trust between the Police Service of all ranks in England and Wales and the Government? Secondly, whether he believes that or not, does he accept, as I do, that a substantial number of police officers believe that there is a breakdown in trust? Thirdly, what are the Government going to do about it?

The Government do not underestimate the strength of feeling among officers at the moment. The Home Secretary and the policing Minister regularly meet with representatives of the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents’ Association and members of the Association of Chief Police Officers to discuss ways of tackling this issue. We are looking of ways in which we can ensure a greater input from officers of all ranks in policing matters. We will continue to engage with police officers and staff to ensure that their opinions help shape future policing policies.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that whatever the outcome of the ballot, it will be a fair and valid expression of the views of Police Federation members, and particularly so if the turnout is higher than in the forthcoming ballots for police and crime commissioners? Can he also give an assurance that any government response to the outcome of the likely Police Federation ballot will not be given by the Government Chief Whip in the House of Commons for fear that he uses the kind of language he normally reserves for addressing on-duty police officers?

I am sorry about and rather disappointed by that question. The relationship between government and police is clearly very important, and we are aware of the difficulties at this particular time. I think we all recognise that this is a period of change for the police. The Government want to engage in particular with the Police Federation, because it is holding the ballot, and with all sections of the police force to see a new era for policing that brings the police fully into the modern era.

My Lords, where there is an obligation on a service not to strike, is it not important to have respected mechanisms in place for fixing the terms of service for that particular service? Could the Minister direct attention to that aspect for the Police Federation to consider rather than striking? I think it would be much more constructive to look at whether better arrangements could be made for the adjustment of terms of service than perhaps exist at the present time.

Yes, there is a tribunal which considers these matters and, indeed, there are issues before it at the moment. I think that today is the first day on which it is taking evidence. There is a mechanism in place for resolving these issues, but there is also an argument which I think the Government should not be afraid of putting to the police force. The Tom Winsor proposals give the police an opportunity to improve their flexibility of working, for improving pay scales so that there is a better step up from constable to sergeant, and making sure in many ways that the pay structure for the police force, which was set up 30 years ago, is fit for purpose today.

My Lords, when the right to strike was removed in 1919, it followed large-scale disorder on the streets of the United Kingdom and by implication recognised the very special position that the police service was in. Does the Minister agree that the special case for the police—the X factor if you like—should always be borne in mind when the Home Secretary is deciding issues concerning the police?

My Lords, in view of the line unfortunately taken by the Front Bench opposite, would it not be a good idea if all parts of this House sent out a clear message that the inability of the police to strike, far from being an oddity compared with others, is an essential part of the relationship between the police of this country and the public? Is that not the essence of this matter, whatever the purpose of the ballot might be?

I thank my noble friend for a positive contribution which takes the debate forward. As I think I have expressed, the Government are anxious to make sure that the relationship is a good one. We are not alone in our relationship with special groups of people. The Prison Service and the armed services also have prohibitions on striking. We recognise the importance of our relationship with the police service.

I think that noble Lords will find that I have given a fair run around the House. It is fair to hear from my noble friend Lady Doocey.

My Lords, do the Government accept that when they reform provisions for long-term sickness, a distinction must be made for police officers who have been injured in the line of duty so that they are not unfairly penalised?

That extends the Question a little further than my brief. We recognise that the retirement age for the police will remain at 60, even under the renewed proposals; it will not be made the same as for others. Everybody realises that it is a stressful job that can involve physical hazards. I appreciate the supplementary question, but I am sorry that I cannot comment in detail on it.