In the UK we are witnessing public sector industrial disputes at a scale not witnessed for many years. The grievances of workers, regardless of role or profession, all appear similar; challenging working conditions, feelings of being undervalued due to years of inadequate investment and poor recruitment as a consequence, not to mention the derisory pay awards currently being offered at rates far below the rate of inflation.
Nurses, paramedics, teachers and many others are resorting to strike action because they have lost faith in government negotiations and Pay Review Bodies to honestly and independently negotiate a fair pay reward, and as a consequence are struggling to see any movement to positive change across their industries. It might be easy to feel sympathy with our public sector colleagues.
All of us in the public sector wish to provide a service that we can be proud of, that the public deserve and in which we feel respected and listened to. To many this desire for a basic level of standards feels impossible to achieve within the systems and processes imposed by the state. The effort needed on an individual level to get anywhere near this is immense and largely unacknowledged by government. The pay awards being offered mean that the financial rewards for this effort diminish by the month with no sign of improvement.
That all probably sounds quite familiar to members of the police service.
The Police Federation has previously warned that, “Cuts Have Consequences”, and that, “Cutting Police by 20 per cent is Criminal”. The Federation has, and continues, to campaign for reasonable fair, and deserved increased pay awards, and whilst we do have the ear of many MPs and wider influential stake holders, those that hold the purse strings are not listening to our message.
Submissions have not resulted in any positive moves by government and to date nothing of true value has been brought to the table. This represents a pattern of behaviour from government that leaves us, and those others currently in negotiation, with little room to manoeuvre. With little sign of progress and no other options left, the Federation withdrew from the Police Remuneration Review Body (PRRB) process. It is unsurprising to see others have also followed suit.
Outside of the PRRB process the Federation is able to continue to raise its voice, press parliament and urge ministers to listen to our concerns and those of our members, but beyond this there is little that can be done. We understand why others in the public sector have reached the point of collective action.
The public sector appears united in frustration and issues similar to those that we face, but any similarity ends here. Police officers are unable to take the next step; industrial action is not an option open to police. Police officers cannot strike or work to rule - doing so could result in prosecution, even to suggest or appear to encourage such action is an expression of disaffection.
So why can’t police officers act as others act? Police officers are not employees, but rather, we hold office, we are Crown Servants and as such lack many of the rights that employees take for granted, such as the right to strike and take collective action.
This also comes with some benefits for our officers; we cannot be made redundant and cannot be dismissed unless it relates to a conduct or performance matter; we have the right to be consulted on pay and conditions, and crucially, though this appears to be absent currently, have a promise from government for fair pay and conditions to be guaranteed. This promised is renewed with each renewal of the Police Act and was previously reflected in the Police Negotiating Board (PNB) and the Police Arbitration Tribunal (PAT).
The Police Act of 1919 founded the Police Federation and saw the creation of the PNB and the PAT. The Act was brought about by the government of the day in response to a strike by police officers in circumstances that are not dissimilar to those we see today. War meant that the cost of living had more than doubled between 1914 and 1918, but police had received a pay rise of only three shillings over the same period and most serving officers were working extremely long hours as others had been drafted into the armed forces.
At breaking point, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers called a strike, and in August 1918 Met officers marched on Whitehall, and then Downing Street. The shock of a police strike brought terms instantly, one of the results of which was the formation of the Police Federation in statute and the outlawing of a Police Union.
As a vital public service it was felt that if police officers were to withhold their labour, the impact would be catastrophic for society. This restriction on officers’ ability to unionise and act in their collective interest was recognised and the government who promised to ensure the police have access to fair negotiation on pay and binding arbitration brought about in the PAT and PNB. Today in 2023 this mitigation feels to be more a memory than a vital protection for police and police standards.
Today we see circumstances mirroring those of 1918 but with conditions made considerably worse by years of underinvestment and under recruitment and increasing demands. So while police officers cannot strike, we understand the frustration that leads others to do so; we recognise it only too well when our police officers are suffering a real terms pay cut of 28.7 per cent.
For police to be able achieve industrial rights the PFEW would need to ask the Home Secretary to amend or repeal S.91 of the Police Act.
If this was unsuccessful, then they would have to argue within the Administration Court (Judicial Review) – that the ban on industrial action denies police officers the right to join an effective trade union. The Administrative Court would have to decide whether the existence of the Police Federation and the provision of a pay consultation process are sufficient to qualify as ‘compensatory measures?’
If this was unsuccessful, the next legal challenge is the Court of Appeal, to make the same arguments, and finally the Supreme Court.
It is only when all domestic remedies have been exhausted can a challenge be made within the European Court of Human Rights; others have tried to challenge their restrictions on taking industrial action via this route and none have succeeded.
Police officers would, if any of this was successful, lose Crown status and become regular employees, with all the pitfalls that come with that, but still have no guarantee of improved pay and conditions, as evidenced by the current disputes in the public sector.
It appears that moves are being made in the UK to restrict the impact of industrial action created by strikes in other vital elements of the public sector, with legislation moving swiftly through parliament, some of these wider restrictions are also evident across the world and as employees, police would be subject to these too.
As the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, set out, “The police are the public, and the public are the police. The police are paid to give full time attention to duties that are incumbent upon every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence”. This sense of duty and service to the public is what drives many officers today still, and the thought of strike action would be an anathema to them. We have seen reports of nurses and paramedics leaving their picket lines to care for members of the public who need help, a vocation officers share and one that would be hard to leave for the sake of a strike.
I have heard police officers say we should have a right to strike. But they need to also ask themselves, could we, would we and what would happen if we did?