Theresa May stuns Police Federation with vow to break its power
Home secretary says that in their handling of sensitive cases some officers had displayed 'contempt for the public'
The Guardian, Wednesday 21 May 2014 20.33 BST
Theresa May at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth: 'I am here to tell you that it’s time to face up to reality.’ Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters
Theresa May said on Wednesday that the legitimacy of British policing was in jeopardy following the Stephen Lawrence and other scandals, in an uncompromising speech that also pledged to break the power of the officers' once feared trade union.
The home secretary stunned delegates at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth as she criticised officers for in some instances displaying a "contempt for the public" in their handling of sensitive cases.
Citing excessive stop and search inflicted on black communities and failures in handling domestic violence cases, May said problems appeared to lie with a significant minority of officers rather than just "a few bad apples".
She pledged to break the powerful federation, announcing an end to its automatic right to enrol police officers as its members, in effect curtailing the closed shop in policing .
As the home secretary took the stage she was greeted by polite applause, but when she left there was silence, as May warned that a string of scandals about corruption and the conduct of the federation itself risked destroying the bedrock of British policing, which is that officers exercise their powers through the consent of the public.
"If there is anybody in this hall who doubts that our model of policing is at risk, if there is anybody who underestimates the damage recent events and revelations have done to the relationship between the public and the police, if anybody here questions the need for the police to change, I am here to tell you that it's time to face up to reality," May said.
Will Riches, one of two candidates to be the federation's chair, said afterwards the reaction of delegates to the speech was one of "shock and bewilderment". Ian Pointon of Kent police branded the speech vitriolic.
He said of the home secretary: "This morning she left as a bully."
May referenced Hillsborough, the death of Ian Tomlinson and allegations of corruption in the Lawrence and Daniel Morgan murders. She also cited the Plebgate affair, which cost Andrew Mitchell his cabinet job after he allegedly swore at a member of Downing Street's police staff which Mitchell denies., and the refusal of officers to answer questions from their own watchdog – which she said the federation encouraged.
She said: "It is not enough to mouth platitudes about a few bad apples. The problem might lie with a minority of officers, but it is still a significant problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed." Polls show two-thirds of the public trust the police but May said: "We should never accept a situation in which a third of people do not trust police officers to tell the truth." She added that when only four in 10 black people trusted the police the situation was "simply not sustainable".
She said it was unacceptable for officers called to help a woman who had suffered domestic violence accidentally recording themselves calling the victim a "slag" and a "bitch" and said this was an example of a deeper problem.
The home secretary said: "It is an attitude that betrays contempt for the public these officers are supposed to serve – and every police officer in the land, every single police leader, and everybody in the Police Federation should confront it and expunge it from the ranks."
May spoke in Bournemouth hours before the federation started to vote on a package of root-and-branch reforms seen as vital to save it from disaster.
Outgoing chair Steven Williams said he and others in the leadership had been given no warning of the home secretary's new measures, let alone the tone of the speech.
May told the once feared federation that it must adopt all 36 reforms proposed by an independent review into its future. She said if the federation failed to reform itself the government would remove control of the organisation from its leaders and impose change. She warned: "The federation was created by an act of parliament and it can be reformed by an act of parliament. If you do not change of your own accord, we will impose change on you."
Hours later the federation voted to adopt all 36 recommendations to reform the organisation, which has been accused of being unrepresentative and whose members feel let down by it according to its own polling.
May said she would end the automatic right of the federation to have police officers enrolled as their members. In the future officers would have to choose to join, and she also said they would have to actively choose to pay fees to the organisation.
The reforms, which will require legislation, are akin to changes forced by the Thatcher government on the once powerful trade unions.
Created by parliament in 1919 to represent rank-and-file officers, the Police Federation was intended to stop officers from joining unions with the right to strike.
May announced an end to public funding for the top officials of the federation, worth £190,000 a year.
She also said the Home Office would use its legal powers to call in the federation's central accounts, and change the law to call in its other accounts held by local branches.
This will include the so-called number two accounts held by local branches said to contain at least £30m in reserves.Anthony Painter, of the Royal Society of Arts and director of the independent review into the Federation which called for the whole sale reforms, said: "The opting in is the most significant part of the speech.
"It significantly weakens the Federation, it puts a hurdle to membership which isn't there."
After the speech, Sir David Normington, the chair of the review into the Federation and the former top Home Office civil servant, tried to calm delegates: "I think you have to channel your energies and anger into reform and you have to prove the home secretary wrong."
Tomorrow the federation votes for a new chair to lead the process of hammering out the detail of the 36 reforms.
Privately, federation leaders who backed modernisation believe the conference would have voted for change regardless of May's speech.
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