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Conference 2002 - Chairman's Speech
SPEECH BY CHAIRMAN: MR ALEX ROBERTSON
SPEECH BY CHAIRMAN: MR ALEX ROBERTSON
ON WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2002 AT THE
PLYMOUTH MOAT HOUSE HOTEL I took the opportunity to welcome our colleagues from our other police federations and similar police representative bodies last night. Today I welcome our delegates and a very special guest, the Minister for Transport, Mr John Spellar.
Minister, your appointment to the Department of Transport gave us high hopes that at last our Federation annual conference would be honoured with the presence of a government minister. We had noted your four successive attendances at the Ministry of Defence Police Federation conferences and were boosted in our confidence that our concerns would be heard at the right level and in person.
And when I remind delegates that today is also Budget Day, a day which was re-arranged from its original date by the Chancellor and for perfectly understandable reasons, then you are to be particularly applauded for finding time in your diary to be here.
It was good of you to reschedule your day to be with us and I hope that what I have to say on behalf of my members will make it worthwhile.
First, I want to begin by outlining our worries about the Government's attitude to the UK police service. We may be the British Transport Police, small in number, 2,100 officers out of a UK service of some 130,000, but I can assure you that our worries about what is happening to the police service are shared the length and breadth of the land. As a member of that Government, I am sure you will forgive me if I take the opportunity to describe to you in some detail how upset and frustrated the police service is with this Government in general, and with the Home Office in particular. And before anyone of a pedantic mindset points out that we are not a Home Department Force, let me just remind everyone that our terms and conditions as BTP officers are 100 per cent dependent upon what is agreed at PNB. If our Federation colleagues lose at PNB, so will we. Their fight for fairness is therefore our fight.
And that is precisely why on 13th March, 10,000 officers, including representation from ourselves, lobbied Parliament. March 13th was the largest single lobbying day by the UK police service and the largest gathering of police officers since 1994, when over 20,000 officers gathered at Wembley to protest against the Sheehy Report.
What drove us to such desperate high profile action? Well Minister, as you know unlike other employees, police officers are forbidden by law to take industrial action in pursuit of their grievances. We are totally dependent upon the reasonableness of our case being understood by our ultimate paymasters, the Government. Indeed that is why we value so much these opportunities such as conference when we can have direct dialogue without the mischief of spin.
The UK police service is accused of being against reform and efficiencies. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Home Office has seized upon the word 'reform' because it immediately suggests that they have the high moral ground and the public interest at heart. We are not opposed to reform if by that you mean considered changes which will enable us to provide a better and more responsive police service to wherever it is needed.
We support change if it means more police officers, better training and national standards. If it means a Royal Commission on policing, the introduction of an independent Police Complaints Commission, an end to hobby bobbies and their replacement with paid professional support for Specials. And if we must have Neighbourhood Wardens, then it is a recipe for daily conflict with the ordinary public if they are granted even minimal powers.
The BTPF has thrown its full support behind the campaign of England and Wales to defeat the worst aspects of the Police Reform Bill. I know that the financial elements have gone to conciliation and we all share the hope that the white smoke of common sense will soon emanate from St Anne's Gate.
As a Labour Minister with an impeccable trade union background, you will understand the care and thoroughness of the steps we took to ensure that we accurately reflected the views of our members. This is no example of a strident leadership tail wagging the body of members. This is a leadership empowered by a nation-wide ballot which gave a 90 per cent majority rejection of the Government's proposals.
The position we had arrived at with Government was not an agreed position; it was a negotiated one. The distinction is subtle but important. The Federation leadership had got as far with Government at that time as we were going to get. There was no better deal on offer from Government at that time.
We put the proposals to our membership. Our position was neutral; it was not for us to sell the package blindly to an unsuspecting membership. In the end we got the result we expected. The Home Office may not like it but then that's democracy for you. This Government needs to listen to the message which is coming through from the police. It is time to stop spinning and to take on board our real concerns.
Everyone in the BTP has noted that the proposed changes in the Home Department forces will be fully funded by Treasury. This is quite proper. No police service can be expected to find from within its own resources sufficient finance for such costly Government inspired proposals. We have had no prior warning. There has as yet been no signal yet that the substantial additional costs for the BTP adopting the proposals will be paid for by extra funds coming through the Department of Transport, presumably from Treasury.
Minister, I think we would welcome confirmation that Government money will be made available to the BTP. We are already hard pushed as it is, as I am now about to tell you.
Funding is always high on the policing agenda. It is hardly surprising given that over 80 per cent of police costs are taken up by human resources. The BTP is under pressure to reduce costs, as is any police service in the UK. But our circumstances are somewhat different and we are also more vulnerable and I will return to that point shortly.
Just before Christmas the Police Committee asked the Chief Constable to prepare a budget for this year with the intention of freezing charges at their present level. Even the most economic illiterate amongst us knows that a freeze, in a period of even modest inflation, is a cut in real terms.
I cannot speak for the Chief Constable, of course, but I can tell you that my Federation was stunned. At a time when the government promises increased numbers and more resources, at a time of an undiminished threat of international terrorism from Al Quada, the most attractive target in Britain - our national railway network - was facing manpower cuts. Representations were made urgently at all levels to the Police Committee and to their credit, they understood and acted upon the arguments put to them. The budget was reset at one per cent more than 2001/2002, giving us an extra £1.6 million in total, which was then quite properly earmarked for frontline policing. London Underground budget was increased by 4.5 per cent as agreed with London Underground Ltd.
But Minister, it's not a case of all's well that ends well. It is the very fact that a decrease in budget was even contemplated that sends out the wrong messages to the members I represent and to the general public. Above all, it illustrates the fundamental weakness of how the BTP is funded.
You will be aware of the often quoted rule in government, which generally serves well, that the user pays. It has a particular relevance on green issues such as pollution. But it is regularly being applied in circumstances which disadvantages this Force and, in a second example which I will quote, disadvantages the members of this Force personally.
First the principle, the user pays, is being used to tackle the problem of traffic congestion in London. Each officer will be faced with the personal costs of the new daily £5 congestion tax. This is an unfair burden if it is imposed on essential public service workers such as the police. Surely the object of the tax is to deter those who have a choice as to when or how often they choose to travel into central London. Police officers do not. We must go to where the work is and there is already sufficient disincentive to put officers off working in London without the introduction of a tax. This charge will not affect the wealthy but it will certainly suggest to my members that they would be better off working for Thames Valley Police. Ken Livingstone needs to look at this again and reappraise the purpose of the tax. Is it a money spinning scheme, a serious traffic dissuader or an incentive for public servants to work elsewhere?
Turning now to the Force itself, the BTP remains saddled with being funded by the Train Operating Companies. In turn they are driven by commercial priorities in the very difficult market of railway transportation. My Federation understands the competitive pressures on the Train Operating Companies but we do not believe that safety can ever be compromised. Naturally the Train Operating Companies seek to cut costs and in too many cases they see the BTP as an overhead to be minimised and where possible even eliminated.
The message, that the travelling public likes to see railway police officers - because it gives them confidence in their safety, seems at times to be lost on the Train Operating Companies. It is not the Train Operating Companies who should be deemed the users of BTP services; it is the railway public.
Related to this is our interest in the work of the consultants recently appointed with the following Terms of Reference: "To prepare a concise report comprising a strategic review of the overall provision of policing services to the railway, both overground and underground". I have no doubt that this report will justify the work of the British Transport Police and acknowledge the necessity of our specialist role. But it is a pity that within their wide ranging Terms of Reference that opportunity was not given to the consultants to examine the validity of the principle of user pays to the financial arrangements of the Force. It remains our firm view that this Force should be funded directly by the Department of Transport from the public purse. Until that happens the BTP is too often going to be seen by the Train Operating Companies as an optional extra or as an expensive burden. You will understand now my anxiety about how police reform of the BTP will be funded when its extra costs will be so unwelcome to the Train Operating Companies.
The situation at Wednesbury, where there are moves to end the contract with the BTP, is a small but telling illustration of my point. If we lose our police operation at Midland Metro, it may be the thin end of the wedge, leading to a diminution, or even elimination of a BTP presence in larger stations and railway networks. In the longer term the reduction of the number of Train Operating Companies may ease our position in recovering costs from them but at the moment being funded by the Train Operating Companies is wrong in principle and frustrating in practice.
Last year the Department of Transport issued a consultation paper entitled 'Modernising the British Transport Police'. My Federation pronounced itself generally content with the paper and advised your officials accordingly. The Consultative Paper contained the long overdue modernisation of our jurisdiction powers by removing the anomaly of not being able to act as police officers unless on railway property. Minister, we are grateful to Parliament for being persuaded at long last that this measure would increase effective policing and gave my members protection of the office of constable where police intervention is necessary.
It is a pity that it took the tragedy of September 11th to deliver the necessary political will, but we are grateful nonetheless.
One of the responses to the Department of Transport's Consultation Paper has, however, dismayed my Federation. I am aware that Ken Livingstone, has made clear indications that he would like to merge the three forces which provide policing in the capital into a single London force. The Met, City of London and half of the BTP would find themselves answering to the Lord Mayor as Chairman of a London Police Authority.
I admire his ambition but it does not have our support, nor do I suspect do his views receive eager acceptance in either the Met or the City of London. Speaking as I can only for this Federation, we reject the proposal. To lose half of our Force into a London service would destroy the viability of a separate railway specialist police service. In time our skills in public safety and railway security would become so diluted as to fail the public. If this is deemed protectionism on my part, then I plead guilty, because it is protectionism not of members' jobs but of the safety of the travelling public.
In finishing Minister, I want to say a word about the safety of our officers. We are all aware of the headlines around the continuing seepage of refugees into the South of England from France in particular. I raise this matter because it is obvious that this is an issue between sovereign Governments rather than a purely policing matter. Every night BTP and Kent officers are dealing with refugees, mostly from the third-world. They are in a tragic plight and must command our sympathy. But they also bring with them infectious diseases from their originating countries. They travel in unsafe and unhygienic conditions. They are desperate people willing to risk their lives and to resort to violence. The knives they carry to cut their way into lorries and railway wagons, will just as easily cut or stab an officer.
We raised the seriousness of this problem with the Chief Constable last November and we are working with Force Management to maximise officer protection. It remains an unsatisfactory state of affairs, which is why I have raised the issue with you Minister. I urge you to represent our views, which are also humanitarian based, with the Foreign Office. This problem needs to dealt with at source - where it originates in France. The seepage of these pitiful refugees will eventually become a torrent which will overwhelm our resources.
Minister, thank you for joining us. I look forward with my colleagues to hearing your address.