If this were simply another case of public sector workers complaining about a poor deal from the Government because they weren't going to get another inflation-busting pay increase the TaxPayers' Alliance wouldn't be particularly sympathetic. Public sector workers have had a pretty good deal over the last decade and most have very little to complain about. Taxpayers have to foot the bill and are hard pressed as it is.
However, the debate currently going on over the police deal isn’t really about the money. The police themselves will tell you - if you push them on the subject - that they're pretty reasonably paid. Their deal is tough but in the harder economic conditions we're facing at the moment a lot of people are having to tighten their belt. This dispute isn't about pay restraint but about the way the Government went about securing pay restraint.
Essentially, the police pay deal is negotiated each year but often isn't negotiated in time. When that happens the pay is backdated so that the torturously slow process doesn't leave officers out of pocket. This year was particularly difficult and, in the end, went to arbitration. That means an external body taking over and, after both sides have made their case, deciding on what the final deal will be. The body in question is ACAS and their decision is binding upon the police - they have to accept it - but not legally binding on the government. The arbitration is not legally binding on the government but is clearly, in some sense, morally binding if the arbitration is not completely meaningless. The arbitration did not go the Government's way and they've responded by refusing to pay the backdated pay which means that the police will only get their rise for nine instead of twelve months this year. They understandably see this as a huge breach of confidence.
The way to avoid disputes like this isn’t to throw ever higher salaries at public sector workers. A deal that was financially identical but reached in a less dubious manner would not have gotten the police nearly so wound up. Instead we need to address the real problem which is that ministers without the management experience to run an organisation on the scale of the police service – Jacqui Smith was a teacher – made a complete mess of the negotiating process.
The police are quite reasonably paid but they see other public workers striking, the government backing down and those workers getting more generous deals. The classic example was the Warwick Agreement where they backed down on essential reforms to public sector pensions. At the same time their morale is sapped by targets that prevent them getting on with their job. Just today it was discovered that the police now spend barely one hour in seven on the beat deterring crime - "incident-related paperwork" is keeping them busy. The present crisis is a result of these problems and the mishandling of the negotiations. It is right that the Government should try to control public sector pay but it will take good management, which centralised politics cannot provide, to do this without compromising services.