HR skills could make or break the police merger programme

HR professionals in police forces across England and Wales are laying down plans for the forthcoming services merger, described as “the biggest reform of policing that the country has seen for 30 years”.

Fundamental differences in pay systems and cultures will make life difficult for police HR departments, experts have warned. And senior police staff have said that if HR does not handle the transition well, it could have serious implications for crime prevention.

Last week, the Home Office confirmed that the number of police forces in England and Wales will be cut from 43 to 24.

The merger proposals were recommended by a government report published in September 2005 and written in the wake of the 7 July bombings in London.

In the changed political climate, with increased fear of terrorism threats and the growth in organised crime, the report concluded that the existing police force structure was inadequate.

Support services

The restructure, which is expected to have the greatest impact on support services in the forces, such as HR, finance and IT, has sparked major concerns about staff morale and retention.

In the Tees Valley region in the North East, Stockton Council has predicted about 800 police job cuts.

Trevor Watson, director of personnel and training at Durham Police, said mass redundancies would be inevitable.

“If we manage this appropriately and effectively we can minimise the impact of staff reductions,” he said.

The Home Office has set up an HR working group, with representatives from the Association of Police Authorities (APA) and the Association of Chief Police Officers. The group will meet twice a month and co-ordinate HR policy for the restructuring programme.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: “The working group will identify where there is scope for national initiatives. Our work with force HR directors will help us to identify where this input will yield the greatest benefit.”

An APA spokesman said: “HR professionals will have a major role to play in ensuring that police restructuring is implemented effectively.
“We are aware of concerns about job losses among police staff, including those working in HR departments, and will be actively working through the Police Staff Council, and with trade unions, to ensure that staff are treated fairly and decently, and given clarity as early as possible,” he said.

A stakeholder group has been established for staff associations, including trade unions and police support organisations.

The Police Staff Council has begun discussions on an HR agreement policy, based on similar models from local government and probation service mergers. The agreement includes details of new appointments, rank structure, transfer arrangements and severance pay.

Maintain productivity

Keith Watkinson, director of personnel and training at West Yorkshire Police, said it was essential for HR to put in place business continuity plans to ensure falling staff numbers do not affect service levels.

“If we take our eye off the ball, there could be serious consequences in terms of crime prevention,” he said.

The government expects the mergers to be completed by April 2008 at the latest, but Watkinson described the timescale as unrealistic.

“It’s a very ambitious business plan in a very limited timescale,” he said. “We’re not going to see a return of investment on this for at least 10 years.”

Mike Hay, head of police practice at the Hay Group consultancy, said the existing structure of police HR functions presented a major challenge.
“Lots of forces do not have an HR representative on the board and some don’t have an HR director at all,” he said.

The fundamental differences in pay structures, culture and organisational management will all be significant obstacles to overcome, according to Hay. “The pay systems and cultures in different forces vary massively,” he said.

Thames Valley, for example – one of the 15 forces not affected by the merger plans – is the only force to have performance-related pay based on a market rate, according to Hay, while many of the other forces operate to a national pay structure or one based on length of service.

Watkinson agreed that it was important not to eclipse the smaller forces by the merged force assuming the culture of the larger ones.

“HR departments might think that the most effective way of implementing the changes during the mergers would be to choose the terms and conditions of the biggest forces, but this might not be suitable for the culture of a smaller force,” he said.

It is clear that there is still a long way to go before a general consensus is reached.

Fighting back

Cleveland Police is challenging its proposed merger with Durham and Northumbria through a judicial review; West Mercia continues to oppose its merger in the scheme; and the Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire services said there were still unanswered questions about costs and accountability.

But Durham Police’s Watson was still confident that the mergers would be a success. “There are huge challenges ahead, but they are certainly not insurmountable,” he said.

The police authorities have been given until 7 April to respond to the proposals.

Planned mergers of police forces

  • Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire
  • Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffol
  • Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex
  • Surrey and Sussex
  • Cumbria and Lancashire
  • Cheshire and Merseyside
  • Cleveland, Durham and Northumbria
  • Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Mercia and West Midlands
  • Dyfed, Powys, Gwent, North Wales and South Wales

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