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SOC policing: mind the pay gap

Regional Organised Crime Units and the NCA both have high staff attrition rates and issues with sustainable funding. Gary Mason explores why.

SOC policing: mind the pay gap

Date - 11th February 2021
By - Gary Mason

Last week in the House of Commons Shadow Home Office Minister Conor McGinn asked what had happened to former Met Deputy Commissioner Sir Craig Mackey’s review into the policing response to  serious and organised crime.

The Government received Sir Craig’s report in February last year and the House were told in June that the report’s recommendations were "being considered." But since then not a peep. We do not know the details of his report.

In reply policing minister Kit Malthouse gave a rather vague response that mentioned the pandemic, the go-to explanation for all the nation’s ills.

But the HoC question was timely as there appears to be serious recruitment and retention issues around the agencies that are responsible for policing and enforcement relating to SOC.

Yesterday HMICFRS published a report that painted a bleak picture of the funding and recruitment and retention of staff in the Regional Organised Crime Unit (ROCU) set up.

ROCUs were established in 2009 and there are nine units across England and Wales. Each serve between three and seven constituent forces. The Met, City of London Police and BTP do not currently have a ROCU, though this is being reconsidered.

What is not in doubt is that ROCUs have grown considerably and are far bigger organisations now than they were when they were first established. The problem is that resources and staffing have not matched that growth.

Police forces contribute towards the cost of maintaining their ROCU and most also contribute officers, staff and equipment. This often includes providing some HR and finance support.

Under the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the National Crime Agency is only empowered to task police forces, not ROCUs.

According to HMIC these “anomalies in the governance and tasking process” mean the NCA and ROCUs are less effective at making sure the highest threats are prioritised, and the right resources deployed to tackle them.

Some forces are reluctant to co-operate on recruiting into ROCUs and there is a national shortage of specialist skills, not helped by the shortage of detectives. Once forces have reached their quota, their officers and staff cannot apply for vacant ROCU posts. This undermines the ability of the ROCUs to select from the best pool of candidates from across the region, the inspectorate warned.

All the ROCUs inspected highlighted staffing problems, most of them related to funding.

We are still awaiting the findings of Sir Craig's review into SOC

The report says short-term funding affects recruitment and retention and results in a continuous struggle to keep some essential posts filled. More than half of one ROCU’s disruption team left in the absence of confirmation that short-term funding would be renewed. Staff had already moved on by the time extended funding was confirmed. The report notes that the wellbeing of staff in such posts is affected when they are not notified until very late whether their contract will be renewed.

The primary functions of each ROCU are to provide a range of specialist capabilities to forces and to lead the regional response to SOC.

These include covert operations, surveillance, undercover policing, confidential unit, regional asset recovery team, cyber, operational security, government agency intelligence network, prison intelligence and SOC operations

But ROCUs find it difficult to retain staff with specialist skills, particularly in cyber-crime, because policing salaries are not competitive with the private sector.

£6k more working across the road

In all ROCUs inspected, there was evidence that rates of pay among police staff made it hard to attract and retain them. Some ROCUs are co-located with, or near to, NCA premises.

The significant difference in pay leads to ROCU staff moving to the NCA. One ROCU senior manager told the inspection team: “Three members of ROCU business support staff recently joined the NCA and now earn £6,000 more working over the road.”

The report adds: “We found some evidence of good practice where a ROCU paid an enhanced salary to recruit and retain highly specialised staff members. A consistent approach needs to be implemented within government agencies to pay staff based on their skills.”

Rates of pay within the NCA may be better that ROCUs in some areas but the national agency tasked with taking the lead on serious and organised crime has its own recruitment and retention problems.

Attrition rates “unacceptably high”

Simon Boon is General Secretary of the National Crime Officers Association – the trade union that represents staff at the NCA. He has an interesting perspective on R&R as he was a detective with the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) before it morphed into the NCA and also served as a full time investigator with the new organisation. He now has a full time role within the NCOA.

He traces some of the Agency’s current problems with attrition rates  - which he describes as “unacceptably high” – to that transformation in 2013 in that it created a two-tier pay mechanism which can roughly be divided into those who have enforcement powers (including immigration and customs powers) and those who do not.

Legislation was brought in which meant that those Agency staff with powers had their pay and conditions negotiated through a pay review body  - the NCARRB – but revoked the right to take industrial action while those staff with no powers had their pay aligned to that of the Civil Service but did retain the right to strike.

But even though NCA investigators have their pay and conditions negotiated through a pay review body similar to that used by territorial police forces in England and Wales, within the Agency pay progression on time served has been completely eliminated. The grading system for all staff is similar to that of the Civil Service.

There are no significant incremental pay increases, for example, within Grades 1 and 2 which are roughly equivalent to a DC or DS in territorial forces. This is in stark contrast to the pay spine system used by Home Office forces (and based on years served etc).  

Simon Boon says this is behind the high attrition rate  - pay progression is negligible. He also underlines the fact that across all the grades within the NCA former officers are earning between 80-85 per cent of the equivalent salary for their rank in territorial policing so they are starting from a low base anyway with little chance of improvement.

The NCOA’s view is that if the NCA has an ambition to be the premier law enforcement body in the UK and the career of choice for the best investigators it should be paying more than the going rate for territorial forces, not less.

He says the NCA’s commitment to ‘self fund’ pay increases from its existing budget is a significant barrier to this ambition.

The NCA senior management is aware of the problems of attracting and retaining the best people. Three years ago (2018) the deputy director general Nina Cope introduced a Spot Pay system  which means staff will see their pay increase as they develop competencies within a role. This was basically a pledge to increase pay in exchange for improvements in productivity; those who opt on to the system must agree to a contractual change, moving from a 37-hour to a 40-hour week.

This change has had its critics, including the chair of the NCA Remuneration Review Body David Lebrecht, who said he was “not aware of any other part of the public sector, including the police, where this is normal practice” and warned it was “likely to cause discontent within the workforce”.

But Nina Cope said it was a “really important part of our overall deal”. She said it would allow staff who were already doing a lot of overtime to consolidate that pay and have it as part of their pension, and help the agency to get a tighter grip on its outgoings.

Simon Boon says that the jury is still very much out on the spot pay system. Staff have to actively opt into it and he says so far only 25 per cent (around 1,000 people) of NCA staff have signed up to it. He says that for a DC equivalent grade the system will give some small increases in pay but that would then dry up after two years.

The spot pay system has only been introduced for some grades  - there are plans for Grade 3 (Detective Inspector equivalent) to be given the option in return to giving up overtime pay.

The overtime issue is a hot potato  - the NCOA have commenced a “Pay to Stay” campaign which urges staff not to do over time without reward.

On the pension abatement change Simon Boon says the pension deferral powers given to the Director General would probably be attractive to detectives who are nearing the end of their 30 year service and are looking for an interesting career option.

But he notes that all such deferrals will be made on a “case by case” basis by DG Lynne Owens personally and says these powers are linked to central government arrangements which are a bit of a grey area.

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