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LONDON (Reuters) - Thousands of police officers will now be balloted over whether they should take industrial action, their union said Wednesday as it called for Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to resign.
More than 140,000 police officers from England and Wales will be asked whether they should pursue strike action rights as relations with the government plumbed new depths.
Police are banned from striking under laws introduced in the 1990s but Tuesday's vote could change that, after officers voted to gauge colleague support for the unprecedented challenge.
Their calls on Smith to resign will also add further pressure on the Home Secretary, after it was revealed that many members of the government had privately raised concerns.
"Police officers have no trust and confidence with the Home Secretary's ability to deal fairly with their pay and conditions and they call on her to resign," federation chairwoman Jan Berry told reporters after a crisis meeting.
The meeting was attended by officers from all 43 forces along with representatives from the Police Superintendents' Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
"The meeting has also decided that a ballot of officers should be taken. Strike action is alien to police officers but ... they feel they have been pushed into a corner and that their human rights have been withdrawn from them," Berry said.
She said many officers did not want to take industrial action but they felt they had been left with no choice after being "betrayed" by Smith.
The row erupted last week when Smith said officers would get a 2.5 percent pay increase set by the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal in stages.
But Smith decided it would be paid in December, rather than backdated to September, as expected.
Police claim this cuts the rise to 1.9 per cent, which is far less than the rate of inflation and which will save the government an estimated 30 million pounds.
Smith has admitted this is the first time a home secretary had decided to stage pay rises, but says it balances police needs with sensible government spending and will help keep down inflation and interest rates.
Her decision was also backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown who defended the decision in parliament.
He told the House of Commons that officers had received a nine per cent pay rise, in real terms, over the past 10 years.
Brown said it was a fair outcome for police and taxpayers.
Political pressure is also mounting on Smith after members of the influential home affairs select committee said on Tuesday her decision was damaging morale, destroying police confidence and had sparked widespread unrest.
Earlier, Police Minister Tony McNulty said some backbench Labour MPs had relayed anger and disquiet from police, but rejected suggestions the government's actions had been "shabby" or that it had acted with dishonour.
"We think this is a fair settlement. It needs to be seen in the context of what we've done with police pay over the last 10 years which is to treat them as quite an exceptional case," McNulty told BBC radio.
"There is certainly not on my part any notion of disrespect or anything but awe in terms of what the police do on a daily basis," he added.
Reporting by Michael Holden and Andrew Hough, editing by Jeremy Lovell