Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Paice: As the hon. Member for Lewes said, new clause 21 has been tabled by Conservative Members and follows the theme of the new clause that he moved.

The office of special constable in this country is extremely old. It can be dated back to 1285 and the statute of Winchester, which brought justices of the peace and the unpaid office of constable into existence. Soon after the formation of what became the regular police force in 1831, the Special Constables Act 1831 was passed, so there is a long-established tradition. Admittedly, special constables were brought under individual force operations only more recently, but they had been present in substantial numbers until the past decade. I shall not rehearse all the figures that the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned, but over the past five years, the number of special constables has dropped by 7,500 to 12,000, or by more than a third since the Government took office.

I make a comparison with the Territorial Army. I do not suggest for a moment that the organisations are equivalent, although there are similarities. Some 40,000 people are members of the Territorial Army at present, so there is a significant distinction between the numbers of people involved in two voluntary activities within the world of security and peacekeeping.

We can all speculate about why the fall in numbers has occurred, although that is probably not a constructive exercise. I suspect that reasons include lifestyle and the way in which specials have been deployed. Many specials have told me that they get fed up with being called in only on bank holidays or for football matches because they want to do something a bit more serious. Some forces have shown a tendency not to use specials as serious police officers. Whatever the reasons for the decline, it has happened, and there is a need to tackle the problem.

My concern is, perhaps, slightly more sinister than that of the hon. Member for Lewes. I get the feeling from the Government that by developing CSOs and ACSOs we can forget about special constables. That is completely the wrong way round. Special constables are much more important and should have been involved in the Government's plans to increase the police family. That was the message that my noble Friends initially advanced in the other place. I do not necessarily have in mind purely the traditional use of special constables. We need to do some radical thinking about them in a context that is perhaps more akin to the Territorials, the retained fire service, or various other possibilities. It would have been far better to go down that avenue than to establish other forms of uniformed people with much lesser powers, the subject of which has caused sore debate several times in Committee.

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In the White Paper on which virtually the entire Bill is predicated, ''Policing a new century: a blueprint for reform'', paragraph 4.32 on page 71 states:

    ''Following on from the recommendations in the Home Office funded research in 2000, these''—

the options that the Government are considering—

    ''are focusing on improvements in the management and deployment of Specials. We are also exploring the case for paying an allowance to recognise levels of commitment.''

That is fine. It is a pretty bland statement, and we could all agree with it. However, that is many months ago. We have the Bill—we have nearly had the Bill—and still we are no further forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and I tabled the amendment because we want to urge the Government to do something and to tell us what they plan to do to revitalise specials.

Committee members may have noticed that new clause 21 is almost identical to a provision proposed by the Police Federation, which I assume was sent to all Committee members. It is not identical. I substituted the word ''auxiliaries'' with ''special constables'' in our version, as I am not convinced that the word ''auxiliaries'' is the right one or even that it necessarily has a particular meaning that should be included in legislation. However, the idea of an extra force is essential. There are a couple of minor points, or criteria, at the end of the Police Federation's proposal that we have not included in ours. Nevertheless, it is substantially the same.

A major aspect of new clause 21 is subsection (5), which states that the Secretary of State should, after consultation with the police negotiating board, determine an amount of remuneration, which can take any form. The hon. Member for Lewes referred to the issue of a bounty. I understand that a working group report in 1996 found that there is legal discretion to pay a bounty to specials but it is effectively in abeyance.

I am not 100 per cent. certain that I know exactly what a bounty is. That may simply be due to my ignorance. Please do not say, ''Hear, hear.'' [Interruption.] Yes, it is slightly bigger than a Twix and smaller than a Mars bar, I think. It also conjures up visions of the wild west and people hunting renegades.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): The concept is entirely that of the Territorial Army. Territorial soldiers receive a bounty that is paid every year and relates to the efficiency of their performance. It is borrowed from that. That motivates the poor and severely slashed Territorial Army to even greater efficiency.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but that only serves to underline the confusion, because the bounty system for retained firefighters is totally different. Their system is about long service. That is why I am confused about what we mean when we refer to bounty. In the proposed legislation, we have used the word remuneration, to cover all possible aspects.

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4.15 pm

Norman Baker: I refer the hon. Gentleman to our new clause 7(1). It says that special constables

    ''shall receive an annual cash bounty based on the number of hours operationally deployed as a special constable.''

Therefore, we are tying that directly to service.

Mr. Paice: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. My comments about bounty were not intended to be a criticism of him, particularly. In my opinion, if what someone is being paid is based on the number of hours that they serve, that is called pay. I do not see why that should be called bounty. It is straightforward payment, as far as I am concerned—a wage or a salary.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Does the hon. Gentleman anticipate that that remuneration would be above the national minimum wage?

Mr. Paice: It all depends. It might not even be related to that. I am not addressing the issue of an hourly rate that is paid. I am simply saying that we need to thrash out a system of remuneration. If that is based on hours served, I presume that, legally, it must be above the minimum wage. However, it might not be related to the hours that are served. It might be related to the number of occasions when people go on duty, or it might be simply a flat retainer—a per annum retainer that is not related to how many hours have been served. There are so many possible permutations that the hon. Gentleman's point is fairly peripheral—and the minimum wage legislation is in place, in any case.

I want to get across that we need to address the whole issue of remuneration, so that we can revitalise the special constabulary, alongside the CSOs and ACSOs, and so that it can regain its former numbers. It is unreasonable to expect that simply spending money on a recruitment exercise will redress the dramatic drop in numbers that has occurred over the past few years—although the Government have spent a lot on local and national recruitment campaigns, and I am not descrying that. We need to be more radical in our thinking about the special constabulary. That is why we have tabled this amendment.

The Government have consistently referred to the importance of the specials. That is referred to in the White Paper, and the Secretary of State, this Minister and other Ministers have all referred to it on the Floor of the House. They have said, ''We want as many specials as possible, and we are going to increase numbers,'' and so forth, but little is happening.

During the passage of this Bill, the Minister has claimed on several occasions that we need to do something now, because there will not be any legislative time available to take action on it in the future. Therefore, everything that the Minister is considering—the proposals that are in the White Paper that I have referred to, and the suggestions that I and the hon. Member for Lewes have put forward—must come to fruition. I do not know whether primary legislation will be required, but I am worried about the Minister's claim that things must come to fruition in this Bill or in regulations. If

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primary legislation is needed to revitalise the special constabulary, it might take a considerable time before there is a vehicle that the Minister can use to do that.

I hope that the Minister can satisfy my considerable concerns. If he cannot do that, the Committee must think carefully about whether this Bill should include something to create the drive that will increase numbers in the special constabulary.

Mr. Challen: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again just before his concluding remarks. On the issue of numbers, his new clause refers to one special for each four constables, which by March of next year would lead to 32,500 specials. Is that realistic, and is it not rather prescriptive for chief constables to be expected to reach that level? Is it not just setting them up to fail?

Mr. Paice: As the hon. Member for Lewes said, 30 years ago there were 29,500 specials, so we have almost been there. The purpose of including a figure is not only because it is the Police Federation's proposal, but to provide a target. Should somebody come forward with an alternative, I would be happy to consider it, but it is essential to have a target. Bearing in mind that we have almost been there in the past, it is not unachievable. There are 40,000 Territorial Army soldiers, so such things are achievable. The most important thing is that the Government's mind is concentrated on dealing with the issue.

 
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Prepared 27 June 2002