Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Osborne: I very much agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. When everyone is calling for more police on the streets, greater visibility in policing and the gap between the police and the community to be reduced, it is strange that the Government have not initiated a serious debate on how we increase the number of specials.

The figures given by the hon. Member for Lewes are striking. The long-term decline in the number of specials has sharply accelerated in the past five years and, by my reckoning, is down by more than a third since 1997. I have heard no good reason for that dramatic fall. It may be due to a change in the pattern of people's behaviour—in the changing way in which people take part in voluntary activity and so forth. If so, that is all the more reason to consider some form of payment—if that is what it takes to recruit specials.

Specials have many advantages over the CSOs that we have spent hours debating in this Committee. Although the Government's aspiration for revitalising or increasing the number of specials is mentioned in the White Paper, it is clear that nothing like the amount of time, imagination and energy has gone into that idea that has gone into creating CSOs.

I remind the Committee that, unlike CSOs, specials have all the police powers, so there is no need for the endless debate that we had about what type of powers to give them. They wear the same uniform as police, have similar training and are subject to the same complaints and disciplinary procedures. They are publicly accountable. They fit into the day-to-day work of the police in the best police forces, although I accept that some forces are not so good at using them.

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Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife): The suggestion is that the loss of special constables has happened overnight and is not regressive. That is mistaken. The loss of special constables has not taken place in the past four or five years. The proposals do not stop chief constables from employing staff in whatever way they think best. Does the hon. Gentleman think that chief constables would not make that judgment?

Mr. Osborne: I am guessing, but there are a couple of reasons for the sharp decline in the number of specials. The first is the changing way in which people do voluntary work. All voluntary organisations, such as churches, charities and, dare I say, political parties, find it increasingly difficult to attract volunteers—although some parties may find it more difficult than others. Secondly, policing appears to have become more difficult in recent years—there is more bureaucracy and it is more litigious, and so forth. People are put off going onto the street as volunteers.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would be interested in hearing the Minister's response. Would he agree that a factor may also be the increase in recruitment? Specials have traditionally been seen as an avenue into the police and the 250 extra policemen in the South Wales force may well have come from the specials.

Mr. Osborne: That is probably unlikely. First, for most of the past five years there has been a fall in the number of police, although the number has gone up now. The number of regular police officers, and specials, has been falling. I know that the hon. Gentleman is keen to hear the Minister, not least because his new clause is next. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. MacDougall) that chief constables can already come up with forms of payment, but as the Bill is all about central prescription, I am asking the Home Office if there is a national drive behind the national plans, three-year strategies and so on, which might make it work? I am extremely attracted to the idea of an auxiliary force of the size mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)—I take note of his comments on the term ''auxiliary''—of 25 per cent. of the regular force, which would do a tremendous amount to increase public confidence in the police service. It would address our constituents' fears about the visibility of policing on the street, bobbies on the beat, and so on. There is a complete lack of imagination or thinking from the Government about how to use the specials, in contrast to the imagination and thinking that has gone into creating the CSOs.

Patrick Mercer: I am glad to be able to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. One or two sensible points were also made by Opposition Members.

I have spent some time with constables, as have other hon. Members, and the reasons numbers have been dropping are manifold and varied. First, the regular force recruits from the special force. I have no difficulty with that as it is extremely helpful and sensible, but the problem comes in topping up the loss of those who go on to serve with the regular force.

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Secondly, as the hon. Member for Tatton said, specials' duties are becoming mundane. With the regular force increasingly under pressure, there is a tendency, even among the most enlightened regular officers, to try to use the specials to do the less attractive, more tedious tasks.

Thirdly, on the other side of the coin, every member of the Committee knows that the problem of police numbers is aired at town council, parish council, district council and other meetings. In my constituency, which is more rural than many, every audience that I address, or that addresses me, brings that point up, to which I say, ''How many of you will volunteer to be special constables?'' Not a single hand goes up. I ask, ''How many of you are retained firemen?'' A few hands go up. When I ask, ''How many of you are Territorial Army soldiers?'' even fewer hands go up. The simple reason is that there is no remuneration to offset the difficulties of being a special constable. It is as blunt as that. The cons outweigh the pros of the service.

The regular force regards its special constables very highly. It uses them thoroughly proficiently, for front-line duties, and it likes having specials around. Before I go any further, I beg the Government not, on any account, to use the word ''auxiliary'', whatever happens to the proposal. The Northern Ireland police force would recoil very hard indeed should that term come anywhere near them and I ask the Government to think carefully about it. [Hon. Members: ''A B-special''.] Or even a Black and Tan.

The main point is that the regular policeman is entirely happy with the special constables; he understands them and he knows and understands the parameters within which they work. He understands their training, their uniform, their badges and their powers. To the regular officer, the special constable is a completely understood creature. Minds are not closed to CSOs or ACSOs, certainly not in the constabulary of Nottinghamshire, but special constables already exist and are thoroughly accepted. I beg the Minister to think carefully about their future use. I sincerely applaud the efforts that have already been made to recruit them, but I echo comments from all hon. Members about the energy and thought that need to be given to producing extra measures to provide more special constables. If we can afford a Territorial Army and a retained fire service, surely we can afford a special constabulary, even at the expense of CSOs or ACSOs.

4.30 pm

I would encourage the Minister to avoid the moribund thinking that goes into recruiting for the armed services, which has turned it into such a difficult problem to solve. With a little thought, energy and redirection of funds, this problem can be solved much more clearly, quickly and effectively than by increasing the numbers of CSOs or ACSOs.

Mr. Denham: I shall reply as briefly as I can, as I am aware that my hon. Friends have been waiting for six weeks for the opportunity to speak in the last few minutes. This is a crucial debate. We will not ask the Committee to accept the motion and the new clause.

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However, I will set out what we are doing about recruiting specials, and how we will take the spirit of the new clause to ensure that every police authority is required to address the local strategy for the recruitment and retention of specials. There is no contradiction between having CSOs and specials, and it is right to say that we must invest considerable energy into reversing the decline in the special constabulary and into expanding it, as we will in other areas of police reform.

As hon. Members have rightly said, there are many reasons for the decline in police numbers. Undoubtedly, specials have been heavily recruited into the regular force, especially in the past two years, not least because over the long period when police numbers were declining, people who were keen on becoming police officers were often directed into the specials to get some experience. None the less, we need to improve the recruitment, management, deployment and welfare of specials. In recent weeks, we set out a new headline role for specials that emphasises their role in intelligence-led patrolling and crime-reduction initiatives. Last week, I had the privilege of presenting the Ferrers trophy. I was interested to see how many of the specials who were nominated had been enormously effective in dealing with youth nuisance problems in local communities. I am pleased by what the hon. Member for Newark said and how he promotes that initiative locally. We need to develop it as part of the community solution to such problems.

Last month, we issued a new foundation training package for specials, and are working on revised conditions of service regulations. A crucial area is liaison with employers, on which I agree that we have only just started work. As an employer, there can be little better than using the public purse to train an employee in the skills of a special constable. They will exercise those skills in their own time, but will inevitably bring them to work. We have completely undersold that aspect.

Last week, we briefly discussed the Connex initiative in supporting specials, and we need to explore more such initiatives. If an employee is in the Territorial Army, the employer will be invited to award ceremonies, given certificates to hang on the boardroom wall, or perhaps be invited to drive a tank round Salisbury plain. If an employee is a special constable, no one takes any notice of the employer. We need to address the question of employer support with the CBI and other organisations.

We also want to get more drive into those parts of the police service that are already keen to expand the use of specials. We have provided money to work with 10 police forces who want to champion the reversal of the trend in specials and to determine the best practice. We have also provided money for people to employ co-ordinators for their local work. I am delighted that ACC Peter Fahy from Surrey police has agreed to be the person with whom I will work closely. He will liaise between the Home Office and those police forces. We hope that that will demonstrate on the ground what can be done to increase the number of specials.

There has been quite a bit of debate about payment. We are in no doubt that the specials should remain

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essentially a voluntary force. There is a debate about whether some payment or bounty should be made available. There are regulations that would enable police authorities to do that at the moment. Later this year my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary will publish a joint discussion paper on fiscal and other changes that can be made to promote community service, including service as a special constable.

Hon. Members will understand that at present many of the types of payment that could be made could fall foul of tax and other regimes, which would make them unattractive. I recently had discussions with a senior Member of the House whose local town and parish councils wish to support the specials. We are in discussions about whether local schemes could be piloted, whether through individual remuneration or the provision of equipment such as a car to be used by the specials on their duties. We want to explore many things as part of working with the 10 forces that we want to champion for recruitment.

How do we get police authorities and forces to look at this on a regular basis? The best way would be to have a strong statement about specials in the national policing plan, which, in line with our earlier discussion, would require local policing plans to set out that they intend to address the matter at local level. It would achieve much of the spirit, if not the letter, of the new clauses. I will not go into detail about what is wrong with them, but they could lead to a fragmentation of approaches to the use of specials across different police forces and we need a consistent national drive. I hope that I have replied to the new clauses in the spirit in which they were moved. We must get behind the expansion of specials. We must not let it drop off the police reform agenda. I hope that I have reassured the Committee that I take the matter very seriously.

 
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Prepared 27 June 2002