HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc960-8 9.38 pm
Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth)

The latest crime figures, announced two or three weeks ago, show that despite a major improvement in police funding amounting to an increase of 60 per cent. since 1979, crime continues to increase.

Each year in the Gracious Speech, reference is made to some new measure designed to stem crime, but despite a battery of initiatives ranging from the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to the introduction of the successful neighbourhood watch schemes, it continues to increase. I sometimes believe that the originality of my right hon. and hon. Friends' thinking is equalled only by the originality of criminals in devising further means and methods of formulating crime.

I make one suggestion to my hon. Friend. I have an idea which seems to have been somewhat neglected so fir. Perhaps it has been neglected because it is unfashionable and it may even be unpopular in certain official circles. It does not cost very much and it is certainly not high-tech. Indeed, it smacks a little of the amateur and harks back to an earlier time in our country's history. It concentrates more on men than on machines—more on informed local interest and less on the impersonal computer. It is more pavement and less Panda-oriented and motivated.

My hon. Friend will know what I am referring to because he has answered a number of my questions about special constables, who always strike me as a sensible British institution and seem to introduce a non-standard note of originality. By definition, they are volunteers—men and women who freely give up their spare time to help and protect their community—and it is my firm belief that we are much the better for their presence and their efforts. We should, however, be seeking substantially to increase their numbers and to improve their training.

I am delighted to have the support of my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) this evening. I also note that, although customarily silent, the Whip on duty, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) is affirming his interest in this genuinely interesting and important matter.

There is also a case for substantially improving the training of special constables. After all, they are an integral part of the police force and should be seen and treated as such.

As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware, there are about 15,500 special constables in post. In 1974, there were 24,000. By comparison, in the past 11 years total police manpower has increased by about 24,500 to a United Kingdom total of about 126,000. Total spending on the police is now running at about £4.5 billion per annum. It might benefit the House to contrast that enormous expenditure with the cost of special constables, which is between £500,000 and £1 million. Special constables are unpaid and receive only their uniform and modest allowances.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I am delighted to have my hon. Friend's permission to intervene, as he has reached one of the nubs of a complex argument. It seems to me, and to my local constabulary of Avon and Somerset which has mentioned the matter to me on a number of occasions, that it is attempting to recruit special constables with one foot in a bucket of concrete.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, there has been a decline in the number of special constables. Unlike other areas of activity in which concerned citizens seek to influence the society in which they live and to play their part in improving it, special constables are not paid, as my hon. Friend pointed out. When a constabulary such as Avon and Somerset attempts to recruit special constables it is competing against the Territorial Army, which can make some payment.

I should like the tradition of unpaid service that the special constable represents to be preserved, as I am sure my hon. Friend would. I understand from a recent parliamentary answer by my hon. Friend the Minister that a campaign is to start early in the new year to recruit more special constables. Some form of imaginative compensation may be needed that would make the difference between this form of service to the community and others slightly less one-sided financially. I should be delighted if my hon. Friend could expand on the point.

Mr. Pawsey

I am pleased that I gave way to my hon. Friend. He clearly deserves his reputation for eloquence. Moreover, he shows that he is very interested in the conditions of service of special constables.

Special constables are unpaid. They receive only the most modest of allowances and a uniform. Incidentally, I have to tell the House, and I take no pleasure in so doing, that those modest allowances are less than adequate or fair. For example, for reasons which frankly I do not understand, a special constable is allowed only 60 per cent. of the meal allowance that a regular constable receives. There may be a good reason for that obvious anomaly, but if there is, I suspect that it has rather more to do with good budgeting than with good diet.

The Minister is aware that even the sick pay entitlement of special constables is worse than that of regulars. I find it genuinely surprising not that there are so few special constables but that there are so many, given the lack of incentives—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West. I therefore urge the Minister to begin a really effective recruitment campaign which will substantially increase the number of special constables. The campaign must contain a modest form of bounty, perhaps as little as £500 per year. That bounty should be found from new money. It should not come from existing police budgets. If it did, that would be a disincentive to the recruitment of special constables. The Minister should also introduce a fair sick pay scheme for special constables who are injured in the course of their official duties. It should equal that which applies to the regular police.

I urge my hon. Friend also to direct his undoubted talents towards the recruitment of more coloured special constables. At present, there are only 453 coloured specials out of a total of 15,500. I acknowledge my hon. Friend's reply to a parliamentary question that I asked, which appeared on 25 January in the Official Report. I hope that he will consider, if he has not already done so, more direct contact with ethnic groups. I ask him also to consider making better use of the ethnic press and to invite ethnic leaders to meet him so that he may advise them about the duties of special constables and seek to persuade them to encourage more ethnic community members to become special constables.

Earlier I referred to training. In July this year I asked my hon. Friend the Minister what action he intends to take to improve the training of special constables. My hon. Friend gave one of his typically helpful and complete replies. He said: We are already reviewing the training needs of special constables with the intention of producing a national training package. This will include training in basic policing skills and knowledge, such as powers of arrest, classification of offences, stop and search powers, traffic law and community involvement with management training for those in supervisory roles."—[Official Report, 12 July 1990; Vol 176, c. 318–191] That is a full reply, but I am anxious to draw my hon. Friend a little further.

For example, can he say how long the training courses might last? Will there be a test at the end of the courses? Who will be the instructors and where will the courses take place? Will they take place within individual force areas or will there be a training college to which recruits might be encouraged to go? Can my hon. Friend say when the improved training courses might commence? Will they be available to existing members of the special constabulary or will they apply only to new recruits?

I appreciate that I am asking my hon. Friend a number of questions and I must confess that I have not given him prior notice. Nevertheless, given his undoubted expertise, the chances are that he will be able to respond in full. If, sadly, he is not able to do so, I am sure that his excellent officials will be able to provide me with a written response in due course. My hon. Friend knows me well and he knows that I have asked those questions in a genuine and constructive desire to be helpful. I therefore look forward to his full reply.

In my view, the effectiveness of any disciplined force is in direct proportion to the training that the force receives. Therefore, specials need to be informed about new legislation and new policing methods being introduced. They should be able to take their place alongside their regular colleagues without any sense of inferiority. They should be secure in the information and advice that they have received and they should be fully capable of dealing with any problems of law enforcement. The regular arm should be confident enough in the specials not to be continually looking over their shoulders wondering what the specials might be doing.

There is thus a need for a more comprehensive form of training than currently exists. I believe that good training will reduce the at times arm's-length attitude adopted by some forces. It may also turn out to be a positive aid to recruiting as properly trained specials will be seen as capable of playing a real and positive role in policing. They would release more regular police for more active duties. Properly trained specials could also play a stronger role in supporting the regular force with back-up and patrol work. I hope that my hon. Friend will inquire into the considerable differences in the number of special constables in various police forces, and I hope that he will ask why the number of special constables in some forces has been allowed to fall.

Another parliamentary answer, which appeared in the Official Report on 15 March, shows that there are wide discrepancies between police forces. In Bedfordshire, there were 215 special constables in 1985, but by 1989 that already small figure had fallen to 137. In the Thames valley, there were 715 special constables in 1985, but sadly by 1989 the figure had fallen to 568. I am not saying that the decline applies across the board. In some countries, there has been a modest improvement. In Leicestershire, for example, there were 220 special constables in 1985, but that had jumped quite spectacularly to 327 in 1989. In Northamptonshire, a modest improvement was also shown, from 203 in 1985 to 240 in 1989, Nevertheless, I continue to be concerned about the wide discrepancy among police forces.

Mr. Stern

My hon. Friend is right to link training and the varying experience of different counties in recruiting special constables. Does he agree that the parallel that I drew with the Territorial Army shows what can be done? He will have noted, as I have in my constituency, the emphasis that has been placed recently on the benefit of joining the Territorial Army not only for what the individual will learn but for that individual's employer in terms of the employee's improvement in general mental attitude to employment and its demands which service with the TA offers.

Does he further agree that, in areas where there has been a relative lack of success in the recruitment of special constables, an effort could be made—indeed, we may hope for such an effort in the recruitment campaign in 1991—to persuade potential employers of the advantages of employing those who serve as special constables? Does he agree that that may need to be addressed in the near future?

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He rightly says that there will be an undoubted benefit to employers whose employees undergo the appropriate training as special constables, and he is right to draw an analogy between special constables and the Territorial Army. For reasons that I do not clearly understand, the TA is regarded as being a more prestigious organisation.

My hon. Friend is right to say that benefits will accrue to employers as a result of employees serving as special constables. For example, a special constable may be able to advise on improved methods of security. That is one positive benefit which would be useful to employers. I appreciate, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister does, the further helpful and knowledgeable contribution made by my hon. Friend.

I hold the view that the better the training, the more professional the application. That, in turn, may ensure a higher level of acceptance by those forces which still regard the specials as suitable only for looking after the village fete. It is evident that several police forces take that wholly mistaken view, which deprives them of much additional expertise.

As the special constables are unpaid volunteers, they undoubtedly bring great enthusiasm to policing and it is wasteful that better use is not made of their time——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]

Mr. Pawsey

I was referring to the enthusiasm brought to policing by the special constables. It would be wasteful if that enthusiasm, time, talent and effort were not utilised most effectively. I very much hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues at the Home Office will be able to re-emphasise their positive support for special constables. I am sure that that would do a great deal of good, both for the morale of special constables and for the prospects of the recruiting campaign which my hon. Friend is to mount in the reasonably near future.

There is great concern about rising crime. The specials are men and women who are prepared to do something about the crime wave. They do not just talk about it—they have acted. They put their free time and energy where others simply put their mouths. More specials would be a positive contribution to law enforcement. A strong and particular bond would emerge between the volunteer specials and the public—or it would do if there numbers were greater. The specials are unsung heroes and deserve a far higher profile, which would also assist recruiting.

I wish to draw my hon. Friend's attention to a splendid speech made only last month at Hutton hall by the noble Lord Ferrers to an audience of senior regular and special police officers. He said: But like everything in Life you get out of anything in direct proportion to what you put in. Put in little and you will get out little. It is just the same with the Specials. You will only get out of the Specials what you are prepared to put into them. Put in little, and you will get out little. Put in a lot, and you will get out a lot. The contribution which Specials can make to the work of any particular force will be in direct proportion to the effort the force is prepared to make in managing them effectively. And this brings me back to what I said a short while ago. It is essential to work out a coherent strategy of how you want to use Specials and how you can achieve those aims. The noble Lord is right. Given good managment and a worthwhile role—not on the lines of the village fete, as I mentioned earlier—the specials can play a considerable part in the battle against crime, but they can play that part only if they are well trained, well motivated and well managed, and their management depends to a large extent on the leadership that comes from the regular police.

In my own county of Warwickshire, we are fortunate in having a chief constable who positively believes in the special police. It is no coincidence that, in Warwickshire—which, admittedly, has a small police force—we have 347 specials. That is slightly up on the 1985 figure. I recall attending, a year or so ago, the passing-out parade of the special constables, held at the police headquarters in Leek Wootton in Warwickshire. It was indeed a memorable occasion. We were graced with the presence of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who was Home Secretary at the time, and I recall the admirable speech that he made. The House will not be surprised to know that the new special constables were smart and that their enthusiasm was obvious. They had clearly been made welcome and they felt part of a team. There is no arm's-length attitude in Warwickshire.

I have referred to increasing police manpower, but despite the increase of 24,000 the public would still like to see more bobbies on the beat. Police recruitment continues to be slow, and the situation is likely to worsen as the number of school leavers continues to fall. More special constables would be welcome, not in place of regular police but in addition to them. At a time when private armies are apparently increasing—witness the increase in the number of security firms and the emergence of the Guardian Angels on our tubes—it is unfortunate that the number of specials is falling.

I do not wish to imply that I regard special constables in any way as a private army. Far from it—they are part of the police force. Clearly, however, some people feel that a measure of additional law enforcement is both desirable and necessary. An increase in the number of specials under the control of the regular police, and with increased responsibility and accountability to the public, would be preferable to the mushrooming of security companies and vigilante groups.

I do not see specials as coppers on the cheap. They have a different and more supportive role. They do their duty not for money, because there is no money, but because they are genuinely interested in police work. They have a simple and commendable aim—to serve their communities—and it is my argument and belief that they should be encouraged to do so.

10.8 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I am glad to have the opportunity to respond to this debate on the special constabulary. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) has long given enthusiastic support to the special constabulary and I warmly welcome his constructive comments. I am also glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) in his place. I know that he too takes a close interest in the specials, and I shall deal later with the points that he made in his two shrewd interventions.

This debate comes at a time when there are many pressures on the police. It provides a useful chance to focus on the contribution made by the special constabulary to the total policing effort in Britain.

I should like to make it clear at the outset—I echo what my hon. Friends have said—that the Government do not regard the specials as in any sense an alternative to the regular police. They are an additional resource which, if properly used, can allow the great experience and training of the regular officers to be put to the best possible use.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, in 1974 there were 24,000 specials, but for the past 10 years the figures have hovered around 16,000. There are currently 15,500 specials in England and Wales. There is a steady pattern of recruitment, but it is matched by the numbers who leave because of domestic or work commitments—or, I am happy to report, because they decide to join the regular police force.

Mr. Pawsey

Can my hon. Friend give us a rough estimate of the percentage of special constables who transfer to the regular police? If he cannot give me the information now, perhaps inspiration will come to him a little later.

Mr. Lloyd

I can tell my hon. Friend that the proportion is about 10 per cent.—a useful number. If I am wrong I shall let him know at some time after the debate, but I think that that figure is a pretty good guide. The special constabulary is a very productive recruiting pool for police officers.

Our immediate objective is to increase the strength of the specials to 20 per cent. of the regular establishment—about 20,000—and, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, the Government will be launching a national advertising campaign early next year. The campaign will cost £1.3 million, and will run for about three years. It will involve national advertising to increase awareness of the special constabulary, as well as material to support the essential local recruitment initiatives.

However, we are not just recruiting numbers for their own sake. There was a time when the special constabulary was high in numerical strength, but contained too many members who turned out only for occasional ceremonial events. We want a committed, trained special constabulary, which can make an effective contribution to the policing of the areas for which it is responsible.

My hon. Friend spoke of the varied professional policing tasks now being carried out by specials. I applaud those developments. It is, of course, for chief constables to make decisions about the operational deployment of their men, but it seems obvious to me that varied deployment of specials can only be in everyone's interest. Professional policing requires both training and experience, and, if we want specials to provide effective support for the regular police, they must be able to provide that support across a wide range of duties. Patrolling the beat or attending football matches are obvious duties; but traffic duties, responding to major emergencies, neighbourhood watch and so on can all involve special constables. A number of forces operate "takeover days", when specials run a section for a day with responsibility for all aspects of policing.

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend said earlier that the advertising campaign would cost £1.3 million. Am I not right in saying that that cost is substantially greater than the total cost of the specials? I do not intend in any way to disparage what my hon. Friend is doing; indeed, I welcome it. I mention it merely to highlight the value for money that the country receives from its 16,500 special constables. My hon. Friend clearly agrees with me; otherwise, he would not be advancing the admirable case for advertising and attracting more recruits.

Mr. Lloyd

My hon. Friend, with great skill, has seized an opportunity to emphasise the excellent value for money provided by the specials. He is entirely right about that.

All the measures to which I have referred—"takeover days" in particular, but also the other training and activities in which they are involved—develop the skills and confidence of specials, and enable regular police commanders to deploy their regular officers with greater flexibility. Individual specials, of course, may have personal skills—in languages, for instance, or in other professional training—which can be put to good use by their force.

However, there is a caveat. My hon. Friend spoke properly of the importance of training. For specials to be effective, they must be able to provide a professional response to the tasks on which they are deployed and the key to that is proper training and management as my hon. Friend said on several occasions in his speech. A special who is unable to carry out the required duties is no help to the public and, an irritation to his colleagues and could even put others at risk.

Forces are now putting greater effort into training and chief officers share the Government's belief and the belief of my hon. Friend, in the importance of having specials trained to professional standards for the tasks that they are undertaking. We are providing support through a new training package being developed by the central planning and training unit at Harrogate to assist local training.

My hon. Friend asked several questions about training. It is up to chief officers to determine what parts of the package they use and whether that training is carried out. My hon. Friend also asked whether there would be a pass or fail criterion in the training. That is very much a matter for chief officers, but I assure my hon. Friend that any special who proved himself inadequate for duties on a training course would not continue long in the force.

However, training and the other issues should not be considered as separate factors. In September, the Home Office ran a two-day conference to consider proposals for the recruitment campaign and the management and training of those recruited. The conference brought together special commandants, senior regular officers, staff and local authority associations and Home Office officials and others to look in a thorough manner at the way forward for the special constabulary. The conference provided an opportunity for training proposals to be discussed with those aware of the detailed local needs. We hope that it will have given an opportunity for forces to reflect on what they need to do to make the most of their specials in the light of developments. A full report of the conference will be circulated to chief officers very shortly.

In addition to the general matters covered by the conference, the Government are taking a range of practical measures to address specific points. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth paid proper tribute to those specials injured in the course of their duties. No nationwide statistics are yet available for injuries to specials, although Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary is now asking forces to provide them. In Avon and Somerset last year, 13 specials were assaulted, and 17 were assaulted in Devon and Cornwall. I believe that other forces have similar figures. That reminds us, if anyone still needs convincing, that specials can be as much in the front line as any other police officer. I know that the House will want to join me in expressing sympathy to those who have been injured in the course of their duties.

Mr. Pawsey

My hon. Friend referred to the number of injuries. Is he aware that special constables are not provided with the same secure helmets as are worn by regular police? Specials wear a soft cap, while the regular police have a stiffened and protective form of headgear. Is it not time that we provided specials with the same degree of protection that is afforded to the regular police?

Mr. Lloyd

We are considering many factors concerning the specials and that factor should be added to the list if it is not already in the minds of particular chief constables. I am grateful for that suggestion, and I know that this debate will be read and my hon. Friend's reference noted.

In addition to the general matters covered by the conference, we are considering a range of specific points. My hon. Friend stated that existing regulations do not properly meet the needs of injured officers. He will be glad to hear that we are in the process of amending special constables' regulations as far as they affect sick pay. That will principally link sick pay to the actual loss of earnings of a special rather than limiting it to the earnings of a regular constable if those would be lower.

If a special is injured in the course of his duty, it can only be right that we should ensure that he does not suffer financially. That was accepted by the police advisory board and we have subsequently consulted staff and local authority associations on further technical changes to ensure that our arrangements fit in with current social security regulations. We hope to be laying those regulations before Parliament shortly.

My hon. Friend asked me about meal allowances for specials. They have now been put on exactly the same footing as those for the regular police force.

Any discussion of allowances for specials leads inevitably, as it did during my hon. Friend's speech and the interventions by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol. North-West, to the bounty. That matter was discussed at the 1987 conference, and views have been put to us from many quarters, both for and against. At the last meeting of the police advisory board, no agreement was reached in the face of strongly held views, and we undertook to give it a further thought.

I must say that there are attractions to the idea of paying a bouty in some form as a recognition of the public service and commitment that the specials give the community. It seems to me only proper for that service to be acknowledged, as it is in some other forms of voluntary public service, such as the Territorial Army, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West said. But we recognise the strength of the feelings involved and are particularly sensitive to the views of those specials who feel that any form of payment would damage a proud tradition of voluntary service. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will be giving the matter further thought and considering the feasibility of a pilot scheme.

For all that the Government do, though, the key to the contribution of the special constabulary lies at the local level. Effective policing, as we all know, depends on the support of the community for the police, and specials are ordinary members of the community who take their concern for good policing seriously enough to commit their own time and effort to their local force. I cannot praise too highly that public service commitment.

Local police commanders can draw on the local knowledge of their specials; they can deploy them to the front line whether for a major emergency or a pub fight; and they can use them for routine policing tasks to free regular officers for more specialist functions. There is no question of specials being an alternative to regular police officers. They are a complementary body whose support increases the ability of the force to match the professional skills of regular officers with the tasks which need them most.

It is a privilege to be able to use the opportunity of this debate to put on record the Government's appreciation of the dedication and professionalism of the special constabulary. It is a body of men and women of all backgrounds who are united by a common desire to play their part in helping to make their communities safer and better places in which to live. They are unpaid and carry out their duties because they believe in them. That is the real meaning of public service. I am sure that the House will want to join me in paying tribute to the special constabulary for the essential part they play in the policing of this country and to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth for raising the matter and enabling us to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Ten o'clock.