HL Deb 18 May 1982 vol 430 cc593-5
Lord Renton

My Lords, 1 beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government how many special constables were serving in police forces in England and Wales on 31st December 1970, 1975, 1980 and 1981, and on the latest day for which the information is available.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, the strength of the special constabulary in England and Wales on 31st December 1970 was 32,813; on the same date in 1975 it was 23,011; in 1980 it was 15,067; and on 31st December 1981, the latest date for which information is available, the strength of the special constabulary stood at 14,978.

Lord Renton

My Lords, while I thank my noble friend for that Answer, may I ask him why there was that regrettable decline during those earlier years and whether there is any hope of the improvement in 1981 being sustained? May I also ask my noble friend whether he is aware that there are many men, and perhaps women, willing to serve as specials? Therefore may I ask my noble friend what the Government will do to persuade chief officers of police to recruit more of them?

Lord Elton

My Lords, my noble friend is right in attributing to chief officers of police the duty of recruitment, and the Government encourage them vigorously to do so. I should put this in context by saying that the decline in number in the last few years which I illustrated, has been going on for no less than 30 years. Last year's drop of 89 was the lowest in the whole of that period. In part, it was caused deliberately by chief constables who are successfully creating a younger and more effective reserve police force. By 1979, 85 per cent. of all specials were regularly on duty. That compares with 33⅓ per cent. in 1966. I am also happy to add that in some hard-pressed metropolitan counties the total number of special constables is actually increasing.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, in spite of those reasons, or excuses, which he has just given, it is very deplorable that, over years, when the need for a disciplined special constabulary to aid with civil defence, if not for other purposes, has become greater year by year, the Home Office and chief constables together have been so complacent about this annual drop in numbers?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I cannot answer for earlier years, but the efforts of the present Government are turning the tide, with the result that in the most hard-pressed areas the numbers are going up, the average age of the force is coming down and more special constables are more effectively on the beat. Things are better now than they were some years ago.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that the use of special constables is not just a question of younger men on the beat? There is also advantage in older men bringing a different variety of experience to the police service which they otherwise have not got?

Lord Elton

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Renton, who asked the Question, says in his publicationCoping With Emergencies in Peace and War, a principal function of the reserve constables is to carry on with many of the normal duties of the police while the regular police officers deal with emergencies. This is something which they have recently been doing, with some good effect.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend what is the age limit for special constables? Would many noble Lords in this House be eligible to act as special constables?

Lord Elton

My Lords, a police advisory board working party report on the special constabulary which was circulated to forces last summer reminded chief constables of their discretion to retain special constables for up to five years beyond the normal retirement age of 55, which I hope my other noble friend will regard as years of sufficient maturity to bring experience to the force. The report suggested that chief constables might wish to exercise this discretion to retain fit and able special constables.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, may I ask the Minister what are the criteria for acceptance as a special constable? Or is any applicant accepted without question?

Lord Elton

My Lords, no. The criteria are stringent, though slightly less stringent than those for admission to the regular constabulary.

Lord Derwent

Was not my noble friend's answer rather regrettable, my Lords, because apparently I am now too old?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am sure that that is a matter for universal regret in this particular case, but in many others it would be a matter for jubilation.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, as part of the recruitment drive, has any attempt been made to encourage coloured applicants to come in as special constables?

Lord Elton

Yes, My Lords, we are taking steps in this direction. A Home Office study group is at present looking at ways of encouraging more involvement of ethnic minority communities in police-related activities, such as that of the special constabulary. I do not think it should be restricted to that area alone.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister agree that the special constables can form a very good bridge between the regular police force and the community?

Lord Elton

Yes, my Lords, I would, particularly remembering that they are fully operative members of the civilian community and do not in fact get paid. Although they are reimbursed for expenses they do not get paid for their work. They therefore combine the best British traditions of voluntary work and disciplined service to the community.

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