Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 9th July 2007.
If she will extend the special constabulary employer supported learning scheme.
In February 2004, the Home Office, the Metropolitan police, Dixons and Woolworths launched the ShopWatch initiative, which recruits employees as special constables from retail establishments to patrol their own retail areas. The ShopWatch programme succeeded in reducing retail crime by a half in 2004 in the participating stores and is a prime example of proactive partnership working across the community and forces. The freedom to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme lies with individual police forces and their partners. They need to decide whether it would suit their area and be useful. The National Policing Improvement Agency offers support to any areas that wish to take the scheme up.
May I welcome the Under-Secretary to her position, congratulate her on her promotion and, somewhat rarely for me, congratulate the Government on a project that is very worth while? While thanking employers for allowing staff to join the ShopWatch scheme, I should like to place on the record our appreciation to them and urge the Under-Secretary to encourage every police force to introduce it. It is the best news that we have had for special constables, with the first six in Essex joining last week, in Colchester.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of the scheme and has been a driving force behind its introduction in Colchester. I am certainly happy to congratulate Colchester's "business specials", as they have been dubbed, and congratulate the participating stores, Asda, Sainsbury's and Tesco, Colchester borough council, Bluestone and Essex police for getting the scheme off the ground. The best advert for the project is a successful scheme, as well as the hard work that the hon. Gentleman has put into highlighting it. I shall be watching with interest and I hope that other hon. Members will highlight the project in their areas, too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that volunteering in the police force, the ambulance service or the fire brigade is an excellent way of creating sustainable communities and getting collective responsibility within them for their safety and well-being? If so, is there any way that we can expand the ShopWatch scheme to other private and public sector bodies?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we all take collective responsibility for our safety. It is fair to say that my hon. Friend Sir Alan West highlighted that at the weekend, which is an important aspect—[ Interruption.] As someone asked from a sedentary position, "Is he a friend?" He is indeed. A man who has held such a high position in the Navy, patrolling our waters, certainly has my friendship and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members. My hon. Friend Lyn Brown asked whether we could extend the scheme to other areas. It is worth highlighting the fact that although we are discussing ShopWatch, we also have hospital watch, campus watch and borough beat, which run in conjunction with hospitals, universities and local authorities.
May I ask the Minister whether there are any arguments of principle against a paid special constabulary, as with retained firemen or the Territorial Army? If there are no such arguments, why have not the Government put a paid special constabulary in place during the past 10 years?
One of the special aspects of the special police is that they are volunteers; they are paid only out-of-pocket expenses. The Government introduced police community support officers, who play a vital role in our neighbourhood policing teams in constituencies up and down the country. It is worth noting that while the Government supported the introduction of police community support officers, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party voted to delete some of their powers of arrest in April 2002, when the Police Reform Bill was in the Lords.
We in the House agree that these schemes are excellent and provide a good way forward for community cohesion. How should we expand them? What work is being done with employers to persuade them that the skills that volunteers learn as special constables are transferable to their place of work, and to encourage more of them to take up those schemes?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of employers being on board in terms of such schemes—special constables might require their employers to allow them some time off work. ShopWatch special constables have highlighted that the transferable skills that they have gained have given them confidence in spotting potential shoplifters, for example. The scheme has contributed to a reduction in shoplifting when those specials are off duty as well as to the safety of the area when they are on duty.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of special constables has fallen from 19,900 in 1997 to about 13,000 today. When does the Minister expect the number of specials to rise and to get back to the 1997 level that new Labour inherited?
The Conservatives can hardly criticise the Government, given the enormous increase in numbers in the Metropolitan police service, whose numbers are now at their highest level ever, and the introduction of police community support officers. As for special constables, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be great to see more volunteers, and we need to encourage employers to support the various schemes that I have outlined. We have seen a small increase in numbers. Up to 2006, we had 13,405, and we are awaiting the figures for this year, which will be published on