Special Constables

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 5th December 2002.

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Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat 3:07 pm, 5th December 2002

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will bring forward proposals to pay special constables.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I am aware that there has been a debate for a number of years on whether special constables should be paid. Specials themselves are not agreed on this. Some Specials have argued in favour, while others have felt that payment would devalue their volunteer status.

We intend to introduce amendments to the Special Constabulary regulations to allow police authorities to submit schemes that they have agreed with their chief constable for the payment of special constables. Such schemes will require the approval of the Secretary of State. Running a number of trial schemes will help establish to what extent payments to Specials have a positive effect on their recruitment and retention and on the number of hours that they are able to offer their force.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and declare my interest as Vice-Chairman of the Thames Valley Police Authority.

The Special Constabulary was around 20,000 when the Government came to power and is now 11,500. By the time that the Minister moves to bring in a scheme, the constabulary will have disappeared altogether. He gave almost the same Answer as I have had before.

Will the scheme that the Minister has in mind happen quickly? Will it specifically target the police authorities near London, for whom retention is a serious problem? Despite large efforts to recruit more officers, we are unable to increase numbers, and we are losing experienced officers to London and further away, where houses are cheaper.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, first, I should perhaps congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, on his persistence on this issue. It is a very important issue and he has raised it a number of times. I have probably responded in the past to some of his questions.

Yes, we recognise that that is a problem. Yes, we want to see the new approach adopted as soon as possible. I believe that we telegraphed it in last year's White Paper Policing A New Century: A Blueprint For Reform. We want carefully to evaluate the impact of running such pilots. Perhaps the noble Lord is aware of the proposals from the Cumbria police authority which is intending, obviously with co-operation from the centre, to introduce a pilot scheme to evaluate the impact that relaxing the regulations might have on attracting and, more importantly, retaining special constables working in that difficult area.

Photo of Viscount Bridgeman Viscount Bridgeman Conservative

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the fall in special constables in England and Wales, quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, reflects a serious crisis in morale among special constables? Does he also agree that there is a danger that the introduction of community support officers may further undermine that morale?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I do not accept that there is a lack of morale. There is continued confidence among Specials in the support and encouragement that they receive. There is no doubt that we are successful in recruitment; it is retention that is the problem. That is precisely why means of retention through relaxation of the current regulations are being seriously considered and will be evaluated through pilots.

I do not agree with the second point made by the noble Viscount relating to community support officers. They are increasingly popular among those forces across the country which are now submitting schemes. They have been successfully introduced in London and are doing a tremendous job on behalf of the communities that they serve.

Photo of Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Lord Corbett of Castle Vale Labour

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that there was quite an exodus of special constables two or three years ago when basic training requirements were introduced, which meant that long-serving special constables who had been happy to do the job, were expected to go through precisely the same training as somebody who had just walked through the door and said that he or she wanted to be a special constable? Is that still the case?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, there has been some research into the causes behind the falling away of Specials within the special constabulary. No one reason is pinpointed. I believe that last year some 400 Specials actually went into the mainstream police service. That is very encouraging; that has always been a good route. Some 40 per cent have cited family reasons as one of their reasons for leaving the Special Constabulary; namely, the pressure on them of the mix of their job and their work/life balance.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative

My Lords, will the Minister tell me whether, although the special constables are not paid, they are given any form of honorarium or support? The Minister mentioned that they are given support. Does he mean financial support or are they actually out of pocket because they are special constables?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, no. I do not believe that they will be out of pocket. They receive allowances and costs for being in attendance. As I have made plain earlier—and I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, is aware—payment is in the form of a wage. Other support is management encouragement and working with the local force systems.

Photo of Viscount Tenby Viscount Tenby Crossbench

My Lords, is it not the case that all other voluntary service organisations, ranging from retired/ retained firemen to the Territorial Army, are paid? Why should the police be different?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, raised a question which has obviously been debated many times in the past. It is for that reason we have come to the stage where we believe that there is some value and merit in relaxing the regulations so that a pilot can be evaluated. I must say—and I believe that I made the point in my initial response—that special constables themselves are somewhat divided as to whether payment is a good idea. In receiving payment, they would have to be taxed not just on the payments they receive, but also on their attendance allowances. For many of them there is not necessarily a big benefit to be found in payments.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Conwy Lord Roberts of Conwy Conservative

My Lords, while approving of the recruitment of special constables, will the Minister ensure that prospective special constables' criminal records are checked before they are appointed, whether or not they are paid?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, can rest assured that their record is well checked.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Liberal Democrat

My Lords, will the Minister consider a proper pilot—not some little scheme in Workington—in a big police authority?

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, was not being discouraging towards the efforts of the Cumbrian police service because I am sure that the special constables will be very welcome in Workington; the extra special constables that they receive will be very welcome on the streets.

As to the second point raised by the noble Lord, it is for police authorities to bring forward schemes in consultation with their chief constables. They will be properly looked at and evaluated, and then put into effect.