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Simon Hughes: Connex, the railway company, has shown that it is possible to train staff to be police officers, because some of its staff have been sworn in as special constables. They have proper authority because they have had proper training. If the private sector wants to make a contribution, that is a much more legitimate, acceptable and effective way to do it. We have not heard much about that alternative, which, I suggest, the public would prefer.
Norman Baker: I am grateful for that intervention. The Connex experiment is an interesting one that perhaps the Government could build on, instead of seeking to create a new tier of accredited persons, who will not have that accountability.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The hon. Gentleman will recall that I raised the same point in Committee. I said to the Minister that it was extraordinary that one Minister should suggest that the proposals in this Bill are the right way forward, at the same time as his colleague the Minister for Transport was doing lots of media work about the Connex experiment and claiming that specials were the way forward. I suggested that the Government were all over the shop on that point.
Norman Baker: I fear that that is so. In Committee, it also became clear that scant attention has been paid to the opportunity to increase the number of specials, when we should have concentrated on that approach. The number of specials has dropped dramatically in the past five years, and we now have only some 12,000. I put on record the fact that Ministers rejected attempts to improve conditions and provide a bounty payment for specials that my colleagues and I proposed in Committee. We made constructive suggestions in that area, and it is odd that the Government have rejected those suggestions while choosing to employ private sector employees in a quasi-policing role.
I will not develop my arguments further because of the time factor, but this issue is of key importance, both practically and philosophically. It is wrong for private sector employees to be given police powers. Apart from the principle of the issue, they will act in the interests of the private company, not of the public. The measure will
Mr. Paice: The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) places my colleagues and myself in a slightly difficult position. While we agree with much of what he has said, we do not agree with the substantive content of his amendments. We have never made any secret of our concerns about the concept of accredited community support officers. That is not becauseas Labour Members have suggestedwe oppose the involvement of the voluntary sector. I have seen, as others have, countless examples of street wardens, neighbourhood wardens and ambassadorsthere are many different names for themvoluntarily helping the police. Some of them wear uniforms, and some do not. I have spoken to many people who provide that service and, without exception, they are happy to do so, but they do not want the powers envisaged in schedule 5.
We strongly support those schemes, and I want them to be expanded and enlarged. I have no objection to the concept that there should be some form of accreditation to prove that the employees are worthwhile, that they meet certain minimum standards, and that the chief constable of their authority is happy with what they do.
We were very worried about the proposal to give those employees police powers. I shall not repeat the Committee debate, but I have some sympathy with the proposition from the hon. Member for Lewes that schedule 5 should be abolished. I have slightly less sympathy with the proposal that all ACSOs should therefore come under schedule 4, although there is a clear logic in suggesting that only one set of powers should be granted to civilians, regardless of whether they are employed in the police service or outside it.
However, we are concerned that the amendments would allow only local authority employees to become ACSOs. I suspect that, in that respect, I shall find that I am all square with the Minister. As he said in Committee, such a measure would place 35 per cent. of street warden schemes outside the requirements that have to be met by accredited community safety organisations. Ruling out such organisations seems a very short-sighted approach. I have therefore told the hon. Member for Lewes privately that the Opposition cannot support that proposal.
The problem goes deeper, as Conservative Members do not share the Liberal Democrats' philosophical objection to using people who are not employed by local authorities. We would obviously be pleased if social landlords and other charitable organisations were to be involved in the scheme, but we are also happy in principle with the idea that private-sector bodiescar park operators, or the operators of large shopping malls, for instanceshould be involved. There is some logic in getting them involved, whether or not their operatives are given powers by the chief constable.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Lewes about special constables, however. When the Bill first appeared in the other place, we opposed the proposals on this matter, on the ground that using special constables would
I am afraid that I must tell the hon. Member for Lewes that the Opposition will not support him if he presses the new clause to a Division. However, we have immense concerns about how ACSOs will settle down, not least because of the problem of accountability. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that in his speech earlier, and the matter arose in Committee.
There are also difficulties with regard to uniforms, and whether the officers will be readily recognisable. Other problems include training, and the way in which organisations that employ street or neighbourhood wardens become accredited. The Minister referred to that matter in Committee, but we are still worried about the transitional process involved before ACSOs can use the powers that their chief constable decides to allocate to them.
Most street wardens get only a day or two of training. They may have some experience, but that is no substitute for training if they are to start using police powers. We expressed our major concerns about ACSOs in Committee: the Minister is well aware of them, and I hope and trust that he will have taken them on board. Our concerns are serious, and they need to be dealt with under the regulatory aspects of this part of the Bill.
We accept that ACSOs will be introduced, and we welcome the concept of accrediting the many existing schemes. We retain reservations about the powers to be given to ACSOs, but we accept the situation in Parliament for what it is.
I do not know why the Government have not expanded the role of special constables over the past few years, or why they have not tried to recruit properly. The Police Federation, the Association of Chief Police Officers and other bodies fully support extending the recruitment of special constables, but I suspect that the Government have set their face against that idea because they do not want to pay for extra special constables, or accord them proper employment rights.
I am not holding my breath, therefore, that there will be an expansion in the numbers of special constables in the foreseeable future. I am not alone in that belief. I hope that I am wrong, for the sake of good policing in the future, but I suspect that I may be right.
Policing is a highly specialised occupation. It is a tall order just to expect someone to understand the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, yet that legislation is a basic tenet of police practice.
I believe that the police service as a whole will be brought into disrepute when the ACSOs fail, as they unfortunately will. Police officers will be tarred with the same brush. The proposal smacks of policing on the cheap.
Police officers ask who will train these people. Who will be with them out on the beat, training them in the proper practice of policing? It is appalling that such people will not be subject to independent scrutiny. For the life of me, I cannot understand why that is so.