Volunteer ‘home guard’ to stand in for police, as more cuts planned

The Home Office has announced a consultation on ‘Reforming the Powers of Police Staff and Volunteers‘, aiming to give Chief Constables much greater flexibility in designating powers on police staff and volunteers. Crucially, the government propose enabling volunteers to be designated with powers in the same ways as staff, with a huge expansion of the current powers held by volunteers.

The Times reported that the measures will enable police forces in England and Wales to make savings, “by allowing up to 7,000 volunteers and ancillary staff to carry out tasks done by officers.” At the police superintendents’ annual conference in September this year, Home Secretary Theresa May announced the plans by stating “I have always been straight with you that budgets will fall further and savings will have to be made in policing as elsewhere in government.”

The government intend to create a ‘core list’ of police powers to remain exclusive to police officers, while then enabling chief officers to bestow a wider range of powers on staff and volunteers alike, to meet “the demands on police forces at a time when funding policing remains a significant challenge”, as the consultation document makes clear.

Under the Comprehensive Spending Review in Autumn this year, police forces are facing budget cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent, which follow several years of austerity measures, in which, between 2010 and 2014 police forces experienced a previous 20 per cent cut to their budgets. UNISON has revealed that the workforce has borne the brunt of these austerity measures, with 15,000 jobs cut across police forces between 2010 and 2014.

The new powers volunteers will acquire could include detaining suspects, issuing on-the-spot fines, interviewing victims of crime, taking witness statements and more, representing a vast expansion of the role of current police volunteers. What is worrying critics is that this consultation amounts to nothing more than policing on the cheap, as made clear by the Home Affairs Select Committee, whose chair, Keith Vaz MP has stated, “The role of the police officer is being undermined and the public will not accept this.”

In October 2014, UNISON released a report publishing findings from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests sent to all police forces in England and Wales, requesting information about Police Support Volunteers (PSVs). At that time, UNISON found that a new ‘Home Guard’ of 9,000 PSVs has been quietly recruited by police forces in England and Wales, “to replace the 15,000 police staff job cuts made by the Conservative-led Government.”

UNISON’s research found that volunteers, often well-meaning amateurs, were being deployed by forces in a “bewildering range” of police functions, at a time of huge cuts to the police staff workforce. While many of the roles being carried out by volunteers were uncontroversial, UNISON found that a number of forces have “pushed the concept of volunteering into roles that look remarkably like established police staff posts”. Some of these forces had also made larger than average cuts to their police staff workforce. Some of the more ‘controversial’ roles UNISON found volunteers being deployed in – roles that were or are paid, included:
  • involvement in crime scenes
  • drug testing people in custody
  • forensics
  • emergency planning
  • property detention
  • deployment management
  • and the provision of scientific support
The government’s consultation document situates the increased use of volunteers within their volunteering strategy, led by the Cabinet Office, which they state aims to build “…a society where everyone has the chance to contribute to their community, and where those communities are self-confident and civically engaged.” The document goes on to note revealing examples of volunteering in police forces, such as Lincolnshire Police, who have “already trained and deployed a number of ‘Volunteer PCSOs’, trained to the same standard as their paid PCSOs, but “currently have no powers as the law does not permit it.” The document notes that communities may have “missed out on their services”.

In May 2015, UNISON released a report based on analysis of Home Office police service strength data, which found a 27 per cent reduction in the numbers of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) in England between March 2010 and September 2014, equating to 4,430 jobs cut. The crux of the government’s proposals, as the consultation document itself states, is inseparable from the “significant challenge” of funding policing, and coincides with a dramatic reduction in paid, professional policing roles, with more job losses likely as the CSR looms on the horizon.

The government has already put neighbourhoods and communities at risk by overseeing a massive reduction in the number of police staff including PCSOs. These new proposals are more worrying still, as under the misleading rubric of civic engagement, staff and communities are being asked to continue to bear the brunt of misguided austerity measures.

There is also a clear accountability deficit in such a short consultation process, as the consequences of such a huge shift in the nature of the police workforce have not been appropriately addressed. UNISON make clear in their Autumn 2014 report, “the implications of replacing paid police employees with volunteers, however well intentioned, have not been the subject of proper public debate or scrutiny.”

The government intend to legislate for reform in the Policing and Criminal Justice Bill later this year.

UNISON’s October 2014 report, ‘Home Guard’ of Police Support Volunteers to fill in for Police Cuts
UNISON’s April 2014 report, ‘Trouble in the Neighbourhood’: Government cuts to neighbourhood policing take their toll

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