Colin Moynihan – 1986 Speech on Special Constables

Below is the text of the speech made by Colin Moynihan, the then Conservative MP for East Lewisham, in the House of Commons on 17 January 1986.

The House will regret the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Conway). He had the good fortune to draw today’s Adjournment debate on the special constabulary. Regrettably, his younger child has fallen ill, and rightly, he is with his family. I am sure that all hon. Members will wish his baby a speedy recovery. My hon. Friend’s views on the subject are well known and respected by hon. Members. He is wholly committed to a growing role for the special constabulary, and seeks a clear sign of political will from his colleagues to support it in its present and future role to uphold law and order. Although it may be unusual, it is a mark of my respect for him and of the importance of the subject that I have chosen the same title for my Adjournment debate.

The special constabulary receives all too little credit for the service it provides to both the public and the regular forces. It is a very British idea. Only recently it celebrated the passing of the Special Constables Act 1831, 155 years ago. We ask ordinary members of the public to give some practical help to the police, and we give them the same powers as regular officers. That sounds a concept fraught with dangers and difficulties, but it works.

For years specials have been carrying out the duties asked of them without giving civil liberty activists the slightest cause for complaint. I suspect that those activists share the general public’s ignorance of the contribution and, even, the existence of the special constabulary. I share the views expressed in the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), who said in a similar Adjournment debate—too much time has elapsed since we discussed the subject in detail—

“My purpose in initiating the debate … is to call on the Government to expand, strengthen and revitalise the specials, so that they can be built up into an effective and well-trained police reserve with roots in their local communities. … The priorities for the specials are more training and more recruitment. Neither priority should be all that difficult to achieve, provided the political will exists, because there are such solid foundations to build on within the existing structure of the special constabulary.”—[Official Report, 31 July 1981; Vol. 9, c. 1410.]

Those words are equally true today.

I recognise and applaud the fact that the long decline in the number of special constables has been halted since those words were uttered. However, I find it hard to believe that only 15,000 or 16,000 men and women are willing to give a few hours a week to this important work when 45,000 were employed in 1964. Is enough being done to inform potential applicants, and to make the work attractive? I fear that the answers may be No. I am looking for answers to those questions from the Government Front Bench today. I seek an assurance from the Government that the specials are being taken seriously. I am confident that my hon. Friend the Minister will give me that assurance, but I hope that he will go on to describe the role within the police service that the Government seek for the special constabulary.

Is enough being done to inform the public about the specials, and to encourage recruitment? If any hon. Member conducted a survey of his constituents he would find that the majority would not know of the existence of ​ the special constabulary. Even most of those who have heard of the specials will have little idea of what they do. Some constituents would be surprised and alarmed to discover that for a few hours every week their next-door neighbour or friend down the road had all the powers and privileges of a regular constable, and used them. They would be even more surprised to learn that special constables had existed for 155 years.

Cannot we make greater inroads into that widespread ignorance? From time to time in the national newspapers I see advertisements for regular officers and for other voluntary national bodies, such as the Territorial Army. I cannot remember seeing any advertisement for the special constabulary. Yet that could be the subject matter, particularly for local newspapers. There are human interest stories that could be sensibly written up by such excellent local papers as the Lewisham Star, Mercury and the South London Press, to mention only those in my borough. I would welcome such an initiative.

There is great difficulty in recruiting special constables, even in London. Catford has one divisional officer, one sub-divisional officer and 11 special constables, but it would need 40 to 50 officers. Lewisham has one divisional officer, one sub-divisional officer and only five special constables; it could do with about 30 to 40 constables. Divisional Officer Jenkins of Lewisham has given outstanding service to the force and to the country for about 21 years. He has a bar to his long service medal, which I understand means that he has served for a minimum of 19 years. He is competent, responsible and has great experience. He is much liked in the force and in the community that he serves, and I pay tribute to him and to his colleagues.

Why do I say that human interest stories are involved? During the past year, Lewisham special constables, who work voluntarily, have done duty at Millwall, have patrolled regularly in pairs and have helped elderly folk. The sight of the policeman out of the panda car and on the beat is important in removing the fear of crime, which is larger than the incidence of crime, among the population, They also participated in Brave Defender, on the security side, patrolling Biggin Hill 24 hours a day for three to four days. Their role in ceremonials, including the Easter parade, is well known to all who follow their work in London, but I fear not to the majority of the population. I emphasise that the critical part of their work is the removal of the fear of crime by their presence on the streets, in the estates and especially among the elderly and responsible citizens, who like to see officers patrolling the streets on foot and who like to know their officers personally.

There are other ways in which police forces could bring the existence of the special constabulary to the notice of local residents. I should be glad if my hon. Friend would say something about the methods used by forces and how successful they are. I should be interested to know what the Government do at national level to increase the size of the special constabulary.

On the important subject of relations with regular officers, it is possible that the Government take specials seriously. It is possible that senior police officers are clearly aware of the value of special constables. But I wonder whether that view is shared all the way down the line in the police force? If we are to use the special constabulary to its full potential, we must be certain that there is no friction with regular officers. Specials must be ​ fully integrated into the force. I have heard it said that some regular officers do not view the efforts of the special constabulary as important. I have also heard of resistance from regular officers to the extension of the special’s work into more vital areas of police activity. But if there is a lack of trust between specials and regular officers elsewhere than in Lewisham and Catford, where it does not appear to be a problem, it will be difficult for the Government to make progress. There must be a clear understanding on both sides of the limits of the role of the special constabulary. Will my hon. Friend tell us whether there is a problem here? if so, what is he doing about it?

I mentioned the extension of the specials’ work. Ordinary men and women will not wish to devote their spare time to the police service unless they get some reward. I am not talking about a financial reward, although I shall say something about that later. I am talking about gaining satisfaction from the work and feeling that they are making a contribution to the force. If we use specials only for the dull, undemanding tasks which regular officers do not wish to undertake, we cannot reasonably expect them to attract recruits or to keep them once they have been attracted. People will not be moved to apply by the prospect of standing in the rain every November to line the route for the Lord Mayor’s show. they will, understandably, decide that they have better things to do. Surely we can offer them better things within the special constabulary.

One area where specials could play a useful role is in crime prevention. It is the soft end of policing, but it is just as important as the hard end—public order policing—for which specials are clearly not qualified.

Much has been done recently to help people to help themselves. The specials have a foot in both camps. They are part of the community as well as part of the police force. Most are deployed in the area in which they live. If they are more involved in neighbourhood watch schemes in their area, other local residents might find it easier to identify with them and might be more ready to turn to them. People might find it easier to get into contact with a special constable who is also a local resident than with a beat constable who lives at the other end of the borough.

I know that in London, and in my borough of Lewisham in particular, the Metropolitan police have made some progress in involving the special constabulary in crime prevention work. I should be interested to learn from my hon. Friend the Minister whether other forces have taken similar steps and whether more work could be done on the important neighbourhood watch schemes which have done so much good in terms of upholding law and order, certainly in London and, as I understand, throughout the country.

If specials are to perform more duties in the mainstream of police work and if they are to do so in a way that attracts the respect of regular officers, they must be properly trained. They cannot just pick it up as they go along. They have important powers to exercise and they must be taught how to use them.

I recognise that there are problems in providing training for part-time volunteers. It is difficult to plan a programme when one cannot be certain who will attend, and when, but the problems are not insuperable. Anyone who has a commitment to the police service—which every special must have—will be prepared to make the effort to ​ ensure that he is equipped to do the job properly. It is not unreasonable for the specials to give up the occasional weekend.

It is in the specials’ interest not just to ensure that they can carry out the work with knowledge and confidence but to provide a wider and more fulfilling range of tasks. The training that they are given must not be superficial. The training given to regular officers is unsuitable for specials, but the courses that specials undertake must be just as professional. A member of the public will be upset when a constable misuses his powers whether he is a regular or a special. I seek an assurance that the special constabulary is being taken seriously.

Earlier, I mentioned the need to provide a reward for the time that specials devote to the service. I was talking about a sense of personal satisfaction. Such a reward is most important to special constables. However, we should not assume that a financial reward in unnecessary. At the moment, specials receive various allowances but no remuneration. I know that the question of making some kind of payment, perhaps along the lines of the Territorial Army bounty, has been considered. I can see that there are arguments on both sides.

I am interested in having more special constables. The only question that interests me is whether a payment would persuade more public-spirited members of the community to offer their spare time to help the police. As specials are not paid, I assume that the Government think that the answer to that question is no. They may be right, but the question still needs to be asked from time to time. It is important to many special constables. To some it may seem as though a lack of payment is a measure of the ‘value that the Government place on their work. I am sure that they are wrong, but I should be grateful for some light on the Government’s thinking.

This is a secondary issue compared to that of job satisfaction, and I believe that the vast majority of special constables take the same view. However, we should note the benefits of a formal payment along the lines of the Territorial Army bounty.

My hon. Friend may make a fair point about paying special constables—that even without payment forces are finding it possible to attract recruits. I leave aside the question whether a payment would attract more. I wish the House to consider the fact that without the promise of a financial reward, and at the cost of their spare time, men and women are prepared to offer their services to help the police with the heavy burden that they carry on our behalf.

It is generally recognised that the prevention of crime and the maintenance of law and order are the responsibility not just of the police but of the community as a whole. There are people to whom this idea is not part of the small change of political debate on the police but a principle which they are prepared to put into practice.

We do not hear much about them, and we probably fail to recognise them when we see them, but every time a police force is under pressure, we can be sure that ordinary men and women are being called from their homes to keep routine police work turning over while the regular officers are diverted to deal with the crisis, whatever it may be—an important sporting event. a royal visit or a riot. The men and women of the special constabulary all over the country deserve our gratitude for the contribution that they are making to the police service. More than this, they deserve our support.

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise various questions with the Minister about the policies that the Government and the chief officers of police are pursuing. All right hon. and hon. Members can help the specials. All of us can do more to make the public more aware of the work that the special constabulary performs. We can all do more to encourage people to put their own spare time at the disposal of the police service. The police are more than ever under pressure and more than ever in need of our support. I sometimes hear people say that the police are too cut off from the public. Tell that to a special constable. There may be many suitable, public-spirited people who would be prepared to give practical assistance to the police service. Let us find them.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not think that my recognition of the general responsibility of us all to help the special constabulary means that I do not acknowledge his particular responsibility. I do. I look forward to his replies to the questions that I have raised in this debate.