Giving volunteers more police powers is ‘mission creep’

16 March 2016

PFEW Chair Steve White

Giving volunteers and civilian police staff more police powers has been described as ‘mission creep’ by both the Police Federation and UNISON.

Steve White, Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), was among those giving evidence at the House of Commons as the draft new Policing and Crime Bill makes its way through the Parliamentary process.

He said: “We have some concerns in relation to mission creep. There is absolutely no doubt that many volunteers who work with the police service up and down the country do excellent work.

“But putting PCSOs in positions where they would have to deploy CS [gas] was never envisaged as their primary role as community support officers. When it comes to the use of force, and the current accountability and powers that fully attested police officers have, there is a huge degree of accountability, training and experience that goes with the deployment of that kind of device.”

Mr White was echoed by Ben Priestley, UNISON’s Head of Police and Justice, who was representing police staff at the Bill’s first committee stage. He told MPs: “Unison’s view is certainly that it is not appropriate, for a range of reasons, for volunteers to be granted through designation a whole range of policing powers that could extend, it seems from the way the Bill is currently drafted, to virtually every power currently available to a police officer. Unison agrees that volunteers can be used proportionately within policing, but this is, as Steve has mentioned, a mission creep too far and we are certainly opposed to the vision for volunteers to be granted those powers.”

Among the other draft proposals put under the microscope were legally-enforced collaboration between all emergency services and new 28-day limits for pre-charge bail.

Mr White was concerned that “while having empathy for people kept on pre-charge bail for long periods of time, at a time of increasingly complex investigations we need to be sure we get it right. It is dangerous to have an arbitrary limit that could enable offenders to evade justice.”

He was joined at the committee by Irene Curtis, President of the Police Superintendents’ Association of England and Wales and Gavin Thomas, President-elect of the Police Superintendents’ Association.
Gavin Thomas and Mr White both cited examples where existing collaboration between police and fire services worked well, but highlighted lack of consistency across the board. The problem was exacerbated because the new rules would only apply to England and not Wales, yet there were fire services that operated cross-border.

New Police and Crime Bill at a glance...

What is it?
New legislation which the Home Office says “will aim to finish the job of police reform”. Expected to come into effect around April 2017.

Key provisions of the Bill, if passed in its current form, would:
•    Legally enforce collaboration between emergency services. Enable PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services. Potentially create a single employer, so theoretically a fire chief could lead a police force
•    Give more powers to civilian police staff and volunteers
•    Allow Home Secretary to specify police ranks and introduce a flatter rank structure
•    Cap pre-charge police bail at 28 days – unless exceptional circumstances
•     Cut numbers of mentally ill in police custody. Under 18s suffering from mental health crises not to be detained in police custody
•    Ensure that 17-year-olds in custody are treated as children
•    Overhaul police disciplinary proceedings and complaints systems; introducing a new ‘struck off’ list; change current rules preventing resignations and retirement
•    Make PFEW subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) rules

What is the Federation doing?
Along with colleagues, subject specialists and our legal team, the Federation has been looking closely at the Bill’s key provisions since it was announced last May. Some, like the section on placing our Core Purpose into primary legislation, present no issues for us as an organisation.

Many other areas, however, concern us – such as the plan to legally enforce collaboration between police and fire services, not least because the changes would apply only to England, and not to Wales, prompting concern that there might be competing priorities in different parts of the country.

We have already made headway in some areas – such as working behind the scenes to get the current rules preventing resignations and retirement amended – but there is still much more work to be done. The Federation will continue to make submissions and actively lobby Government about those areas we are not happy with to ensure that our members’ concerns are heard.