Paying Specials 'could increase bobbies on beat'

Law and order: Plans to increase the use of volunteers raise fears of 'two-tier' police forces
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Crime Correspondent

Volunteer police officers - "Specials" - should be paid wages to persuade them to work longer hours, thus boosting the number of bobbies on the beat, an influential report will recommend to the Home Office this week.

The Audit Commission will suggest that special constables could be paid pounds 1,000 a year to work up to 16 hours a week as part of a new force in the fight against crime. It says this could save pounds 20m a year in wages for fully qualified officers.

This idea is expected to cause outrage among the police who believe it will lead to two-tier policing. But it may gain support with the Home Office as a cheap way of increasing the number of patrol officers.

At the moment there are about 20,000 special constables who work on average about four hours a week. They are paid expenses but no wages. The study says they could be encouraged to extend this from 8 to 16 hours a week by offering wages. This is what happens with volunteers in the Territorial Army. Specials wear police uniforms, have full powers of arrest and assist fully trained officers in carrying out most duties, particularly involving foot patrols. The Home Office hopes to have an extra 10,000 Specials by the end of the year, which is why extending their present role is likely to be an attractive option.

Keith Povey, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' patrol working party and chief constable of Leicestershire Police, said: "This would lead to a two-tier police system. While Specials play a very useful role in assisting officers they are nowhere near as well trained and should never be considered as an alternative to them.

The Police Federation, which represents patrol officers, will strongly oppose the suggestion, which it believes undermines the professionalism of its members.

Fred Broughton, chairman of the federation, said last week: "We believe the value of the beat bobby is immeasurable. The public want real, fully trained, professional police officers."

As revealed earlier this month in the Independent, the commission, which is responsible for ensuring value for money from public services, will also suggest a new telephone line with the number 333 to deal with non- emergency calls and prevent the 999 service being blocked by trivial inquiries. It is also understood that the report, to be published on Thursday, will say the police are overgrading many calls and unnecessarily sending out beat officers to minor incidents.

Another suggestion is to reduce the number of sick days. According to the study, if the average number of days off sick a year, which is 12, were reduced by two there would be the equivalent of an extra 1,000 officers on the street.

The commission also believes that the management of beat bobbies is often poor. It says that although the main duty of 60 per cent of officers is patrolling, only 5 per cent are on the beat at any one time.

However, chief constables argue that many of the ideas are already being carried out by some forces while others are not properly costed. They believe the commission is being naive and simplistic with some of its suggestions for change.