Straw backs civilian street patrols

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW has backed the use of civilian and private street patrols - paving the way for the creation of a second security force.

The Home Secretary has also signalled a crackdown on alcohol-related crime, blaming much of the rise in violence on cheap drink and excessive consumption by teenagers. Schemes that "name and shame" pubs and clubs where drunken fights are commonplace are to be given government funding as part of the initiative.

But, most controversially, Mr Straw, in an interview with The Independent, has for the first time given his support to an expansion of civilian patrols in streets, parks, shopping centres and estates. A Home Office group is drawing up a blueprint to help police forces and local authorities to set up schemes. Chief constables have already given their backing to the plan.

Although the Home Office insists that the new patrols and "neighbourhood wardens" will only support the police and not replace them, the move will cause anger and concern among many beat officers. The Tories have also accused the Home Secretary of wanting to use civilian patrols as a back- door method of policing on the cheap. The "wardens" are expected to be trained by the police, but paid for by local authorities and private sponsorship. They are to be drawn from the estimated 240,000 people who work in the private security industry as well as council-funded schemes and private citizens.

Mr Straw said: "There are twice as many people working in the private security industry as work in the police service and a significant proportion of those are now involved in non-police patrol. Every shopping centre has security people who are non-police and many housing estates and a great many parks and some authorities. It's a resource which needs to be developed. How I would like it to develop is by local agreement, not only between the police and the local council, but other public authorities like the health service.

"There should be a practical debate that this large resource, which is already there, should be used, rather than a synthetic debate about whether all these people can be replaced by police officers - manifestly they can't." A Home Office working party is examining existing patrolling schemes and drawing up guidelines. A report is due to be published this month.

Three local authorities in London have also been asked to bid for Home Office money to set up pilot patrol schemes. Wandsworth council in south- west London plans to employ 12 civilian "patrollers" to work at a railway station and shopping centre.

On the link between violence and excessive drinking, Mr Straw said: "There's been an increase in alcohol consumption, particularly among the young, which has something to do with cash and availability. It's about cheap alcohol being available." He agreed that illegally importing beer and spirits from Europe was part of the problem.

The Home Secretary is particularly impressed by a scheme run by Cardiff Royal Infirmary which "names and shames" clubs and pubs where people have been gashed in the face with beer glasses.

In the first eight months of last year, its casualty department dealt with 415 assault victims brought in from pubs and clubs in the city. A league table of 60 of the worst offending hostelries was released. Since then it is estimated that assaults have dropped by a fifth. The scheme has won government funding and Mr Straw said: "There's no reason why that should not be developed across the country."

Among other anti-alcohol and anti-violence initiatives are greater regulation of bouncers at pubs and clubs, more safety beer glasses, CCTV near trouble spots, and the use of under-aged drinkers to make "test purchases" in off-licences and pubs to try to catch out law- breakers.