Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, wants to give the impression that she has increased the number of police on our streets – but has she? Last week, she announced 6,000 more special constables, although recruitment of the more controversial community support officers seems to have slowed. Special constables receive only expenses. Some would say they represent policing on the cheap. Police community support officers (PCSOs) have more limited powers. Although they work in a cosmetic fashion by offering someone in a uniform walking the streets, you have only to spend five minutes talking to one to realise they are completely ineffectual, having no powers of arrest.
Contact with my local PCSO office is by answering machine. The latest addition to this "extended family" of quasi-police officers are "accredited workers" – but the people concerned do not wear a uniform we might readily recognise, and could just be the geezer minding the car park who turns out to have the authority to demand my name and address, and then issues me with a fine if I am stroppy.
More worryingly, different standards are being used to check accredited workers. These "quasi-bobbies" operate in 33 out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales – and recruiting methods vary wildly. Some applicants merely submit to an enhanced Criminal Records Bureau check, others have their financial records inspected as well as being investigated for terrorist links.
Accredited workers wear a whole variety of uniforms, carry different ID cards and have an assortment of badges. What a recipe for disaster! These men and women can "deal" with begging, require us to identify ourselves and issue penalty notices for a wide range of offences – from graffiti to dog mess, litter, truancy and cycling on a pavement. They can issue penalties for disorder and control underage drinking. These fake bobbies have the authority (not granted to plain-clothed police officers) to order me to stop driving my car and are employed in a wide variety of jobs, ranging from park wardens, hospital security staff and council workers to guards in shopping malls and leisure centres.
These fake coppers blur the job we thought real policemen did, wear an instantly recognisable uniform and enforce the law in a consistent way. News of this new branch of Ms Smith's "extended police family" was greeted with contempt by the Police Federation, which called it "half-baked", while the former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, described the initiative as "lazy". There are plenty of jobs we should release from the police – fines for littering and dog mess should be handled by people like traffic wardens – but the precedent already exists. It is completely unacceptable for private security firms which patrol pubs, shopping malls and leisure centres to start issuing fines and handing personal details to police. What we need are more police officers on the beat, enforcing existing laws, not a new army of law-enforcers with limited training in crowd control and dangerous situations. The police need fewer targets and less paperwork, releasing them to get on with the job on the street, instead of sitting on their backsides.
In July, two uniformed police were attacked one Wednesday by a group of 30 people after an officer ordered a 14-year-old girl to pick up litter she had dropped in Croydon. One officer was so badly bitten he had to be taken to hospital. The other was severely bruised. In that situation, would "accredited" security officers have been able to deal with the ensuing mayhem? I think not.
Dark side of a myth
What's in a name? Seriously ill with a brain tumour, he received an enthusiastic welcome at the Democrat Convention – but how will history judge Ted Kennedy? Just before they separated in 1978, I lunched with Ted and his wife Joan at a friend's house in Cape Cod. Joan was drinking heavily, homing in on my then-husband to discuss classical music (she was a talented pianist), while Ted – with a reputation as a serial flirt – was garrulous and charming, talking about local politics.
He had survived the Mary Jo Kopechne scandal nine years before, when a car he was driving crashed off a bridge near Chappaquiddick in the middle of the night, drowning his female companion. Ted swam to safety and went home, and later received a two-month suspended jail term for failing to report an accident. The judge found that negligent driving contributed to the crash, but Ted escaped manslaughter charges.
Joan suffered a third miscarriage shortly afterwards, and has endured a long struggle fighting alcoholism since she divorced Ted in 1982. Joan's children became her legal guardians amid concerns about her mental state, and she was found concussed in the street in Boston in 2005, having surgery for breast cancer a month later. Their son Patrick entered rehab for addiction to painkillers (after being stopped by police and charged with three driving offences) in May 2006. Ted still basks in the limelight, but poor Joan is a potent reminder of the dark side of the Kennedy myth.
Oh rid me of these fluttering pests
Each night this week, The One Show on BBC1 has been screening films about five of our best-known butterflies. The recent cold, wet summers have seen a decline in numbers, but one species that has bucked the trend is the cabbage white. I hate this flying pest with a vengeance. I have been known to capture them with my bare hands, trying to divert them from my precious vegetable patch by flapping my arms like a demented Worzel Gummidge. I have a rabbit-proof fence and two separate layers of netting over my lovingly nurtured brassicas. All are powerless to stop this determined butterfly, which has spawned an army of furry yellow caterpillars. Immune to bug repellents, they are methodically reducing my cabbages to filigree lace.
* I had to laugh when I heard Jeremy Paxman was at the Edinburgh Television Festival whingeing about hard-done-by, white, middle-aged men who cannot get anywhere in television. Every time I appear on Question Time, the rest of the panel generally fits that category, as does the presenter. I think Paxman has been reading the McTaggart lecture I gave to the same festival in 1995, when I complained about the "M people" – male, middle-aged and mediocre – who seemed (to me and most women I knew) to dominate the media. Has a revolution taken place in the past 30 years? Hardly. Get a life, Paxo.Reuse content