Policing, like teaching and nursing, is a job for well-trained (and well-paid) professionals

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The Independent Online

They have been scornfully dubbed "Blunkett's Bobbies" or "plastic police", and you may already have spotted them, in their yellow jackets, patrolling a street near you. The idea was that these civilian community support officers (CSOs) - to use their proper name - would create a reassuring presence that would be at once local and affordable. We, the law-abiding majority, were deemed to be so hopelessly nostalgic for Dixon of Dock Green and his ilk that we would be given the next best thing.

They have been scornfully dubbed "Blunkett's Bobbies" or "plastic police", and you may already have spotted them, in their yellow jackets, patrolling a street near you. The idea was that these civilian community support officers (CSOs) - to use their proper name - would create a reassuring presence that would be at once local and affordable. We, the law-abiding majority, were deemed to be so hopelessly nostalgic for Dixon of Dock Green and his ilk that we would be given the next best thing.

This was not wholly ill-conceived. Many voters believe that the streets of their town or village would be safer if police officers were seen on regular patrol - and on foot, where they are more approachable and responsive to trouble. Although there is evidence that this is not the most efficient use of police time and resources, ministers have a duty to respond to public fears - and fear of crime is almost as damaging to communities as crime itself.

So far, so relatively uncontroversial. With the publication of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill this week, however, it seems that the role of CSOs could change. Under this legislation, they would be given the power to search and arrest; they would have access to the national police computer; and they could be equipped with handcuffs, batons and pepper spray. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some rank-and-file police asked how their own role and that of the CSOs would differ - except in levels of pay. The stock answers came back: that the new measures would have no implications for their community status, that they were designed to address particular needs that had arisen, and - of course - that the CSOs were in no way being thought of as police officers on the cheap.

The justifiable part of this argument is that some low-level and juvenile offenders - those whom the CSOs were expressly recruited to deal with - have been quick to identify the distinctions between police and CSOs and exploit them. They know that these officers do not have the right to search or arrest, and the offenders behave in such a way as to leave them looking powerless. It is entirely possible, too, that some police officers, especially in the lower ranks, may be objecting because they fear that at some later date they could lose their jobs to lower-paid CSOs. Such an element of restrictive practices cannot be excluded.

To deny that there is anything controversial either about the new powers or about the new equipment, however, is to pre-empt a discussion that is long overdue and should be conducted in the open. At present, CSOs have as little as three weeks' training. They will need rather more than this if they are to wield powers that have hitherto been exclusive to the police. If the only differences that remain between professional officers and CSOs are pay, length of training and career prospects, both groups could legitimately argue that this was policing on the cheap. Law enforcement should be professional and thoroughly accountable. And it should be properly paid.

There is another reason why there needs to be an open discussion. The police is not the only branch of the public services where new, lower-status and lower-paid jobs are being created, and less-qualified people recruited to work as adjuncts to more expensive professionals. In schools, we have increasing numbers of teaching assistants; in hospitals and GP surgeries, posts for nursing assistants and nurse-practitioners are multiplying.

The benefit is that the professionals are released from more mundane tasks to concentrate on what they have been trained for. The drawback is that the demarcation between the assistants and the professionals needs to be very carefully managed and justified. Both groups need to be convinced that the division of labour is reasonable and justifies the distinction in pay - and tax-payers need to be convinced that neither they, nor their children, are being short-changed.

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