Police budget cuts: unpaid volunteers now used in key roles

Forces are taking on helpers for forensics and at crime scenes as cuts bite, says union

Police using Volunteers for key jobs (Guardian 19/10/14)

Daniel Boffey
The Observer, Saturday 18 October 2014 21.20 BST

police image for blog

Beat officers: Police on crowd control at a property fair at Olympia, London, last week.

Their numbers have been cut by 20% in recent years. Photograph: STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

Police forces are quietly taking on unpaid volunteers as scene of crime investigators, forensic experts and emergency planning officers as 20%budget cuts bite, it can be revealed.
Forces across the country have been taking on volunteers to fill some of the most sensitive police staff roles and some are seeking to escalate their recruitment drives. There are now 9,000 police support volunteers replacing 15,000 staff jobs lost since 2010. Some forces report plans to double or triple their voluntary staff in the next year.

A report by the public sector union, Unison, due to be published on Monday, complains that there has been no public debate about the trend for volunteers to move from peripheral roles, such as chaplain or custody visitors, to key positions. Home Office guidance on police support officers stipulates that volunteers should not under any circumstance replace the roles of directly employed police staff. Yet responses to Unison’s freedom of information requests provide a long list of job roles carried out by volunteers, many of which have been or are paid roles. These include involvement in forensics, crime scenes, the drug testing of people in custody, emergency planning, property detention, deployment management and the provision of scientific support.

The authors of the union’s report, Home Guard of Police Support Volunteers to Fill in for Police Cuts, write: “The idea of police volunteers has a long history in the shape of neighbourhood watch and the special constabulary. However, the recent rapid rise in the number, and the exponential growth in the roles of police support volunteers, breaks any consensus that may have existed around volunteering for, or with, the police. The impact of the cuts on the police staff workforce has been particularly savage, with 15,000 jobs being cut across forces between 2010 and 2014.

“In this new era of scarce resources, holding to the historic Home Office principles for volunteering schemes has become that much harder. In this report, Unison suggests that these ground rules are now being regularly breached and are in need of urgent review.”

The forces reporting the highest number of volunteers are Thames Valley with 70,459, Surrey with 32,000 and West Yorkshire with 19,432, although Unison say that they do not have an issue with many of the roles filled.

The report also reveals that there have been moves by some within the College of Policing to introduce unpaid police community support officers (PCSOs). Lincolnshire and Northampton police forces were said to be willing to pilot the proposal. PCSOs are civilian members of police staff employed as a uniformed non-warranted officer. Pay for PCSOs varies from force to force from between around £16,000 to around £27,000 a year, but there have been widespread redundancies in recent years.

Unison say that with the support of others within the college, the idea of supplementing their ranks with unpaid volunteers had been blocked for now, but they warn of “a worrying trend”.

The revelation comes as police staff in England and Wales, including community support officers and fingerprint officers, are to be balloted for industrial action in protest at a 1% pay offer.

Last week unions representing civilian staff said they were angry that after a two-year pay freeze they were being subjected to the same restrictions as other public sector workers. NHS staff, including midwives and nurses, went on strike on Monday.

Deputy chief constable Martin Jelley at Northamptonshire Police, which is doubling its voluntary staff to 1,000, and where some volunteers are employed in forensics or intelligence, said: “We have many volunteers who assist us in a wide variety of ways, as do many other organisations; they provide important support to our officers and staff, helping keep our communities safe.” Policing minister Mike Penning said the deployment of volunteers was the responsibility of each force. He said: “This flexible approach allows forces to respond to the individual needs and priorities of their local communities.”