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Nick Pickles: It's time to stop civilians using police powers

Nick Pickles is Director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch

This article has not been approved by Ivan Lewis MP

Picture the scene. You’re walking along a beach, minding your own business, when a passing Beach Patrol Officer from Lancashire County Council stops and asks you what you’re doing. Entirely reasonably, you ask what business of theirs it is. They then take a photograph of you and demand your name and address. You might think this seems a bit heavy handed, and you’d be right. Yet you’d be committing a criminal offence if you refused to hand over the information or obstructed them taking your photograph.

This is the reality of the innocuously named Community Safety Accreditation Scheme (CSAS) – created under the 2002 Police Reform Act to grant Chief Constables the power to confer some powers on civilians, most frequently the ability to issue fixed penalty notices. Now more than 2,000 civilians, equipped with their basic training, special uniforms and an ID badge, are patrolling our streets, shopping centres and parks with police powers and little accountability.

Before the election, the then Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve, highlighted the risks of the system, warning: “The public want to see real police on the streets discharging these responsibilities, not private firms who may use them inappropriately, including unnecessarily snooping on ordinary citizens.”

And he was absolutely right. Yet figures uncovered by the Daily Mail show how since the Coalition came to office, the number of civilians granted police powers has increased by a third, rising from 1,667 at the end of 2009 to 2,219 by the end of 2010. Hundreds of organisations have now been accredited including councils, private companies and voluntary groups.

Nobody doubts that the British Cycling Federation providing marshals for races is a sensible way of reducing the policing burden, but do they really need the power to demand information and fine cyclists for riding on the pavement?

This lack of proportionality was a hallmark of new Labour, with concerns over civil liberties sacrificed in the name of being seen to be "tough". Accountability was of secondary concern, something that remains in the willingness to extend the use of fixed penalty notices.
By its very nature, allowing non-police staff to hand out fixed penalty notices carries a greater risk of abuse. Like many of these powers conferred on civilians, they act as judge and jury in determining guilt, without the rigours of police training or the accountability of the judicial process.

The Home Office argues that the powers are necessary to allow different organisations to work together to tackle these offences. Yet according to the Association of Chief Police Officers, only 26 of the 43 forces in England and Wales were using the CSAS scheme at the end of last year. The fact that forces like Merseyside can do without them illustrates that by no means is it an essential part of dealing with antisocial behaviour or the other low-level offences covered. It is possible to have community policing without the community being the police.

The final note in this tale also casts doubt on the Government’s transparency agenda - the Home Office will no longer be centrally recording the numbers of people accredited in an effort to cut the bureaucratic burden on forces.

The Coalition should live up to its rhetoric and stop this scheme. If there is a crime being committed then the police should investigate. This is an intrusive and unaccountable scheme will not be improved by the Home Office washing its hands of logging centrally how forces uses these powers, arguably such an attitude risks abuses being harder to detect.  We should leave the policing to the police.


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