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Special Constables Bill

Volume 66: debated on Wednesday 26 August 1914

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Order for the Second Beading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."

There is a point in regard to this Bill which I think the Home Secretary should clear up, because there is a discrepancy between what I heard the right hon. Gentleman say and what he is reported to have said. He actually did say that—

"Among other provisions it also proposes to extend the Police Acts so far as they need extension, by Order in Council to Special Constables, and in particular it is proposed that the allowances to constables on duty should be given also to Special Constables."
The word "injured" is omitted from this Report, and questions have been raised outside as to whether special constables should be paid. There is already provision to pay them under the existing law by orders from justices, and if this machinery is to be set on foot certain difficulties will arise. In the first place, it is desirable, if possible, to recruit the force by voluntary service, and I fear the words of the Home Secretary, if not corrected, will create a very false impression throughout those parts of the country where the special force has been enrolled.

With regard to this Bill, I would like to have some definition of the phrase "during the present War." This is very drastic legislation, and although one does not wish to offer any undue criticism, I think some definition of this phrase is necessary in the interests of the country. I wish to ask what interpretation is put upon this phrase by the Government. Does it mean so long as we ourselves are in an actual state of war, or so long as any of the Powers are at war? It is quite conceivable, seeing the number of Powers now engaged in war, that in any settlement some Powers might cease to be at war and yet the War might go on with some of the minor Powers.

I wish to ask the Home Secretary whether or not this Bill would apply to the special constables raised in the City of London? I am informed that there is some doubt upon this point. I would like to say, in answer to the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Booth), that a very simple Amendment such as "during the present War in which this country is engaged," or "during the War in which this country is at present engaged," would meet his point.

As I understand this Bill, its object is to extend the existing law in cases where there is no provision as to riot or disturbance. Under the existing law there is power to compel men to act as special constables, and under this Bill, Subsection (d) of Section 1, there would be power to compel service as special constables during the War in the absence of any expectation of riot or disturbance. In point of fact, compulsion is now being exercised throughout the country in this matter. I have in my hand a letter from a gentleman who has been compelled by a letter from two justices to give service in that capacity. My correspondent in no way objects in principle to serving his country, nor have I any objection to compulsion if it be necessary to secure such service, but my correspondent points out that he is not at all qualified for the duties which have been imposed upon him of guarding telegraph posts, bridges, and so forth. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has considered whether compulsion is necessary to secure an adequate number of special constables, and, if it is necessary, has the right hon. Gentleman considered whether the country is likely to get the services of the most competent men in this way? Under voluntary service men will only offer their services when they feel that they are reasonably competent to perform those duties, but if two justices throughout the country are to be allowed to write, such letters calling upon any tradesmen or other gentlemen to give their services in this way, it is possible that we may not get the right class of men.

5.0 P.M.

I would like to ask a similar question as that put by the hon. Baronet with regard to the special constables who have been sworn in in the City of London. There are many places in the country—at all events I know of some: Lancashire for instance-where a considerable number of special constables have already been sworn in. Many of them are being paid, but, on the other hand, many are acting voluntarily. This Bill proposes to give the Government power to make regulations. Is it proposed that the regulations shall apply to those who have already taken upon themselves voluntarily the burden of acting as special constables? They have been sworn in on special terms, and it seems to me of considerable importance that we should know whether those special constables are going to be subject to the regulations which will be made in the future, under the conditions of which they did not enter the service, and under which they might not have been willing to enter the service. I should like to have an answer to this question, because I know some people who have already taken upon themselves the burden of being special constables under special conditions made perfectly clear to them, and their position might be considerably altered if they were made subject to these further conditions.

Might I ask why in Clause I Sub-section (1), paragraphs (b) and (c), special constables are referred to as "which"? I should imagine it desirable that even in the most serious times special constables should continue to be of the masculine gender, and I think, therefore, the word "whom" should be substituted for the word "which."

I will reply to the various points that have been put to me in the order in which they have been raised. I am greatly obliged to the hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. James Hope) for having called my attention to a mis-report in yesterday's OFFICAL REPORT. I certainly said at the time, or meant to say, that the Bill was intended to enable an allowance to be paid to special constables injured on duty in precisely the same way as the law now permits an allowance to be paid in the case of ordinary constables.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract (Mr. Booth) asked what interpretation was to be put upon the words "the present War." I assume that any Court which was interpreting the words would take them to mean the present War in which His Majesty's forces are now engaged, and I observe that in other Bills passed at the same time the words used are:—

"The Bill shall have effect whilst the state of War in which His Majesty is engaged exists."

I think that as the instructions to both draftsmen were precisely the same, and they have each rendered the instructions in those alternative words, we may safely assume that the alternative words mean the same thing. I see that the hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Rawlinson), who is an expert lawyer, agrees with me on that point. The hon. Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) and another hon. Member raised the same point. This Bill will apply to the City of London, and consequently the force which is in course of being raised there, will come under the terms of this Bill. The hon. Member for the St. Augustine's Division (Mr. Ronald M'Neill) asked me whether under this Bill special constables could be compelled to serve. That is so. They could be. The application of the existing law to special constables enrolled under this Bill is quite general, and therefore there is no doubt that compulsion could be used, but I think it ought to be clearly understood that in asking the House to assent to this Bill we do not mean to use compulsion. We do not think, unless there is a fear of tumult or riot, that compulsion should be used, or that it will in fact be necessary.

We find already that volunteers are coming forward to serve as special constables all over the country in large numbers, and I can only express my surprise that any two magistrates should have thought it necessary to have exercised compulsion—at the time it was illegal—in endeavouring to obtain special constables. I have asked whether we have any information from the Home Office as; to any other case, and I am told that we are unaware of any compulsion having been used in any part of the country. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Sanderson) asked whether the regulations under which special constables had volunteered, and to which they have sworn, might be altered under this Bill. It is quite true that regulations may be made by Order in Council under this Bill, and it is conceivable that they might not be the same as those under which special constables have already volunteered to serve, but I can assure him that every effort will be made to see that nothing inconsistent with existing practice is done, and I think he may accept it, inasmuch as all these special constables will be under the control of the police authorities, that steps will be taken to secure that there is complete harmony. So far from extending the powers of police authorities, it is intended simply to enable them to raise special constables who will come under the control of the police authorities instead of having loose, disorganised bodies of men, raised by unauthorised persons, who would purport to act as special constables without any authority of the law behind them.

Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman what steps the Home Office has taken to secure uniformity of practice throughout the different areas of the country?

We hope under this Bill to secure that uniformity of practice which the hon. Gentleman desires. It will be observed we propose, as the Bill runs, that

"His Majesty may, by Order in Council, make regulations with respect to the appointment and position of special constables."

Then it goes on to say:—

"And may by those regulations provide for the application to special constables, to which the regulations apply, of any of the provisions of the Police Acts, 1839 to 1910."

That will introduce uniformity of practice and will bring the special constables under the control of the existing police authorities. Incidentally, I think it will do away with the necessity, or with the appearance of urgency in any person's mind, of recruiting on a semi-military or semi-police basis, unauthorised, unorganised bodies, with the intention of keeping the peace. We believe that under this Bill we shall have in the country a sufficient force, regular and special constables, to ensure the maintenance of peace and order, no matter what the circumstances may be in consequence of the progress of the War. I think that I have answered all the questions which have been put to me, except the one point as to whether the word used should be "whom" or "which," and I will submit that to the draughtsmen.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That this House will immediately resolve itself into Committee on the Bill."—[ Mr. McKenna.]

Bill accordingly considered in Committee, and reported without Amendment; read the third time, and passed.