Home Secretary Theresa May has unveiled plans to involve civilians in helping to solve cybercrime, increasing the remit of police volunteers. Part of the Policing and Crime Bill, the new measures will see volunteers given powers previously only afforded to police or trained special constables, with a focus on recruiting people 'with specialist IT skills'.
In a consultation document released in September 2015, May outlined the changes, stating: "This government wants to encourage those with skills in particular demand, such as those with specialist IT or accountancy skills, to get involved and help the police to investigate cyber or financial crime and, as their experience grows, to enable them to play a greater part in investigations."
The new bill also proposes outlining 'core' powers reserved only for police officers. However, aspects of the proposals have been criticised by UK trade union Unison, which believes the government is using volunteers to fill the void created by budget cuts and the loss of trained staff.
Commenting on the announcement, Unison general secretary Dave Prentis said: "Police staff will be pleased that they are to get new responsibilities and powers that will stand them in better stead when it comes to fighting crime in our towns and cities.
"This is something that police staff have long wished for and means that in future they will have a range of powers at their disposal that will ensure they can get the job done more quickly and more effectively than before.
"But it's a huge mistake to do the same for volunteers. Volunteers cannot be deployed to tackle serious crime in the middle of the night, and they are free to absent themselves from the workplace at any time, because they have no contract of employment. This makes volunteers totally unsuitable for police forces that need to know they can turn out staff in an emergency.
"Having cut police budgets relentlessly, the government is clearly pinning its hopes on a volunteer army to plug the huge gap left by the loss of so many dedicated and skilled police staff. Ministers are making a big mistake."
In the Reforming The Powers Of Police Staff And Volunteers consultation document, though, the suggestion is that the additional powers granted to volunteers would free-up the time of staff members.
It said: "One of the key advantages of the proposed reforms would be the ability for chiefs to deliver a number of tasks using staff or volunteers rather than officers, saving what is likely to amount to thousands of hours of police officer time that could instead be used to better effect."