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25 Mar 2010 : Column 143WH—continued

2.56 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I completely support the Minister's comments on the important role that the PCSOs play in the community, which is why I regret that the Government's original target of 24,000 had to be downgraded to 16,500. Let me start by asking the Minister about the original figure of 24,000. Now that we are at 16,500, what assessment was originally made about the need for 24,000? Why was the number downgraded, and has it had an impact on the ability of the safer neighbourhood teams to play their important role?

I echo the Minister's points in relation to the greater visibility that has come as a result of the safer neighbourhood teams. In many communities, their role is not just stopping crimes and acting as a deterrent, but addressing the fear of crime, which, in some of our communities, is disproportionate to the actual level of crime. Having a visible uniformed presence on the streets is important, especially at appropriate times. Concerns have been expressed by members of the community about PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams patrolling the streets at 10 o'clock on a Monday morning when they would rather see them on patrol at 10 o'clock on a
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Friday evening. I acknowledge, however, that the whole purpose of providing community support officers was for them to operate in hours that are family friendly. There are issues, therefore, in trying to match the number of people on the ground with the peaks of criminal behaviour. None the less, PCSOs play an important role in providing reassurance, deterring crime and catching criminals.

As the Minister has said, PCSOs also help to redress the balance that perhaps does not exist in the rest of the police force, or uniformed services, in relation to ethnic minority representation. A significant component of the service is made up from minority communities and women. What one would hope to see, especially if forces are increasingly using PCSOs as the pool from which they draw police officers, is that such diversity will continue in the police service and that we will start to see issues of gender and ethnic minority balance addressed in the middle and high ranks of the police.

The fact that PCSOs draw from members of the ethnic minority communities is very significant, and there is no doubt that they have played a very important role in reducing crime in many communities. In the London borough of Sutton, criminal damage is down 36 per cent., motor theft down 29 per cent. and violence down 23 per cent. So PCSOs are having a real impact on the ground. However, there is no room for complacency. Even in the London borough of Sutton, where crime is down significantly, there is still an issue about people's perceptions of the behaviour of young people. I am sure that all hon. Members have experience, as I have, of people asking them to do something about groups of youths hanging around on street corners. I am fortunate, in that if youths are hanging around on street corners in the London borough of Sutton, most of the time they are only doing so because they have nowhere else to go or because they just want to meet their friends on a street corner. No ill intent is involved. However, that issue of perception needs to be addressed and that is a way in which PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams play an important role.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, and they have used the words "neighbourhood" and "community" throughout their contributions. The hon. Gentleman is a London Member of Parliament, as I am. Can he tell me his definition of a community or a neighbourhood? The big failing of PCSOs within Greater London and my big concern about them is that they are not based on communities or neighbourhoods at all. They are based on electoral wards, which often have no relevance to communities or neighbourhoods; instead, they are purely related to electoral numbers. So does he agree that it is time that PCSOs were based on proper neighbourhoods and communities, rather than on administrative or electoral boundaries?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very sensible intervention, which relates to the question of what the future network of PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams will look like. The ward-based structure is positive, in that it is a very simple structure on which to base teams. Perhaps there is scope within that structure to allow joint working by teams that are adjacent to each other, so that they can address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the importance of ensuring that they represent real
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communities. For instance, some of the St. Helier estate is in my constituency, some of it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and some of it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). There is no reason why the safer neighbourhood teams on that estate cannot work more closely together if an antisocial behaviour issue on the estate crosses ward boundaries.

Andrew Rosindell: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is now addressing that point. Although I wholeheartedly endorse the value of PCSOs, the worst problem about them in London is that, because of a bureaucratic mentality, they are based on ward boundaries, which is complete nonsense. In my constituency, there are communities where one side of the road is in one ward, the other side of the road is in another ward and the PCSOs will not cross the road. If we are to make PCSOs work effectively, we must look at proper communities and neighbourhoods and base the PCSOs on those communities, rather than using ward boundaries, which the hon. Gentleman suggested was an easy way of doing such things. I am afraid that using ward boundaries is an ineffective way of policing London.

Tom Brake: As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, if he is proposing a totally flexible model for PCSOs, he has to consider how he would respond to his constituents from a low-crime ward. One area in his constituency might require a substantial number of officers to address crime, whereas it could be argued, based on the crime statistics, that another area requires a very low level of cover. He would then need to respond to the concerns of his constituents from what are perhaps the leafier patches of his constituency, which have low crime levels, and explain why under his model they would, presumably, see far fewer officers on the ground. Therefore, the perception or fear of crime would not be addressed, because officers would be moved from those areas with less crime to somewhere else within the constituency. That would be a political issue for him to address.

I want to move on to the lack of facilities for young people, which leads them to hang around on street corners. I hope that the Minister, or one of his officials, can give us an update on what has happened to dormant bank accounts. A couple of years ago, the Government proposed to use the funds that were left in dormant bank accounts, which were estimated by some analysts to be as much as £2 billion. They were dormant perhaps because someone had died, or had left a bank account with a small amount of money in it that nobody knew about, or had had an account 20 years before and had forgotten about it, or had lost the bank book, and so on. As a result, money was sitting in those dormant accounts that nobody knew what to do with. The Government's response was that they would use it to invest in youth services. I have watched with interest for announcements about that money, but it has been difficult to identify precisely where it has been used to provide the youth services that would give young people something positive that they can engage with.

I shall move on to another issue. The Government announced some additional funds to tackle antisocial behaviour, and I am pleased that my local authority
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benefited to the tune of £44,000. I understand that the authority has submitted to the Government the minimum standards that it would adopt to tackle antisocial behaviour, as it was required to do. In my view, however, the authority already has one of the most effective structures in place, which is the Safer Sutton partnership. As a result of that scheme, a single person was appointed to manage both the police teams that deal with antisocial behaviour and anyone working within the local authority who had a similar role. The first person who was appointed happened to be a police officer, but someone from the local authority or, indeed, someone from outside the authority could have been appointed instead. The scheme has been highly commended, including in a recent report on preventing crime by the Home Affairs Committee, of which you, Mrs. Dean, are a member. In that report, the Safer Sutton partnership is mentioned, as is the Sutton Life Centre, which is also trying to address some of these issues about young people and occasional bad behaviour.

Clearly, such a debate lends itself to Members making references to the activities of PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams in their constituencies; the Minister himself did quite a lot of that in his opening remarks, and he also referred to the officers and teams in constituencies that he had visited. Consequently, I will take this opportunity to congratulate some of the safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency, although I think that I will only manage to mention six out of the nine teams. I believe that the longest speech that I have ever made in Parliament is 20 minutes, but I could extend that record to a couple of hours in the time that is still available for this debate, to cover all of the safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency.

I will start by commending the Carshalton South and Clockhouse team for the work that it has done in tackling an issue related to drugs. What surprised me most about the Safer Neighbourhood teams when they were first introduced was that they provided intelligence that I had thought the police had always had, regarding what was happening on the ground and the people who had to be watched most carefully in any area. It seems that before the safer neighbourhood teams were introduced a lot of that intelligence was lost; it simply was not there. Presumably, there were not enough officers on the ground to gather it or officers were patrolling in cars, and as a result that intelligence was hard to come by. Now, with the safer neighbourhood teams, the police can pick up some really local information about activities that we do not want to see people pursuing. I imagine that many of the cannabis farms that are being discovered all over the country are probably being discovered as a result of information that has been provided to the safer neighbourhood teams.

I would like to put on the record a comment that relates to the Wrythe safer neighbourhood team, and I hope that representatives of BP will read the report of this debate. Big companies, such as BP, may have significant issues related to crime. For example, customers drive out of BP petrol stations without paying, or people come into petrol stations and shoplift. Those big companies should take the appropriate action to tackle those issues, rather than tying down the local safer neighbourhood team for hour after hour in trying to address those issues.

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We have a really big issue in Wrythe, where the BP garage, which is right next to my constituency office, has a significant number of drive-outs. Unfortunately, the safer neighbourhood team spends a huge percentage of its time trying to address the problem of security measures there, which would be better addressed by BP. Local people do not want their safer neighbourhood team to be allocated almost permanently to sorting out the problems associated with one petrol station. That is something to watch.

The Wallington South safer neighbourhood team plays a really important role in the afternoons in addressing people's fear of crime and their perception of young people's activities. When schoolchildren come out of school and congregate in their hundreds by local bus stops, the team polices things and makes sure that people-whether the schoolchildren, or those who are walking down the pavement or travelling on the buses-get where they are going smoothly.

The Beddington South safer neighbourhood team played a really important role in working with the local community to ensure that a shop called Your High, which sold drugs paraphernalia, eventually closed of its own volition. The team played an important role in explaining to local residents the law on shops selling drugs paraphernalia. I do not know whether the Minister can give us an update on that, but the Government have been looking at the issue to find a way of ensuring that shops are not allowed openly to sell products whose only purpose is the illegal consumption of drugs. The shop happened to open around the corner from a local primary school, and that was not positively received by parents, as hon. Members can imagine. The children were being told by the school that taking drugs was bad, but they could walk round the corner and see a huge picture of a cannabis leaf in the window of a shop selling people drugs paraphernalia so that they could consume cannabis.

The hon. Member for Romford was yawning a few seconds ago. He was perhaps worried that I was going to run through all nine wards, so he will be pleased to hear that I have nearly finished. First, however, I want to mention the St. Helier neighbourhood team. The additional uniformed presence that is now available means that safer neighbourhood team officers and community support officers can attend residents' meetings to hear about problems in the vicinity directly from residents' associations and tenants' associations, and they can then help to address some of those problems.

One thing that the Minister did not mention, unless he did so in passing and my thoughts were elsewhere, was the important role that transport safer neighbourhood schemes play, certainly in a London context, in addressing some of the rowdier behaviour on some of our buses. Such teams are an important addition to the uniformed officers patrolling our public transport system.

In the last couple of minutes, I want to come to the challenges. There is an issue about maintaining the numbers of PCSOs, and I can put on record the fact that the Liberal Democrats are committed to maintaining them. As the Minister will know, we are also committed to increasing the number of police officers by 3,000, although I do not want to overplay the issue of police numbers, because senior police officers think that politicians
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play the numbers game all too often in a way that is not particularly relevant to policing. However, in terms of visibility, deterring crime and reassuring people on the streets, the number of uniformed officers is significant. The Minister referred to police numbers in London, which are potentially worrying. Depending on whom we believe, the number of officers could go down by between 500 and 100, as a result of the Mayor's proposals, so that will be an issue to watch carefully.

The Minister may be aware that the Metropolitan police are looking at reducing the cost of recruitment by increasingly recruiting new officers from among special constables and community support officers. As the Minister will be aware, the reasoning is that although recruiting special constables involves training costs, the salary costs are not there. Similarly, community support officers are already being paid in a particular role, and the training costs will be reduced if they start training while drawing a salary. What assessment has the Minister made of those changes? Are they likely, for instance, to restrict applications from a certain group? If the Metropolitan police draw recruits from among special constables, people will be required to be available to play that role in their spare time. If they recruit from among community support officers, they will be drawing on people who are already employed in a particular role.

One concern that I hope the Minister will be able to address relates to overtime and the challenge of deploying community support officers. Again, this may be a London-specific issue. Previously, London forces received from the Metropolitan Police Authority a sum that they were able to use for overtime purposes. If they wanted to undertake a task, or if they required lots of additional officers to police events on a busy bank holiday weekend, they could draw on that budget and use the money for overtime. The MPA has said that forces can no longer do that, and I understand that that is the result of press coverage a few weeks ago about police officers allegedly getting significant payments for taking phone calls when they were working overtime, although the accuracy of those reports may not be what it seems. However, the MPA has responded by saying that the funds cannot be used for overtime, and that will have a significant impact on the ability of police forces across London to task events where they need an extra bit of capacity. As the Minister will know, overtime is a much cheaper way of providing additional resources over a short period than recruiting full-time officers to build capacity into the system without the need to rely on overtime.

The Minister mentioned training. Additional training is being considered for community support officers, but is there scope for, or has consideration been given to, additional youth training? Safer neighbourhood teams and community support officers have an important role in engaging with young people who are perhaps more disconnected from the community. Training may be required to enable officers to do that, and my party would certainly support proposals to introduce it.

The Minister mentioned the issue of permanence, which he is investigating. Whether communities are ward-based or neighbourhood-based, they like to have a permanent officer or a permanent team. They like to see the same people patrolling their streets, and they like to get to know them. They like officers to establish a relationship with local community groups and businesses. In the past, however, there have been issues about
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permanently allocating officers to particular patches. I would be interested to hear the Minister's view of changes that were made to ensure that officers were not permanently associated with a particular area, following concerns about links being established with perhaps less positive members of the community. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that has been taken into account in his proposals and, if it has, how it will be addressed.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I reiterate that I agree with the Minister in his support for community support officers and about their important role in dealing with crime, deterring criminals, increasing police visibility and providing reassurance to our communities. As I have already said, we are fully committed to maintaining numbers and, indeed, boosting the number of police officers. I shall listen with as great an interest as the Minister will to the official Opposition's response on whether they can make the same commitment as the Liberal Democrats and the Government.

3.20 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject, and I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for their comments. I would of course expect the Minister to pay tribute to the work of police community support officers, and I repeat his tributes. Later I shall give some examples of the difference that PCSOs have made to the communities they represent.

There seems to be a coalition between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on this subject; they seem to agree entirely. I, on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, also agree that PCSOs have a role to play, and we support the valuable work they do in communities, but-unlike the Liberals and the Government, it seems-the Conservative party will not give a blank cheque or refuse to consider how best to use the resources we have for crime fighting in our communities. That may mean that more community support officers will be required, but it may also mean that in some areas there will be fewer of them, and more fully trained police officers. We believe that it is down to the local police chief-the chief constable or in the case of London boroughs the borough commanders-to make those decisions, based on the needs of the local community.

Mr. Hanson: In the event of the hon. Gentleman's party winning the election, which I would call a presumption rather than a fact, would he ring-fence the budget for 2010-11 for police community support officers?

Andrew Rosindell: As the Minister knows, I am not the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and I do not decide budgets and funding arrangements. That is something that only an incoming Government can decide, once we have examined the state of the financial situation we will inherit. From all accounts, based on yesterday's Budget and the general economic situation, we can see that there are no easy decisions to be made about spending by a future Conservative Government. However, I assure the Minister that when it comes to fighting crime, looking after the community and making the streets safe, a Conservative Government would of course do everything possible to ensure that funding was available to make the streets safe for the people we represent.

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