Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Ms Munn: Some police forces might choose to use CSOs to support police constables. Others may not want to do so, because it may not be appropriate to their area. Do the amendments not limit police forces in employing community support officers, rather than give them flexibility?

Norman Baker: Of course they do, and I am open about that. Labour Members may disagree with my intention, but I am making the case that some of the powers being given to CSOs are a power too far for them and should be exercised only when they are accompanied by a constable.

The amendments are reasonable and I hope that they gain the Minister's support. If he is not going to give me his support, I hope that he will at least give recognition to my case, which many police officers support throughout the country.

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Mr. Hawkins: As hon. Members will have noticed, my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and I have added our names to some of the amendments in the group. We support the general concept behind the measures proposed by the hon. Member for Lewes, partly because those who are at the sharp end—both rank and file police officers and many of those involved in warden schemes—feel so strongly about the matter.

As my hon. Friend said, most of the people that the Minister consulted were not in favour of the CSOs. The scheme has been pushed by one force alone—the Metropolitan police. No doubt the Treasury is also exerting pressure in favour of the measures, as it regards them as a way of cutting costs and having policing on the cheap. The amendments specifically refer to the powers that the new individuals will have.

The Police Federation rightly made the point that many of the situations in which the Government envisage using CSOs are not low-level issues. The Police Federation says that the public is generally aware and supportive of police powers. Because of that support from the law-abiding public, there are reductions in the number of occasions when arrests need to be made forcibly. Without the minimal co-operation of most people being detained, police powers are inoperable. The extension of further powers to CSOs will expose CSOs to potentially some of the most difficult and dangerous situations faced by police officers, such as public order support operating at times of terrorist threat.

The Police Federation suggests that

    ''the Government has not realised the difficulties involved in dealing with anti-social behaviour specifically earmarked for CSOs in the Bill. Anti-social behaviour is frequently caused by drunkenness and accompanied by aggressiveness and irrationality. Dealing with people in that state is no easy matter: it is not at the lower end of police competencies, rather it calls for considerable inter-personal skills, backed up by the authority of the office of constable. Dealing with anti-social behaviour cannot safely be undertaken by people with less training than police officers.''

We share the concerns of the Police Federation about the supervision of CSOs. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and I visited several warden schemes, including two in my constituency, which operate in different ways. Neither the police officers in charge of liaising with wardens nor those who run the warden schemes seek the kind of powers that the Government propose. Indeed, they are seriously worried that the position will become worse and that the provisions will lead to less effective policing. They believe that serious dangers will arise for CSOs without safeguards such as those suggested in the amendments.

Huw Irranca-Davies: The hon. Gentleman's concerns have also crossed my mind. We do not want to put CSOs in a position where they can endanger themselves or others while undertaking their duties. As a result of that concern, I went out with officers from the Met. There are frequent allusions to the Met's views being of no account, but it may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that the wardens were quite confident in their ability to discern when and where they should not intervene, and when and where they should call the Met for backup. They were

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more concerned about equipment and training than about their ability to discharge those powers on their own.

10.45 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to speak from experience, but my experience and that of my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire in other parts of the country is very different. The Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers in every part of the country, has strong views. I entirely accept that there will be concerns about training and equipment, but we dealt with those in other parts of the Bill. We strongly believe that the safeguard of having backup from someone with the office of constable is essential for the reasons that we have set out.

I support what was said by the hon. Member for Lewes. In some ways this is the one of the most important areas of the Bill. The Government are putting forward something entirely new; the public will find it difficult to come to terms with it and I believe that there will be serious dangers. I am not reassured by the Minister's rather complacent approach, particularly his attempt to dismiss the views of rank-and-file police officers, because it suggests that, because the Met want this provision in this particular form, the Government must go along with it. That is not acceptable. We are still seriously concerned.

Mrs. Brooke: I want to reinforce the stand taken by the Police Federation; I believe that we should listen to the views of the operational policeman. It is striking that the federation should wholeheartedly support large portions of the Bill. We all know from our dealings with our local police force that officers are frustrated because of how they have to spend their time, and they want change in that area. However, it is significant, for example, that although the Police Federation accepts a huge range of powers without question, it opposes a detention officer arresting a person at a police station for another offence.

I remain to be convinced that the Government have fully listened to such points. We are talking about people who are trying to protect their jobs, and who do not want those new people coming in, yet they support a large number of the recommendations and proposals. Nevertheless, they have huge concerns about some of them, which have not been adequately addressed.

I also share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes about the need for the changes work. Putting people in confrontational positions and giving them powers about which there is considerable doubt, does not seem to be a recipe for success. All those involved should be working together to ensure the scheme's success. I should like some detailed attention to be paid to the points raised today by all hon. Members. Are we really listening to what the police are saying?

Mr. Denham: Of course we have been listening to what people have been saying, and there are areas of genuine disagreement, but we believe that we are proceeding in a prudent manner. It is difficult to

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describe the amendments as anything more than wrecking amendments. They would so tie down the use of CSOs, saying that every CSO had to be accompanied by a police officer for any reasonable exercise of their duties, that it would make the position unworkable. It is a great shame that the Liberal Democrats should have proposed such a wrecking measure, and wider attention will be drawn to it in due course because it clearly contradicts everything that has been said in other places. It shows that they have failed to recognise the potential benefits to the community of enabling officers—not just CSOs—designated under schedule 4 to free policemen to go out in the community where the public want to see them, as my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Mr. Challen) said.

Norman Baker: Does the Minister accept that the number of constraints, as he puts it, are limited? CSOs are to be given a range of powers that we have not sought to constrain. I should be grateful if he would represent that in his remarks.

Mr. Denham: Let us take detention officers. There is a debate in the police service about CSOs. The Metropolitan police force is particularly committed to them, other forces are keen to develop them, some are less convinced and certain chief constables are opposed to them. There is nothing like that debate among those running our police forces about the other duties covered by schedule 4—those of detention officers, escort officers and investigating officers. However, the hon. Gentleman's lead amendment effectively seeks to make it impossible to use officers designated under schedule 4 for detention purposes.

Many forces wish to use officers in such ways. Cheshire constabulary has suggested that, with alternative approaches to escort duties, it could free the equivalent of 15 officers to front-line duties. Cleveland force is looking to free 23 officers, and the police bureaucracy task force, which is due to complete its work at the end of July, has indicated that the equivalent of about 6,650 full-time officers a year are tied up dealing with prisoners in police stations. Faced with that commitment of police officer resources, it is sensible for the measures in schedule 4 to be used by properly trained, designated officers who are employed by the police service and accountable to the chief constable, and for the exercise of whose duties the chief constable is responsible. There are policing functions that do not need the full powers and expertise of a police officer. Those listed here can be carried out satisfactorily by fully-trained support staff with appropriate limited powers.

Mr. Osborne: The Minister mentioned Cheshire police, my local force. That force welcomes back-room support for the police, such as detention officers; what is not welcome is front-line support. The officers do not want CSOs; they would rather have support in the back room than on the streets.

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