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12 Jan 2005 : Column 105WH—continued

Neighbourhood Policing

2 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate on neighbourhood policing. It is all the more welcome for being a surprise. I found out about it on Monday; I do not know whether the surprise was quite so welcome to the busy Minister, but I am delighted to see her.

I am pleased, too, to be accompanied today by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who has been an inspiration to colleagues in the Nottingham area by his persistent and relentless pursuit of more effective policing in his constituency and in Nottinghamshire. He has been a model in that regard, and although he is not in a position to comment today because of his duties as a Whip, I know that I would not have been as interested as I am in the issue had it not been for his assiduous work over the years.

The debate about reactive policing and pre-emptive policing has gone on for decades, and, as with all such debates, the views are often artificially polarised. The real truth, which most police officers and members of the public accept and understand, is that those two styles of policing are complementary; we cannot have one without the other. Nothing that I say by way of welcome to the Government's drive to improve neighbourhood policing, and the positive response being developed by    Nottinghamshire police, should be taken as undermining the need for responsive policing and reactive policing. They are two sides of the same coin and I think that we are now finding a more appropriate balance between them.

In Nottinghamshire, the chief constable is developing a county-wide neighbourhood policing strategy with energy and intelligence, and that is reflected in the city division, of which my constituency is a part. Neighbourhood policing in my constituency needs 70,000 pairs of eyes and ears—those of my constituents, who would thus support the uniformed branches of the police rather than hiving off responsibility to them.

In the city of Nottingham, neighbourhood policy and neighbourhood policing are being developed by the police and the city council in collaboration. Genuine collaboration is the only way that what is happening can be made to work. If the effort is only police led, the full potential benefits will not be realised. The city council, as my hon. Friend the Minister will know from her visits, brings excellent experience of community involvement, through the 100-day clean-up, the blitz on graffiti and the "Respect for Nottingham" campaign.

I see neighbourhood policing as having five key components: beat officers, police community support officers, neighbourhood wardens, the community and multi-agency working. All five elements are either relatively new or are finding a refreshed role within neighbourhood policing. Teething troubles are to be expected, but there is no question but that what is happening is a real breakthrough and a new development that is settling down well. If we continue to drive it with effective management and public and Government commitment, it will make an ever more important contribution to improving law and order and public reassurance.
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The first of the five elements that I identified is the beat officer. The central pillar around which neighbourhood policing must be based is the individual police constable who is responsible for a geographical area. That is the system now in place in my constituency, and I thank the chief constable, Steve Green, and the   divisional commander, Chief Superintendent Les Kominiak, who, incidentally, may be retiring in the near future. I and my colleagues in the Nottingham area want to express our grateful thanks to that dedicated and determined officer, who did remarkable things in the city division in his relatively brief tenure there. Both those officers deserve commendation for their renewed commitment to the beat officer system.

I carry in my diary at all times a list of the 22 beat officers who are responsible for 22 specific areas in my    constituency. That precise accountability gives ownership to the individual officer, and that provides a focal point for all other neighbourhood policing elements. Crucial to making that work is achieving the greatest stability among our beat officers. The chief police officer in my constituency, Superintendent Helen Jebb, is acutely aware of the need for as much stability as possible. I am very pleased that the police authority has approved the proposal for special payments for beat officers who stay in post for one year, followed by additional increments if they stay in post for two years, and further increments if they stay in post for a third year. I hope that the Minister will confirm later or in writing whether the Home Office has been able to approve that innovative and helpful use of the special priority payments. Regardless of the debate about whether increments are divisive, if beat officers are prepared to make a long-term commitment to a community, they must be the first in the line to receive such increments while they still exist.

I will go even further and ask the Minister whether she will re-examine the system that I saw in operation in Holland on a recent police parliamentary scheme visit. The beat officer signs a contract with the community to stay in post for five years. Perhaps the special priority payments should include an agreed minimum tenure. At the very least, each beat manager in the United Kingdom should have an engagement plan to suit their local circumstances, as is being pioneered in my constituency by Chief Inspector Simon Nickless.

The city of Nottingham divisional commander, Les Kominiak, pioneered the concept of the beat officer having a publicly known mobile telephone number. At the time, I thought that that would be counter-productive, because all sorts of phone calls would be made, but I am very happy to eat my words publicly, as the public's ability to leave messages has been not only good public relations, helping visibility and contact, but highly effective in delivering useful intelligence to the police. We are talking about not a return to Dixon of Dock Green, but the most effective hard policing to reduce the criminal elements in our society. This is not soft in any sense of the word; it is the most effective deployment of resources.

Another matter that needs to be examined nationally as well as locally is the disincentive of the shift pattern for officers who are retained on the beat. The generous six days on, four days off shift pattern for response officers must be reviewed, not only to make response officers more effective and easier to contact and to put
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them back under the control of local police station inspectors, but to ensure that they are retained on their patches.

The Government and the constabulary should be proposing effective personnel policies to insist that the norm will be that beat officers who leave have a proper handover period with their successors. Massive local knowledge is often lost by poor or non-existent succession policies. The beat officer must become as much of a fixture in a local community as the GP, head teacher or councillor. Consistency and stability will then have a massive consequential impact on neighbourhood police in the broadest sense.

Another area that needs a little more attention is police communication with the public. I know from my contact with constituents that not everyone has the name and mobile phone number of their local beat officer. If we provided them repeatedly through the local press, a regular newsletter or an annual "entitlement to know" enclosed with the council tax bill, people would be able not only to contact their beat officer, but to be put in touch with the whole range of neighbourhood policing and criminal justice system services.

Special constables also play an important role. Our local recruitment drive to increase numbers in the special constabulary is an attempt to encapsulate the essence of community engagement. Volunteers from our local communities are supporting their police service enthusiastically and productively, and perhaps the Minister can tell me whether there is or could be a modest payment for the hours that they put in.

The second important component of neighbourhood policing is the recent development of police community support officers. Although it is early days, it is not too wild a prediction to say that PCSOs—again, I pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, who was at the forefront of campaigning for Ministers to introduce them—will be seen in a year or two as a permanent fixture in our communities, and we will be unable to imagine ever having done without them. They are one of the Government's brightest initiatives, and Ministers are to be congratulated on the vision and commitment that they have shown in putting PCSOs in place.

People like to see high-visibility public figures wearing yellow jackets. They do not necessarily know the distinction between PCSOs and the police, but we need not be ashamed of that. The more bad guys who see a uniformed presence of whatever description on the street, the happier my constituents and I will be. Indeed, in an interesting bit of joined-up thinking, there is an agreement between the divisional commander and the city council for council staff in the Nottingham city centre to wear high-profile yellow jackets. In my constituency alone there are four PCSOs at the Broxtowe station, six at the Oxclose Lane station and four on the mobile taskforce.

As regards PCSOs, I would like the Minister to continue to think about two issues. First, there is the continuing debate about what PCSOs' powers should be. I commend the gentle evolution of the PCSO in Nottinghamshire, which seems a sensible way forward.
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The more sensitive we can be with PCSOs, the more likely it is that they will fit well into local circumstances, which are obviously different in different places.

In Nottingham, PCSOs can do everything from policing dispersal notices to tackle antisocial behaviour and providing professional witness evidence, which is crucial in breaking the anti-witness culture that drug gangs in my constituency have developed, to using powers of arrest for half an hour until a police officer arrives to provide assistance and issuing fixed-penalty notices. The Minister must bear it in mind that we need to retain local flexibility so that we can determine what powers are appropriate and where they are deployed. That may mean fewer powers in certain circumstances and more in others.

Secondly, the greatest threat to the continuing development of PCSOs is that they might be seen as a substitute for, rather than additional to, the local beat officer. That could be the case especially if there were a squeeze on public expenditure—if the day ever dawned when another political party got into power and mismanaged the economy. If the issue is not handled sensibly, local policy could, by default, drift to PCSOs only. We would then be only one step away from response policing being run by a national police force and neighbourhood policing being run by the local authority.

There is much to commend that approach, and perhaps it should be piloted in the city of Nottingham. However, if that is the way we want to go, it should be done only as a matter of deliberate policy, not by default. I am therefore reassured by a recent letter that I received from the Minister, saying that PCSOs are additional to, not a substitute for, beat officers. However, as circumstances and perhaps even Ministers change—unless the present Minister becomes Home Secretary—we need continuity to ensure that that idea is retained, whatever the economic and political circumstances surrounding PCSOs.

The third element of neighbourhood policing is the welcome development allowing local authorities—in my case, the city of Nottingham—to employ uniformed neighbourhood wardens. So much of the low-level crime that angers and frustrates our local communities melds imperceptibly into antisocial values evident at street level, which neighbourhood wardens can combat. Having been out on patrol with neighbourhood wardens in my constituency, I know that their ability to take action across a wide range of council and community issues helps underpin the work of the other uniformed branches. They can issue on-the-spot fines for littering and intervene on issues ranging from designing out rat-runs around local estates to dog mess. Those are all very useful and positive services to which the community responds and feels is beneficial. Tying neighbourhood warden patrols into intelligence-led briefing and deployment ensures that their work is done not in isolation but in areas where communities and the other uniformed branches will benefit most.

The fourth element of neighbourhood policing—and the ultimate measure of success—is the involvement of the public. Involvement will differ between localities. Some may wish to be involved by becoming special constables, others by sitting on their tenants or residents association. In Nottingham, we have broken down the
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city into nine area committees, each with its own community safety group. That offers potential for participation, too.

However, I want to focus on what is in my opinion one of the most underused parts of the local scene: the neighbourhood watch. I have never been a great advocate of neighbourhood watch, but I must admit that as every day goes by it becomes more and more important that we make it relevant and renew what it needs to do. I ask the Government, through the Minister, to look again at that and to ensure that neighbourhood watch reaches a new and higher level, giving it the priority and resources that it needs.

I have asked all those who should be involved to set as an ambition the creation of a neighbourhood watch in every part of my constituency. Coverage is currently sparse, and the Government and local institutions must set out a clear strategy to make neighbourhood watch comprehensive. There is too much pass the parcel at the moment in organising neighbourhood watch. A named official must be known to the public and to the Government to make the scheme work in every constituency, town and area in the UK.

Many people in my area fear that their involvement in neighbourhood watch will lead them to be intimidated. To encourage more and more people to get involved, a fresh approach is necessary. Perhaps in the first instance there should be a neighbourhood watch club that people can join without being surfaced locally until a critical mass of a dozen or 15 people in a street can be achieved. Perhaps that could be explored as a different way to move forward on neighbourhood watch.

Although effective neighbourhood policing can do a great deal, I will continue to look across the Government and, indeed, to the Prime Minister to provide the context for the longer-term answers on crime prevention—above all making sure that youngsters grow up as social beings rather than antisocial yobs. Short-term measures to relieve the consequences of antisocial behaviour are essential, but will be little more than policy snacking if we do not address the longer-term issues. I hope that all political parties—they are all represented here today—will put the long-term development of social behaviour at the centre of their manifestos at the coming election and that whoever is elected as the Government will make the matter central to the next four or five years in British politics.

I am thinking particularly of the need for comprehensive parenting skills and of doing for social behaviour what we have done for literacy and numeracy, by putting it at the heart of the national curriculum—not referred to, not as an adjunct to it, but at the centre of the national curriculum. In that way, in areas such as mine we can undercut the attitudes that lead to such massive expense in the long term through involvement with the courts, the police, drug rehabilitation, social work, benefits—the whole panoply that follows if we do not get things right in the first few years of life and education. The new Home Secretary's recent background probably equips him more than most to acknowledge that young people who have a toolkit of social values, self-discipline and respect for others and the emotional intelligence to use them provide the most effective self-policing mechanism: a fully operational conscience.
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Neighbourhood policing will be supported by the public when they understand the practical consequences of their criminal justice system. The Government—in this case Ministers in the Department for Constitutional Affairs—must pick up their responsibility in that area by ensuring that the new local criminal justice boards are empowered, resourced and then encouraged to involve systematically every tenants association, every neighbourhood watch and every area committee, so that people gain an understanding of how their criminal justice system relates to them.

The criminal justice system must be—it needs to be—returned to the public and it must stop being the private playground of lawyers and professionals. I hope that the Minister will be able to allude to that and to whether any progress has been made since I raised the matter with the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House before Christmas. If we do not activate the public, we will stand down our largest army in the war on crime. We must involve the public; they must feel that the criminal justice system and neighbourhood policing belong to them.

The last element to which I want to refer is the large number of local bodies and partnerships that have an interest in neighbourhood policing and often operate on a multi-agency basis. There are a number of examples of that. An obvious one, which has been raised many times by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), is that of a far tighter partnership between the Crown Prosecution Service, the courts and the police so that we have an agreed strategy when deciding how to tackle antisocial behaviour with an antisocial behaviour order. That would reduce tension and ensure better understanding and communication between agencies. Equally, the embryonic antisocial behaviour teams that are being established in the City of Nottingham have a key role, not least on the former council estates that make up my constituency.

In areas of social housing, the local housing office is key. Repossession is a more potent tool even than ASBOs. The use of local knowledge and the ability to engineer better social behaviour through the lettings policy and police checks cannot be underestimated. I was up in Mansfield on a police parliamentary scheme visit, and saw the imaginative way in which the powers of traffic wardens and of PCSOs are being tied so that they combine their impact. The informal network of activity is equally important. We all remember the days when park keepers and bus drivers were the eyes and ears of a local community. That needs to be deliberately revived. Short-term savings on things such as one-person-operated buses or mobile park caretakers have long-term consequences, and we need to revive and regenerate the impact that people on the ground had in all aspects of public service.

I have just mentioned five or six examples of local bodies, and in such a situation co-ordination is absolutely vital, otherwise gaps appear, duplication occurs, things are left to someone else, or the organisational cultures either clash or sulk depending on the mood of the day. As neighbourhood policing develops, we look to the Government to make it clear and to take great care to ensure proper communication, accountability and responsibility for that co-ordination, which is so important between agencies and with the public.
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In the end, there is no substitute for a named person who is known to the local public and to the Home Office as responsible in such areas. Although the civil service may try to "Yes Minister" us out of it, I hope that the parliamentary constituency could provide the right bite-size area for such an arrangement. That would also give Members of Parliament a role and place on them an expectation to help to deliver on neighbourhood policing. I will leave that one in the air for the Minister. If all that is done effectively, we will be in the business of creating a web, a network, an infrastructure that will relentlessly tackle local crime rather than fobbing it off as somebody else's responsibility. Those are the key elements. Much progress has been made informally. The Government have set out their agenda on neighbourhood policing and lots of people are already pursuing that agenda before it formally comes into effect.

As well as that informal progress, I am delighted to be able to welcome the initiative endorsed only yesterday at the Nottingham crime and disorder reduction partnership. A proposal for two formal pilot schemes on neighbourhood policing in Nottingham was agreed, including one in my constituency, as a prelude to developing a city-wide neighbourhood policing plan. Some 20 PCSOs will be added to the present number of PCSOs and beat managers to form the core of the new teams. A named person will be in charge and the team will link to the antisocial behaviour team and the city council street scene department, with a named contact in each. The teams will be accountable to the area committee's community safety working group, which will be consulted on the task to be undertaken.

My thanks go to the Home Office for its funding of the active communities unit, which has been able to prepare the ground for effective consultation to make the scheme work properly. The pilot in my constituency is expected to be up and running next month and long-term funding will be sought in mid-2005 on the back of an agreed neighbourhood policing plan. The signs are very encouraging, but I hope that in developing the formal structures of neighbourhood policing the Minister will be careful in the following two areas.

First, connecting with the community must not result in the paralysis of over-consultation so that delivery itself is impaired. We can develop a meetings culture with too many open meetings which the same group of people attend. Delivery on the ground will inspire more people to get involved. Secondly, the pilots should be allowed to develop without being bound hand and foot by performance indicators and targets laid down from the centre, which are often insensitive to local needs and circumstances. At the beginning I hope that there will be a real desire for flexibility, so that many different styles and ways forward develop, rather than a wish to intervene too soon to ensure that particular benchmarks, which often are not that relevant to local needs, are met.

There are two minor dangers in what I think is a very welcome development from the Government in this area. The development so far reflects great credit on those who have been involved, but some key decisions are coming up. The central one for the Government is how far we can allow authority for neighbourhood
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policing to devolve to the localities. It is always difficult promoting a local solution that has to be driven at national level; we all battle with that contradiction in many different ways. If we can make police authorities a little more effective and representative as instruments, that will go a long way to help.

Additionally, while taking second place to no one in my admiration of the former Home Secretary, I hope that the new incumbent will understand that we will make fewer mistakes and get better and more practical outcomes if we involve practitioners and the public at every stage of developing the concept of neighbourhood policing. Whether we call it market testing or reality checking, there is no substitute for picking the brains of those most intimately involved and with the best experience.

In parliamentary terms, I hope that the Home Secretary will begin to make the fullest possible use of both pre and post-legislative scrutiny so that we can explore all the opportunities and use all the experience available to make neighbourhood policing work on the ground. This is something that Parliament, used properly, can help to bring to the party. It is too early to call neighbourhood policing an unqualified success. Equally, we should avoid presenting it, as some have presented identity cards, as a cure-all. None the less, there is no doubt in my mind or, more importantly, in the minds of my constituents, that the signs are very    encouraging indeed, whether we consider neighbourhood policing a national initiative or a practical local policy. With due care and attention, neighbourhood policing, linked to the long-term measures on social behaviour that I mentioned earlier, could be the answer to tackling the culture of antisocial behaviour and volume crime that is my constituents' No. 1 priority. I wish the Government well in their efforts.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Hon. Members wishing to speak may like to bear it in mind that the Front-Bench contributions must begin no later than 3 o'clock.

2.31 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): I am very glad to have such an unexpectedly early opportunity to speak. I wish that the attendance could have been better, although the number of hon. Members present might have something to do with the fact that the subject was changed late in the day. Perhaps not as many hon. Members as usual knew what was to be debated, which is a great pity. However, I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on raising a central issue of our times.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a lot of interesting things are going on in Nottingham that we read about with great interest and approbation, even in London. He paid tribute to the local commander in Nottingham and I want to pay tribute to my local sector chief, Inspector Nick Stratford. The southern sector of Bromley coincides with my constituency. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the bite-sized area of a constituency being a good size for neighbourhood policing. My relationship
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with Inspector Stratford is good. I find him responsive, with his feet on the ground, and willing to commit to the idea of neighbourhood policing. I am grateful to him for all that he is doing.

I have no doubt that the more neighbourhood policing we have, the better. It is the right direction for policing to take in the 21st century. However, the one necessary criterion is that we have enough police on the ground—on the beat, visible to people, making themselves known.

I shall give an example of how that does not work in my constituency in current circumstances and how it could work. I went to a public meeting before Christmas that was attended by no fewer than 400 people. The meeting was called by the police, who were there in force. The Minister can imagine the long list of complaints that were aired, as the police explained that they thought they were doing a reasonable job, only to be told, "No you're not, because of X, Y and Z." The meeting went on for a long time and the conclusion was that we needed more police.

When the crunch came, the police had to admit that, in my constituency, quite a large area in Cray Valley—a large ward in a London borough—was being dealt with by just one beat officer. That is not all, however. I subsequently discovered that beat officer guarding the Door at the end of the main Committee Corridor when the Hunting Bill debate was interrupted and having two hours of her time wasted when she could have been down in Cray Valley doing her real job. That is an example of the problem of insufficient police officers and, particularly in London, their being extracted far too often to do pointless things in the centre of the city.

My first task as the Member of Parliament for Orpington in 1992 was to open a new police station in the Cray Valley ward, which then had about 20 officers. When the Labour party came to power, I am sorry to say that the station was closed. To be fair, however, although one beat officer covers one area, four or five cover another part, so there are probably about six or seven officers in all. The area is important, because there is a large Traveller population—the biggest in the country—and there are associated problems, as well as those that are not at all associated. People remember what happened to that police station because it happened only four or five years ago. They remember the number of officers that were there then and know how many are there today.

However, I want to encourage the Minister because I am not entirely condemnatory of there not being enough police. A police station in Biggin Hill, which is rather isolated and separate from the rest of my constituency, was closed under her Government. People were very upset about that and I held large meetings two years ago in Biggin Hill about antisocial behaviour at which all the usual complaints were raised. However, action was taken in partnership between Bromley council and the Metropolitan Police Authority, and there are now two regular beat officers and four PCSOs.

So, six people look after the ward of Biggin Hill. I am glad to say, and the Minister will be pleased to hear, that over the past 18 months there has been a total change in the atmosphere because there are now six instead of one. Even though we still do not have a police station, the local authority is talking about opening a shop with
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multi-service provisions, which is definitely a step forward. I assure the Minister that although there are glaring examples of neighbourhood policing not working because there are not enough police, such as in Cray Valley, it clearly does work when there are enough policemen on the beat, as in Biggin Hill.

I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that it is important that policemen become as familiar to local people as the local GPs and teachers. It may be that instead of there being one person, there are half a dozen people whom it is necessary to name in any particular ward. My constituency is a bite-size area for this concept. There are eight wards. Six or seven policemen in each ward, which is the ultimate intention, would make a huge difference. That is the case in only one ward. The others have to make do with one policeman, which is simply not enough. Local police officers can direct resources to an area, but other areas will remain uncovered and problems emerge, so they are fighting a losing battle.

The sine qua non of neighbourhood policing is that there are enough police officers on the ground to enforce it properly. I understand that the provision of the number of police in a London borough such as Bromley is the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police Authority rather than the Minister. One reason I am here today is that decisions will be announced at the end of this month about the new resource allocation formula for the whole of London. Antisocial behaviour, and everything associated with it, is as evident a problem in the leafy suburbs, such as Bromley, as it is in inner London and other inner-city areas. It is just as big an aggravation and as many people's lives can be made miserable by such everyday occurrences as in inner-city areas. Attention must be paid to the problem.

Bromley, which is the largest borough of London in population and size—my constituency is the biggest in London—has 150 fewer policemen than Lewisham and Croydon. Ironically, a constituent in Biggin Hill stood up at one of the meetings to which I referred and said that he felt safer in Lewisham than in Bromley, because in Catford, where he lived previously, he could see policemen on the beat, whereas he never saw them in Bromley until the recent change. I draw to the Minister's attention, and through her to the attention of the Metropolitan Police Authority, the fact that the leafy suburbs, particular Bromley, are not getting a fair deal under the current allocation.

People are much helped if they have the mobile phone number of their local beat officer. Beat officers who give them out are very popular. They may be in demand and inconvenienced by their mobile phone ringing, but in the case of a local hot spot it can be extremely helpful for people to have someone that they can get hold of immediately.

Another problem in the borough of Bromley, as I am sure the Minister is aware, is that the police force has the worst response rate in London. That is partly due to the size of the borough, and the few police cannot respond in time, but there is also a big communication problem in London. Changes are being made to how responses are handled, but it is so far leading to a deterioration of the situation. There are great concerns, not only about
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the number of police visible on the beat, but about the response times to people making emergency 999 calls. They are real problems in London, although I know that the Minister is not responding to London issues directly.

Finally, I want to mention two rather more futuristic points. First, I have concentrated on the need for more visible police on the streets, because that is fundamental. However, there also needs to be a change in the culture of the police force. In recent years, there has been an emphasis on promotion in the police force based on specialisation. Everyone wants to get off the beat and into a specialised remit, believing that that is the way to promotion within the force. On the contrary, I think that we need to go back to a generalist police force with people who are multi-tasked, and who can understand and respond to lots of different situations. In New York, for example, that was done by making the detectives responsible to the precinct captains. That was a huge demotion for the detectives and they hated it, but it meant, all of a sudden, that everybody wanted to be the person who was top dog—the precinct captain—and for their area to be the best policed neighbourhood in New York. That directed the competition in the right way and we know what results were achieved there. The Minister ought to pay some attention to that issue. It is a long-running one, which cannot be solved overnight, so perhaps it is not for her but for a future Minister. None the less, it needs attention.

Secondly, I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about devolving responsibility. How far can we take localisation? The fact is that the police will pay more attention to local needs if they have to be responsive to local people. In my case, Bromley police are responsible to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who is in turn responsible to the Minister. They are therefore looking upwards all the time instead of downwards to the needs of their local areas. At the moment, there are too many central initiatives—they are undoubtedly relevant to some areas, but clearly not to every area—with targeted funding, which cannot be touched, and which therefore means little in terms of the money that is available to a local commander to deal with his general range of problems.

The balance between centralisation and localisation needs shifting sensitively and sensibly towards more localisation. I fully accept that that cannot be done overnight, and consequences would flow from it, such as in local authority funding. At present, roughly 75 per cent. of police funds come from central Government and 25 per cent. from local authorities. Clearly, while that is so, central Government will want a big say in how police forces use the money that they provide, so perhaps there will have to be some consequential long-term change in the funding. I accept that that is a long-term problem, but until we grasp it, we will not get the localised emphasis that is more relevant in this century.

I welcome the Minister to her job, but we need far more resources and a long-term view of the nature of policing.
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2.43 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate, and I regret that the Opposition Front-Bench team was not represented for practically the whole of his speech, because he made some important points.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being present throughout the whole of the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). However, he was kind enough to let me have a copy of his speech, so although I was not here, I am aware of what he had prepared to say.

Mr. Dismore : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, although that is not the same as hearing it live.

The starting point to any debate on policing in London is the great success that the London Mayor has had in increasing police numbers to record levels. We now have 30,000 police in London, and the training school, which is in my constituency at Hendon, is bursting at the seams and cannot take any more. As the numbers go up, a tension is created between the number of police devoted to the safer neighbourhoods programme and the number allocated to core policing, an issue to which I shall return.

The most common concerns identified by the public are what, euphemistically and wrongly, used to be called low-level crime. In fact, they are high-profile crimes that impact on all our communities at all levels. The public are right when they complain about youth crime, antisocial behaviour, irresponsible drivers, graffiti, drug use and drug dealing and so on. The safer neighbourhoods programme in London is making a major contribution to tackling them. It is important to realise that the teams are ring-fenced, so they are not affected by aid extraction. That is a particular problem in London, because people are sent to central London to police demonstrations or to deal with terrorism.

There is no doubt that the programme has significantly reduced crime and the fear of crime. In London, the safer neighbourhoods teams have encouraged increased confidence in policing. In the first quarter during which we had them, there were 25 per cent. more calls to police in safer neighbourhoods areas. They are also having a positive impact on community cohesion. Since roll-out began, the teams have hosted more than 232 public meetings with nearly 6,000 attendants, of whom 20 per cent. were from minority communities. In safer neighbourhoods areas, robbery was reduced by 40 per cent. and criminal damage by 4 per cent. between 2003 and 2004—greater reductions than occurred in areas that did not have such teams.

Compared with the police service as a whole in London, safer neighbourhoods teams better reflect the communities that they serve. Women make up 23 per cent. of their members and people from minority backgrounds comprise 21 per cent. A work force who reflect the diversity of London inspire more confidence and trust in the police.

I have two safer neighbourhoods teams in my constituency, and I pay tribute to my borough commander, Chief Superintendent Ricketts, and his
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officers and staff, who have had great success. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, spoke about the importance of stability at police constable level. I want to bring to colleagues' attention the need for stability at leadership level. Superintendent Ricketts is the fourth commander in my borough in the almost eight years that I have been a Member of Parliament. If local policing is to develop properly, we have to have the stability that has so far been lacking. It might be that two of the superintendent's predecessors were on the rapid promotion track, but I am pleased that Mr. Ricketts sees this as his last posting, of which he wants to make a real success, and that he is not keen for promotion. I hope that the Met will leave him be and let him get on with the job, and that the same will apply to the rest of his staff.

Where we have teams in Barnet, crime has reduced by 17 per cent. There has been joint working with the community in cleaning up graffiti and maintaining the clean-up. One tagger did return, but he was identified and arrested, and there have been few incidents since. There has been greater focus on local intelligence and local criminals, leading to effective enforcement against low-level crime, which affects quality of life. There has been a 45 per cent. reduction in the number of abandoned vehicles, and we have enhanced community cohesion. The officers are familiar and available, with the dedicated mobile telephone number of which we heard earlier. Direct working protocols exist between the police and the local authority on graffiti, abandoned vehicles and antisocial behaviour. Community advisory panels are focusing police activity and providing meaningful local oversight and feedback. Officers are tackling the issues that concern the local population.

There has been a 30 per cent. reduction in antisocial behaviour calls where there are safer neighbourhoods teams, and we have used PCSOs by focusing on their strengths. Intelligence has led to the arrest of local drug dealers on Grahame Park estate in Colindale—that information would not have been given had the individuals not had confidence in their teams, and the arrests would not have been made. Paradoxically, there has also been an increase in allegations of harassment and minor assault. Perhaps that, too, shows an increased confidence in the police.

There are problems with the teams; it is not all good news. One of my main complaints concerns how Conservative-controlled Barnet council has significantly downgraded its neighbourhood warden service. That has reduced some of the impact of the teams. Ward boundaries are too clumsy a model, and I shall return to that. Giving Hendon the same resources as inner-London boroughs is illogical and the roll-out has led to displacement issues, raising questions about core policing.

Let me deal with ward boundaries. The problem can be illustrated by the proposal for a team to come to West Hendon in my constituency. West Hendon includes Brent Cross, which distorts the crime figures, but immediately next to West Hendon is Hendon Central, and near the tube station and the shopping area is a major crime hot-spot. We had to get special consent, by my raising the matter with Mr. Livingstone, who agreed to use the Brent Cross police team as part of the safer neighbourhoods area team and to expand over the frontier to include Hendon Central. That was an
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imaginative way to break through the ring-fenced boundary, which had the potential to cause obstruction in the setting up of teams.

It is not fair that we should have a "one size fits all" system, with one team per ward irrespective of the size of the ward. We also suffer a degree of discrimination in connection with the cost of policing in London—a matter that I pursued with my hon. Friend the Minister in a recent parliamentary question. The cost of PCSOs in London does not reflect the fact that it is rather more expensive to employ them in London than in the rest of the country. That discriminates against us.

The biggest unfairness, however, is seen when one considers the size of wards in inner London compared with those in outer London. For example, the average population of the wards in Barnet is 50 per cent. higher than the average for Kensington and Chelsea. The largest is twice the size, and the smallest is twice the size, but they have the same size of team. The figures for average square mileage are even worse; the wards in Barnet are seven times larger than those in Kensington and Chelsea. The smallest ward in Barnet, Burnt Oak, is double the size of the largest in Kensington and Chelsea, and the largest ward in my constituency, Mill Hill, is more than nine times that of the largest in Kensington and Chelsea.

It is not practical for the same number of officers to police a much larger population and a much larger area. We have to find a way of gearing the size of team to reflect demand. It is all very well to say that we want visible policing, but that number of police vanish in such large wards, whereas Kensington and Chelsea seems to have a copper on virtually every street corner. Such a distribution is not fair or equitable. That is not only a matter for my hon. Friend the Minister, of course; it involves how the Metropolitan police distributes its resources.

We also need to consider the impact of the new teams on core policing. The safer neighbourhoods teams draw on the new officers, but that has effectively resulted in far fewer of them being allocated to core policing. That happens irrespective of the capital city function, which is a bone of contention between the Met and the Government, as 10 per cent. of our officers—as many as 3,000 at a time—are being diverted to anti-terrorism duties. That is a major drain on the Met, but we are not properly reimbursed, either as London taxpayers or as a London police service, for the extra work, which is not properly recognised.

If one looks at the geographical policing areas, one sees that Barnet is the fourth largest in area and the second largest in population. Again, the problem is well illustrated by comparing Barnet with Kensington and Chelsea. Barnet has nearly 19,000 reported crimes compared with just over 14,000 in Kensington and Chelsea. However, we have only 544 officers compared with 553, and we have 37 PCSOs compared with 55. Barnet is 34.5 square miles compared with just over 6 square miles in K and C, and our population of 320,000 is virtually double that in Kensington and Chelsea of 173,000, yet we have far fewer resources to tackle the job.

Those differences are reflected in some crime figures. Our crime figures in Barnet are mixed. Yes, there are some good signs, but some figures show that we are not
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doing as well as we could. That comes down to insufficient officers. Barnet is grouped by the Home Office as part of the 3B family group, but the amount of crime is double that. For example, we have almost twice the crime of our sister boroughs of Richmond, Kingston, Merton and Harrow, which are in the same group.

Looking at the volume of crime, it can be seen that Barnet is one of the highest contributors, with crime levels that match those of Newham, Haringey, Brent, Islington and Hackney. We have significant crime levels. As for the number of crimes committed per police officer—I do not mean that the police have committed the crimes—we have the worst ratio in London. I raised that matter with my hon. Friend the Minister in a parliamentary question, and she will probably recognise the answer. Barnet has 27.6 crimes per police officer; the average for outer London is 21, and only 17.5 for England and Wales. That major problem is caused by a lack of recognition of the impact of such demand on core policing.

It is important that the resource allocation formula should reflect some demands of outer London. We feel neglected due to how the formula was gerrymandered by the commissioner's discretion the last time around. I argued about that at great length with senior officers of the Met. We have significant problems. In Barnet and other outer-London boroughs, we now have many inner-London problems in our town centres. Those are not reflected in the unfair way that the commissioner and the Met have allocated resources to us.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on her drive and enthusiasm for the new policy, but ask that we try to tackle some of its by-products for core policing.

2.55 pm

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): In the little time remaining I shall quickly cover a small number of points. I greatly value the opportunity that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) has given us to debate this subject—it was a complete surprise to me, and a very pleasant one.

I want first to mention the work of South Derbyshire's crime and disorder reduction partnership, because I admire the quality of its work, but I am also slightly concerned about the approach that is being taken towards supporting partnerships. The work of the partnership in South Derbyshire has produced a range of highly effective innovations, which have helped to reduce crime and the fear of crime substantially—in particular the initiative on securing homes where there have been burglaries. Funds have been provided. I think that we all know that a place that has been burgled before is the No. 1 target for another burglary in due course. The work was so successful in the pilot period that in every case there was no repeat burglary. That is a tremendous success for the scheme; the people concerned are often elderly and it gave them great reassurance.

Building on that work, the partnership has funded a joiner and a van. The joiner tells me that the job is the best one that he has ever had—driving round to do the necessary work in a designated and clearly identified
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vehicle, uniformed, and giving all the reassurance of a proper quality service. Support has also been given to developing skateboard parks in the area, to provide useful and fun diversions for younger people. That has been greatly appreciated. Obviously, the partnership is not the only funder of the projects, but, nevertheless it is a significant contributor in ideas and money.

The partnership's work on tackling drugs is a highly successful initiative, which has pulled in a number of repeat offenders in parts of my constituency—particularly Newhall. That has dramatically reduced crime in that part of South Derbyshire. An officer is now dedicated to pursuing ASBOs. We are not as quick on the draw as some areas, and I welcome that. I prefer ASBOs to be a later resort rather than the first action that one would take to deal with someone who is not conforming in the neighbourhood.

The local force has recently been given funding for community support officers. South Derbyshire will get five. Derbyshire has not been the first to bid for those. The emphasis in Derbyshire has been on building the uniformed force and particularly on strengthening the role of specials. However, those CSOs will be extremely valuable in South Derbyshire and I look forward to their arrival.

We have a rural policing unit because of the rural nature of the area. The difficulties of targeted funding have been mentioned, but it is critical that targeted funding is retained to support a unit of that kind. It is extremely helpful, particularly in dealing with farm-based crime.

I congratulate Tony Hurrell, who is the commander for the division covering my constituency and a constituent of mine. It is a reflection of his commitment to the area that he is also the leader of the local strategic partnership. He sets a high example of commitment to his community and the constituency. The officers whom he appoints to serve the various South Derbyshire sections also reflect similar qualities.

I have three brief action points to outline, the first of which repeats the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North about parenting. In a meeting that I held on the Goseley estate in Hartshorne, residents surprisingly placed greater emphasis on the need to strengthen parenting and to get across the message of raising parenting standards than on visible policing and several other initiatives that one might have thought would be first in their minds, so that is a key area.

Secondly, it should be possible to give some financial rewards to specials. I have suggested in correspondence with the Home Office the possibility of parish councils in my area providing an additional bounty to recruit specials in their parish to provide that uniformed presence. I would like a more permissive approach to that. I also emphasise the importance of quality local partnerships. I have one, and I recognise that I am lucky. Other people have told me that their partnerships do not work very effectively. Mine does, and I want to ensure that it retains the commitment, support and funding that it has enjoyed until now.

I thank hon. Members for the opportunity to contribute briefly to this debate.
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3.1 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I am glad that I could not receive the fax of the speech given by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) but I was in the Chamber to hear it—the reverse experience of the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). It was an excellent speech and I did not disagree with a single word.

Quite a lot of cross-party consensus is emerging on many policing issues, and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North gave an extremely good and informed analysis of an ideal model of neighbourhood policing. The way in which he went through the various components was helpful. I shall refer to some of those issues and discuss some of the ways in which his ideas could be developed.

The hon. Gentleman's first point is essential. It is key that the beat officer must have a clear geographical area to cover. The situation that he described in Nottingham, where he can flick to the back of his diary and see the mobile phone numbers for 22 different officers, is probably the ideal. In my experience, however, it is not always easy to do that. It can be difficult to have that cover in all geographical areas.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) made the point that cover is very patchy. In some areas there is cover, in others there is a difficulty with cover. I take his point about officers who would usually take part in that work being drawn into other activities, and we must watch out for that, although I disagree that their defending us in this place is pointless. But there is a problem, particularly in London, with police officers continually being drawn into big high-profile events and coming under other pressures.

As has been said, continuity is essential. Again, my experience is that just when one gets someone who understands the area and gets to know the head teachers and community leaders, they leave, and all that good work is undermined. Certainly in the seven or eight years in which I have been a Member of Parliament, I have forgotten the names of individuals because they move so fast. I was therefore very interested in the example of the contracts in Holland and the ways in which the Government can bind in those individuals.

Another point made by the hon. Member for Orpington is that the police should regard this as an important career move and not as a stepping stone to a greater role and a better job. That would help to achieve continuity. I was very taken with the idea of including with council tax bills information about how to contact individual police officers. That is a very good idea, and what better way of allowing people who get fed up with having to pay their council tax bills at least to see a benefit in return for the money for which they are being asked?

There is also consensus on the use of community support officers. I have had my concerns about CSOs, but I recognise that they have an important role to play. I was encouraged to hear the hon. Member for Nottingham, North sharing my concern about the cautious approach that we take to tagging on powers for CSOs. I could not agree more that CSOs are additional to, and not a replacement for, fully trained police officers. We must be cautious and careful as we tag on more powers to CSOs. We must ensure that they are
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properly trained to understand how to use those powers and that they fall into line with the various Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 guidelines. They are being asked to do things that have enormous consequences, and ensuring that they have the necessary training is critical, but they do increase visibility—the jacket argument. Another way of considering the jacket argument and visibility is by asking some of our more senior police officers, even those involved in CID and undercover work, to be jacketed up if possible when they are not doing sensitive work. That would increase visibility at higher levels of the police. Often, there are many more police officers around in the streets than people think. Why are we not making them more visible when they are not doing sensitive work?

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North raised the importance of a partnership and of the local authority being involved at the same point. That was picked up on by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who talked about the great successes that have been achieved by partnership in his area, such as with the safer neighbourhood teams. He gave a long list of successes, including on graffiti, that have resulted from that project, and it seems that good work is being done, but he also gave a long list of some financial constraints that apply. People are obviously doing a good job, given those constraints.

We must think much more creatively about engaging the public, because they are part of the list of those involved in the partnership. My party has suggested the concept of community justice panels, which I think, in a strange sort of way, the Government are now pushing forward. The panels involve letting the community have a greater say in what the punishment should be in non-serious cases in which a crime has been committed against the community. The panels sit down and discuss with the offender what they will do to put things right in the community. At its rawest, that is engaging the public and bringing them into the process.

At a different level, building up the role of neighbourhood watch and perhaps modernising how it operates could be a useful tool in the process. I am not sure why the Government got themselves into a row last year with neighbourhood watch, but there is a need to build bridges with the National Neighbourhood Watch Association, which felt bruised and unloved by the Government when the debate over funding of how it operates centrally took place. I understand that many of the concerns have been resolved, but it would be useful if the Minister clarified where we are on neighbourhood watch.

As the debate progressed, we got on to the issue of ASBOs and at what point in the process it is useful to put in place such a punishment. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North used a phrase that I quite like. We do not want to get too involved in what I think he described as policy smacking.

Mr. Allen : Snacking.

Mr. Oaten : I would use the phrase with either word; it works with both. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) also touched on ASBOs, saying that he hoped that they would come at the end rather than the start of the process. The Minister will tease me
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about this endlessly, but I have come to the view that there is a useful role for ASBOs. That said, I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns that they should either be a last resort or be matched with something else. I have described such a scheme as ASBOs-plus.

The contributions of the hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for South Derbyshire hinted at the fact that ASBOs alone can be effective in a short-term way, but other measures must be put in place. That is about tackling the underlying causes of behaviour. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North asked questions, but not many answers were given, because we all struggle to come to terms with what the answers are. Why do 12, 13 and 14-year-olds go off the rails? What can we do to try to tackle the problems? The hon. Member for South Derbyshire talked about alternatives—one of which involved skateboarding—tackling drug problems, doing things in the community and trying to find ways to get to these individuals early. Again, the youth work that the Government have done in that respect has been good. There have been pilots involving early intervention and identification of youngsters who may end up getting into trouble. I enjoyed my visit to Bristol to see how that work is done. If we can expand it much further and nip things in the bud, before individuals have gone down the track of having problems, that will be very helpful.

I conclude with two thoughts. For me, the most telling thing in the debate has been the request from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North to allow different forms of experimentation up and down the country. That is essential because not every solution will fit every area. My constituency and other constituencies are different, and we need different approaches. If the Government can resist the temptation to impose too many set models and can allow mistakes to take place in certain parts of the country as the price of different experimentation, that will be very worth while.

The matter is complex, and must be seen within the context of police forces having to do things that they did not have to do 15 years ago, because of organised crime, drug problems, binge drinking, internet pornography and complex issues relating to terrorism. This critical matter should be up there with all of them, and I am grateful for the way that the hon. Gentleman set out his thoughts on how neighbourhood policing should play its role.

3.10 pm

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I start by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister for my late arrival. I apologise, too, to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) who, with great courtesy, gave me a copy of his speech. The irony is that while he was delivering it, I was reading it, close to this Chamber. I hope he feels that although he did not have my presence I was with him in spirit.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Neighbourhood policing is a matter about which he has frequently expressed his concern. The hon. Gentleman and I entered the House on the same day in 1987 when he was elected for a central constituency and I for a suburb of Nottingham. I have the greatest possible affection for the city, which is a great place.
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In November, the hon. Gentleman secured a debate in which he explained that it was his view that we could

On 8 December, he asked a question to the Prime Minister about linking the criminal justice system nationally with local policing and crime reduction initiatives. During a debate on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which is closeted in Committee, where I am leading spokesman for the Opposition, he made it clear that he saw the beat officer as a central pillar of neighbourhood policing in a constituency such as his, where beat officers are not being replaced and vacancies are not being filled.

In another debate, the hon. Gentleman also said:

Those are very fair points. I attach particular importance to what the hon. Gentleman says because he has recently been on the police parliamentary scheme, and he knows what he is talking about.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the five key components of neighbourhood policing and I very much agree with what he said about it. I also agree very much with what the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) said about the importance of knowing who the beat officer is. I am impressed that he has 22 names to go with the 22 beats in his constituency. That is enormously important and I strongly agree with the proposition that the telephone numbers of the relevant beat officer should go out with the council tax form. That is a very good idea, which I hope the Minister will consider.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North paid tribute to the local commanders in his constituency. I, too, pay tribute to Douglas Paxton, a superb policeman, who is chief of police in Sutton Coldfield. He is leaving shortly, although he has been in that post for a decent length of time. In the 18 months after I first became Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, there were three chiefs of police. I complained on behalf of my constituents that that was wrong. I very much support the work that the police in Sutton Coldfield are doing on antisocial behaviour, which has been a common theme in the debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of community support officers, but emphasised that they are not a substitute for properly trained policemen and women. I strongly agree with him. Conservative Members believe that there is an important role for CSOs in being visible; the public like them. We are extremely concerned, however, that the Government see them as a substitute for police officers.

I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that CSOs will be properly evaluated. There has been some evaluation but we want more independent evaluation before what the hon. Member for Winchester referred to as the tag-on of more powers takes place. We will discuss that next Tuesday in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill Committee. It is important that there should be independent evaluation of CSOs.

The third component is neighbourhood wardens. I was distressed to hear the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) say that a Conservative council had
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removed them from his constituency. A Conservative council in Birmingham has just given my constituency two of those wardens, and we are delighted to see them there.

Mr. Dismore : The council have not removed them; they have downgraded them by reducing their hours and diluted their effect by expanding their responsibilities, so that they are far less effective than when they were first instituted under the then Labour-controlled councils.

Mr. Mitchell : I am glad to have put on the record that they have not been removed by a Conservative council.

I strongly agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about the community and neighbourhood watch. I believe that neighbourhood watch is enormously important. I hope that the Minister will be able to say something about neighbourhood watch today that may encourage people who are feeling bruised by what happened last year. I hope that she will feel able to say something to encourage neighbourhood watch, which, in Sutton Coldfield, plays an important part in our deterrence of crime.

My final point on multi-agency working is to say that I agree with the hon. Members for Nottingham, North and for Winchester on the importance of deterring antisocial behaviour. That is something common to all of us, as has been emphasised by the debate today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) stood up, as ever, for policing in his constituency, and underlined his point by saying that mobile phone numbers are a good way of contacting local beat officers and assimilating local intelligence. He gave some examples from New York, a topic that I also hoped to talk about but may not. He also talked about the importance of a fair deal for the suburbs, on which he made common cause with the hon. Member for Hendon, and about the fact that antisocial behaviour is a big problem in his constituency, as it is in mine. He asked several questions, to which I look forward to hearing the Minister's answers.

The hon. Member for Hendon agreed on the point about a fair deal for the suburbs, and he also asked a number of questions. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) talked, with some reservations, about ASBOs and about the importance of the zero-tolerance approach to crime locally, with which I strongly agree. He also made an important point about the use of specials—indeed, he adopted a Conservative proposal to give a bounty to special constables. The number of specials has declined significantly under this Government—by some 45 per cent. since 1997. I hope that the Minister will feel able to comment on the importance of specials and what she and her colleagues intend to do to promote them.

Finally, I should like to emphasise the point made by the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Winchester: that in local policing we must avoid top-down set models, which were a serious error of judgment by the former Home Secretary. We must ensure that local solutions are used to deal with local problems. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to agree with me and
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the hon. Gentleman, but I hope that she will take that point on board, because it will lead to much better neighbourhood policing.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North—my former parliamentary near neighbour—on securing the debate and on the consistent theme that he has brought to his comments in the House on neighbourhood policing. It is greatly to be welcomed that there now appears to be a degree of cross-party agreement on how the matter should be taken forward.

3.19 pm

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears) : I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate. This is an appropriate time to hold it. My hon. Friend may not know it, but the first ever national conference on citizen-focused policing is being held today; there are hundreds of police officers just down the road thinking about and working on the practical ways in which they can involve their communities to ensure not only that we have the reassurance from neighbourhood policing but, crucially, that that policing is hard edged and problem solving, using forensics and intelligence. Neighbourhood policing should not be simply a nice warm, woolly, fuzzy feeling about giving people reassurance; it should be at the heart of a modern approach to problems that face us in the 21st century. As my hon. Friend said, it should not hark back nostalgically to the 1950s either. He is a member of the police parliamentary scheme, and I think that that has given him a great deal of practical insight into the problems that our police services face on the ground.

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who is here today. He has been a stalwart and active voice in ensuring that we drive policy to meet the needs of local communities, and that has been particularly true in his community in Nottingham. He was certainly very influential in our recent decision to introduce fixed-penalty notices for under-16s. I am delighted that we are now piloting the scheme in Nottinghamshire and I am looking forward to the results of that pilot. My hon. Friend has been very supportive, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), who, again, is absolutely focused on the issues of policing in his community.

It is fair to say that had we been discussing these issues a year or 18 months ago, the performance of the Nottinghamshire force would have been a cause for concern. It is partly due to the contribution of the local Members of Parliament, who have helped to support the force, that we are now seeing some pretty good performance in Nottinghamshire in crime reduction and in driving up the sanction detection rate. There is still more work to do, but policing in that community is now much better.

I am also happy to join my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North in welcoming the "Respect for Nottingham" campaign undertaken by the city council. It shows the power of partnership, and ever since I took on my current responsibilities I have been saying that
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policing and community safety are not simply matters for the police service. We must also involve local councils and the health service, which can help to tackle some drug problems that we face. Crucially, we must think about education, to ensure that we get to the causes of problems and achieve solutions for the longer term.

It would be remiss of me not to remind hon. Members that we have made much progress. We are not starting from scratch; we have nearly 140,000 police officers— record numbers—on the ground. I am happy to give a reassurance yet again, although I must have done this a dozen times, that we see community support officers as an addition to those record numbers of police officers. They are complementing the skills of police constables and are an integral part of the team approach to policing—although, again, that approach is about not only police officers and CSOs, but wardens and, increasingly, accredited members of the security industry, who are being given limited powers and can be part of the extended police family. That really is the future for policing.

I am glad that there is a degree of consensus among hon. Members present. Of course, it would be churlish of me to say that everyone now supports the Government's policy, but I genuinely feel that many of the things that the hon. Members for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) and for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) mentioned are happening and have been happening under this Government for several years now. They have not started happening just recently.

In dealing with some issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North raised, perhaps I can give him a little reassurance. First, he and several other hon. Members raised the issue of specials, and I regard them as a very important part of our extended police family. Although their numbers have fallen in recent years, that is partly because many of them have become members of the regular police force. We have been expanding police force numbers, so specials have had the opportunity to be recruited and many of them have come through in that way. Furthermore, some have become CSOs, which is another route to the force. However, we had a major national recruitment campaign last year, with television advertising, and have received 4,000 applications as a result. Those applicants are now going through the system, and, in many force areas, the number of special constables is starting to rise for the first time in many years.

As part of the shopwatch scheme, which is now operating in London, we are getting people who work on retail premises—in Woolworths, Dixons, Marks and Spencer and Sainsbury—to train as special constables. They have been given powers and now patrol retail areas, and shoplifting in those areas is down by about 40 per cent. It makes good business sense to involve people from the local community. We also have specials, some with specialist IT skills, helping us with fraud investigations. That is a very different way of looking at the special constable resource.

I think that there are four schemes across the country in which specials are allowed to be paid, and they receive £1,000 a year. Interestingly, when consulted, half the specials said that they would welcome a small payment,
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but half said that they were volunteers and wanted to stay volunteers. The idea was floated that rather than paying them they could get a discount on their council tax. That is interesting, because it would establish a connection with what they are doing for their local community. Such schemes suggest ways in which we can think a little more creatively about rewarding people who want to come forward.

I am delighted that the two pilot schemes on the neighbourhood policing model are being carried out in Nottingham. The proposal to make special priority payments is a matter for the chief constable in the general scheme agreed through the Home Office. In many areas, beat officers get the special priority payments. That is a way of saying that they are a valuable part of the service. Everything that we are doing in the performance management regime to value neighbourhood policing, customer satisfaction and public confidence sends an important message to the service that that is not the soft end of policing. It is right at the heart of policing, and performance will be measured on how good neighbourhood policing is. That is how we will get the levers to drive the process forward.

I want to make it clear that the approach to neighbourhood policing is not about a "one size fits all" model. Communities are different. Inner cities are different from market towns; they share some problems of antisocial behaviour, as some hon. Members have said, but they are different places to police. Large rural areas with small concentrations of population are also different. Some areas may have a different team make-up from others. In some areas, a beat team might be predominately community support officers, perhaps led and managed by a PC. In other areas, with tough, serious crime, there may well be a predominance of fully warranted police officers, because that is what is needed—some investigators. The idea is to get the public to identify the problems and to shape our resources, so that the right people with the right skills are in the right place at the right time. That is neighbourhood policing in a modern framework.

Several Members mentioned the issue of continuity. That is very important. In north Wales, which I visited recently, a system has been developed whereby people give a three-year commitment—rather than the five-year commitment in the Netherlands referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North—to be in that area, to do the neighbourhood policing and    to build the necessary relationships. After all,    neighbourhood policing is about building relationships. In return, the police force tells those people that it will be of benefit to their careers. There is proper agreement between the police officer, the police force and the local community; there is something in it for everyone. A beat contract and issues with the local community are also agreed, and the police officer reports back monthly on what they have done and, sometimes, on what they have not been able to do and what they will carry on trying to tackle. It is a long-lasting, continuous relationship.

I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) about continuity at basic command unit level and at leadership level. That continuity cannot just be on the beat; it has to be throughout the service. Inevitably, getting the best
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people into the right jobs will sometimes be a problem. My hon. Friend made some important points about the rigidity of the model used in the London area. I have no doubt that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner will carefully study my hon. Friend's well made points. We need to ensure that there is flexibility and that we have the right mix in relation to the needs of the local community.

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said that his area needs more police officers. As I understand it, in the past 18 months there has been an increase of 42 in the number of police officers in Bromley, from 417 to 459. Like everywhere else in the country, that area has more police officers under this Government. I remind him of that. He welcomed the idea of a one-stop shop, although bricks and mortar—police stations—do not necessarily lead to the best policing. We have to get the people into the community to do the work. I am grateful for his support for what is happening in Biggin Hill.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) highlighted the excellent work going on in his community. The innovation around repeat burglary victims is good. Emphasis on parenting and the need to get to the causes of antisocial behaviour are absolutely key, as he said. I like to characterise that as trying to bring decency back into our communities.

Today's debate has been excellent. We need local solutions for local problems, but I have one caveat. The centre has a role to play, and so does target setting, because of equity and ensuring that the poorest communities in this country do not always get the poorest services. I am afraid that that did happen in the past, so we need a central framework with as much local innovation and diversity as possible. I do not think that those things are mutually exclusive; good government is about having some drive from the centre, but drawing in the innovation, enterprise and skills from the local area. That blend is what leads to long term sustainable success.

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