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Michael Fabricant : Is my hon. Friend aware that since 1997 the cells at Lichfield police station have been closed? If, on a Friday or Saturday night, young farmers and soldiers from the barracks or, far more likely, yobbos from Birmingham come to Lichfield and cause trouble, with arrests being made, police officers have to take the arrested individuals to Tamworth, deal with them there and come back again, which takes them away from the streets for a good two hours or more. As there are hardly any police available in Lichfield anyway on a Friday or Saturday night, that effectively means that we have virtually no policing for that period.
Nick Herbert: That is a serious issue, particularly in rural areas where the distances to be travelled can be significant. If a police officer makes an arrest early in his shift he is likely to be taken off the beat for a period of hours. We must address that serious issue if we are to increase the presence of the police on the streets, which is what the public want.
Mr. Pelling : The issue of accountability is obviously important. Does my hon. Friend agree that the diffuse nature of accountability in the Metropolitan Police Service is further complicated by the accountability of the commissioner to the Mayor and the London assembly, the assembly's budget committee and the Home Secretary? Accountability is valuable in principle, but such diffusion of accountability can lead to inefficiencies in our police service.
Nick Herbert: I agree, and I shall come on to the issue of accountability, which is particularly problematic in London for reasons that the House will understand. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has national policing duties and is appointed by the Home Secretary. He is accountable locally, however, to the Metropolitan Police Authority and the Mayor. As a result of being accountable to so many bodies, his true accountability to local people is considerably weakened, and that issue must be addressed as it is a problem not just for the system but for the commissioner. The confusion of accountability to the MPA and the Mayor will be only partly addressed by the changes that have been announced.
First, therefore, central direction has the consequence of imposing costs. Secondly, initiatives announced by the Government tend to expire, the best example being their street crime initiative, which was set up by the Prime Minister to target the 10 worst-hit areas. It temporarily succeeded in reducing street crime between 2002, when it was initiated, and 2005. Since its expiry, however, Home Office statistics for July to September 2005 show that the number of robberies recorded by the police has increased by 11 per cent. to 23,500, following a 4 per cent. rise in robberies in the previous quarter. In London, half of street crimes last year involved the theft of mobile phones. Recorded gun crime rose nationally by 1 per cent. to 11,000 incidents, and the number of serious injuries from gun crimes rose by 18 per cent. to 470. Recorded drugs crimes rose by nearly one fifth to 41,100, and violent crime recorded by the police rose by
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4 per cent. to 316,000 incidents in the three months to September. All the prime ministerial energy that was directed at securing the initiative and the resources that it received expired and, with them, its success in temporarily reducing crime.
Mr. Clifton-Brown : Before my hon. Friend moves on from the very important statistics that he cited, may I ask whether he is aware that in many of those categories less than a fifth of all crimes are detected?
Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend is correct. One of the problems that the Metropolitan police face is a relatively low detection rate. Detection rates nationally are poor and have fallen significantly since the 1980s. The fact that only a fifth of crimes are detected shows that resourcing alone is not sufficient to drive up police performance.
The Minister announced additional funding for community support officers. The problem, as he conceded, is that after the first year following their recruitment, the police must fund 25 per cent. of the cost. As a consequence, police forces and authorities have to turn to external agenciesin particular, local authoritiesto ask for help. The Minister seemed to suggest that was a good thing. The assistant chief constable of Sussex has written to local authorities, pointing out that Sussex police employs more police community support officers than another shire force, which I welcome. There are 250 of them deployed across the Sussex police force.
"PCSOs are funded by the Home Office. The funding is tapered and linked to tranches of recruitment over the past 3 three years. Funding for the first tranche runs out in March 2006 and because of capping restrictions we cannot rely on the Police Authority to meet the shortfall. Whilst solutions are being sought, the most obvious is to invite town and parish councils to contribute on behalf of their communities."
"The full annual cost of employing a PCSO is £27,000towns and some larger parishes may wish to enter into an agreement with the police in their own right to fund 50 per cent. of a PCSO or negotiate for dedicated additional cover for their area. It is recognised that this is not a realistic option for very small councils and one solution could be clustering, where a number of councils in close proximity arrange to share the cost using an equitable formula."
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the arrangement he is describing is that the decision about whether to have PCSOs becomes an acutely political one? Parish and town councils, which might well have other pressures on their budgets, will annually take political decisions about whether to continue with PCSOs, so their employment might last for one year, two years, or who knows how long. Is that not a fundamentally unsatisfactory way to run the scheme?
I agree. The problem is that the initiatives announced by the Government are not fully
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funded. When funding expires, support for PCSOs may not be universal within a police authority, and local authorities faced with alternative pressures have hard choices to make. That calls into question the neighbourhood policing programme, which commands great public support and which relies on the introduction of PCSOs across the country.
As part of the drive to increase the number of PCSOs, the Home Office pledged to introduce 199 PCSOs in the Bedfordshire and Luton area by 2008, but because of the funding shortfall Bedfordshire police approached Biggleswade town council, a small council, to see whether it was willing to fund extra officers in the town. The mayor of Biggleswade, Wendy Smith, commented:
James Brokenshire : Does my hon. Friend agree that there are parallels with the neighbourhood warden scheme that was part-funded by the Home Office and later withdrawn? I am reminded of my area, where a neighbourhood warden scheme was established in conjunction with the local authority and provided important support in the community. As soon as it was grounded, funding was removed and the wardens were withdrawn. Is there a risk that that could happen to community support officers too?
Nick Herbert: There is plainly a risk that that could happen. We welcome the extension of the police family. The presence of uniformed officers who are not full-time police officerscommunity support officers or neighbourhood wardenshas been welcomed in many parts of the country. However, against a background of tight financial settlements, will police authorities and local authorities continue to be able to hire the uniformed officers whom the public value?
Mr. Pelling : Can that be seen on a larger scale in the context of the debate in London on the council tax precept? It is difficult to argue against an increase in PCSO and police numbers, and I would support such an increase, but the problem arises when it comes in combination with other increases, such as the Olympic precept, making a 16.5 per cent. increase. Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a need for close scrutiny of the value for money that will be secured from those PCSO teams?
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