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12 Dec 2006 : Column 240WH—continued

The Minister of State says that it is the police service that takes that view; that may be so in some police forces. I have obtained the numbers of PCSOs in each police force in England and Wales, per 100,000 of population. I see that in London, for example, there are 31.3 PCSOs per 100,000 of population—a very healthy number. Across England and Wales as a whole there are 12.8, which is much fewer. In Avon and Somerset police force, which covers my constituency, there are just 8.6 PCSOs per 100,000 head of population. I suggest that some chief constables may well be more relaxed about the issue than others. Certainly, in my constituency we are very keen to have more PCSOs—not just in towns such as Taunton and Wellington but in smaller towns and rural communities where PCSOs
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have been extremely effective. They would be even more effective if their numbers were increased.

It was on the basis of the commitment in the 2004 White Paper and the Labour manifesto commitment in 2005 that Avon and Somerset police embarked, at some expense, on a consultation period, which involved going around different urban and rural communities in Bristol and Somerset and trying to get a feel for how many PCSOs each community needed. The process involved working closely with the chief superintendents in each area and consulting community groups. The process was called the neighbourhood agenda, and the aim was to ensure that in addition to the regular police officer in every community there would be a framework of PCSO support to reassure the public and make a difference in tackling the antisocial behaviour and neighbourhood crime that I touched on at the beginning of my speech.

Avon and Somerset police are very concerned, and I share their concerns, that the latest announcement of a reduction from 24,000 to 16,000 new PCSOs across England and Wales will be hugely detrimental to their neighbourhood agenda. The figures may suggest the scale of the problem. The chief constable of Avon and Somerset originally envisaged that as a result of the Government’s commitment in the White Paper we would have 541 additional PCSOs. Now, following the statement of 27 November by the Minister of State, the estimated number of PCSOs that Avon and Somerset will get is 346. So there has been a cut of 195. That is a very serious reduction and means that the neighbourhood agenda and the basis on which the public were consulted—in good faith and with the expectation that they would have those additional officers at their disposal—have been substantially undermined. The police are probably somewhat upset that the basis on which they consulted with the public has left them looking as though they promised more than they are able to deliver, even though when they undertook that consultation they expected that they would deliver 541 PCSOs.

Let me boil down what the changes mean for West Somerset basic command unit, which covers Taunton Deane, West Somerset and Sedgemoor district councils. That BCU, which serves a population of about 250,000 people and covers Taunton and other towns of substantial size such as Bridgwater, Wellington and Minehead, will see a reduction from 108 PCSOs to 70—a cut of 38. At this moment, a chief superintendent in my BCU and the chief constable of the force are considering how they can scale back the neighbourhood agenda that they have discussed with local people and that they hoped would underpin their response to the antisocial behaviour and neighbourhood crime that I mentioned.

I do not wish to give the impression that the police are not responding to those sorts of incident and crime, because they are and they are making a valuable difference in many areas. Neither do I want to give the impression that the sole method of dealing with that community level crime and antisocial behaviour is through extra police numbers, because I accept that it is more complicated than that. Several factors come into play when one tries to explain why people are less considerate of their neighbours than they ought to be. However, it is important that there should be a strong
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police visibility and that people feel that the police and CSOs who support them are woven into their community. It stands to reason that if their numbers are dramatically reduced, they will be able to do that far less effectively.

This whole area is a day-to-day concern of people in my constituency—I suspect that this is true of many places—and I very much want the House, the Government and the political process to reflect that in policy and in the priority that we give to debating such issues. I would be grateful if the Minister reviewed the decision to cut back on the number of PCSOs because it has undermined not only the police but the neighbourhood agenda that they are pursuing. In Avon and Somerset, it has substantially undermined the worthwhile efforts that have been made to reduce neighbourhood crime and antisocial behaviour.

David Taylor (in the Chair): Permission having been sought from and given by the initiator of this short debate and the Minister, I call the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to make a brief contribution.

12.43 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am very grateful, Mr. Taylor. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing the debate and on his comments, with which I wholly agree. We Somerset Members often feel like the poor relations in policing terms. The county is in the Avon and Somerset police authority area—a police force that I know well from my previous experience as the chairman of the police authority—but resources inevitably go, quite properly, into policing Bristol and the major conurbations in Avon. Those areas are a magnet for resources simply because of the crime that is generated there.

Very often, we in rural Somerset feel slightly forgotten in policing terms. Having said that, there has been a welcome improvement in the past year or so as the chief constable and the local chief superintendents have got to grips with the concept of neighbourhood policing. They have built beat teams around constables and sergeants and supplemented them with police community support officers. All that is integral to visible policing and reassurance in the rural areas of my constituency, and that of my hon. Friend, so there is a great deal of upset that the plans to introduce the extra PCSOs, which were at a high level of preparedness, have had to be scaled back to such an extent.

I understand the Home Office position on this. We know that some chief police officers said that they did not want to recruit PCSOs on the scale that the Home Office envisaged, which was an extra 24,000. There are three reasons for that. Some simply do not agree with having PCSOs in any case and are not wholly wedded to the concept. Some have enough PCSOs for their needs and prefer to put their resources into the additional recruitment of full-time officers. Some simply cannot recruit PCSOs, and I think that that last category was one of the big drivers in the change in the Government’s position. I tell the Minister emphatically that that is not the problem in Avon and Somerset. The chief constable there is confident that he can recruit
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those extra PCSOs, who are integral to the strategy of neighbourhood policing in our areas.

I am prepared not to argue with the policy decision to reduce the scale of PCSO recruitment across the country this year, but I make a plea to the Minister. If, as I suspect, there are forces that even with that cutback will not recruit to the level to which they are expect to recruit, given that Somerset has not only the capacity but a strong will to do so, can any moneys that are then available be made available to Avon and Somerset to enable us to meet our commitments? It simply is not possible for the force to fund the PCSOs within its budget without the Government’s support because that cannot be done without reducing the full-time strength of the police force, which we emphatically do not wish to do. We see PCSOs not as a substitute for police officers, but as a supplement to them.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important this initiative is in providing visible policing in the rural areas of my constituency—not only in Frome, but in smaller towns such as Castle Cary, Bruton, Martock, Langport and Somerton, all of which have individual difficulties with policing. Will the Minister give whatever flexibility he can within the system to accommodate the needs of Avon and Somerset?

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing the debate. I know from the parliamentary questions that he asks that he has a keen interest in community policing. He has pursued that interest not only at times such as this, but consistently since he became a Member of the House. I also welcome the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to the debate. He has also fought hard on behalf of his constituents. I thank both hon. Gentlemen for the way in which each presented their case and for their thoughtful arguments.

Community policing is being delivered in England and Wales through the neighbourhood policing programme. By April 2007, neighbourhood policing will have been introduced in every area across England and Wales and will be supported by 16,000 PCSOs. Every community will have a neighbourhood policing team by 2008. Already, by the end of August 2006, more than 6,700 neighbourhoods had a dedicated neighbourhood policing service. That equates to more than 2,600 teams in total because some teams cover more than one neighbourhood.

The number of sergeants, constables and PCSOs dedicated to neighbourhood policing averages 18 per cent. across England and Wales, and forces are on track to deliver the 16,000 PCSOs who will support further roll-out. Both hon. Gentlemen asked specifically about the 16,000 PCSOs. As we understand it, there are no spare PCSOs; all 16,000 have been allocated and 200 posts were recently redistributed through a bidding exercise. However, we keep these situations under
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review, so hon. Members should bear that in mind if the number 16,000 is not reached. I hope that that is of some help, although I do not promise anything.

On Avon and Somerset, the hon. Member for Taunton will be aware that that progress is mirrored in his constituency and his force, and the facts and figures that illustrate that bear repeating. As at September 2006, Avon and Somerset had a dedicated neighbourhood policing presence in every area and it is on target to deliver a neighbourhood policing team for every community by 2008. As at the end of June 2006, it also had 154 PCSOs, who have been warmly welcomed by communities and community safety partners alike.

I thank the two hon. Gentlemen for their support for the role that PCSOs can play—their role is not to replace regular police officers, but something different—and for the contribution that PCSOs make, and I am sure that that message will have been heard loud and clear. As the hon. Gentlemen will know, there was some controversy when PCSOs were introduced, but they have shown that they can make a contribution to community safety and they have proved the doubters wrong.

As the hon. Member for Taunton said, the number of PCSOs will rise to 346 in Avon and Somerset by 2007. I take this opportunity to congratulate Avon and Somerset police on their work and commitment in relation to the roll-out of neighbourhood policing and on their discussions about it with local partners.

I would also like to say something about the number of police officers in Avon and Somerset. As at March 2006, Avon and Somerset had 3,389 police officers—an increase of 400, or 13.4 per cent., since March 1997. Similarly, the number of civilian posts has increased by 580, or 39 per cent., since 1997. That is important because it frees up officers to do the front-line patrolling that we want them to do.

The Government have invested significantly in policing across England and Wales, as well as in Avon and Somerset, and we will continue to do so. This year, Avon and Somerset will receive an increase of 3.3 per cent. over the comparable figure for 2005-06 and about a further £32 million from other funding sources. The final force budget for 2006 was £236.7 million—an increase of 4.2 per cent. On a like-for-like basis across England and Wales, Government grant and central spending on services for the police will increase by more than 62 per cent. between 2000-01 and 2007-08.

However, it is important to set the analysis of policing numbers and funding in the broader context of the impact on communities. The two hon. Gentlemen will know better than I do that we are already seeing the impact of neighbourhood policing in Avon and Somerset and elsewhere. In Avon and Somerset, public confidence in the local police has risen significantly in the past two years, from 48 per cent. in 2004-05 to 53 per cent. in 2005-06. Neighbourhood policing was set up to achieve that goal and it is succeeding; indeed, it was set up to deal precisely with the problems that the hon. Member for Taunton came across when he visited some of his constituents recently, such as the problem with the fence, as well as some of the other antisocial behaviour problems. Neighbourhood policing is specifically about doing something about such problems, as well as about reassuring people and
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making them feel that the police will respond to the so-called low-level issues that we all know blight so many people’s lives and communities.

Let me reassure people in Avon and Somerset by saying that the same progress has been reproduced in the recorded crime figures for their area. Between 2003-04 and 2005-06, overall crime across Avon and Somerset fell by 4 per cent., with robbery and vehicle crime falling by 9 per cent. and domestic burglary falling by an impressive 18 per cent. We should congratulate Avon and Somerset police on their work in that respect.

Let me also give the hon. Member for Taunton some statistics for his constituency. In the same period, in the area covered by Taunton Deane crime and disorder reduction partnership, overall crime fell by 14 per cent., violent crime fell by 19 per cent., vehicle crime fell by 29 per cent. and robbery fell by 31 per cent. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in congratulating his police and police across the Avon and Somerset area on what they have done to achieve those reductions.

Mr. Browne: Just for the avoidance of doubt, I should say that I am a huge admirer of the work of the police in Taunton Deane and across the West Somerset basic command unit. They have made real, tangible progress in reducing many categories of crime, and I certainly do not seek to be critical of them. All that I want is for the Government to give them the tools to carry on doing such a good job and to make further improvements.

Mr. Coaker: I understand. I was not trying to suggest that the hon. Gentleman was saying anything different and I apologise if I gave that impression. All that I was trying to do was to lay out the figures so that he had something that might be of use to him and which he could tell his constituents.

To take up the hon. Gentleman’s point about PCSOs, there will be a 41.3 per cent. increase in funding for PCSOs and neighbourhood policing across England and Wales in 2007-08, with total funding of £315 million. As he will be aware, Avon and Somerset constabulary will receive £6.8 million as its share of the funding next year, compared with £5.1 million this year. As I said, that will contribute to funding 346 PCSOs, who will help to deliver neighbourhood policing across Avon and Somerset by April 2007.

To answer another of the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, PCSO numbers are distributed according to the police formula grant. That is how we try to ensure a reasonable spread of PCSOs across the country.

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Mr. Heath: That is what concerns us. The police formula grant does not reflect the number of PCSOs in post, or the need or the ability to recruit. Those are the crucial elements that should inform the distribution of the grant.

Mr. Coaker: As I said right at the beginning, we have a target of 16,000 and we will see how that progresses. Our expectation is that it will be met, but we obviously keep all these things under review.

As the hon. Member for Taunton fairly said, we want local and neighbourhood policing to be based on local decision making, and that local tailoring is particularly important. That shaping of policy can be done only by the police, who, as I am sure we all agree, are the experts when it comes to determining how policing should be done in their areas. It was the demand for such an approach that prompted us to review PCSO numbers. Put simply, we received requests from the Association of Police Authorities and the Association of Chief Police Officers to review both how we were going to roll out neighbourhood policing and the number of PCSOs.

Let me quote an APA press release entitled “APA welcomes neighbourhood policing funding”:

The point that I am making is that we want to roll out a neighbourhood policing programme, and PCSOs play a crucial role in the roll-out of neighbourhood policing teams. In representations to us, the APA and ACPO have said, “Give us greater flexibility on PCSO numbers because we can deliver neighbourhood policing with a reduced number,” and it is incumbent on us to listen to what they say. The decision on the numbers was made not by mandarins in the Home Office who determined that we should come to the 16,000 figure, but on the basis of the representations that we received. We all want more local decision making and local accountability, and difficult decisions sometimes come along.

The two hon. Gentlemen have shown their commitment to neighbourhood policing, and the Government also have a wholehearted commitment to it, but we must listen to the advice of ACPO and APA, as well as that of hon. Members and other stakeholders, when determining how best to implement that commitment. We share the common goal of reducing crime and making people feel safer, and that is we want to achieve.

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Blyth Valley Academy

1 pm

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): There is great concern in Blyth about the academy. I shall try to explain the history to this matter. I could have had a meeting with a Minister to discuss it, but I would rather have things on the record because I can foresee things happening and I want to clear my name in respect of education and the kids in Blyth.

It is not that I do not want an academy because I do not like academies—I am not afraid of them, in any case. If our only school was a high school that was crumbling and falling down around people’s necks and our only chance of getting a new one was to have an academy, I would have to bite my tongue and have an academy. I could be in that situation, as indeed some hon. Members are. My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy) is in that position, so he might have to accept an academy to get a new school in his area.

Blyth is a different kettle of fish. Blyth Valley, which I represent, comprises the old town of Blyth, which has a population of about 39,000, and the new town of Cramlington, which has a similar one. In addition, there are the outlying pit villages of Seaton Delaval, Seghill and Seaton Sluice, whose population is about 20,000. Cramlington has one very good high school. The area around Seaton Delaval has another good high school—the Astley community high school.

Blyth had two high schools, which were underachieving and were undersubscribed by students—there were surplus places. In 2000-01, I believe it was, the decision was taken to amalgamate the two schools and to have one high school in Blyth. We should not forget that Ridley high school and Tynedale high school were no more than 2 miles apart. In fact, Ridley high school was one of the schools that tried to educate me.

It was thought that Blyth needed only one school, the same as Cramlington, which has the same number of people. There was a bit of a furore about the decision and I went to see the Minister at the time, who, if I remember correctly, was my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)—and his dog. We asked for money to refurbish Tynedale high school, because it was the newer school. It was built in 1969 and the early 1970s, whereas Ridley high school was built in the 1950s. Ridley high school was not a crumbling school. It was a fairly decent school, but there was a decision to go for the refurbishment that I mentioned.

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