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House of Commons

Monday 26 November 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police Community Support Officers

1. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): How many police community support officers there are in Chorley; and if she will make a statement. [167480]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): There is now a neighbourhood policing team in every area in Lancashire. It is for the chief constable to decide where to deploy his police community support officers, but at the end of March 2007 the southern basic command unit, which includes Chorley, had 72 PCSOs—an invaluable addition to policing, with the primary focus of engaging with their local community.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Can she confirm that the Government are actually providing 75 per cent. of the funding for PCSOs in Chorley? The leader of the council believes they are funded by the council, but it is the Government who provide 75 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that PCSOs will not replicate the police but will assist the police force, ensuring that police numbers remain the same?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right: the introduction of PCSOs was an initiative brought about by the Labour Government. It was an initiative funded by the Labour Government to the tune of £7.6 million in the Lancashire police area this year. My hon. Friend is also right to note that we have increased the number of PCSOs at the same time as increasing the number of police officers. PCSOs play a complementary but different role.

2. Jessica Morden (Newport, East) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of police community support officers. [167481]

3. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of police community support officers; and if she will make a statement. [167482]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Police community support officers make a very valuable contribution to the delivery of neighbourhood policing. That is why I am delighted to welcome the two-month intensive project being conducted by the National Policing Improvement Agency, which will build on good practice and establish greater standardisation where appropriate across forces on such issues as role and function, uniforms and equipment. It will also consider a new volunteer scheme for PCSOs, as Sir Ronnie Flanagan recommended. Ahead of that, I am pleased that the Association of Chief Police Officers shares my view that PCSOs should be at least 18 years old, and the Home Office will take forward work to introduce a code of practice to address that issue.

Jessica Morden: I welcome the announcement about the possibility of standard powers for PCSOs, who do an excellent job in my constituency and deserve the
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tools they need to do the job, but Unison and many PCSOs want all the powers currently on the statute book to be available to PCSOs—not just at the discretion of chief constables. Will my right hon. Friend keep the matter under review so that the public know what to expect from PCSOs, and that they have the full range of powers available to them?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As of 1 December, an agreed set of 20 powers will be standard across the whole country, thereby giving the public more certainty about the powers of PCSOs. It is to keep the matter under review and take that work forward that the National Policing Improvement Agency will carry out the two-month project I outlined, covering important points such as the standardisation of uniform and the issue of personal protection equipment.

Stephen Pound: I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Does she agree that those who demean and denigrate PCSOs not only insult a professional, hard-working, much valued body of men and women but demean many of our constituents who have come to see neighbourhood policing as one of the best, most reassuring and effective advances in policing since Dixon retired to Dock Green?

Jacqui Smith: As always, my hon. Friend’s point is important and well made. Across the country, police community support officers play a hugely valuable role, making communities feel safer and promoting neighbourhood policing. That is why they are so widely welcomed by many of our constituents and the communities we represent. It is why, I suspect, they were welcomed even by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) when he said in July last year:

Given that support in July 2006, I am hard pressed to understand why the Conservatives have now turned their back on the idea of further developing PCSOs.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Mr. Speaker, like me, you will know that Dixon was killed in the last episode, so I hope that is not a factual interpretation.

Northamptonshire police have reduced crime, partly due to the work of community support officers. Sadly, however, the Office for National Statistics massively understated population estimates for the county, creating yet another year of underfunding and forcing further cuts. Is the Secretary of State willing to do something about that unacceptable state of affairs, or do I have to tell the people of Northamptonshire that they will have to put up with another year of neglect under Labour?

Jacqui Smith: May I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising the very important work of PCSOs in his community? I hope that everyone throughout the House supports that. He makes an important point about the funding made available to police services and the nature of the formula in recognising changes in population. We will in the near future of course be making announcements about next year’s funding for police authorities and will bear in mind the issues that
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many forces have raised about the nature of population growth and how that is included in the formula. However, the increases that will follow the considerable increases to police forces will be possible only because of the investment that this Government have been willing to make in our police service. When the hon. Gentleman praises PCSOs in his constituency, I hope that he will also make clear his support for the extra investment made available by a Labour Government.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): Is the Home Secretary aware that, in the Metropolitan police area, there is an increasing problem with finding premises for PCSOs to operate from, because of the cuts in their budget by the Mayor? This has an impact on their effectiveness so will she look into it?

Jacqui Smith: It is obviously important that neighbourhood police teams have suitable premises from which to operate. I suspect that the challenge has been brought about by the considerable progress made by the Metropolitan police under the leadership of Commissioner Sir Ian Blair in delivering, two years ahead of target, neighbourhood policing teams in every single community in London.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): May I tell my right hon. Friend that PCSOs are doing a fantastic job in my area and especially in my constituency in working as part of neighbourhood policing teams? That has led to Crime falling by 2.5 per cent. between 2002 and 2007, so will she tell us what sort of financial support Cleveland police can expect so that we can keep on employing more PCSOs in the future?

Jacqui Smith: I cannot give my hon. Friend a figure today. As I said to the hon. Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), we are looking very carefully at the way in which we distribute the increased support for policing next year and hope to make an announcement very soon. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the important role of PCSOs at the heart of neighbourhood policing teams across the country is helping to ensure a continued reduction in crime and is helping to build community support, community engagement and confidence in the progress that we are making in crime fighting.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I am delighted that the Home Secretary has been forced to admit that allowing the employment of PCSOs under the age of 18 was a mistake, but what assurance can she give that, by potentially allowing PCSO responsibilities to be extended to detaining suspects and searching people who could be carrying dangerous items, she is not putting PCSOs and the public at greater risk? At least one PCSO has already been seriously injured when he was run down by a car earlier this month. With PCSOs receiving less training than fully qualified officers and police budgets coming under pressure, will this move not simply increase the number of such tragic incidents?

Jacqui Smith: We have introduced PCSOs and massively increased their numbers at the same time as increasing investment in our police forces and increasing the number
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of police officers. It is right that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency, alongside the Home Office, now review the powers, the roles and the protection and training available to PCSOs in order to ensure that they can build on the very considerable contribution that they have made over the past four years. We are committed to doing that and to providing PCSOs with the training and protection that they need to carry out their job effectively.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend would like to know that I spent a day with three PCSOs in different parts of my constituency in the summer. Not only was it excellent to see the work that they are doing, but it was tremendous to see the reception that they received on the streets from shopkeepers and others. The biggest problem that we face with PCSO recruitment is that the officers are being used as a recruiting ground for the police themselves and we have to recruit PCSOs doubly quick to keep the numbers up. What my right hon. Friend said about funding was very welcome, and if she was saying that we will move towards full implementation of formula funding for the east midlands, that will be very welcome indeed.

Jacqui Smith: I know my hon. Friend and others in the east midlands have been making the case for funding in their area very strongly, including to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing. As I have said previously, we will obviously look carefully at how we can distribute the police grant over the next three years, maintaining stability where necessary but ensuring that resources are focused on where they need to go. I agree with my hon. Friend that the really heartening thing about spending time with PCSOs—as I did in my constituency on Friday—is the number of people who know their names and who are willing to talk to them and to report to them things that are happening in the community, and the way in which they work not just with local people, but with other agencies to problem-solve, build confidence and help drive down crime and antisocial behaviour.

Custody (Police Stations)

4. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What assessment she has made of the efficiency of procedures for dealing with people being taken into custody in police stations. [167483]

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): The efficiency and effectiveness of police custody and custodial care remain under constant review within the police service. Others are equally involved, including the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Philip Davies: During my time on the parliamentary police scheme, I spent two and a half hours waiting at the custody desk to book in a prisoner. A police officer said that waits of four hours were not uncommon. When supermarkets have queues at the checkouts, they open more tills until the queues have disappeared. What are the Government doing to ensure that extra
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capacity is being built into custody areas so that we can get police officers back on to the streets as soon as possible?

Mr. McNulty: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point and it is interesting to see that he has brought his supermarket skills and experience to the House. However, the issue is not simply about capacity; it is about a whole range of other factors, as I am sure his police force in West Yorkshire will have told him. Those other factors include what we do with the review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, in terms of the whole process, and the level of civilianisation, or otherwise, inside custody suites. Many of the elements that are in place are there for a declared purpose. As Ronnie Flanagan said in his interim report:

However, the hon. Gentleman’s point about capacity at particular times is well made and I will take it back to all police forces.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that it is about time we had a root-and-branch review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act? In some cases, it offers a perverse incentive and discourages officers from making arrests due to the amount of bureaucracy that is necessitated when they arrive at the custody suite.

Mr. McNulty: I have to disagree with my hon. Friend when he says it is about time that we had a root-and-branch review. We are nine months or so into the review that started last March. I agree that we need to get on with it and get to a stage where we know exactly what the parameters of PACE are. PACE has been around for a long time and there is popular consensus that it does what it is supposed to do—protect and look after the interests of those who encounter the police in the custody process. However, we need that review to report as soon as possible.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I accept that the PACE forms are there for a purpose and are important evidentially. However, does the Minister agree that, in many other regards, police officers spend far too much time filling in forms pointlessly?

Mr. McNulty: They do and have done in some cases, which is why we are looking at that in some detail. I have had a range of round-table and other meetings with a whole host of forces. However, the House should not run away with the notion that every single piece of paper a police officer is required to fill out comes from the centre. Often it is to do with local devices. Neither PACE nor bureaucracy goes to the import of the original question, which was that we need to look at, operationally and in other terms, getting people through the custody process, while their rights are protected, on an optimal basis.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I wonder whether the Minister would have a word with the Lord Chancellor to see whether he can get a grip on the number of people who are being decanted
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from the prison service into custody suites in police stations. According to senior figures in Leicestershire, that is becoming quite a substantial problem. Does the Minister anticipate that things will improve in the years to come? Even though Leicestershire is being reimbursed, it must be seriously inconvenient for the police to have to use their cells in that way.

Mr. McNulty: I certainly can agree with my hon. Friend that things will improve, as he says, in the years to come. Operation Safeguard has been well executed by police forces throughout the country and it has not, to date and to my knowledge, impinged on the operational ability of the police forces involved.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Last year, according to the Home Office’s own figures, the amount of time that patrol officers spent on paperwork increased from 16.5 to 16.6 per cent., and the amount of time that patrol officers spent on patrol fell from 19.1 to 17.3 per cent. Is it not high time that the Home Secretary got a grip and cut red tape so that our police can get out there and spend more time catching more criminals?

Mr. McNulty: Beyond the rather overblown hyperbole, the hon. Gentleman does, as ever, have half a point. There is broad consensus across the policing family and certainly in Government, and we are all actively working together to ensure that police are spending more time out on patrol. Rather as Ronnie Flanagan says about bureaucracy in his interim review, likening it to good and bad cholesterol, I would not want the House to run away with the notion that all paperwork is bad. Very often it is more than appropriate that there is a paper trail when the citizen encounters the police for whatever reason, good or ill. Is there too much? Does bureaucracy always have to be driven down so that our police can spend more time on the beat? Absolutely. Rather than being so shrill, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will work with us to ensure that that happens.

People Trafficking

5. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): What steps she is taking to reduce levels of trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. [167484]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): A comprehensive UK action plan on tackling human trafficking was published in March this year and sets out a range of measures designed to prevent human trafficking, protect and assist victims and investigate and prosecute the traffickers. The nationwide police operation Pentameter 2 was launched in October and focuses on the rescue of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation while bringing to justice those involved in this serious criminal activity.

Dr. Starkey: This is an issue which, as the Minister implied, affects every constituency. Just this week my local newspapers, MK News and the Milton Keynes Citizen, described

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