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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 19 March 2008

[Mr. Jim Hood in the Chair]

Neighbourhood Policing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Blizzard.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Good morning, Mr. Hood. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, and we are privileged indeed to have you in firm but fair-minded command of our proceedings.

When I heard that I had secured the debate, I was tickled to learn—hon. Members will be able to tell that I had not planned things this way—that this is the first week of a two-week national campaign to promote neighbourhood policing and enable people to learn the names and identities of their local police officers and how to contact them. The debate has turned out to be very well timed, but that was entirely accidental.

By April, every community in England and Wales will have in place neighbourhood policing teams of police officers and police community support officers. As it happens, Staffordshire anticipated that requirement and set up its neighbourhood policing teams more than 12 months early. Such teams—whether in Staffordshire or nationally—are dedicated to working with their local communities, agreeing priorities for action and informing the public of their progress.

It should now be possible for residents everywhere to find out the identities of the members of their neighbourhood policing teams. They need only ask their local police or local council, inquire at a local library or look on the internet, including on a new national website which has the names and numbers of members of their local teams. There has been some debate about giving out the mobile phone numbers of individual police officers, but all I can say is that there has been no reticence among community police officers and PCSOs in my constituency about giving them to local residents. In Staffordshire, we are certainly interested in sharing best practice on neighbourhood policing. We want to learn from what police services elsewhere are doing well and we are happy to share our successes with them.

In his final report on the review of policing, Sir Ronnie Flanagan speaks of a vision of successful 21st-century policing. He says that its components include having

Specifically addressing neighbourhood policing, he speaks of the need for effective partnerships, flexibility and innovation and what he calls “citizen-focused policing”. Like Sir Ronnie, I believe that neighbourhood policing is effective in cutting crime and popular with the public because it provides reassurance.

Let me illustrate that belief using some recent experiences in my constituency. Last summer, I walked a beat with a community police officer and another beat with two
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PCSOs. I also joined a whole neighbourhood policing team to try to solve a specific problem in a particular community. Community engagement and the accessibility of officers are given high priority in Staffordshire, and I have worked with the police and their partners in establishing a number of police surgeries in various public premises. Members of the public can now approach police officers in confidence in settings as diverse as a converted shop, a charity drop-in centre, a university campus and a children’s centre, to give just a few examples.

In the year in which neighbourhood policing is being rolled out in my constituency, I joined the police to present a roadshow. Together, the police and I explained at a series of public meetings how neighbourhood policing will work. Additionally, I encouraged residents to join existing neighbourhood watch schemes or to start new ones in areas where none existed before.

The message that I put very strongly to the public was that if the police are to put in this extra effort to be visible and up front in the community, it is time for members of the public to respond positively to support them—as eyes and ears, as providers of information and by putting peer pressure on people in their localities to behave in an acceptable way.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. I was pleased to hear him mention neighbourhood watch, which is very successfully organised and exists in strength in several areas of Leicestershire. Does he agree that such activities would benefit from more central funding? Much of what such schemes do depends on the money that they raise at charitable and other fundraising events. That seems a little hit and miss, and we need a bit more central support if such schemes are to continue to develop and work with the neighbourhood policing teams.

Mr. Kidney: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. Like him, I am a keen supporter of neighbourhood watch. He will recall, as I do, the kerfuffle a couple of years ago at the national level about the organisation of neighbourhood watch. That was partly a dispute within the organisation itself and it has now been resolved. At the local level, I would say that the best way to secure funding to support neighbourhood watch activities is through the safer communities partnerships and local area agreements. Certainly in Staffordshire there are good relationships between police, councils and other partners. Our neighbourhood watch annual conference is an effective and well-attended event.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): This is an important matter. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the four objectives of the Government’s neighbourhood policing initiative, which was very necessary. One was to increase accessibility to the police for the public. Does he therefore agree that it is important to ensure that we protect those police stations in small communities which many hon. Members from all parties have fought to keep open—small stations such as Benfleet in Canvey island, for instance?

Mr. Kidney: I would not want to intrude on matters relating to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency by saying where his constituents should or should not have police
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stations. I am a little hesitant about supporting the maintenance of bricks and mortar as the place where the service should be delivered. As I said, there have been some innovative ideas in my constituency, where the police can gather and meet the public out on their patrols, and that has proved highly successful. Perhaps it is a case of horses for courses. One solution may be appropriate for one place, but a different one may apply elsewhere.

It is too early to say whether neighbourhood policing is specifically responsible for falling crime, but we have had neighbourhood policing teams for more than a year in Staffordshire and there have been reductions in acquisitive crime, violent crime and antisocial behaviour. Details from the police in my constituency for the period from April 2006 to February 2007 and the equivalent 11-month period for 2007 to 2008 show that total crime has fallen by more than 14 per cent. The figure for criminal damage cases in the earlier period is 22,897 crimes, but it is 18,842 in the later period, which is a fall of more than the average—by more than 17 per cent. For antisocial behaviour incidents, only some of which will be crimes, the police gave me a figure of 58,195 reported incidents in the earlier period, with 56,897 in the later period, which is a fall of more than 2 per cent.

I frequently hear from constituents that they want to see police patrols on their streets, and they are increasingly seeing those patrols. They can often recognise the individual officers as their regular police officers, and I know that they are engaging with their local police teams to tackle local problems. Back in 1997, constituents’ concerns in Staffordshire and elsewhere in the country would have been about high levels of burglary and theft of and from motor vehicles.

Nationally, we have made vast improvements in reducing such crimes. However, on the whole, people feel no safer despite those achievements. The complaint that I hear more often than any other is that antisocial behaviour is ruining people’s daily lives. I also hear of older residents worrying about gatherings of young people, whether or not there is any overt sign of unlawful or unruly behaviour.

In cases of antisocial behaviour and intergenerational mistrust, neighbourhood policing is ideally placed to intervene and be part of the solution. Close working with the public, effective partnerships with councils, social landlords and others, and decisive action taken together can offer communities a successful end to problems of antisocial behaviour.

It would be wrong, however, to label neighbourhood policing as narrowly focused. It offers visible reassurance to communities and promises speedier responses to local matters. Trusted local police teams pick up intelligence from residents that contributes to the more effective operation of intelligence-led policing more generally. Further, the evidence, which admittedly is early, shows that neighbourhood policing contributes to crime reduction across a broad range of offences. It also offers a better quality of police service to the public. In Staffordshire, every victim of criminal damage or antisocial behaviour has contact with their local PCSO. The new chief constable, Chris Sims, intends to take the emphasis on quality of service much further still.

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In taking up Sir Ronnie’s recommendations on reducing the bureaucratic burden on police officers, Chris Sims and his police force are at the forefront with a number of initiatives, including reducing the amount of information routinely recorded for many crimes while retaining extensive recording for serious crimes. Staffordshire police is one of four police services trialling a new streamlined crime recording process. The adoption of standardised forms based on minimum appropriate reporting requirements, as recommended in Sir Ronnie’s report, has also reduced the size of many forms by half.

The Staffordshire police force has offered to pilot the implementation of mobile data technology across the entire front line. The chief constable has the backing of officers and police staff for his bold offer to the Staffordshire public to home in on quality of policing even where it conflicts with centralised targets based on quantity. I know that that is what local communities want. I can give a recent example from a public meeting that I convened of all the relevant agencies last Friday in the village of Wheaton Aston. At the end of the meeting, the chair of the local parish council said to me, “David, will you tell Parliament that we want to see more police officers on the beat in our village?” I said, “Yes, I’ll do it next Wednesday morning,” which was very impressive for the audience to hear.

I suggest that if we follow the line of Sir Ronnie’s recommendations and the offer being made by Staffordshire police and their chief constable, we can free up more resources so that more police officers are seen more of the time in communities such as Wheaton Aston. The prize that many judge to be worth pursuing, myself included, is more time for police officers to spend on front-line policing. The commitment made to communities in Staffordshire about patrols and responses to some crimes, thanks to successful neighbourhood policing, can be amplified and extended to a wider range of crimes and situations. The Prime Minister visited Staffordshire police on 3 February. He listened attentively as police officers and PCSOs spoke of the work that they are doing to cut the bureaucracy faced by front-line officers.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks with a great deal of passion, and he is obviously well informed. I am somewhat sceptical in my researches into claims to cut paperwork, but I cannot speak for Staffordshire. Will he enlighten us by giving specific examples that he has seen? He gave one example of a form that had been halved in size.

Mr. Kidney: I was there as the officers made their presentations to the Prime Minister, and I felt proud of their professionalism as they did so and answered the Prime Minister’s searching questions, which were rather like the hon. Gentleman’s. The officers gave the Prime Minister this kind of example: the domestic investigation arrest log, which collects information on domestic violence cases, was once a 20-page form but has now been reduced to 10 pages; a 16-page traffic collision form is now eight pages; and the usual recording form for what police regard as non-serious crimes, which they reckon make up 80 per cent. of the total, has been reduced from 16 pages to one.

As I said, Staffordshire police have also been trialling hand-held mobile data computers at Longton, which is
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not in my constituency but in Stoke-on-Trent, and have found that they reduce the need to fill in paper forms by enabling officers to make direct contact with the police national computer and the police station. Those are all examples of how police officers on the beat have more time to do their proper work as a result of spending less time filling in pieces of paper. As the hon. Gentleman asked about it, another presentation that the police made to the Prime Minister involved a Staffordshire pilot of a speedy justice initiative. When evidence is collected, if a guilty plea is anticipated, the police officer responsible for the case can submit minimal evidence on paper to the Crown Prosecution Service instead of a raft of paper prepared specially in case of a not guilty plea.

Those are the examples given to the Prime Minister in Stafford just a month ago. I was there, and the police and I made the point together that neighbourhood policing and reducing bureaucracy are intrinsically linked. After the visit, the chief constable said:

That is what is at stake in Staffordshire’s offer to implement the Flanagan report’s recommendations locally and early. I accept that offer willingly, and I urge the Minister to do the same. Will he say today that the Home Office will back Staffordshire’s plans with money for the investment needed, especially in new technology? We are currently using 175 mobile data devices in the pilot at Longton. The police say that with the money, they will roll out 1,200 devices to front-line police officers by September. How quick is that? Is it not an offer worth accepting?

Nationally, as in Staffordshire, Home Office policy on neighbourhood policing should focus, as Sir Ronnie observed, on supporting and sustaining the model being set up. Like Sir Ronnie, I welcome the decision to ring-fence PCSO funding for a further year. Overall, the funding this year for neighbourhood policing, including PCSOs, will be £324 million, a 2.7 per cent. increase from last year. The settlement shows that the Home Office is committed to making a success of neighbourhood policing, and I thank the Minister for that.

I acknowledge the other good work that all police services carry out alongside neighbourhood policing. Response policing bears the brunt of public service and crime detection. The last time I had cause to call the police personally—I thought that I was witnessing a possible burglary—the response was excellent, but others report mixed response times to me. The drive to reduce bureaucratic burdens promises the best gains for response policing. However, when I met representatives of manufacturing businesses recently, they warned me against over-reliance on neighbourhood policing and response policing. They were concerned about organised criminal gangs’ targeted thefts of their metal stocks as a result of huge rises in the price of metals. The manufacturers made the point—valid, I am sure—that between neighbourhood policing and response policing, there lies a wide range of complex and inter-related police services to be delivered.

In focusing on neighbourhood policing, I would not want anyone to think that I do not appreciate all the other police services. I have a high regard for the
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expertise and professionalism of detectives, scene of crime officers, domestic violence and prolific and persistent offender teams, scientists, intelligence officers and special branch officers—I met many of them during my recent tour of the new offices at Weston road in Stafford, and I met 999 and other call handlers with the Prime Minister on the day that he came—reception and support staff, cadets, traffic police, members of specialist services such as fraud and internet investigation, and those involved in crime prevention and neighbourhood watch. Even with that long list, I am sure that I have missed many.

Let us all work together to make neighbourhood policing an effective operation for modern police services. Let us ensure that we embed it for the long term. We in Staffordshire certainly embrace the Flanagan reform agenda, including cutting form lengths and reducing record-keeping to free up more time for front-line policing. We are willing to roll out mobile data across the whole police service in Staffordshire. We just need the money, Minister; let’s have it.

9.48 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on obtaining this debate, and on how he presented his case. It was gleefully unpartisan, and he made some important points. He will recognise that, historically, this country has always had citizen-based police organisations; we have had special constables, of course, for some years. In many ways it is regrettable that in recent decades—the situation certainly predates 1997—that practice seems to have diminished. That is why many of the new initiatives are very positive. Our policing model, in contrast with that of European nations, has always been firmly drilled into local communities.

Much as I think that neighbourhood policing is important, a visible police presence alone should not be the be-all and end-all of the policing challenge. I find that to be the case particularly in central London, where intelligence-led policing has great import, not least in fields such as counter-terrorism. The Metropolitan police and a range of other agencies, including the City of London police in the eastern part of my constituency, do painstaking work, but that approach has a less high profile. I appreciate that the villages in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency regard policing as being about bobbies on the beat and a visible presence, but it is important that we give as much credit as possible to a lot of the other work that goes on behind the scenes. In my constituency—in Westminster at least—the local authorities are at the forefront of a partnership with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service over PCSOs and a range of other initiatives, some of which I shall discuss in my brief contribution.

Many of the new initiatives were key to restoring public confidence in the aftermath of 9/11. At the outset, the concern in London was that too much of the PCSO initiative was driven by a campaign to keep numbers high. PCSOs are added routinely to overall police numbers; no doubt Ken Livingstone and his mayoral campaign will make much of that. However, I have always supported the idea of PCSOs, even in the immediate aftermath of 2001, when such support was not terribly fashionable in the Conservative party. To
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be fair, they have worked well, although if there is one slight criticism it is that there is a risk that they have helped to crowd out special constables. From my work with the City of London police, it seems that the cadre of special constables feel that they are now third-class citizens compared with PCSOs. Becoming a PCSO is now an alternative career route in policing.

In Westminster, we have an initiative called CivicWatch, the key to which is that the police safer neighbourhood sergeant is partnered with a local government officer, which ensures effective liaison between the police and the local authority. I hope that the same applies throughout the country. We have found that one of the few positive by-products of the early retirement rule in the police is that some very talented ex-superintendents can come on board and work at City hall in Westminster. We currently have a retired superintendent, Dean Ingledew, who headed up the west end police service, and before him we had Bob Currie. That arrangement has worked extremely well in developing those partnerships.

The only potential flaw in the safer neighbourhoods initiative is that most community aspirations are not within the gift of the police but down to local authorities, which means that the strength of the partnership, which hopefully extends beyond the political divide, is key. For as long as there is increased pressure on local government financing arrangements—I am sure that there will be for the foreseeable future—it will be all too easy for such innovative programmes to fall by the wayside. It is therefore crucial to keep that relationship as strong as possible.

Crime and antisocial behaviour are as big a problem in my constituency as they obviously are in Stafford, but community confidence and perceptions have improved, which stems from the ability to report incidents easily, to see a reaction within a reasonable time and to receive feedback from the responsible authority. That helps to build confidence through the reassurance cycle, through which we can reduce the fear of crime and improve many of the positive perceptions.

In central London, our innovative partnership initiative is between the council, the Metropolitan Police Service, the London fire brigade, which comes under the auspices of the Mayor of London, and CityWest Homes, our own arm’s length management housing organisation—we have some large housing estates in Westminster. It was established five years ago as a pilot project in three areas, but has been such a success that it has been rolled out across Westminster, which is now divided into 26 distinct CivicWatch areas, closely aligned to ward and police boundaries.

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