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19 Mar 2008 : Column 229WH—continued

Obviously the terrorist threat after September 2001 and July 2005 has resulted in more police on the streets of Westminster. I think that all hon. Members who walk around the streets of my constituency will be impressed by the number of PCSOs, although I suspect that that is in contrast with other parts of the capital. In part that is done to raise confidence. Although central London has a relatively small residential population, some 900,000 people come to work in the 7 square miles of my constituency every day. Behind CivicWatch are some specific ideas: to combat crime, antisocial behaviour and persistent environmental
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problems; to reduce the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour; to signpost young people to alternatives to poor behaviour, and broadly to improve community confidence in service delivery.

David Taylor: I am grateful to my MP—at least for four days a week—for giving way. The hon. Gentleman mentioned his positive attitude towards PCSOs, but does he agree that the initial reluctance and doubts about the value of PCSOs and co-operation with them, which was reasonably widespread among the police force, has virtually disappeared? It has certainly disappeared in Leicestershire. It would help if his party abandoned the tired old rhetoric about plastic police and became more enthusiastic about the role that they can play.

Mr. Field: There is no doubt that there was some hostility, not least from the Police Federation, which no doubt lobbied Labour Members as much as they did Opposition Members when the PCSO initiative began. In fairness, at the outset my party might have been slightly hostile to the idea of PCSOs, for public relations reasons as much as anything else, but we have now moved away from that hostility. I shall not take words out of the mouth of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), but I am sure that he will comment on that. However, where special constables, PCSOs and the police work together, they work extremely well. If there is a residual problem, it is with the Police Federation in certain parts of the country, which obviously is worried about terms and numbers. However, it has worked well and I am certainly a believer in neighbourhood policing and similar initiatives. PCSOs clearly have an extremely important day-to-day role in ensuring that that works.

I appreciate that many other hon. Members wish to contribute, so I shall end on one brief point. Without getting over-bureaucratic, the example of Westminster works extremely well. It has a three-tiered approach towards running the CivicWatch programme: local briefings and meetings occurring on a weekly basis in each CivicWatch area to enable local teams to share information and direct problem-solving activity on the ground; fortnightly meetings chaired by a chief inspector and a CivicWatch manager, which looks at best practice within the 26 areas; and an accountability meeting every six weeks, which is open to the public as well as the leader of the council and the police borough commander.

These are exciting times in policing. My main point is that, historically and rightly, policing in this country has been very much citizen-led, of which we should be very proud, instead of the police being a class apart, as they are in many countries in Europe and across the world. Some of the initiatives being discussed are very important as we look forward to 21st-century policing, because there was a sense among the public that the police had lost their way in relation to their neighbourhood responsibilities. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): I have three Back-Bench Members on my list to speak, after which the three Front Benchers will sum up. I flag that up and ask Members to be brief.

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9.57 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I congratulate Thames Valley police on completing the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across the Thames Valley police area this month—one month ahead of the deadline. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) for securing this debate in such a timely fashion and for opening it with such an excellent speech. I should like to say how much I agree with the remarks of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). It is very good if neighbourhood policing can be entrenched on a cross-party basis, which is obviously best for community confidence.

Neighbourhood policing is a great success, popular with the public and effective in fighting crime. It is popular with the public because it puts more uniformed officers on the streets and, I am sure, because it links local policing to local priorities through the involvement of local people in neighbourhood action groups, which in Oxford pool the input of residents, neighbourhood watch, parish, city and county councillors, housing officers, youth services and schools, the city council crime and nuisance action team, city council street wardens and park rangers—all of whom address the problems of antisocial behaviour, about which my hon. Friend spoke. The use of consultations and surveys helps to keep policing focused on what people are most concerned about and ensures that it addresses the day-to-day issues of community safety.

At a time when many types of crime, perpetrated by highly organised criminals, must be combated with specialist units and sophisticated operations, which are often inevitably remote, neighbourhood policing makes policing visible at street level, thus enhancing confidence and security and garnering intelligence. I thank the neighbourhood specialist officers, the supporting special constabulary officers, the police community support officers, street wardens and park rangers for all their work in our community. Thanks to the innovation and resources provided by our Government, their work is just what modern policing often lacked before they came along: officers out on foot or on their bikes, with time to chat to pensioners and to youths hanging out, time to call round the shopping precincts and estates and time to engage actively in community events—all the time building trust and confidence and forging local links and friendships.

Bob Spink: Does the right hon. Gentleman welcome, as I do, the review of the police performance measurement systems, which may change the emphasis from the national crime recording standards to a new framework of policing and community safety assessment? Does he share my hope that the framework will introduce more common sense to neighbourhood policing decisions, such as when to arrest and charge people for minor offences?

Mr. Smith: I am certainly happy to endorse the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for common sense, which should inform all those matters. Neighbourhood policing is largely a matter of common sense. [Interruption.]

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. I am hearing a bit of chatter to my left. Perhaps we could have a wee bit better order for the right hon. Gentleman.

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Mr. Smith: Oxford city currently has 48 community support officers—a number that will go up to 59 from this summer. Ten are part-funded by the city council and four by the university of Oxford. It is a pity that, after the police authority announced the expansion in numbers, the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council saw it as an opportunity to cut plans to expand further the city’s contribution, even though it would have attracted additional match funding. I warmly welcome the expansion, and I know that my constituents do, too. The bottom line is that all those measures are making a real impact on fighting crime.

In the three priority Oxford areas where neighbourhood policing operates—Blackbird Leys, Rose Hill and Barton—there has been a measurable reduction both in all crime and in key categories. For example, if we compare April to December last year with the same period the year before, violence against the person was down 16, 13 and 18 per cent. in the three areas respectively. Coupled with the work of the Oxford safer communities partnership, neighbourhood policing is contributing to a significant fall in crime throughout our city and, moreover, in the crimes that people fear most.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am glad that my right hon. Friend also mentions safer community teams. Does he agree that one great advantage of neighbourhood policing is the way in which the police now work much better with other public services, principally health and social services, but also youth services and the rest? That is partly because we now give the police more time to undertake that more integrative role.

Mr. Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The inter-agency work and collaboration with other organisations through the neighbourhood action groups, to which I referred earlier, lie at the heart of that activity.

On the impact on crime throughout Oxford, if we compare the summer of 2007 with the summer of 2006, domestic burglary is down 34 per cent., personal robbery is down 11 per cent. and criminal damage is down 4.5 per cent. Our police—all of them—and all the community support officers and neighbourhood action groups deserve praise and thanks for that achievement. There is still, of course, far too much crime and too many nasty incidents—one crime is one too many—but let us celebrate the progress that is being made. Let us build on what so clearly works to achieve still more for the future. Let us do all that we can, so that people can enjoy the community safety that is a hallmark of any civilised society.

10.4 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood, not least because you and I have adjoining offices in the narrowest corridor in the Palace—appropriately known as the yellow submarine. Whichever Whip decided that you and I should have offices next door to each other in the narrowest corridor in the Palace clearly had their own particular sense of humour.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has done the House a service by initiating this debate on neighbourhood policing, and I endorse everything that my colleague, constituency neighbour and friend, the
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right hon. Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) said about the achievements of Thames Valley police.

We usually have debates in Westminster Hall because there is a problem, but I do not think that there is a problem with neighbourhood policing—an issue to which I shall return. There are, however, a couple of problems with policing, and I should like to mention them briefly. First, the Minister must recognise that there is still considerable upset, dissatisfaction and frustration at the fact that the police pay award was not fully honoured this year, and that will rankle for a long time. If an independent police arbitration system says that a fair pay settlement is 2.5 per cent. and the figures are then massaged so that officers do not receive that settlement, it is simply unfair, bad personnel management and unjust for those people who provide an excellent public service.

Mr. Ruffley: Does my hon. Friend also welcome the announcement by the shadow Home Secretary, our right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) that a departure by a Home Secretary in any future Conservative Government from any independent award will only ever happen under the affirmative procedure in the House? That is an important safeguard for police officers.

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) must not stand with his back to the Chair.

Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Those in public service need to know that they will be treated fairly and that, if independent arbitration systems are put in place, they will be honoured except in the most exceptional circumstances, which would have to be demonstrated using the affirmative procedure in Parliament. I hope that we never reach that situation.

The second issue is a problem, and as the Minister is present, I should like to have another crack at it. I am sure that I shall be supported by Members with constituencies not only in the Thames valley but throughout south-east England. The issue is the haemorrhage of police officers from Thames Valley police to the Metropolitan police. Over the past five years, we have lost 388 police officers to the Met, but the problem is worse than that, because they tend to be firearms officers, detectives and road policing officers. The chief constable of Thames Valley police, Sara Thornton, says:

In Thames Valley police, it costs £55,000 to train a patrol constable, £63,000 for a detective constable and £77,500 for a firearms constable—not insignificant figures. The chief constable observes:

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the Metropolitan Police Service—

The situation is worsening.

Several hon. Members went to see the Home Secretary, and I am sure that we were all grateful to her, because she very courteously listened to what we had to say. We do not criticise police officers who move, as anyone who has skills must be allowed to transfer them, but the difficulty in the Thames valley is that we are spending money on training police officers and then losing our most experienced officers. It would be fairer if police officers in the Thames valley got the same kind of pay and settlement as those in the Met. It is difficult to see why police officers in Slough should get one rate of pay while those just across the border in Uxbridge should get so much more. It is also daft that a police officer who lives in Banbury can travel to work in London for free, as police officers have free travel, thus taking the benefit of their skills and knowledge away from the Thames valley and my constituents. That issue cannot rumble on; it must be addressed.

Let me turn from the matters that are of concern to neighbourhood policing. The other day, I spent a day with neighbourhood police officers in Bicester, and I was extremely impressed by what I saw. There are three groups—established police officers, police community support officers and street wardens—and I was impressed by the mutual respect that they have for one another. I was particularly impressed by the respect that regular police officers have for PCSOs, and vice versa, and by the way in which all three teams work together.

PCSOs focus on areas in which they can make a difference, such as neighbourhood environmental quality. They respond positively to the concerns and needs of young people, and they deal with litter, antisocial behaviour and graffiti. One young PCSO has shown great initiative. She took it upon herself to write to Network Rail to ask what it was doing about the homophobic graffiti under a bridge in an underpass through which many people walk between housing estates and Bicester town centre. She did not receive a satisfactory answer, so I took the matter up with the chief executive of Network Rail. We eventually got it sorted, and the underpass has been painted. Similarly, the district council has now put litter bins in an area where the PCSOs had picked up a lot of litter. I was impressed to hear that the same PCSO, when she realised that a derelict factory was being used as a refuse dump, tracked down the owner and told them to get it sorted. Regular police officers probably would not have time to do that, and the matter would not necessarily be picked up by street wardens.

My impression is that everyone works together positively in Bicester—I am sure that that happens in other towns—and that it is making a real difference. However, there are also concerns about PCSOs, such as their pay, which is not fantastic. It is fine for young, single people, but I suspect that it is not a great salary for married PCSOs whose pay is the only family
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income. Also, it is difficult to see what the promotional prospects will be for PCSOs, although I am glad that quite a lot of them in my patch eventually transfer into the regular police force. That creates a good opportunity for each side to evaluate the other and works well. However, there might be issues about the long-term career and pay structure for PCSOs. I do not see neighbourhood policing as a problem. In fact, it is very positive and everyone understands where it fits in. In my patch, it is a good news story.

The final issue that I want to discuss is neighbourhood watch. One advantage of being my own Member of Parliament is that, when I write to myself, I always agree with what I have to say, and I should like to share with the Chamber my views about neighbourhood watch. The traditional, old-fashioned neighbourhood watch scheme has something of Miss Marple about it and may have passed its sell-by date. Villagers think of themselves as living in villages, but people in towns do not think of themselves as living in neighbourhoods, except perhaps those in the Grimsbury area of Banbury. However, people recognise that the relationship between neighbours is important.

We could introduce variations on neighbourhood watch, such as neighbour schemes that invite people to act as neighbours. Given that most future policing will have to be intelligence-led, the police will frequently need information, so people should be encouraged to give relevant information. In addition to the telephone numbers that people can use to give information, we should make better use of websites. We could increase people’s ability to send information, perhaps anonymously, by text or electronically to local websites, such as a Banbury neighbours site.

Keeping young people on side is also important to intelligence-led policing. A difficulty with neighbourhood policing is that, if we are not careful, we can give the impression that all young people are a problem. When I go out with my two children, my son says to me, “Look, dad, you’ve got to be very careful; if we meet another youngster and they join us, we will be a group of feral youth, and you will be associated with a group of feral youth.” There is a danger that younger people will feel that way. They will often have intelligence and other information that they could send by text, so we need to have mechanisms by which they can do so.

Another variation of the neighbourhood watch scheme could be to use e-mail, which most people use. If we wrote to people locally to ask for their e-mail addresses for a positive purpose, most of them would respond. If the local police had the e-mail addresses of people in Banbury, they could send them updates about neighbourhood policing once a quarter. They could also send out instant alerts, for example, if the M40 is closed, which it is from time to time, or if they were looking for particular people. There is two-way traffic with information and intelligence, but how do we bring in the community? The community wants to be brought into neighbourhood policing, but the difficulty with neighbourhood watch is that it has depended very much on everything going through neighbourhood watch co-ordinators. With interactive websites and e-mail, the community could be more involved, especially if local authorities contributed, and the whole issue could be more positive.

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I find it difficult to get Ministers to visit my constituency. I wanted the Secretary of State for Health to come, and I offered to lose two stone before Easter, but even that did not persuade him to visit Horton hospital. I should like the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to come at some time. [Interruption.]The hon. Member for Stafford laughs, but it is almost impossible to get Labour Ministers to visit our constituencies. That is bad policy, because they do not see what is happening in middle England.

What is happening in middle England on policing is good news, but I would welcome a visit to north Oxfordshire from the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing to see the good work that is being done by neighbourhood policing, and so that we can bend his ear about the outflow of officers from the Thames valley to the Met. I should also like the opportunity to suggest to him in person that we can make neighbourhood policing even more interactive and involve the community much more, not at the expense of police authorities’ budgets, but in other ways. That would get everyone in the community involved in helping the police to tackle and reduce crime by providing them with intelligence.

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