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19 Mar 2008 : Column 236WH—continued

10.18 am

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate as someone who also represents middle England. It is a pleasure to support and congratulate my near neighbour in Staffordshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), on securing the debate, which is timely because we are at the beginning of the neighbourhood policing campaign.

In Staffordshire, there are 2,300 officers and 21 neighbourhood policing units, each of which is headed by an inspector with 251 police constables and 224 PCSOs. I congratulate all the officers in Staffordshire, but perhaps I will especially concentrate on the neighbourhood policing teams and the neighbourhood policing campaign. I join my hon. Friend in supporting Staffordshire’s bid for the roll-out of hand-held computers. I also commend Staffordshire police authority for reducing bureaucracy.

I also congratulate Staffordshire police authority on being at the forefront of introducing neighbourhood policing. In Staffordshire, neighbourhood policing was introduced well over a year ago and Staffordshire has been a leading police force in guaranteeing named officers in every neighbourhood. Understandably, there is pride in the achievement of Staffordshire police. My old friend Mike Poulter, chair of Staffordshire police authority, is quoted on the authority’s website as saying:

When I spoke to a senior officer in my local division, he showed his enthusiasm and support for neighbourhood policing, describing the value of police community support officers. He told me how the PCSOs take ownership of their community and are able to provide intelligence and feedback about activities and problems in their area, and he described the value of the police consultation meetings, which involve partnership agencies and thus
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enable local people to raise not only policing issues but other matters that are of concern to them.

PCSOs bring with them a wealth of experience from their previous occupations. I have met many PCSOs who have had jobs in different sectors, gaining experience that is a considerable advantage when it comes to local neighbourhood policing. They also represent a wide range of ages, because they enter the PCSO family at different ages, and they are from various backgrounds. They are truly representative of the local communities that they serve. I am glad that our neighbourhood police officers work as a team with the PCSOs and in partnership with our local communities, including with local councillors and wardens. They know their communities and provide the reassurance that the public need.

We should also remember that, in the family of neighbourhood policing, we have the volunteers—our special constabulary that splendidly supports the regular police force. Indeed, in most ways it is indistinguishable from the regular police force. Reference has been made to the number of special constables. In the Burton neighbourhood policing unit, we have 14 police constables, 14 PCSOs and 25 special constables, and in the Uttoxeter NPU, we have six police constables, five PCSOs and six special constables. There are more special constables in those areas than full-time officers.

I thank all those involved in law enforcement in Staffordshire and congratulate Staffordshire police authority on the content of its website. Some hon. Members have already mentioned the importance of websites. The Staffordshire police authority website not only gives some of the history of the police force, but provides information on the policies and aspirations of Staffordshire police, neighbourhood watch schemes, Crimestoppers and PCSOs. Most importantly, the website gives full details of how people can contact their own neighbourhood police officer and their PCSOs, including by e-mail. The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned e-mail, and certainly in Staffordshire the website sets out how e-mail contact can be made with officers. My constituents can look at the details of the Burton and Uttoxeter NPUs; they can see how many officers we have and they can access their contact details, including their phone numbers; and they can obtain that information through the website.

Through local events, Staffordshire police authority is promoting awareness of neighbourhood policing fortnight and the importance of people learning the contact details of officers. I welcome that process. People can also get that information by visiting the local police station or by phoning 0845 330 2010, or from the Safer Staffs. newspapers. I urge people to find out who their local officers are, whether that is in Staffordshire, including in my constituency, or elsewhere in the country, because it is important to ensure that people are aware of their local police officers. We can make people feel safer in our communities by providing that knowledge of whom they can contact.

Having first declared an interest as a member of my local neighbourhood watch committee, I commend neighbourhood watch schemes for the support that they give to the police and the help that they give in protecting local communities. Earlier, there was mention of funding for neighbourhood watch co-ordinators. Certainly in
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my area there are some concerns about the long-term funding of those co-ordinators. In my patch, one officer is being funded through the borough council and the other through the county council, but because that funding is not long-term, we have certainly lost one of those officers. I am therefore concerned that we should ensure security of funding. If we lose those officers, we will lose the great service that local people have developed over the years to try to help the police to protect their communities.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for raising this subject. As has been said before, it is opportune. We should raise the public’s awareness that they have neighbourhood officers and encourage our constituents to attend the local consultation meetings, to talk to the police and to help to provide that safety, security and reduction in crime in our neighbourhoods that we all wish to see.

10.27 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I too start by congratulating the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this debate. He deployed a rare quality in a politician—frankness—in admitting that he secured this debate without knowing that it was opportune. It is indeed opportune and we are all grateful to him for securing it.

The debate has been consensual. All the parties that were represented here—the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has left us now—agree that neighbourhood policing is a good thing and the Liberal Democrats certainly support it. As a party, we are very much in favour of “pavement politics”, so it is no surprise that we are in favour of “pavement policing”, which is what neighbourhood policing is largely about.

We have some concerns about the level of resources that are available. We know from research that in the period up to March 2007, 20 out of 43 police forces experienced a drop in the number of police officers. We can only hope that when the figures for the period up to March 2008 become available, we will see that that trend has been reversed in those forces. Of course, we know that the total number of community support officers who were going to be deployed was reduced from the 24,000 that the Government had pledged to 16,000. No doubt, when the Minister responds he will point out that that lower number was the number that the police thought they could work with. However, I think that all hon. Members who have spoken here today are aware of areas in their own constituencies where there is still a high level of antisocial behaviour, for example, and where additional resources, if they could be brought to bear, could make a significant difference.

There is one thing that is perhaps surprising about neighbourhood policing. I suppose I am slightly too young to have been brought up on “Dixon of Dock Green”. None the less, I was under the impression that intelligence about individuals in a particular neighbourhood was something that was accessible to the police and that they had people on their force who knew who the local hoodlums were and so on. However, it is only as a result of neighbourhood policing that there are now sufficient police resources available to enable that very individual identification of potentially problem people or households.
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When that was revealed to me three or four years ago, it was a source of some surprise.

Like other Members, I am happy to endorse the activities of my own safer neighbourhood teams, and have joined several of them on patrol to witness first hand how they work. We did some canvassing in one road where one of the residents raised concerns with me about allegations of drug dealing going on close by. When I went out a few weeks later with the relevant safer neighbourhood team, I reported the matter to the lead officer, who raided the property a few weeks later and found that cannabis plants were being grown there. It is clear that safer neighbourhood teams are working, in that intelligence gets to the right people and can be acted on promptly at the right level. Like other Members, I attend the panel of my own safer neighbourhood team when I can, just to see how it and local councillors and leading members of the community identify what the priorities will be in their ward in the upcoming quarter. That works effectively.

That is not to say that bureaucracy, to which Members have referred, is not real; it needs to be tackled. The Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, Brian Paddick, who has experience in the police force, will be looking carefully at it. Let me give the Minister one concrete example of bureaucracy, which was raised in the Home Affairs Committee yesterday, in the hope that he will be able to write to me and other Members about it.

I do not know whether the Minister has seen the Committee transcript, but Mr. Gargan, who is an assistant chief constable, raised a problem relating to CCTV cameras. He gave evidence that to change the direction that a CCTV is pointing—not to install a camera, but to change its direction—officers are required to fill in a 17-page form. That applies regardless of whether the surveillance is covert or overt. I questioned him further on that and asked whether the police were required to do that, or whether there is some scope for interpreting the law in one way or another. He said that it was probably because of the latter—interpretation of the law rather than a clear command—that the form had to be filled in to change the direction of a CCTV camera. If nothing else results from this debate, I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify for our benefit and for that officer’s benefit whether that is, in fact, a requirement. If it is not, could it be made clear that it is not, so that if the police want to make such a change—perhaps to move a CCTV camera so that it focuses on a particular parade where there have been significant problems—they can deal with it more effectively and without the need to complete a 17-page form?

We need to tackle problems of bureaucracy, but neighbourhood policing requires other actions to be taken as well. Such actions are not necessarily about policing but to do with licensing, particularly licensing regimes and ensuring responsible behaviour on the part of off-licences, bars, clubs and so on, and ensuring that we design out crime in our town centres. Those matters need to be addressed before we come to the question of neighbourhood policing itself.

My party can happily sign up to the four key principles that the Government have set out for neighbourhood policing: having visible and accessible police, influencing community safety priorities, interventions that solve local problems, and answers that give solutions to problems
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and feedback on results. The hon. Member for Stafford said that police accessibility was not simply about bricks and mortar. I agree that it must not simply be about that, but making the police accessible often does boil down to bricks and mortar, or at least to there being a contact point that people know about. It could be a mobile police station as opposed to a permanent base; what is needed is a known location to which people can go to visit their police officers. That is why at local level and, indeed, in London and beyond, the idea of safer neighbourhood teams having their own permanent base in their ward is appropriate.

The police certainly are more visible and accessible. The surveys that we have done over many years confirm that to be true. When we put out surveys five or 10 years ago that asked, “When did you last see a police officer?”, the responses that often came back were, “Never,” or “Twelve months ago.” Now it is almost not worth putting out such surveys because the responses tend to be much more positive.

Progress is being made on the key principles, and Liberal Democrats support that. It is clear from the statistics that community support officers and safer neighbourhood teams are increasing public confidence in the police through their extra visibility, and, as in the concrete example to which I referred, through ensuring that local intelligence is passed on to the appropriate people and acted on.

One of the key recommendations in Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s review of policing was that partnership working between the police and local communities and councils should be prioritised. I commend the example of my own borough, the London borough of Sutton, which for several years has had joint working and a joint appointment. The person happens to be a police officer, but someone from the local authority or, indeed, from outside the local authority could have been appointed. One person is responsible for the parks police, the safer neighbourhood teams, the wardens and aspects of enforcement that the local authority takes on, so that all the resources can be brought to bear in an organised fashion when local problems are identified.

I conclude by drawing attention to concerns about neighbourhood policing that other Members have referred to and which have been raised by the Police Federation. The Minister will be familiar with the report that the federation produced in December 2006, “24/7 Response Policing in the Modern Police Organisation—Views from the Frontline”. Things have moved on, and the level of resources is clearly now much more significant, but the concerns that the federation raised then—only 18 months ago—were about whether staffing would be sufficient to provide the safer neighbourhood teams, and whether 24/7 response officers would be drawn from their activities and put into safer neighbourhood teams. The federation was also concerned that safer neighbourhood teams would not reduce the work that 24/7 response officers had to do but might, in fact, increase it. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that discussions with the federation indicate that those issues have either gone away or are not as salient now as they were then.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker) indicated assent.

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Tom Brake: I see that the Minister will be able to respond on that point, and I welcome that.

Neighbourhood policing is beginning to deliver results. Once it is bedded in, there will no doubt be a need for some fine tuning. That may mean looking at the balance of police officers and community support officers on safer neighbourhood teams. Undoubtedly, there will be discussion at some point about how we balance the real need for visible policing by officers who are known to the people in an area, with the real challenges that the police face in specific locations where they might want to deploy more resources. There will be discussions about how we get that balance right, but, broadly speaking, my party supports and welcomes the direction of travel. Subject to some fine tuning, it will deliver real benefit to communities up and down the country in years to come.

10.39 am

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I and my colleagues congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on securing this timely debate. Let me make it clear that Her Majesty’s Opposition support the six broad goals set out in the Government’s 2005 document on neighbourhood policing. We believe in the principle that local people should have more influence over setting local safety priorities. We believe in stronger partnership working not just between local authorities, neighbourhood watches and local citizens’ groups, but between primary care trusts and the whole family of partnership workers in crime and disorder reduction partnerships and other groupings. We also believe that having a more visible presence on the streets is vital to neighbourhood policing. We need to cut the paperwork and get more officers and police community support officers back on the beat.

My concerns do not relate to the principle of neighbourhood policing, which we support, but its implementation. The Conservative-controlled borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which I visited earlier this week, provides an excellent example of delivering 24/7 policing. Two wards are enjoying this piloted experiment, which involves working across 24-hour periods. They have, on average, 30 officers, rather than the London average of six. It is worth while focusing on the results, and I would like the Minister’s views on them. In Shepherd’s Bush, for example, robberies are down by 48 per cent. In Fulham Broadway, overall crime is down 10 per cent., with burglary down 27 per cent. and theft down 22 per cent. Those are real examples of a very aggressive 24/7 neighbourhood policing policy.

What is the evidence for crime reductions in non-24/7 areas—our average neighbourhood policing areas? The Home Office’s report this February, “Neighbourhood policing: the impact of piloting and early national implementation”, which I know the Minster will have studied with care, did not provide any numerical evidence for significant reductions in crime in the 16 wards that it studied. I wonder what the Minister’s view is of the empirical evidence for crime reduction in neighbourhood policing areas.

PCSOs are important in the delivery of neighbourhood policing, which was sagely observed by my hon. Friends the Members for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I do not
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need to go into the argument about the Government’s promise at the time of the last election to recruit 24,000 PCSOs by 2008. That target has been reduced to 16,000. Will the Minister give us an indication of his estimates for the number of PCSOs who will be available in England and Wales to support sworn officers in neighbourhood teams for next year and the year after?

I have an even more important question about sworn officer numbers, police strength and absent PCSOs. We all believe in neighbourhood policing, but one does not have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the number of sworn officers needs to be kept up. I have one simple question, to which the House deserves an answer, and I am not making a party political point, because every hon. Member who cares about the problem will want the answer. On page 45 of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s final report on the independent review of policing, published in February, he said that

which was about 141,000 in January—

I would dearly like to hear whether the Minister and the Government support Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s proposition. Until we know what their intentions are over the next three years and whether 141,000 officers is a sustainable number, we cannot have an intelligent debate about the effectiveness of neighbourhood policing.

Mr. Mark Field: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ruffley: I will not, because we are very short of time and I want the Minister to have a proper crack at answering these questions. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House spoke about reducing red tape. One proposal has been de-emphasised by Sir Ronnie. In his interim report on 11 September, he strongly recommended that the Association of Chief Police Officers and the National Policing Improvement Agency draft a national suite of streamlined forms containing minimum reporting requirements by summer 2008. Conservatives support that, but we do not seem to be having much success. If anyone speaks to ACPO and the NPIA, as I did yesterday, there is not much evidence of a national suite of forms with minimum reporting requirements being produced by the summer of this year, as Sir Ronnie originally wished to see. Perhaps the Minister can comment on that. We are not going to have better and more effective neighbourhood policing unless the Government get serious at a national level on cutting red tape and reducing bureaucracy.

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