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6 Nov 2008 : Column 437

My next point is about police community support officers. I felt about them how I felt about the Welsh Assembly—at first, I was not a great fan and could not see the point of them, but now I accept that they are there to stay, so we should make the best of them. I pay tribute to the PCSOs in Monmouthshire, one of whom, Darran Grady, might receive a reward next week at the police review dinner. I understand that a Minister will be present at that dinner and, if possible, I would like to introduce them to Darran Grady. He has done some outstanding work in my constituency, and is one of many very hardworking and active PCSOs.

PCSOs could be much more effective, however, if we gave them warrant cards. Arguments have been made for and against that idea, so I shall rehearse the situation as I see it. Within the police family are, first, the police officers—the front-line constables—whose job it is to arrest people if they see offences being committed, and their presence also reassures the public. However, they also investigate offences before carrying out those arrests, which is a side that we do not often see or think about.

The job of special constables is to go out with front-line police officers, reassuring the public and carrying out arrests, if they see offences taking place. The job of PCSOs is to gain intelligence and talk to the public to get information about where crimes might occur and who might be responsible for them. They also support police officers when they make arrests. One problem for PCSOs is that some people wrongly call them “plastic police officers”, and that is because they do not have the power of arrest. That ought to be changed, as a PCSO who is out on the streets is likely to have undergone two or there months more training than a special constable who has gained independent status. For the life of me, I cannot see why it should not be possible to give PCSOs warrant cards and allow them to make an arrest if they see an offence being committed.

However, I am becoming a convert and believe that PCSOs are carrying out their present role reasonably well. I do not think that they should be taken away from that role, but sometimes people see the uniform worn by a police officer or a PCSO and start to misbehave. I think PCSOs would have much more authority if, instead of detaining a person for 30 minutes and calling for back-up, they were able to produce a warrant card and make an arrest immediately. I appreciate that their job is to be out and about on the streets reassuring the public, but people would be even more reassured if they knew that a PCSO was able to arrest a person committing an offence, bring them before a custody sergeant and ensure that they were properly charged. I do not think that there is any reason why the PCSOs whom I know would not be capable of doing that, and of doing it extremely well.

My third suggestion to the Minister would not cost a penny—I am being very responsible about such things—as all it involves is a change to the section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which deals with searches. One of the biggest frustrations for me in my limited experience of the past two years has occurred when I have stopped people for committing minor offences. I am talking about such things as begging in tube stations, or ticket evasion: they would not normally
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lead to an arrest, because it would clog up the system if everyone who committed a minor offence was taken before a custody sergeant.

However, one of the first things that officers do when faced with a minor offence is to run a check on the police national computer. In that way, they can find out who the person is, and what potential danger they might pose to the police or members of the public. More often than not, people stopped for minor offences will be known to the police for more serious ones. That happens very often, and I could give specific examples of people who have been stopped for minor offences turning out to have recent convictions for carrying knives or even guns, or for dealing drugs.

If a person is found to have a recent conviction, I think that it is reasonable for an officer to want to carry out some sort of search—not an invasive, full-body search, but an airport-style pat down. However, section 1 of PACE does not allow a search to be carried out unless there is evidence that the person involved is carrying a weapon or drugs at that particular moment. Very often, there is no such evidence.

Some police officers try and get around the rules in one way or another, and they often get away with doing so. I wish them the very best of luck, but officers should not have to be inventive in their use of PACE. When a person with a conviction in, for example, the last six or 12 months or two years is stopped while committing an offence—and I am not talking about when they are just pulled up in the street—the police officer involved ought to be able undertake a quick search. A very quick change to PACE would enable that to happen.

I had not intended to mention it, but I should like to add that I think that it would be very useful if the rules governing the citizen’s arrest could be clarified. I am not clear what the present rules are, but I believe that many more people would be willing to intervene if they knew what the definition of the word “reasonable” actually was.

I have spoken on many occasions in the past about the inadequacy of prison and community sentences. I have described how police officers spend so much time chasing after the same small number of criminals, all of whom are known to them. I do not intend to go any further into that today, save to make a final observation about sentencing. It often happens that I read in the newspaper that a lawyer with a client about to be sentenced has said, “Please, m’lud, he’s had a terrible upbringing. It’s not his fault, please be lenient on him.” My response is that the judge should not hand down a community sentence but should send the offender to prison. That is when I will know that community sentences are working, and I look forward to that.

4.34 pm

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): I would like to concentrate on one particular aspect of public engagement in fighting crime, namely antisocial behaviour crime. With such crime, “public engagement” means not the involvement of a random member of the public, but the engagement of the victims of that crime; they are very often the immediate or near neighbours of those committing the crime. It takes a great deal of courage for those people to become engaged in fighting that crime. They
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often suffer in silence for a long time before they take courage, their patience finally snaps, and they start to report it.

I want to stress the very long period that it takes to resolve antisocial behaviour crime. That is because it involves the collection of evidence, which is a long-term procedure, and co-operation between the local authority, the police and the individuals concerned. It takes an enormous amount of evidence to build up a case that can be brought to court, and to secure a conviction. During that period, there is always the fear of reprisals from the perpetrators of the crime if it is discovered that the victims are making reports. It is difficult for people to stand up to the fear of intimidation, and the aggressive and intimidating behaviour. They need to have confidence in the police response, and in the police’s capacity to protect them while the procedure is under way.

I want to use one case to illustrate my point. It is typical of a number of cases that I have been informed about. It would not surprise me to learn that other hon. Members had come across similar cases. I have a very large file on the case in question. It illustrates how one family can make a misery of a number of people’s lives. The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing made that very point in his opening remarks.

I shall start by reading parts of letters that I have received from people who have been the victims of one family’s antisocial behaviour. The first letter is dated July 2008, but the problem predates that; it actually affected the previous tenants of the property referred to in the letter, who were driven out. Homes in Havering is the arm’s length management organisation that deals with housing in my borough, and the letter says:

that is, antisocial behaviour—

the partner—

Neighbour No. 2, who is suffering at the hands of the same family, says:

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the tenant

The letter says that the partner

The neighbour says that they


A third neighbour who is involved in the same case, which has been going on since 2003, says in an e-mail:

at their address—

to deal with all the problems. The neighbour continues, saying that they have

Homes in Havering has worked closely with the victims of those crimes and with the police, and it has been to court on numerous occasions. My point is that a long period elapses between the antisocial behaviour first occurring—the victim first reporting it, their having to keep diaries of what happens and maintain contact with the police until sufficient evidence has been amassed to take the case to court, and their waiting for a court case—and, for one reason or another, no conviction or prosecution being secured. Sometimes, the accused do not turn up and the case has to be adjourned or, for numerous reasons, there has to be another court case. The case that I have described has been going on for five years and has involved a variety of people.

The victims of such antisocial behaviour crimes are losing faith in the system and in the police. However, in defence of Havering police, I must say that they do suffer—I used the word advisedly—from being a low-crime borough when compared with many inner-London boroughs, so when the Metropolitan police force resource allocation formula is calculated, Havering police are pretty much at the end of queue in respect of the number of additional police constables that they receive. Local people are not very receptive to the argument that other boroughs have more crime than they do; the crime that affects them is important to them, and Havering police are stretched, so they are not always able to react as they would wish.

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Mr. Coaker: All of us listening to the individual cases that the hon. Lady has outlined will feel that that situation is not acceptable. I do not know what has happened, but there appears to be a problem. If it is helpful, I shall meet her and talk to her about those cases, and we will see whether we can doing something about it.

Angela Watkinson: I am grateful to the Minister for his kind offer, but it might—just might—not be necessary, because there was a hearing today, and I see that it is past 4 o’clock, so the court will have closed. I do not know the result of the hearing, but, fingers, eyes and toes all crossed, we may have had a successful result today.

Mr. Coaker: I hope so.

Angela Watkinson: As, indeed, do I. I am waiting to hear the outcome from my main correspondent, and I hope that justice has been done.

The antisocial behaviour of one family can affect a large number of people and make their daily lives a misery, because they are unable to go about their ordinary, law-abiding business or to conduct their lives in any way that we would consider normal. The inordinate length of time that it takes to deal with such cases is wrong, but I do hope—I think I am going to find out very soon—that this case has been resolved.

4.44 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Let us hope that the case discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) is resolved satisfactorily. I am sure that any district judge would be appalled if they made an injunction with an arrest order which was regularly breached without being brought back before them so that they could deal with the case appropriately.

During the parliamentary recess, I spent time with Thames Valley police as part of the police parliamentary scheme. Colleagues may know that it is analogous to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Members spend 20 days with a police force and see different aspects of how the police work. For me, the experience highlighted the complexity of policing in the 21st century and the considerable professionalism of Thames Valley police.

I have now been a Member for 25 years and know that the only police officers most Members get to meet are the chief constable and area commander. The Thames Valley chief constable usually asks us to exhort Ministers to deal with the outflow of police officers from Thames Valley to the Met, and our area commanders always want to tell us—probably with good justification—that everything is okay on our patch.

The police parliamentary scheme provides the opportunity for Members to talk to other officers, police constables and sergeants and gives them the opportunity to talk to us. One spends some days with a specialist department and others on beat patrol on early and late shifts. I did mine at Cowley police station in Oxford. It is worth while sharing with the House my impressions from my 20-day experience.

First, it struck me that far too many people caught up in the criminal justice system should be treated by the NHS as mental health patients. If I have the misfortune
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to break my leg in the street, I will be taken immediately to a local hospital with an accident and emergency department where I will be treated unconditionally by the NHS. However, if I were to go out into the street and behave abnormally because of mental health problems, it appears that my admittance into NHS mental health treatment would be entirely conditional on whether the relevant mental health trust decided to treat me.

Let me give one practical example. On one of the early shifts that I joined at Cowley police station, there was a young female overseas student who was threatening to commit suicide. Obviously, she was in a very emotional and distressed state and needed professional support. The local mental health trust refused to help her. As a consequence, the police were obliged to take her to a place of safety—which, in reality, meant the cells at St. Aldate’s in Oxford. A police officer had to be taken out of the shift and spend all day looking after her. Given that the shift comprised just seven police constables for the whole city of Oxford, losing one was not insignificant.

Let us think of the situation from the perspective of the young woman: there she was, in a foreign country, very unhappy and seriously contemplating suicide, finding herself—as she would see it—arrested and put in a police cell. That does not seem an appropriate place for her, and nor does looking after her seem an appropriate use of a police officer’s time. I am told that the mental health trust refuses to treat anyone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but people with mental health problems often also have problems with drink or drugs; I suspect that the two often mutually reinforce each other. It is extraordinary that we have got to a situation in which one part of the NHS decides whether it wants to treat patients. I fully appreciate that resources at mental health trusts are tight, but it would be better if there were a frank discussion about the mental health treatment of the community rather than people being caught up in the criminal justice system simply because the NHS cannot cope.

That brings me to alcohol and drug abuse. A large amount of police officers’ time seems to be spent on dealing with people who are committing criminal acts in order to find the money to meet a dependency on drugs or alcohol, whether it is the heroin addict who needs £60 a day or the alcoholic stealing a £5 bottle of wine from the Co-op in Jericho. If I had known how much paperwork goes into sorting out the latter, I would have given that person the £5 myself. It took two police officers four hours to do that paperwork, which is crazy. These persistent offenders place disproportionate demands on the police service.

I appreciate that there are no easy answers as regards drug or alcohol treatment and that for it to work there must be a degree of buy-in by the person concerned. However, I am sure that money spent on initiatives such as Smart CJS in Oxfordshire is money well spent. We should be doing more to see how we can improve alcohol and drug treatment, not least because if we could help people to get off drug or alcohol dependency we would substantially reduce the reoffending rate. If all the people with serious mental health problems and substance abuse issues were taken out of local community prisons such as Bullingdon in my constituency, there would be comparatively few left.

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