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Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 March 2010

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

Police Community Support Officers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

2.30 pm

The Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism (Mr. David Hanson): I am grateful to you, Mrs. Dean, for chairing this debate, which is being held in Government time, on what for many constituencies is an important issue: the role, function and, I hope, future development of police community support officers. The Government were keen to have a debate on PCSOs today, because we recognise that the 16,500 PCSOs in England and Wales have an impact on every constituency in the land. They are performing the vital functions of protecting the public from crime, reducing crime and, crucially, building confidence in not only their own role, but those of their colleagues in the police, including in neighbourhood policing teams.

You will recall, Mrs. Dean, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) introduced the concept of PCSOs in the late 1990s, and the first PCSO commenced operations around 2000. Year on year, we have built additional capacity, to the extent that today we have well over 16,000 PCSOs playing their crucial role alongside police officers.

You will also know, Mrs. Dean, that crime has gone down by more than 36 per cent. during the past 12 to 13 years. In recent years, confidence in policing has risen to the present record level of 50 per cent. We have a target of 60 per cent. confidence in policing by 2012. I contend that, as well as the wider work that we do on policing and all the activity on serious crime and terrorism, the performance of PCSOs has played a strong role in the achievement of those figures, showing that crime is down and confidence is up.

Perceptions of antisocial behaviour are also considerably lower now than they have been in recent years-indeed, they are at their lowest level ever. I am not complacent about crime, confidence or antisocial behaviour, but the fact that we have a team of professional individuals working to support full-time police officers this very day on the streets of Burton, Delyn in north Wales, Stone, Romford and Carshalton and Wallington-to name but five constituencies at random-shows that there is strong support for their role to date.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Given the importance that the Minister rightly attaches to matters such as national security, terrorism and the really big problems, including violent crime, which the police have to deal with, does he accept that there are those of us who believe that having a supplementary force does do some good, provided that it removes some of the burden from the police in their core activities and, hopefully, much of the paperwork that policemen have to do at the moment? Although one might give a cautious welcome to the
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proposals, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that the object is to take that burden away from the police, so that they can get down to their core activities and do their job even better?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. A key role of police community support officers, as their name indicates, is providing support. That is what they are intended to do. They are intended to be a public face, to enhance confidence and to support police officers in providing a visible presence in policing, but at the same time they do not have the powers of arrest and or have to do much of the paperwork that police officers do. They can provide reassurance to the public and be visible to the public. Sometimes, I dare say, the public do not differentiate between police officers and PCSOs in their understanding of visible policing. There is a clearly defined role for PCSOs, and I want to discuss with hon. Members how we can further clarify that role. That leads me to the discussions that we shall have about the safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy that we recently published.

In Flint in north Wales, we had a record 65 PCSOs in 2009, and my local force in north Wales has had 159 PCSOs since 2008. That helps the visibility of policing. I have seen in my constituency how PCSOs are a first point of contact who can reassure the community, pick up information that sometimes leads to the detection of more serious crime, and be the front-line face of policing in the community. They fulfil a very important function.

It is also important that PCSOs closely reflect the nature of the communities that they serve. PCSOs are helping to change the face of policing, making it more representative of the communities served. For example, 11.5 per cent. of PCSOs are from a minority ethnic background and 44 per cent. of PCSOs are female. Those figures are way in advance of the figures for black and minority ethnic representation and women's representation in the police as a whole. By reflecting the community and being out and about on visible patrols, PCSOs act as a visible deterrent, actively engage with the community and increase trust and confidence in policing.

Mr. Cash: Can the Minister give us, drawing from general surveys, a sense of what the Police Federation and other police officers feel about the fact that PCSOs have now become an integrated part of community policing arrangements?

Mr. Hanson: Certainly, when I talk to officers on the ground-officers at senior level and sergeants and constables-there is recognition that PCSOs are part of the integrated policing family and perform a valuable function. They are not police officers, but they are police support officers. They undertake visible activity, help the police and are part of a successful neighbourhood policing operation, which is now increasing confidence and reducing crime. Equally important, PCSOs help communities to deal with serious crime and pass information back to police officers.

Taking up the hon. Gentleman's point, when I make visits throughout the country, I get a sense of real engagement with PCSOs and the police. On Monday morning, I was in Stockport with my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), paying a visit to
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the policing family there. I met PCSOs and residents, who really appreciated the PCSOs. They knew their PCSO by name and knew their phone number and e-mail address; they called them by a friendly moniker and talked to them as though they were part of their local community. That is important: PCSOs were not seen to be policing from outside; they were integral to that community in Stockport.

Recently, I was in Carlisle with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew). There, too, PCSOs are in the lead on neighbourhood policing engagement. They organise the policing meetings and are the first port of call for local people. That role is reflected in our safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy, which we published at the beginning of this month. In that, we have tried-this is the main point of our discussion today-to put PCSOs in a modern, forward-looking context and to ensure that we now consider how we define their role in a very clear way, to meet the points that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) makes.

There must be clarity about a police officer's role and a PCSO's role. We are considering what training and support PCSOs need to do their job better and what other activities and powers are needed to ensure that we not only differentiate them from police officers, but make them more effective as a whole. PCSOs are distinct from police officers because they do not have the full range of powers to which the hon. Gentleman referred. That allows them to spend more time in the neighbourhood, to make visits, to engage and to encourage discussions with community members.

PCSOs certainly fulfil an extremely important role. Indeed, in 2006-07, PCSOs were spending about 80 per cent. of their time on the streets engaging with our constituents. Police officers spend less time out there, although we hope to raise the proportion in due course. PCSOs spend 65 per cent. of their time patrolling and 15 per cent. of their time on specific engagements. Having 16,500 people spending 65 per cent. of their time on patrol in our communities is a visible way of giving reassurance to the community at large.

We are determined, in the safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy, to sharpen that role still further. We need to ensure that PCSOs receive better training and support. We need to ensure that they can get accreditation and give them a career structure. We need to improve their skills in the things that they need to do, especially those things that they need to do well. We are considering whether to give PCSOs extra powers to confiscate fireworks-we are coming to the conclusion that we should do so, as fireworks are a particular problem in November and December-and to tackle graffiti as part of our wider antisocial behaviour agenda by giving them the power to seize items that could be used for graffiti.

The service that PCSOs provide is valued by the public. The recent Casey review found that six times as many people said that PCSOs were doing a good or excellent job than said that they were doing a poor or very poor job. The review also found that people wanted PCSOs to have the strong backing of Government. Last Thursday, I was with PCSOs on the beat on the south bank, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), seeing some of the general
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neighbourhood work that they undertake in reassuring the public, particularly businesses and shopkeepers in the area.

My first contention is that neighbourhood policing works and that PCSOs are a key part of neighbourhood policing. The improvements in public services to which we are committed include maintaining a named dedicated neighbourhood policing team in all communities. The support provided by PCSOs is crucial to that. Central Government funding for the police has increased by almost one fifth in real terms since 1997. It is important to note that next year's funding for neighbourhood policing has been ring-fenced. In 2010-11, that funding will be uprated by 2.7 per cent. for each force, to a total of £341 million. That will ensure that neighbourhood policing teams will be maintained intact in 2010-11, and gives a commitment to police community support officers.

I do not expect the Government to change much after the forthcoming general election, such is my optimistic outlook on life. However, I seek a commitment today from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that, in the event that he assumes a ministerial position, the ring-fenced funding for police community support officers for 2010-11, which has been approved by Parliament, will be maintained. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) did not give such an agreement five or six weeks ago, when we debated this matter on the Floor of the House, but I am sure that that was an oversight. I would like to hear the hon. Member for Romford give us the true picture of the Opposition's position on the matter.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Minister reassures us that the budget will be ring-fenced, but can he give such a reassurance in relation to London, where the source of funding is slightly different? I understand that there is significant concern about whether funding in London will be sufficient to maintain officer numbers.

Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Far be it for me to be political about the matter, but the Government have given an increase in grant to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner for next year-from memory, a 2.7 per cent. increase, but I stand to be corrected. However, the increase will be at least 2.5 per cent., which is the minimum across the country. The Mayor of London has chosen not to raise the precept this year. That is a judgment for him to make-he is entitled to do that-but it could lead to a severe funding shortfall. However, if I can say so, Mrs. Dean, it is nothing to do with me, guv; it is a matter for the Mayor. He has chosen not to increase the precept, but if the commissioner has difficulties next year, responsibility will be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Boris Johnson of this parish, who in due course will have to account to the public at large.

I shall give the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) some further projections, none the less. We have given a ring-fenced commitment for next year, which has been approved by the House of Commons. The neighbourhood policing fund is there. We have clearly said-this, too, is important-that funding from 2011 to 2014 for police officers and PCSOs will be at a level that gives police chiefs in all parts of England and Wales no excuse to reduce those numbers, for the
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simple reason that the money will be there. We cannot say that yet for every aspect of public spending, because there will have to be a comprehensive spending review, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said that funding will be in place to maintain the number of officers and PCSOs between 2011 and 2014.

We strongly believe that we need to improve PCSOs still further. We want to sustain neighbourhood policing, as we said in the document that we produced two weeks ago. We want to ensure that neighbourhood policing is a valued career path. We want to ensure that more people become part of neighbourhood policing and that they perform to the highest standards. For that reason, as I said, we are looking at improving the career framework for members of neighbourhood policing teams. The National Policing Improvement Agency is to develop a professional career pathway for those working in neighbourhood policing. It will shortly launch a PSCO accreditation structure to assist the development and training of those PCSOs who wish to become police officers and to improve the career structure for PCSOs.

Tom Brake: I thank the Minister for giving way again. Will that PCSO accreditation provide a pathway that leads seamlessly into the police proper? I know that the Met, in its recruitment strategy, is using special constables and PCSOs as a way of getting new officers into the police service. I wonder whether PSCO accreditation will facilitate the process, or will it be completely separate for such people trying to join the force?

Mr. Hanson: The accreditation and training has two purposes. First, it will ensure that we develop the skills base of those who wish to become and to remain PCSOs. Secondly, we need a career structure to help people across the bridge into the police-some people who join as PCSOs do a good job and ultimately decide to join the police. The documents that we produced recently will allow us to develop both those roles, while maintaining the integrity of the post and allowing the 16,500 PCSOs we have to do their job, which they do for everyone.

In recent documents, we have said that we intend to produce a national standard uniform for police community support officers. I am acutely aware that different operational uniforms are used in communities. By 2012, we want to have developed a standard uniform, so that PCSOs can be recognised throughout the country, dressed in a standard and universal fashion.

With chief police officers, we want to encourage forces to think creatively about how to incentivise officers, particularly PCSOs, to show their commitment to their neighbourhoods. I am acutely aware, both in my constituency and in other constituencies that I have visited, that the permanence of individuals in an area and the knowledge that they are committed to it helps to drive up confidence, build trust and ultimately reduce crime.

The Government have invented police community support officers; we have nurtured and developed them and we now have 16,500 PCSOs. We have given a commitment to ring-fence funding for next year and to maintain numbers between 2011 and 2014. We have said that we want to continue to embed those officers in neighbourhood policing, and we want to ensure that they are accredited, trained and developed accordingly.
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We want to give them a national uniform and make them a permanent part of the policing family for the community at large. That is where we stand at the moment.

The vast majority of Members in this House know of the good work done by PCSOs, recognise it and support it. I just want to ensure that that view is shared across the House as a whole. Concerns have been expressed, I believe, about the future of PCSOs, which could be down to a lack of clarity on the part of the Opposition. A debate such as this gives the hon. Member for Romford the opportunity to tell us how it is.

Tom Brake: It is a matter of transparency and openness.

Mr. Hanson: It is indeed. It is not that I expect the hon. Member for Romford to have to implement everything that he says this afternoon, because as a bigoted, biased Labour Member of Parliament, I do not expect him to have any opportunity to do so. None the less, for the confidence of the service as much as anything else, it is important that we understand how he and his colleagues envisage the role of PCSOs.

I submit in evidence an article in the Yorkshire Post of Monday 12 October 2009, in which the shadow Home Secretary, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is quoted. I am sure that some of the quotes are wrong, because I cannot believe that there is anybody who would not wish to continue with community support officers, but he is quoted as saying:

Far be it from me to presume that that means that the PCSOs will go, but the hon. Gentleman is clearly quoted as saying, in October 2009, that he is looking at it "at the moment". I do not know how long it takes the hon. Gentleman to look at such a matter, but it is now March 2010 and I presume that he has given it some thought.

If the hon. Member for Romford held my position, would he maintain the ring-fence for next year and keep the numbers at 16,500 in future years? Does he recognise the good work that has been done, and will he clarify what "doing away with PCSOs" means?

Tom Brake: Did the Minister read the article that appeared in the papers a couple of weeks ago about how Conservative Members of Parliament can access the answers to such questions through their BlackBerrys? I imagine that the hon. Member for Romford will have been frantically typing in "Conservative position on PCSOs" to see whether the database has a response to such a question.

Mr. Hanson: I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford holds such matters in his head, because he is an assiduous Front-Bench Member. We have shared many a happy hour in Committee, and I am sure that, in due course, he will leap to the defence of whatever the Opposition policy is. The quote was from October 2009. It may be that things have moved on.

In Bournemouth in 2002, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who has some role in drawing up future Conservative policy options, said:

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That is insulting to PCSOs, who put their lives at risk when they walk the beat to support full-time warranted officers. Moreover, that someone can say that on behalf of their party does not give me much confidence. I may be wrong, but to have enthusiasm for something-to have a forward agenda for something-requires one to appreciate it and value it. The right hon. Gentleman apparently does not and the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is apparently not yet convinced.

When asked, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said that he would no longer demand a fixed amount of money to be spent on PCSOs. Far be it from me to intrude on private policy discussions within the Opposition, but I would certainly welcome a statement from the hon. Member for Romford on whether he can lay to rest our concerns about policy objectives that could be very damaging to constituencies across England and Wales. Will he be clear today about his commitment to the future of PCSOs? I look forward to hearing from him.

I know that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will also contribute to the debate, and I am fairly confident that he will support my assertions. We may disagree on certain aspects, but, overall, there is an agreement that PCSOs fulfil a valuable function.

I have spoken for 25 minutes now, but I wanted to put it on the record that PCSOs are doing a good job. We are committed to their funding to date, to their funding next year and to their numbers in future years because we want them to continue to do a fine job for the community. I pay tribute to their excellence, bravery and the fact that they build confidence among the public. The record on crime and confidence is owed not just to hard-working police officers at all levels, but to the work of PCSOs. I commend their work to the House. I hope that we can have a useful debate on the future agenda and that we do not see the tenure of police community support officers end.

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