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25 Mar 2010 : Column 155WH—continued

25 Mar 2010 : Column 156WH

Mr. Hanson: We must keep that issue under constant review. It is important that officers do not become over-familiar with individuals in the community. All the evidence suggests that regular, long-term, sustained engagement with the community has benefits for the police and the community. The document states clearly that we will look at how we can incentivise and use existing reward and recognition schemes to maintain officers in a community and build a relationship over time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned training. The issue of youth training and how we deal with young people is of particular importance. My experience from being on the beat with PCSOs is that they are engaged and that they often get into the softer areas of activity. Supported by the youth crime action plan and by real money, they organise activities after school, in the early evening, to help build confidence with communities of young people and get them involved in alternative activities. Last summer, I visited PCSOs in Croydon to look at the various schemes they were running. They were organising football clubs after school to provide alternative activities for young people. That type of activity and the training required are the sort of things we shall certainly consider.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008. Following the passage of that legislation, he will know that we established the reclaim fund. It is in the process of being set up and made functional, but it is not yet operational. The Treasury is examining how it will work and I am trying to link with the Big Lottery Fund to ensure that money is available for communities to do the things I know he wants them to do-providing alternative facilities.

I am not attempting to tiptoe into marriage with the hon. Gentleman but, if I may say so, there is a great deal of agreement between us on police community support officers. Our objectives in the safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy-training, incentivising, embedding and ensuring that police community support officers are there-will have a great deal of support in the future.

The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) made an interesting speech. I accept that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) is not here today, but I still have some concerns about the potential guarantees that were given, particularly as we are talking about an alternative Government's prospectus on the issue. I have taken from today that for next year there are no guarantees of funding from the Conservative party for police community support officers and that there is no guarantee of ring-fencing for PCSOs for next year if the hon. Gentleman and his party are in government. In addition, there is no guarantee for longer-term funding.

Although the hon. Gentleman prays in aid some very important cases-those he mentioned in Leeds-we need something more concrete to ensure that the public know what choices are available. It is simply not good enough to say, "We will look at this when-if-we get elected in due course." The public expect to see a prospectus about what the commitment is to those posts. The Government have the safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy. We have already made a commitment to ring-fence for next year and to ensure that for future years we do not lose officers unless operational demands are considered. Those are real commitments that we can look at and, I hope, share.

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The Government did indeed have an aspiration to have 24,000 PCSOs, and in October and November 2007, they looked at revising the number down to 16,500. We have met that figure of 16,500. However, I remind hon. Members that when the Government were elected in 1997, there was not one police community support officer in any community anywhere in the country. PCSOs were an invention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and the idea has been built on by successive Home Secretaries and supported by the Ministers who have held my position to date. The commitment we have given in the strategy document and to the House today is that we will continue to support, embed and develop PCSOs and build on their confidence, so that our communities feel safer.

I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Romford about ward boundaries. We need to consider localism and what is important to a community. We can certainly examine those issues in detail. The key thing I take from today's debate is that there is a clear divide on the issue. There is a Government commitment to the creation and continuation of PCSOs, but with due respect to the hon. Gentleman, there is real doubt about the Opposition's long-term commitment to them.

The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that he believes PCSOs are plastic officers doing a plastic job. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) says:

We have not had clarity from the hon. Member for Romford today about whether those two facts are still on the table and if we do not have commitments from the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds to ring-fence funding next year, I have to contend that there is no commitment to the long-term security of posts that are so valuable to my community and others.

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Andrew Rosindell: The Minister is wrong-there is clarity. If the Conservative party were in government on 7 May, we would not propose scrapping police community support officers. We have already made it clear today that we support the principle of PCSOs. What we will not do is prescribe what happens at local level. It is for the local police and the local authorities to make those decisions. The Minister is quoting things that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset and my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, but I think those comments are either outdated or taken out of context.

Mr. Hanson: Well, we will see about that in the next few weeks and months. We will test the issues in a friendly and amiable way, as, indeed, we have done today. My contention is simply this: there is a clear statement of policy from the Government on PCSOs and clear statements about their future-accreditation, development, embeddedness, training and confidence-building-as part of a commitment to neighbourhood policing. I believe that will stand us in good stead for the future.

Thank you, Mrs. Dean, for your chairmanship. I think hon. Members on both sides of the House have a commitment to welcoming and cherishing the work that is being done. Some very brave men and women are PCSOs and they put their lives at risk, because the criminal on the street does not differentiate. We need to recognise that bravery, commitment and professionalism, and build on it and sustain it for the future. I am grateful for today's debate and I hope that our exploration of the views has been useful.

Question put and agreed to.

3.55 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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