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Community Support Officers

Volume 453: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2006

I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr. Jones, and I am grateful for the opportunity to consider police community support officers and their impact on neighbourhood policing. I was a member of the Standing Committee that debated the Police Reform Bill in 2002, and therefore followed closely the development of the use of CSOs in the criminal justice system.

I observed the successful introduction of CSOs with some satisfaction. I well remember the dire warnings of Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen in our Committee debates that there would be confusion about the roles of CSOs, that their powers were uncertain and that the public would be unhappy about their role in policing. Those warnings proved to be ill-founded, however. CSOs work successfully within the criminal justice system and are extremely popular with the general public.

I am spoilt for choice. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane).

Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason why CSOs are so popular is their visibility? They are on the beat for 90 per cent. of the time, thus giving a high visibility of a police uniform—well, nearly a police uniform. It is that reassurance that the public welcome.

That is true. I know from discussions with my constituents that they welcome a uniformed presence on the streets and the fact that CSOs work locally with police officers. They want to see police out on the streets and welcome the reassurance that that inevitably gives. However, it is important to note that police officer numbers are increasing in areas such as north Wales, where the number has increased from about 1,300 in 1997 to about 1,600 today.

It is vital that we recognise that there has been a revolution in policing since 1997. We now have neighbourhood policing teams made up of community beat officers, CSOs and, in many cases, neighbourhood wardens. A remarkable change has been brought about since I was elected in 2001, when—I well remember this—many people came to see me about criminal justice and antisocial behaviour matters. I had real difficulty in knowing who to contact on their behalf to raise issues directly.

The situation is now entirely transformed. I have a list in my office of community beat officers, each of whom represents a dedicated ward within my constituency. I can contact the relevant officer for an area with any concerns that I might have and I know that he or she will address it. That has made my job more straightforward and has led to a huge reduction in the number of complaints that I receive about antisocial behaviour and crime.

My hon. Friend has painted a good picture of the changes that have occurred since Labour took power in 1997, but does he agree that that change has been possible thanks only to the massive investment that we have made? That investment has delivered police, community support officers and neighbourhood wardens on the ground and provided front-line policing where people actually want it.

Indeed. That investment is very evident in north Wales, and my hon. Friend pre-empts me to some extent. I recently tabled a series of parliamentary questions, and the answers to them indicate that police funding in north Wales—I am talking specifically about Home Office funding and I shall leave aside the police precept for the time being—has increased from £78,861,341 in 2002-03 to £90,071,490 in 2006-07. There has therefore been a substantial increase in Home Office funding for policing in north Wales.

In addition, the North Wales police authority has made substantial investment in policing over the same period and has had the fourth highest policing precept in the country for the past three years. The precept for the current financial year—2006-07—is £166.89, and we have moved up the list somewhat since 2002-03, when it was £96.53. There has therefore been substantial investment in policing, and I welcome that because when I was first elected, I was very aware that policing was, if not the major priority, certainly one of the two major priorities for my constituents.

We have had good news about the effect that that investment has had on crime reduction, although hon. Members need not take my word for that. Only yesterday, I was given a copy of the Wrexham county borough newsletter, “Connect”, which I recommend to all and sundry. It talks about Wrexham faring

“well in crime reduction stakes”,


“Wrexham’s Community Safety Partnership has reported a 25 per cent. drop in reported crime figures in the county borough, exceeding the national target of 17.5 per cent.”

I can therefore speak of good news, and it is important that we recognise the progress that has been made.

On the issue of good news, the Government and the local taxpayer have put in the investment. Last year, the north-west basic command unit was first out of the 420 basic command units, the central unit was fifth and my hon. Friend’s own eastern unit was about 15th. Does my hon. Friend agree that progress is being made and that investment is being put in and is, to all intents and purposes, being spent quite wisely?

I recognise that progress has been made and I am pleased to see it. None the less, I am afraid that there is a large “but” coming. The neighbourhood policing that we have taken forward in Wrexham over the past few years has been built on the premise set down in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that the local authority must work with the police in formulating a strategy to address crime and antisocial behaviour. Over the past few years, the local authority has taken that forward by beginning to employ neighbourhood wardens in Wrexham. They have worked in conjunction with community support officers and community beat officers in particular wards in my constituency, and they have been very effective.

It is with profound regret, therefore, that I must tell hon. Members that the same local authority that boasts such a crime reduction rate has scrapped one of the essential reasons for that success—the neighbourhood warden scheme, which has been so successful in Wrexham. In saying that, I realise that political opponents are, of course, sometimes sceptical, so let me pray in aid a letter that I received from a community leader in the Caia Park area of Wrexham, Mr. Les Stamp, who works extremely hard for the community there. He wrote to me when the local authority’s decision was mooted, saying:

“As you may be aware we are now without a Community Warden, which we believe to be an absolute disgrace. We were appalled at the decision to remove the Community Wardens. Our own Community Warden was very active on our behalf, and his absence is already being felt within our community.”

I met the community warden whom Mr. Stamp mentioned. He was a gentleman called Wayne and he worked very hard in his area of Wrexham, particularly with young people. I had an interesting conversation with him shortly before he left his post when the council decided to sack him. He said that it was important that he was distinct from the police in the job that he did and that he did not have a police uniform but was dressed differently, because he could build a relationship with people, particularly young people in the area. He did not want to become a community support officer because he did not want to work for the police, so I asked him what he was likely to do, and he said that he hoped to go into youth work because he had enjoyed working with young people. However, he saw his role as distinct from that of community support officers.

Wayne was part of a successful team in Caia Park, and it is unfortunate that it has been decided that that part of the team should not remain in place. It will be a loss to the people of Wrexham, which I deeply regret. However, I do not want anyone to suggest that I do not welcome the Government’s continued investment in community support officers. They have a distinct role to play in the town as part of the neighbourhood policing teams, and they have been extremely successful. I bumped into a community support officer in Wrexham the other day and he proudly showed me his new automated bike, which was designed to deal with the hills in the constituency. He was enthusiastic about his job and has become well known in the town, contributing hugely to the success of neighbourhood policing there.

I therefore welcome yesterday’s Home Office announcement of increased funding for community support officers in north Wales. I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that the funds that can be spent on community support officers have increased from £2.3 million to £3.1 million. That is very welcome indeed, and I want to see more community support officers working in areas such as north Wales and contributing to the safety of places such as Wrexham.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing the debate and on his support for community support officers, which I share. I welcome the increased spending on community support officers, but may I, through him, raise concerns that have been expressed in Northamptonshire? Given the way in which the funding mechanism works, one knock-on effect of increased spending on community support officers could be the loss of 42 full-time police officer posts. Does he agree that if we are to have extra community support officers, that should not be at the expense of full-time police officers with full powers?

I agree entirely, but as I said, that has not been the experience of policing since 1997. That has certainly not been the case in north Wales, where we have high levels of police. Community support officers have also been introduced, and they work with neighbourhood wardens and the police in neighbourhood policing teams. All those involved perform distinct functions, complement the others and build relationships with the local community. They also work with councillors, which is a huge improvement on the situation that existed before neighbourhood policing teams were introduced. I met councillor Geoff Lowe in my constituency, and he worked hard with his local neighbourhood warden before that gentleman, too, was dismissed from his post. I know from discussions with constituents how successful the neighbourhood warden was in building community safety.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point. The difference between a community support officer and a neighbourhood warden, as I know from my experience of working with neighbourhood wardens in Buckley and many other areas of Alyn and Deeside, is the relationship that wardens are able to build, particularly with young people who perhaps do not see their uniform as a threat and are therefore much more able to work with them on particular youth projects. They break down the traditional hostility between youth and authority.

Absolutely. That is a powerful point and shows the complementary nature of the distinct roles of officers, community support officers and wardens. I am concerned that by no longer employing neighbourhood wardens in a town such as Wrexham, the local authority is in danger of losing the connection with younger people that has been so successful in reducing the crime rates to which I referred. I am also concerned that there will be less direct contact between the local authority and the criminal justice system. The profound breakthrough made in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was the recognition that local authorities had a vital role to play in crime reduction. The reason for the success of neighbourhood policing has been the involvement of local authorities. I remember that, when I was elected, it was unusual for police officers to know who was the councillor for a particular ward in a town. That has changed completely. The danger of a local authority such as Wrexham withdrawing from the employment of neighbourhood wardens is that individual councillors will lose the direct contact with the criminal justice system that has been so successful.

The matter is not simply about sacking individuals—that is profoundly regrettable—but about the principle of police authorities working with local authorities to reduce crime. I hope that the commitment made by central Government to provide further moneys for community support officers, announced yesterday, will be followed today by an announcement of further investment in policing. That is the record of the Labour Government. I hope that that national investment will be coupled with local investment to ensure that crime is dealt with, because that is an important issue for my constituents.

I am concerned that the police authority in north Wales has been rash and reckless in its public announcements on investment for the future. It has been fortunate to be able to manage an increasing budget. That requires skills, but fewer skills than managing a decreasing budget. The police authority should recognise that it is necessary to manage the budget sustainably and take forward the success of neighbourhood policing that has been experienced, certainly in my community of Wrexham. It is important that the individuals employed by the North Wales police authority, some of whom are civilian employees, are treated with respect and considered an important part of the police force. They should not read on the front of local newspapers, as has regrettably happened in north Wales, that their jobs might be threatened.

The north Wales group of Labour MPs has done an enormous amount of work on policing. We were vociferous on the creation of a single police force for Wales, strongly supporting the police authority in its opposition to the proposal. We work hard to ensure that North Wales police authority gets its fair share of resources from the Home Office, and my hon. Friend the Minister can rest assured that if that does not happen, he will be getting a knock on the door from all of us to discuss it. We ask those in the police authority, if they wish to raise concerns about job losses, to do so privately with us so that we can raise them with the Home Office. We have a success story in north Wales: achievement in neighbourhood policing, attributable to wardens, community support officers and more police officers working together. We want to take that forward and we want more resources going into policing, which is important to our constituents, and to work with the police authority to achieve that.

I thank my hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. I agree totally with everything that he has said about the police authority. Does he agree that job losses must be the last port of call if we want savings, not the first, and that the police authority needs to examine other areas of its spending that could be cut back, or not spent in the first place, rather than cut valuable people’s jobs?

I cannot improve on my hon. Friend’s point. People are always any service’s highest priority and greatest asset. I am sure that the police authority will ensure that the people who have been employed to improve policing in north Wales will remain in post.

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing this debate. I know that he has been an assiduous campaigner for policing in his area, and he should be congratulated on that. I also congratulate him on bringing along his two able assistants, my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who have also championed neighbourhood policing in their areas. Between them they have put a good case for the continuation of neighbourhood policing.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his kind comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and his two sidekicks behind him. He should include you in those comments, Mr. Jones. You have played an integral role in policing issues in north Wales, and along with myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) you have been on the police parliamentary scheme in north Wales. We have each spent 25 days there learning the ins and outs of policing in north Wales.

I thank my hon. Friend. I will include you in my comments, Mr. Jones. You have worked hard to ensure the national roll-out of neighbourhood policing. This is an important debate and will no doubt be read keenly by our constituents in Wrexham and beyond.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham that I wish to speak specifically about the position of funding for neighbourhood policing and police community support officers. He will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety made a written ministerial statement yesterday about those two specific grants. I do not propose to go through that statement, but I wish to set in context for my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham some of the figures to which he referred.

Overall, there will be an increase of 41.3 per cent. in funding for the vital area of policing in question in 2007-08. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham said, North Wales police will receive £3.1 million as its share of the funding next year, compared with £2.3 million this year. The force will have 157 PCSOs in 2007, up from 58 in 2006, contributing to the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across north Wales. I know that my hon. Friend will recognise that the Government have invested significantly in north Wales. I believe that additional figures will also be useful to set the debate in context. In England and Wales in 1997, there were 127,000 police officers; in 2006 there are more than 141,000. The figure for civilian support staff in England and Wales in 1997 was 53,000, and in 2006 it is 73,000.

In addition, my hon. Friend will want to know some of the local figures. He should be aware that police officer numbers have increased by more in north Wales than in England and Wales over the 10-year period between 1996-97 and 2005-06—the respective figures are 18 per cent. and 11 per cent. In 1997, there were 1,369 police officers in north Wales, which compares with 1,617 in 2006. Support staff numbers in north Wales rose from 476 in 1997 to 882 in 2006. Alongside all that, total Government funding for policing in north Wales increased by 44.5 per cent. between 1997-98 and 2006-07.

It is worth reporting that such things have had a dramatic impact on crime. The overall level of recorded crime in north Wales decreased by 6 per cent. between 2004-05 and 2005-06. Let us consider my hon. Friend’s constituency. I think that he made the point that the overall level of crime in Wrexham fell by 8 per cent. during the same period, which is again a big decrease. I go through those figures because, as he says, it is important to set out the context of increased investment in north Wales and Wrexham, and the consequent reduction in overall crime.

My hon. Friend spoke eloquently and passionately about the need for local authorities to be fully engaged with community policing. I could not agree with him more strongly. Neighbourhood policing is the bedrock of modern policing; a fundamental rewiring is being led enthusiastically by police officers, police community support officers and staff across England and Wales to make the police service more responsive, locally accountable and citizen-focused. The approach is transforming policing at a local level to meet the needs of communities. Neighbourhood policing is here to stay because we know that it works.

The evaluation findings of the national reassurance policing programme demonstrated that in the wards with neighbourhood policing activity the reduction in crime was twice as high as in wards without it, and the increase in public confidence in the police was five times greater. The public also thought that antisocial behaviour reduced. In one such ward, the number of people who thought that having teenagers hanging around was a problem fell from 70 to 54 per cent., while in the comparison ward without neighbourhood policing the number of people perceiving a problem with young people increased from 52 to 57 per cent.

In my hon. Friend’s constituency the same sort of statistic could doubtless be used to demonstrate that where neighbourhood policing is effectively used with everybody contributing—the police, PCSOs, the local authority and neighbourhood wardens—there is a reduction not only in crime but in the fear of crime. I know that he would agree with that.

We know that neighbourhood policing teams can make a difference, but we also know only too well that many of the problems facing our communities are not in the police’s gift to solve. We all know that local government controls many of the levers that can reduce crime, from street lighting to youth services. As my hon. Friend mentioned, local authorities are crucial to reducing crime. Wrexham council will be no different to any other in that regard. It needs to be seen, and it must act, in a way that demonstrates that it is playing its full part in the improvement of community safety and respect.

We are optimistic about local authority engagement in neighbourhood policing, although such involvement can be varied. The recent local government White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities” creates a stronger role for local authorities as local leaders. It will help that by ensuring that local authorities provide more visible leadership on community safety, with an expectation that the portfolio holder plays an important role on the crime and disorder reduction partnership.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is possible for local authorities, within the budgets that they have, to contribute to the employment of PCSOs and to employ neighbourhood wardens themselves, given the importance of community policing to our constituents?

It is certainly possible for that to happen. Although it is for local authorities to determine how they spend their money, it is possible for them to contribute towards PCSOs and to have neighbourhood wardens should they choose to do so. Indeed, my own local authority does just that: it has a neighbourhood warden service for reassurance purposes and it contributes money towards six PCSOs to enhance neighbourhood policing in Gedling in Nottinghamshire. I thank my hon. Friend for the opportunity to make that point.

Another key aim of the White Paper is ensuring that local authorities and the police have a coherent set of priorities and targets to work towards, rather than pulling in different directions, with a shared set of targets on community safety that partners will be held jointly accountable for meeting. Strengthening the commitment of other key partners to community safety is also crucial. There is a proposal for a new duty to have regard to the targets agreed in local area agreements.

I commend my local council, West Lancashire district council, on its commitment, on partnership working in tackling crime and on working with the police on more practical solutions than merely “hug a hoodie”. As a result of that joint working, we are getting another seven and a half PCSO posts in April next year, six of which will be in an area where antisocial behaviour is very bad. Without such partnership working, we would not be able to do that, and I commend that kind of activity.

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that example of neighbourhood policing. The involvement of the local authority in neighbourhood policing is crucial. That is the point that I am making to my hon. Friends today. Neighbourhood policing means neighbourhood management: the involvement of the local authority, the police and other partners. I know that such an approach is being taken in many areas. We want it to happen in all areas.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has a particular interest in neighbourhood wardens. As he knows, the responsibility for them rests with the Department for Communities and Local Government generally, although in Wales it lies with the Welsh Assembly. I have also said to him that the responsibility for community safety is a shared one. We all know that different communities will have different needs. Having said that, it is up to a local authority to take decisions in its own area. It is clear that neighbourhood wardens can play an important part in neighbourhood policing—they do so in many areas—notwithstanding the increase in the role of the PCSOs and the increase in the number of police officers.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that evaluation research commissioned in 2003 by the DCLG found that neighbourhood wardens had a number of key impacts, including reducing both the fear of crime and actual crime, and increasing communities’ satisfaction that low-level antisocial behaviour is being tackled. There is clearly a direct correlation between the work of a neighbourhood warden and that of a PCSO, although there are key differences between those two roles.

My hon. Friend made a point about the difference that had been seen in Wrexham as a result of the use of neighbourhood wardens alongside the police and PCSOs. Neighbourhood wardens can enjoy a close relationship with some members of their community for the simple reason that they are not always seen to be part of the police service itself and their role is different. That can make a huge difference.

Neighbourhood wardens have a role to play, and we are working with the DCLG to see how we can develop the links between them and neighbourhood policing teams without destroying the important independence of the wardens. The points that my hon. Friend raised are clearly a matter of concern and I hope that discussions will continue at a local level about how best they can be resolved. He made that point clear. We hope that there will be discussion between all the various partners to try to overcome the difficulties that he mentions.

I am delighted to be here today to talk about PCSOs, because my hon. Friends will remember that when we introduced them they were regarded as policing on the cheap and as something that would not be successful. In fact, they have made a radical contribution to the whole community safety agenda. I want to see them rolled out further. Neighbourhood policing is being rolled out, and all the various partners—wardens, PCSOs, neighbourhood police, local authorities and others—have a key role to play in introducing not only a model of neighbourhood policing but an entire model of neighbourhood management. Such a model will bring about not only a reduction in crime but a belief on the part of the ordinary people that the fear of crime can also be reduced.