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Westminster Hall

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

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.)

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.

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 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?

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.

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?

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 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 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.

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.

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 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.

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?

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. 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.

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:

“Doing away with PCSOs is something I’m looking at at the moment.”

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?

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.

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:

“We want to see real police officers doing a real job not plastic officers doing a plastic job.”

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.

I completely support the Minister’s comments on the important role that the PCSOs play in the community, which is why I regret that the Government’s original target of 24,000 had to be downgraded to 16,500. Let me start by asking the Minister about the original figure of 24,000. Now that we are at 16,500, what assessment was originally made about the need for 24,000? Why was the number downgraded, and has it had an impact on the ability of the safer neighbourhood teams to play their important role?

I echo the Minister’s points in relation to the greater visibility that has come as a result of the safer neighbourhood teams. In many communities, their role is not just stopping crimes and acting as a deterrent, but addressing the fear of crime, which, in some of our communities, is disproportionate to the actual level of crime. Having a visible uniformed presence on the streets is important, especially at appropriate times. Concerns have been expressed by members of the community about PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams patrolling the streets at 10 o’clock on a Monday morning when they would rather see them on patrol at 10 o’clock on a Friday evening. I acknowledge, however, that the whole purpose of providing community support officers was for them to operate in hours that are family friendly. There are issues, therefore, in trying to match the number of people on the ground with the peaks of criminal behaviour. None the less, PCSOs play an important role in providing reassurance, deterring crime and catching criminals.

As the Minister has said, PCSOs also help to redress the balance that perhaps does not exist in the rest of the police force, or uniformed services, in relation to ethnic minority representation. A significant component of the service is made up from minority communities and women. What one would hope to see, especially if forces are increasingly using PCSOs as the pool from which they draw police officers, is that such diversity will continue in the police service and that we will start to see issues of gender and ethnic minority balance addressed in the middle and high ranks of the police.

The fact that PCSOs draw from members of the ethnic minority communities is very significant, and there is no doubt that they have played a very important role in reducing crime in many communities. In the London borough of Sutton, criminal damage is down 36 per cent., motor theft down 29 per cent. and violence down 23 per cent. So PCSOs are having a real impact on the ground. However, there is no room for complacency. Even in the London borough of Sutton, where crime is down significantly, there is still an issue about people’s perceptions of the behaviour of young people. I am sure that all hon. Members have experience, as I have, of people asking them to do something about groups of youths hanging around on street corners. I am fortunate, in that if youths are hanging around on street corners in the London borough of Sutton, most of the time they are only doing so because they have nowhere else to go or because they just want to meet their friends on a street corner. No ill intent is involved. However, that issue of perception needs to be addressed and that is a way in which PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams play an important role.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, and they have used the words “neighbourhood” and “community” throughout their contributions. The hon. Gentleman is a London Member of Parliament, as I am. Can he tell me his definition of a community or a neighbourhood? The big failing of PCSOs within Greater London and my big concern about them is that they are not based on communities or neighbourhoods at all. They are based on electoral wards, which often have no relevance to communities or neighbourhoods; instead, they are purely related to electoral numbers. So does he agree that it is time that PCSOs were based on proper neighbourhoods and communities, rather than on administrative or electoral boundaries?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very sensible intervention, which relates to the question of what the future network of PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams will look like. The ward-based structure is positive, in that it is a very simple structure on which to base teams. Perhaps there is scope within that structure to allow joint working by teams that are adjacent to each other, so that they can address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised about the importance of ensuring that they represent real communities. For instance, some of the St. Helier estate is in my constituency, some of it is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) and some of it is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). There is no reason why the safer neighbourhood teams on that estate cannot work more closely together if an antisocial behaviour issue on the estate crosses ward boundaries.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is now addressing that point. Although I wholeheartedly endorse the value of PCSOs, the worst problem about them in London is that, because of a bureaucratic mentality, they are based on ward boundaries, which is complete nonsense. In my constituency, there are communities where one side of the road is in one ward, the other side of the road is in another ward and the PCSOs will not cross the road. If we are to make PCSOs work effectively, we must look at proper communities and neighbourhoods and base the PCSOs on those communities, rather than using ward boundaries, which the hon. Gentleman suggested was an easy way of doing such things. I am afraid that using ward boundaries is an ineffective way of policing London.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, if he is proposing a totally flexible model for PCSOs, he has to consider how he would respond to his constituents from a low-crime ward. One area in his constituency might require a substantial number of officers to address crime, whereas it could be argued, based on the crime statistics, that another area requires a very low level of cover. He would then need to respond to the concerns of his constituents from what are perhaps the leafier patches of his constituency, which have low crime levels, and explain why under his model they would, presumably, see far fewer officers on the ground. Therefore, the perception or fear of crime would not be addressed, because officers would be moved from those areas with less crime to somewhere else within the constituency. That would be a political issue for him to address.

I want to move on to the lack of facilities for young people, which leads them to hang around on street corners. I hope that the Minister, or one of his officials, can give us an update on what has happened to dormant bank accounts. A couple of years ago, the Government proposed to use the funds that were left in dormant bank accounts, which were estimated by some analysts to be as much as £2 billion. They were dormant perhaps because someone had died, or had left a bank account with a small amount of money in it that nobody knew about, or had had an account 20 years before and had forgotten about it, or had lost the bank book, and so on. As a result, money was sitting in those dormant accounts that nobody knew what to do with. The Government’s response was that they would use it to invest in youth services. I have watched with interest for announcements about that money, but it has been difficult to identify precisely where it has been used to provide the youth services that would give young people something positive that they can engage with.

I shall move on to another issue. The Government announced some additional funds to tackle antisocial behaviour, and I am pleased that my local authority benefited to the tune of £44,000. I understand that the authority has submitted to the Government the minimum standards that it would adopt to tackle antisocial behaviour, as it was required to do. In my view, however, the authority already has one of the most effective structures in place, which is the Safer Sutton partnership. As a result of that scheme, a single person was appointed to manage both the police teams that deal with antisocial behaviour and anyone working within the local authority who had a similar role. The first person who was appointed happened to be a police officer, but someone from the local authority or, indeed, someone from outside the authority could have been appointed instead. The scheme has been highly commended, including in a recent report on preventing crime by the Home Affairs Committee, of which you, Mrs. Dean, are a member. In that report, the Safer Sutton partnership is mentioned, as is the Sutton Life Centre, which is also trying to address some of these issues about young people and occasional bad behaviour.

Clearly, such a debate lends itself to Members making references to the activities of PCSOs and safer neighbourhood teams in their constituencies; the Minister himself did quite a lot of that in his opening remarks, and he also referred to the officers and teams in constituencies that he had visited. Consequently, I will take this opportunity to congratulate some of the safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency, although I think that I will only manage to mention six out of the nine teams. I believe that the longest speech that I have ever made in Parliament is 20 minutes, but I could extend that record to a couple of hours in the time that is still available for this debate, to cover all of the safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency.

I will start by commending the Carshalton South and Clockhouse team for the work that it has done in tackling an issue related to drugs. What surprised me most about the Safer Neighbourhood teams when they were first introduced was that they provided intelligence that I had thought the police had always had, regarding what was happening on the ground and the people who had to be watched most carefully in any area. It seems that before the safer neighbourhood teams were introduced a lot of that intelligence was lost; it simply was not there. Presumably, there were not enough officers on the ground to gather it or officers were patrolling in cars, and as a result that intelligence was hard to come by. Now, with the safer neighbourhood teams, the police can pick up some really local information about activities that we do not want to see people pursuing. I imagine that many of the cannabis farms that are being discovered all over the country are probably being discovered as a result of information that has been provided to the safer neighbourhood teams.

I would like to put on the record a comment that relates to the Wrythe safer neighbourhood team, and I hope that representatives of BP will read the report of this debate. Big companies, such as BP, may have significant issues related to crime. For example, customers drive out of BP petrol stations without paying, or people come into petrol stations and shoplift. Those big companies should take the appropriate action to tackle those issues, rather than tying down the local safer neighbourhood team for hour after hour in trying to address those issues.

We have a really big issue in Wrythe, where the BP garage, which is right next to my constituency office, has a significant number of drive-outs. Unfortunately, the safer neighbourhood team spends a huge percentage of its time trying to address the problem of security measures there, which would be better addressed by BP. Local people do not want their safer neighbourhood team to be allocated almost permanently to sorting out the problems associated with one petrol station. That is something to watch.

The Wallington South safer neighbourhood team plays a really important role in the afternoons in addressing people’s fear of crime and their perception of young people’s activities. When schoolchildren come out of school and congregate in their hundreds by local bus stops, the team polices things and makes sure that people—whether the schoolchildren, or those who are walking down the pavement or travelling on the buses—get where they are going smoothly.

The Beddington South safer neighbourhood team played a really important role in working with the local community to ensure that a shop called Your High, which sold drugs paraphernalia, eventually closed of its own volition. The team played an important role in explaining to local residents the law on shops selling drugs paraphernalia. I do not know whether the Minister can give us an update on that, but the Government have been looking at the issue to find a way of ensuring that shops are not allowed openly to sell products whose only purpose is the illegal consumption of drugs. The shop happened to open around the corner from a local primary school, and that was not positively received by parents, as hon. Members can imagine. The children were being told by the school that taking drugs was bad, but they could walk round the corner and see a huge picture of a cannabis leaf in the window of a shop selling people drugs paraphernalia so that they could consume cannabis.

The hon. Member for Romford was yawning a few seconds ago. He was perhaps worried that I was going to run through all nine wards, so he will be pleased to hear that I have nearly finished. First, however, I want to mention the St. Helier neighbourhood team. The additional uniformed presence that is now available means that safer neighbourhood team officers and community support officers can attend residents’ meetings to hear about problems in the vicinity directly from residents’ associations and tenants’ associations, and they can then help to address some of those problems.

One thing that the Minister did not mention, unless he did so in passing and my thoughts were elsewhere, was the important role that transport safer neighbourhood schemes play, certainly in a London context, in addressing some of the rowdier behaviour on some of our buses. Such teams are an important addition to the uniformed officers patrolling our public transport system.

In the last couple of minutes, I want to come to the challenges. There is an issue about maintaining the numbers of PCSOs, and I can put on record the fact that the Liberal Democrats are committed to maintaining them. As the Minister will know, we are also committed to increasing the number of police officers by 3,000, although I do not want to overplay the issue of police numbers, because senior police officers think that politicians play the numbers game all too often in a way that is not particularly relevant to policing. However, in terms of visibility, deterring crime and reassuring people on the streets, the number of uniformed officers is significant. The Minister referred to police numbers in London, which are potentially worrying. Depending on whom we believe, the number of officers could go down by between 500 and 100, as a result of the Mayor’s proposals, so that will be an issue to watch carefully.

The Minister may be aware that the Metropolitan police are looking at reducing the cost of recruitment by increasingly recruiting new officers from among special constables and community support officers. As the Minister will be aware, the reasoning is that although recruiting special constables involves training costs, the salary costs are not there. Similarly, community support officers are already being paid in a particular role, and the training costs will be reduced if they start training while drawing a salary. What assessment has the Minister made of those changes? Are they likely, for instance, to restrict applications from a certain group? If the Metropolitan police draw recruits from among special constables, people will be required to be available to play that role in their spare time. If they recruit from among community support officers, they will be drawing on people who are already employed in a particular role.

One concern that I hope the Minister will be able to address relates to overtime and the challenge of deploying community support officers. Again, this may be a London-specific issue. Previously, London forces received from the Metropolitan Police Authority a sum that they were able to use for overtime purposes. If they wanted to undertake a task, or if they required lots of additional officers to police events on a busy bank holiday weekend, they could draw on that budget and use the money for overtime. The MPA has said that forces can no longer do that, and I understand that that is the result of press coverage a few weeks ago about police officers allegedly getting significant payments for taking phone calls when they were working overtime, although the accuracy of those reports may not be what it seems. However, the MPA has responded by saying that the funds cannot be used for overtime, and that will have a significant impact on the ability of police forces across London to task events where they need an extra bit of capacity. As the Minister will know, overtime is a much cheaper way of providing additional resources over a short period than recruiting full-time officers to build capacity into the system without the need to rely on overtime.

The Minister mentioned training. Additional training is being considered for community support officers, but is there scope for, or has consideration been given to, additional youth training? Safer neighbourhood teams and community support officers have an important role in engaging with young people who are perhaps more disconnected from the community. Training may be required to enable officers to do that, and my party would certainly support proposals to introduce it.

The Minister mentioned the issue of permanence, which he is investigating. Whether communities are ward-based or neighbourhood-based, they like to have a permanent officer or a permanent team. They like to see the same people patrolling their streets, and they like to get to know them. They like officers to establish a relationship with local community groups and businesses. In the past, however, there have been issues about permanently allocating officers to particular patches. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view of changes that were made to ensure that officers were not permanently associated with a particular area, following concerns about links being established with perhaps less positive members of the community. I would like to hear from the Minister whether that has been taken into account in his proposals and, if it has, how it will be addressed.

I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. I reiterate that I agree with the Minister in his support for community support officers and about their important role in dealing with crime, deterring criminals, increasing police visibility and providing reassurance to our communities. As I have already said, we are fully committed to maintaining numbers and, indeed, boosting the number of police officers. I shall listen with as great an interest as the Minister will to the official Opposition’s response on whether they can make the same commitment as the Liberal Democrats and the Government.

I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject, and I thank the Minister and the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for their comments. I would of course expect the Minister to pay tribute to the work of police community support officers, and I repeat his tributes. Later I shall give some examples of the difference that PCSOs have made to the communities they represent.

There seems to be a coalition between the Government and the Liberal Democrats on this subject; they seem to agree entirely. I, on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, also agree that PCSOs have a role to play, and we support the valuable work they do in communities, but—unlike the Liberals and the Government, it seems—the Conservative party will not give a blank cheque or refuse to consider how best to use the resources we have for crime fighting in our communities. That may mean that more community support officers will be required, but it may also mean that in some areas there will be fewer of them, and more fully trained police officers. We believe that it is down to the local police chief—the chief constable or in the case of London boroughs the borough commanders—to make those decisions, based on the needs of the local community.

In the event of the hon. Gentleman’s party winning the election, which I would call a presumption rather than a fact, would he ring-fence the budget for 2010-11 for police community support officers?

As the Minister knows, I am not the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and I do not decide budgets and funding arrangements. That is something that only an incoming Government can decide, once we have examined the state of the financial situation we will inherit. From all accounts, based on yesterday’s Budget and the general economic situation, we can see that there are no easy decisions to be made about spending by a future Conservative Government. However, I assure the Minister that when it comes to fighting crime, looking after the community and making the streets safe, a Conservative Government would of course do everything possible to ensure that funding was available to make the streets safe for the people we represent.

I am not sure whether that is good enough. We need to know, for example, whether, in the event of the hon. Gentleman’s holding my position, the 2010-11 budget, which has already been approved by the House of Commons and ring-fenced for police community support officers, would be un-ring-fenced for next year—never mind subsequent years.

As the Minister knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) is the shadow police Minister. He, unfortunately, cannot be here today, so I, the shadow animal welfare Minister, am replying on his behalf. If the Minister wants to direct his questions to my hon. Friend, he might be able to answer better than I can, but I do not think that any shadow Ministers can make funding commitments at this stage.

I think that what the hon. Gentleman is saying, in a roundabout way, is that no, he cannot give that guarantee.

No, I am saying that we are not prepared to be rigid about such things at this stage. We do not know what we shall inherit on 7 May. We do not know what the situation will be. The Minister painted a wonderful picture of PCSOs and I agree almost entirely with what he has been saying, but we should not close our eyes to the need to examine areas where there are problems, and to consider where we can improve. That includes looking at resources and how best to spend them. As I said a moment ago, I do not believe that we are best placed to make those decisions. It is down to the local police, the borough commanders and the chief constable to make the decisions that they know will be best for their communities.

I will not, therefore, give funding commitments today. However, I will say that a Conservative Government will of course put crime fighting at the top of the agenda, unlike what we have seen of the Labour Government, under whom cuts were made. My constituency has suffered from that, losing a local police station in the early days of the Labour Government. That was long before Boris was Mayor of London, in case the Minister is thinking of mentioning that; regrettably, the Collier Row police station in the north of my constituency was closed, despite a campaign by the then Labour MP who unfortunately failed to persuade her colleagues of the need to keep it open.

Today we have excellent PCSOs who deal with both the Havering Park and Mawneys wards. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington will probably use much of the speech he made today in the next edition of the Liberal Democrat Focus. That is probably why I was yawning—I was thinking about reading it. However, people in my constituency are not confident that crime is being dealt with effectively under the Labour Government, or that a borough such as mine, Havering, in outer London, is treated fairly in funding. We do not get the police cover we need. We value our PCSOs, and they do an excellent job, but they can be better. We need to work with them to give them greater powers and more consistency in what they do, and to ensure that we use resources to best effect.

I want to give two examples of what I mean. I spoke earlier about PCSOs being based on electoral wards. Perhaps the Minister can tell me on what logical basis that is the right boundary for dealing with policing. There is no sense in it. Unfortunately, we are in a bureaucratic mentality, in which we think, “Let’s base PCSOs on a ward boundary and ignore the realities on the ground, and the fact that boundaries go through roads, estates and communities to make equal electoral numbers in the wards.” That is not logical and it is ineffective policing.

Collier Row in the north of my constituency is divided into three wards. There are PCSOs for one side of the road and a different group for the other side of the road, in the same shopping centre. That is complete nonsense and is not an effective use of resources. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington rightly pointed out that if the allocation were based on proper neighbourhoods and communities there would be pressures to do with positioning, because of the difference in crime statistics for different parts of the constituency. That would inevitably be so, just as it is at the moment. I am sure that Sutton and Cheam and Romford have far fewer police per head than Hackney, Newham and inner-London areas.

In some respects that process goes too far. Outer-London boroughs need more policing, but where crime rates are higher, police resources will inevitably be used more than in the leafy suburbs. Also, if PCSO boundaries were based on communities and neighbourhoods and not on electoral wards there would, indeed, be some large and some small communities, and therefore fewer PCSOs in one area than another. However, all those matters should be decided locally. Allocations should be flexible and based on what is right for the community in question, rather than on some bureaucratic template that does not result in policing to the best effect on the ground.

The Minister referred to my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). The Conservative party and the shadow Home Secretary have made it clear that we, as the party of law and order, will always ensure that the police, whether they are fully trained police officers or community support officers, will be given the full support of any incoming Conservative Government. What neither the shadow Home Secretary nor I can do is look at the issue with the eyes of those who have already been in government. The Minister has that privilege at the moment, although things might change in a few weeks’ time. When that happens, we will be able to respond to the issues from the position of being in government, but we cannot do so today.

The hon. Gentleman must address the fact that when his party was last in government, crime doubled and the number of officers fell. That is why people are entitled to know exactly what his party proposes to do about funding. The Conservatives have said that they will ring-fence some spending for some Departments but not for others. People reading this debate will want to know whether the hon. Gentleman’s party is considering a 17 to 20 per cent. cut per Department to budgets that have not been ring-fenced.

No party, let alone the Liberal Democrats, can say at this stage what will happen in the event that any of us are in government after the election. Of course we all understand the need to get the public finances back in order. They are in a disastrous state today; £1 of every £4 that the Government spend is borrowed. We cannot go on like that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has made clear, an incoming Conservative Government will seek to restore fiscal responsibility in public expenditure and get the economy back on the right track. We can argue for the rest of this debate about what cuts might or might not be made, whether the next Government are Labour, Conservative, Labour-Liberal Democrat or Conservative-Liberal Democrat.

Or any possible combination of parties. We can argue all day about it, but none of us can honestly state what the situation will be after the election. We all have to consider what we must do and what the right decisions are, based on the needs of the communities concerned balanced with the importance of getting the public finances back in good order.

What the hon. Gentleman is really saying is that the Conservative party proposal for the next election is, “Vote for the Conservative party for change, but we can’t actually tell you what we’re going to do if elected on 7 May.” Is that his prospectus?

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the Liberal Democrats would do? How can he possibly predict what tough decisions they would face? Not that they will be in that position; they have not been in such a position for many decades. But if we woke up on 7 May and found that we had a Liberal Democrat Government, they would face the same dilemmas as an incoming Conservative Government or a re-elected Labour Government.

We can all make party political points about what we might cut or keep, but we know that the real, hard decisions were not announced yesterday in the Budget. They have been put off. The real decisions about public expenditure—there is no doubt that we are in a dire position—will have to be considered properly in a later Budget after the general election is done and dusted.

The safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy was launched by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and signed by four Ministers, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde, the Conservative chair of the Association of Police Authorities and the Minister for Social Justice in the Welsh Assembly. The strategy makes the commitment that I outlined in my speech to the House this afternoon. Will the hon. Gentleman support its implementation in the event that he comes into government, or will he scrap it?

The fact that the strategy has been signed by lots of Labour politicians does not mean that I can say that I will follow it to the letter if I am in the Minister’s position in a few weeks’ time. I cannot give such commitments at this stage; it would be irresponsible to do so. We can confirm that we support the principle of PCSOs and the necessary funding for them, but we cannot discuss the level or the implementation in any great detail today.

I am being honest with the Minister. I think he is trying to hook me in a political sense, but that will not work. My party is being up front with the British people. We are not giving commitments about public expenditure that cannot be made until we have examined how bad the economic and public spending situation is after the election.

Does the hon. Gentleman then refute the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell? His hon. Friend said:

“Doing away with PCSOs is something I’m looking at at the moment.”

Is that not true?

I do not know in what context that remark was made. I would have to consult my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell to find out. Maybe he was thinking of upgrading PCSOs; I do not know. I cannot speak for him. He is not here today. If he were, I am sure that he would be only too pleased to clarify his remarks.

I can only reaffirm to the Minister that the Conservative party believes that PCSOs play a valuable role. We support the work they do and we want to enhance their role within local communities. We are all constituency Members of Parliament. We have all come into contact with PCSOs and worked with them on a local level in our communities, wards or whatever they are called. We believe that they are doing a good job.

Let us not fall out over the principles. I cannot predict how they will be carried forward in the coming years as we face difficult economic choices, but I hope that whoever forms the next Government will continue to value PCSOs and work to allocate sufficient funding to maintain numbers.

The Minister obviously takes great pride in the fact that his Government created PCSOs, but according to my statistics, they promised 28,000 of them in 2004. That has not happened. We have only 16,000. They initially promised 28,000 PCSOs by 2008, but then they cut the figure to 16,000. The Government have not exactly followed through on their commitments on that issue. It highlights the fact that a Government cannot always predict circumstances—how things will change or what funding will be available.

As the Minister said in the Chamber on Monday during Home Affairs questions, things change. I think that was his answer to one of his own Back Benchers. Things will inevitably change after the election, whoever is in power. The difference is that my party is being rather honest with the British people, whereas the Government are covering up the economic catastrophe that our nation faces and that only an incoming Conservative Government will be able to address properly.

There are many examples—I will refer to one or two in a moment—of PCSOs who have proved to local communities how worthy they are. We can all think of examples from our constituencies, but I will give a few examples from elsewhere to prove that it is not a local thing. We are grateful to the local PCSOs whom we know particularly, but there are examples further afield.

PCSO Paul Tunnard chased a vandal who had deliberately damaged a patrol vehicle. Paul and his colleague were away from their vehicle in Leeds—a long way from my constituency—talking to members of the community when they noticed that someone had attacked a police van. They looked around and rapidly spotted a suspect escaping. PCSO Tunnard commandeered a bike from one of the young people to whom he had been talking and set off in pursuit. He then grabbed the 17-year-old and arrested him on suspicion of causing damage to the motor vehicle.

In another example, PCSO Nick Hammill was on routine patrol at Leeds bus station when he was approached by a woman concerned about a man who was behaving strangely and aggressively towards members of the public. Nick approached the man and held one of his arms. While he was attempting to detain him, the man pulled a large kitchen knife from the waistband of his trousers with his other arm and held it above his head. With assistance from passers-by, Nick bravely managed to disarm the assailant.

Another example is Mark Fitzgerald from south Salford, who won the PCSO of the year award at the Salford division excellence awards. He helped to set up home watch schemes and delivered hundreds of letters to residents containing tips on how to keep property safe. He also talked to them on a personal level and included messages on the electronic public display board. Thanks to Mark’s efforts and the fact that the residents took his advice, the number of domestic burglaries between October 2009 and January 2010 was lower than in the same period the year before.

A common antisocial blight on our communities is dog mess. Recently, Jeffrey Griggs from Hodge Lea in Buckinghamshire was convicted for the second time in three months of letting his dogs foul in an open place. His dogs were spotted on a grassy area by the local PCSO, who slapped a £50 fixed penalty on the repeat offender when he made no attempt to clean up the mess. Griggs did not pay the fine and was brought before the magistrates in Milton Keynes, where he admitted the offence and was fined £100. The magistrates also ordered him to pay £200 in costs to the council. That is a simple but effective way in which PCSOs have made a difference in our communities. We can all think of examples from our constituencies and I will not reel off more, but we all value the work of our PCSOs.

I believe firmly that we should continue with PCSOs and that policing should be community-based. People should be able to identify and get to know the local PCSOs in their neighbourhood, and should feel confident and safe in approaching them and involving them in the activities and events of the local community. Only then can PCSOs be used to best effect.

I say to the Minister that we need to keep PCSOs, but that we need to reform the system. First, they should be given proper uniforms, and I am pleased that he said that in his speech. Uniform is important because if it does not command people’s respect, it does not do the job that it needs to do. It is vital to bring in a proper uniform that people recognise and respect.

Secondly, we must ensure that resources are used effectively. I ask the Minister to consider one particular issue. The Collier Row police station in my constituency, to which I referred, is still owned by the Metropolitan police, but it seems to be an empty building or at the least used as an office. It is no longer open to the public and has lain empty for 10 years since it was closed. However, the Met has opened a little shop, or room, in the area for PCSOs. Such rooms have popped up all over the place. They are not open to the public, but are places where PCSOs go to carry out administrative work or have a cup of tea. Is it worth spending money on such local bases, or could resources be used to better effect elsewhere?

I believe that PCSOs should be based on communities, not ward boundaries. I hope that the Minister will consider that at national level. It is no good spending money on PCSOs and working to fight crime when the system prevents crime from being fought effectively because of such boundaries. I believe that is happening because PCSOs are based on electoral boundaries, rather than on communities.

Hon. Members present are from different parties, but we all believe in upholding the rule of law, to ensure that the streets are safe for our constituents and that criminals, yobs and those who make our communities unsafe are tackled. To do those things, we must use the limited finance available to us to best effect. The Conservative party believes in the principle of localism. We want to give the local police, the local authority and the local community power over what goes on, not for it to be prescribed by central Government. I assure you, Mrs. Dean, and the Minister that should there be a new Conservative Government on 7 May, this country will have a Government who believe in and uphold the rule of law, and who will give the support that is needed to ensure that the public are protected and that crime is fought.

With the leave of the House, Mrs. Dean, I shall respond briefly to the debate.

This has been a useful debate. Although there have been only a few speakers, it has shed light on the approaches of the different political parties to the future of police community support officers. I am grateful for the contributions of both Front-Bench spokesmen and for the interventions of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) from the Back Bench.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and I value police community support officers and believe that they strengthen confidence, help to tackle crime and should be supported. I welcome his commitment on that. He mentioned several issues that I hope I can help him with. First, he spoke of incentivisation to ensure that officers stay in a particular place and maintain links with the community, which is extremely important. Paragraph 1.15 of the safe and confident neighbourhoods strategy states that we will look at developing a scheme to incentivise officers, including PCSOs, to stay in their communities. We are currently working through that.

In case the Minister misunderstood my point, I was saying that the system of officers being allocated to a post in a particular station for many years changed because there were issues of corruption and of officers establishing inappropriate relationships with local families. Has he taken that potential problem into account and how does he see it being tackled?

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.

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:

“Doing away with PCSOs is something I’m looking at at the moment”.

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.

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.

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.

Sitting adjourned.