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Police Community Support Officers

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to talk about police community support officers and their powers. PCSOs are an extremely successful product of the previous Labour Government. As a natural progression from provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, they are an effective part of community beat teams across England and Wales. I am proud to say that I served on the Standing Committee that scrutinised the Bill that became the Police Reform Act 2002, which introduced PCSOs.

Offa community council in Wrexham—a community council in Wales is the equivalent of a parish council in England— is an active local council that works hard to address local neighbourhood concerns in a part of Wrexham that is partly residential and partly commercial. The council works closely with its local police community beat team and PCSOs. One of the local PCSOs attended a monthly community council meeting last year at which she explained that she attended the local Victoria primary school at key times when parents dropped off their children in the morning and picked them up in the evening. While she was doing that, some of the parents—I emphasise that it was a minority—were parking on zig-zag lines outside the school and on double-yellow lines in the area. That is a problem across the country with which we are all familiar, but in the context of a primary school with young children, it is a big worry that parents and teachers have to deal with.

The PCSO told the community council that she had asked parents who were flouting traffic regulations to move, because they were causing a danger to children. Everyone, of course, would be fearful that an accident might occur and that someone would be seriously injured. Most parents complied with the PCSO’s wishes, but several refused. She heard one of the drivers comment, “There is nothing they can do about it. They are only police community support officers.”

In preparation for this debate, having been fortunate enough that it was drawn in the ballot, I attended the school last Thursday afternoon to see the situation on the ground. The area was very busy, and some cars were parked dangerously. Young children were moving precariously among traffic, as children of primary age do. In such circumstances, the existing law unfortunately says that even though a PCSO may make the judgment that some vehicles are causing a danger to children in the community, they cannot take appropriate legal steps to deal with the situation.

Chief constables can designate PCSOs as having various powers, as specified in part 1 of schedule 4 to the Police Reform Act. However, PCSOs do not currently have the power to prevent dangerous parking or parking that causes an obstruction. As far as I am aware, and I am grateful for the Library’s assistance on this point, primary legislation would be required to allow them to exercise such a power. Such provision would address a community danger that has been identified on the ground by a local PCSO who wants to do her best to resolve the difficulty but, as the law currently stands, cannot do so.

I am pleased that the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice will be responding to the debate, because I have written to him about the situation. I am sure that his assiduous civil servants will have dug out the file. I was not expecting him to be present, but it is good that he is. I had suggested, at the instigation of the community council, that the Government might consider amending the law to allow PCSOs to deal with such problems by giving them the powers so to do. Unfortunately, the Minister’s reply last November stated:

“the principal role for PCSOs is part of neighbourhood policing teams, connecting and engaging with their local community, as opposed to managing parking restrictions which is a matter for the Local Authority.”

I was very disappointed with that reply, and I was even more disappointed that the local community council and PCSO, both of whom wanted to try to resolve a practical difficulty in their neighbourhood, were being let down by the Government’s response. Such responses give this place, and politicians generally, a bad name.

As I have explained, the case arose from a specific request that was made by an officer on the ground in response to a danger to young children. It is patently clear that the request for an additional power is neither unreasonable nor excessive. In the spirit of localism, I am content for the local chief constable to be granted a power, which he may or may not exercise, to allow PCSOs to issue tickets in such circumstances. At present, the PCSO has no power to issue a fixed penalty notice and has to call in a community beat manager—a police officer—from the town centre to take the necessary action, which is a waste of valuable police time. That deficiency can be easily remedied.

The clerk of the community council, Karen Benfield, reports to me that there is increasing reliance on PCSOs to undertake community policing. In the immediate vicinity of Wrexham, the number of community beat managers, who are police officers, is falling because of the Government’s budget cuts. The area used to have one community beat manager for each of the four wards served by Offa community council, but now there is only one community beat manager in charge of a PCSO team of five.

PCSOs in north Wales are already given the full range of discretionary powers that the chief constable can grant, which include the power to issue fixed penalty notices for disorder, truancy, graffiti, littering and dog fouling, but not for dangerous parking. Additionally, 25% of the cost of PCSOs in Wrexham is paid for by Wrexham county borough council to encourage the police and the local authority to work together to address the needs of the local community. PCSOs are seen to be working closely with the local authority to address all sorts of community issues, and dangerous parking is clearly a community issue that is upsetting the local community council.

The community council does not want PCSOs to take on the role of traffic wardens. It is as anxious as anyone to ensure that PCSOs carry out their role in the community and have a balanced, discretionary approach. Parking is a matter for the local authority, but the community council wants the PCSO to have the power to act when she sees a vehicle parked in the community in a dangerous situation. At present, only police officers can deal with such situations, but that suggestion is entirely reasonable at a time when the number of police officers is being reduced because of budget cuts.

I ask the Minister to consult on allowing PCSOs to have that power, which would not be controversial. The power would be at the discretion of the chief constable, and it has been requested by a PCSO on the ground because she is worried about young children in her community. How can the Minister possibly say no?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on securing the debate. I am happy to discuss the powers of police community support officers with him and to deal with some of the issues he raised. He started with the particular and moved out to the general. In the interests of symmetry, I will start with the general and move to the particular, and end by addressing the issues at the school. As the hon. Gentleman said, he and I have corresponded on the matter. In believing that PCSOs do an important job very well, there will be not a jot of difference between us.

I will put the debate in the context of the Government’s wider police reform agenda. On entering office, the Government set the police a challenge: we asked forces to cut crime and at the same time undergo a radical programme of reform. The central objective of the reform is to re-establish the link between the police and the public, reflecting Sir Robert Peel’s principle that the police must answer to the people they serve. The reform of the crime and policing landscape is to ensure that policing is reconnected to the public and is sustainable, stronger and successful in pursuit of its core mission.

We have achieved that in a number of ways. First, we scrapped national targets, as the Government believe that policing must be responsive to local concerns. Priorities are now set by police and crime commissioners in consultation with the public who elect them. That approach is the embodiment of democratic accountability. The hon. Gentleman correctly talked about localism, which that approach embodies in that Whitehall is withdrawing from interfering in matters that should be determined locally.

Secondly, we have provided the public with better information about crime in their area. There is now clear, transparent and accessible information for the public. I am sure the hon. Gentleman has heard of police.uk, which I hope he is an avid user of. That website is a phenomenal success: it has received more than 548 million hits since its launch, equating to a daily average of more than 200,000. That demonstrates the public’s appetite to know what is happening in their communities and on their streets.

Thirdly, we have changed how forces are held to account, through police and crime commissioners. The Government have ensured that the public, not bureaucrats, are the judges of police success. The PCC will be held to account by the public for the delivery of effective policing. Alongside that, new roles for key policing partners have been carved out. In the new landscape we have legislated to make Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary more robustly independent, so that it acts directly in the public interest. The Independent Police Complaints Commission will continue to be responsible for ensuring that complaints against the police are dealt with effectively.

Hon. Members will be aware of the Home Secretary’s commitment to strengthen the IPCC’s ability to investigate serious complaints. That is a complex piece of work involving the transfer of resources from force professional standards units to the IPCC, but it will bolster the public’s confidence in the complaints system.

Lastly, the Government are supporting the professional development of police officers and staff. The College of Policing is independent of the Government and will not focus solely on supporting warranted police officers. Its remit will include setting standards for the professionalisation of all officers and staff.

The reform programme prioritises local communities. It places the public at the heart of policing. Neighbourhood policing is, therefore, a core part of the programme. Every neighbourhood in the country has a local policing team designed to work openly and in partnership with all members of their community. Every Member of this House understands the importance of ensuring that the public have a visible uniformed police presence in their community, working alongside them to identify and tackle the issues that matter to them.

The Government have supported that approach by introducing the locally elected PCCs, by ensuring that the police engage directly with their local communities through regular beat meetings, and by publishing street-level crime and antisocial behaviour information through police.uk. That focus on local accessibility, transparency, accountability and engagement will enable the public to support, and challenge, local police activity.

That brings me specifically to PCSOs. Neighbourhood policing has transformed how communities experience and relate to policing, and PCSOs are a vital component of that approach. They are now key to the public face of policing. I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that scrutinised the legislation. PCSOs were a good idea and it is now acknowledged on all sides that they are an integral part of the neighbourhood policing landscape that we want to see. They provide a valuable uniformed presence in communities. Their ability to spend time getting to know their local area means that they can understand and identify local priorities, solve local problems and low-level crime, and engage with local communities. They bring key skills, values and diversity to policing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) mentioned the powers of PCSOs and it seems that the Minister is moving towards agreement with him. My hon. Friend agrees that it is important that PCSOs are very representative of the communities they serve. Therefore, does the Minister welcome the approach of Gwent police in appointing more part-time PCSOs, allowing more women with child care responsibilities, for example, to work flexibly? That has meant that a different kind of person can become a PCSO.

I welcome that for two reasons. First, I am committed to trying to improve the diversity, not just of warranted police officers but of PCSOs. I think it was the new president of the Police Superintendents Association who made that point; the police have not moved as far as some other institutions in developing diversity and they need to do better. I am extremely supportive of practical steps to make that happen.

Secondly, the kind of local initiative that the hon. Lady describes is precisely what I want to see. I do not want to sit here—nor have any other policing Minister—dictating to different forces around the country what their priorities must be. Initiatives that come from the bottom up through the forces themselves at the behest of the PCCs will be the best way to ensure that each force is responsive to the local needs of its community. I am happy to welcome that initiative of the Gwent police. I had a good visit there a few months ago, seeing what they were doing to engage with the community in Newport. It is clearly an innovative force.

Providing visibility on the streets is also a key strength of the role of PCSOs. According to the results of the recent crime survey for England and Wales, over half of all adults say that they see the police or PCSOs on foot patrol in their local area at least every month. There are some very inspiring stories of what individual PCSOs are doing to engage with and respond to the individual needs of their communities.

In the Isles of Scilly, PCSO Bev Faull has been awarded a citation for her work with migrant workers. For the past three years, she has focused on helping the county’s eastern European migrants, effectively planning and running multi-agency operations to tackle exploitation of workers in west Cornwall.

In Shinfield, near Reading in Berkshire, Suzie Carr was awarded Thames Valley’s PCSO of the year, in recognition of the excellent community relationships she built while launching her “Wrong place, wrong time” youth project. It is interesting to note that the award scheme is by public vote, so she was praised by the local residents of the community in which she patrols for the positive impact of her work.

I have one final example from Solihull. Riccardo Gambino was named the region’s PCSO of the year for setting up 13 neighbourhood watch schemes during 2012. What is interesting about Mr Gambino is that he was a police officer for 11 years but gave up his warrant to become a PCSO because he thought that he could better serve his community as a PCSO, specifically because what was most important to him was the emphasis on engagement.

Those are three very good examples of the work undertaken by PCSOs. As of September 2012, there were nearly 14,500 PCSOs, and I am confident that each of them is taking positive steps to engage with their community, having an impact on people’s lives. It is a back-to-roots role, unique within the police service for its emphasis on accessibility and engagement, acting as a complement to, not a replacement for, the enforcement role of sworn warranted officers. That gets to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s point, because we are determined to maintain the difference of the role.

Of course, there might well be changes and there have been changes in the past. We believe strongly in delegating local funding decisions, for example, to PCCs, which is why the neighbourhood policing fund, which historically funded such officers, is subsumed into the police main grant from next month. It will then be for police and crime commissioners, in consultation with individual chief constables, to take decisions on resourcing and deployment of PCSOs based on local assessments of need and risk. That is right, and I anticipate that this will make forces even more responsive to local concerns and priorities.

The Minister says that it will be up to police and crime commissioners to make decisions about the needs of their communities. Will he pay tribute to the Kent police and crime commissioner, Ann Barnes, who is increasing PCSOs by 60 as well as having an extra 20 police constables on the streets of Kent?

As a fellow Kent MP, I am delighted that we will have more PCSOs and police officers on the streets of Kent in the coming years. I am happy to join my hon. Friend in his remarks.

I will now move on to the powers available to PCSOs, which are, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said, set out in the Police Reform Act 2002. All PCSOs are issued with 20 standard powers that enable them to deal with antisocial and nuisance behaviour in neighbourhoods. In addition, there is a list of discretionary powers that can be designated to PCSOs by chief constables in response to local requirements. The discretionary nature of the additional powers is important and goes to the heart of the notion of neighbourhood policing, which, at its core, is to ensure that policing responds to the needs of local communities. Discretionary powers ensure that PCSOs are flexible, as they bestow on chief constables the authority to take the necessary steps to ensure that their PCSOs are suitably empowered to deal with the issues that are of most concern to local residents. The Government believe that these limited and flexible powers are one of the key strengths of PCSOs, providing them with the time and space necessary to get to know their local area and actively to engage and build relationships with communities.

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that the powers available to PCSOs remain under constant review, and we are always willing to look at ideas, but we need to ensure we strike the right balance and do not overburden them. The Government welcome consideration of revisions to the powers where it is clear that they will enhance, rather than undermine, this important role. The draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, for example, proposes the introduction of a new dispersal power for PCSOs. That will replace two existing powers and will allow uniformed police officers and PCSOs to direct a person who has committed, or is likely to commit, antisocial behaviour to leave a specified area and not return for a specified period of up to 48 hours.

We must be cautious not to overburden PCSOs with powers that could introduce bureaucracy to the role, taking them away from providing the visible presence on the streets that we want. Extending the scope of existing PCSO powers could introduce to the role an unwelcome element of confrontation that is associated with the power of arrest and is outside the PCSO’s unique role. Many, in fact, see the power of arrest as a last—not a first—resort, preferring instead to focus on being proactive and preventive. Therefore, we need to ensure that we give full consideration to the issues around extending PCSO powers.

That lies at the heart of what might fall between the hon. Member for Wrexham and me. He quoted selectively from part of the letter that I wrote to him last November, so it falls to me to read the rest of it. He is right that I said that

“the principal role for PCSOs is as part of neighbourhood policing teams, connecting and engaging with their local community, as opposed to managing parking restrictions which is a matter for the Local Authority.”

He generously acknowledged that that is indeed the role of the local authority. I continued by saying that extending PCSO powers risks undermining that central role. From the letter he wrote on its behalf, I appreciate that Offa community council would want that power, but I said in my letter that that

“may not be true for all communities and legislating for such a change at a national level would not necessarily be uncontroversial.”

I accept that the move would not necessarily be uncontroversial, but I was clear about ensuring that it was a discretionary power that would be given to the chief constable. Will the Minister accept, therefore, that it is entirely appropriate for the Government to consult on whether to do that?

As I said, we published the draft Anti-Social Behaviour Bill. I know that antisocial behaviour is a term of art, but I am sure that parking dangerously outside a school can be regarded, certainly in non-legal terms, as antisocial behaviour, so the community council may want to contribute to the debate on that. The hon. Gentleman has already said that the extension of PCSO powers would require primary legislation, so, by definition, there will be no quick fix. He said that not having national legislation on this matter is the sort of thing that brings politics into disrepute, but I beg to differ. What brings politics into disrepute is insisting that every problem has to have a national legislative solution. This is clearly a local problem, although one that I dare say is replicated in various parts of each of our constituencies. Each local solution will be different.

Does the Minister agree that being confronted by someone who has powers and then finding that someone in a similar uniform does not have powers elsewhere is confusing for motorists? That could lead to unpleasant situations with motorists being unnecessarily rude. There is no excuse for rudeness, but it will be more confusing. People should never do the wrong thing in the first place, but we do not want to set up confrontation.

That is a fair point. There is clearly a balance to be struck between national and local powers, but we hold PCSOs in high regard precisely because they might well have different powers in different areas. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that people—motorists in this case—behaving in an antisocial way lies at the root of all this.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Let me make a specific point about the situation that the hon. Member for Wrexham described at the start of the debate, and then conclude with a general point. Pondering it in our interregnum, it occurred to me that of all the parking issues, parking outside schools is probably the easiest to solve. It is overwhelmingly likely to involve parents, so if the PCSO turned up with a traffic warden or police officer and ticketed everyone, they probably would not do it again. If they turned up twice over the course of a couple of weeks, they certainly would not do it again. Therefore, it is a prime example of where we can use the PCSO’s power and detailed local knowledge to bring to bear the forces of law and order in a way that would prevent future crime. As I said, that would be a good example of how to use the specific virtues of PCSOs, with the powers that they have, and also, their ability to relate to local conditions.

We continue to look for opportunities to enable PCSOs to be used to their full potential.

Does the Minister not see that he is preventing a local solution that all parties want to implement in this particular case?

I do not think that I am. The solution that I have just suggested could be operated tomorrow, whereas the hon. Gentleman’s solution is to have primary legislation, which he knows would take months or years, and might well be opposed by many people around the country. There would also be practical issues if, as the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)said, people got violent. A PCSO does not have powers of arrest, so in such a situation, it would not be suitable for a PCSO to become engaged.

Often, we should look for the simplest, most practical solutions, but the overall PCSO role reflects a core aim of the Government’s police reform programme—that of reconnecting policing with the public—and I am confident that the value of PCSOs will continue to be recognised by PCCs, chief constables, and most of all, by the public, because they do an enormously good job in all our local communities.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.