Skip to main content

Police Reform Act 2002 (Standard Powers and Duties of Community Support Officers) Order 2007

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

rose to move that the draft order laid before the House on 8 October be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order before your Lordships’ House introduces a list of standard powers for police community support officers and has already been approved in another place. The order will take effect from 1 December this year and all chief officers of police in England and Wales will be required to ensure that PCSOs are suitable, trained and competent in these areas.

The Secretary of State is able to introduce, by order, standard powers and duties for PCSOs but is required, first, to consult the Association of Chief Police Officers, ACPO, and the Association of Police Authorities, the APA. I am sure that noble Lords will be pleased to note that, given the interest in this subject, we decided to extend the statutory consultation to include also the Police Superintendents’ Association, the Police Federation, UNISON, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association. Noble Lords will also notice that the list of powers included in the order reflects the views expressed during the passage of the Police and Justice Bill.

We listened to the comments and, in considering the final list of powers to be included, sought to strike an appropriate balance between the need to maintain the largely non-confrontational, community-engagement role of the PCSO and the need to ensure that all PCSOs are provided with a robust set of powers that will enable them to contribute most effectively to neighbourhood policing and deal with low-level disorder and anti-social behaviour.

I am aware that, during debate on the Police and Justice Bill on this subject, some Members of the Opposition were concerned about the centre directing and governing the activity of the police. I stress that operational decisions about the deployment of PCSOs must, rightly, be left in the hands of chief police officers. However, there has been clear support from both ACPO and the APA for the introduction of a standard set of powers for PCSOs. They have been concerned about how the disparity in the extent to which PCSOs are designated with powers from force to force has lead to public confusion over their powers and role.

There is support for standard powers, and noble Lords will be reassured to know that the statutory consultation that took place earlier this year showed that there is also a consensus on the content of the list of standard powers.

The consensus around what powers are appropriate is also reflected in the extent to which most forces are already using the powers included in the standard list. The audit of powers designated by force, which was completed by the Home Office and ACPO and published on the Home Office PCSO web page in May this year, showed that, at that stage, 10 of the 20 powers proposed as standard are already designated in over 85 per cent of forces and that a further five powers are designated in over 70 per cent of forces. In fact, more than a third of forces already designate all the powers on the standard list to some or all of their PCSOs. Significantly, those 15 forces represent more than half the strength of PCSO numbers in England and Wales.

We are pleased with the extent to which forces have already introduced the powers included on the standard list. However, this order will ensure that the public can be confident that all PCSOs in their area are appropriately empowered to deal with issues that have a detrimental impact on the safety and security of their communities.

The value of PCSOs is found not just in their ability to deal with issues on the street; a key element of their role is in providing visible reassurance and a familiar face that understands the concerns of communities. They act as the eyes and ears of the police service in the heart of our communities, and that vital role should not be underestimated. The fact that the PCSO is attracting a broader representation of our society in terms of age, race and gender is also very welcome, and it has no doubt helped police community support officers to win the confidence of the diverse communities that they serve. This dual approach to engagement and enforcement is key to the successful delivery of neighbourhood policing.

Noble Lords will, I am sure, be aware of the Government’s commitment to working with the police to ensure that a dedicated neighbourhood policing team is in every area in England and Wales by March 2008 providing high-profile, community-focused policing. As part of that commitment, we have provided the resources to enable police numbers to reach record levels. The police family has never been bigger and we have an historic number of sworn police officers. Although PCSOs are not, and never will be, a replacement for fully sworn constables, they also have an important role to play as part of the policing family. Our work with the police on a nationwide recruitment drive has already seen the number of PCSOs achieve the target of 16,000 set for April 2007.

Taken together, these measures mean that we are seeing an ever-increasing presence on the street, deterring crime and reassuring communities, and we see the introduction of the standard powers for PCSOs as a means to further enhance the already positive impact that they are having in our communities. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 8 October be approved. 27th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, for tabling this Motion. It does indeed address an important issue and I welcome the Government’s attempt to make a step in the right direction by introducing the order.

However, in the opinion of this side of the House, it does not yet constitute a big enough step. I appreciate the Government’s efforts to try to codify formally the basic duties and standard powers that are open to police community support officers and I am grateful to the noble Lord for describing the balance between centralisation and localisation in this respect, but, if we are truly to maximise the effectiveness of this force, greater clarity is still needed. As an example, PCSOs in Bedfordshire do not have the power to search detained persons for dangerous items, while in neighbouring Hertfordshire they do. In Leicestershire, PCSOs have the power to disperse groups of people under 16 years old; in Lancashire, they do not. Indeed, as was mentioned in another place in reference to the matrix, published in May and outlining PCSO powers as designated by the respective constabularies and police force areas, out of the 44 areas listed in England and Wales, at first glance, no two forces seem to have the same spread of the 59 designated powers. We on these Benches welcome the positive step introduced by the order towards standardising and codifying these powers but feel that it only scratches the surface of what could be done to make PCSOs a more efficacious force.

The effect of that lack of clarity is a concern in terms of the impact on the British public and community support officers themselves. In order for PCSOs to operate effectively—indeed, to provide the security and increased sense of safety that they were created to provide—more of an effort needs to be made to ensure that they are respected. Greater continuity in the capabilities that these officers possess would go much further to ensure that they receive this support. An article in the Times by Libby Purves, addressing the more controversial point about PCSOs’ uniforms, points out:

“At the moment the public are entitled to be irritated and confused. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it ought to be able to peck like a duck”.

The problem with these orders is not so much looking and quacking like ducks but that we do not know which ducks can peck and which cannot. Knowledge among those committing offences of the discrepancies of the powers could begin to stir up disrespect and indeed resentment. The offensive labels some have given these officers—“plastic policemen” and “glorified traffic wardens”—are unfortunate precisely because PCSOs are obviously much more than that. I sincerely hope that this statutory instrument will go some way towards recognising the important position in the community that these officers occupy.

Greater clarity helps PCSOs to have greater understanding of their objectives and to be able to achieve them as effectively as possible. Thus, the intention behind this statutory instrument—to set a minimum standard—is certainly welcome, but there remains far too much subjectivity and inconsistency across the force as a whole. I encourage the Minister to review PCSOs’ designated powers with all interested parties, and I am grateful for his clarification that this was a widespread consultation. I hope that we will see the emergence of a common set of powers and responsibilities throughout the country in the near future. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order and giving the Government’s view on it. Notwithstanding the good description of the duck given by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, the policing family seems never to have been larger. We support that and the added capacity provided by PCSOs, but never has the policing family been more confusing to the public. There are regulars, PCSOs and specials, and it is difficult for the public to understand whether the police have enough powers—when a police officer says, “No, I’m not able to deal with that, it’s not within my powers”—or too many; I refer, for example, to when they are stopped and searched. How are the public to know whether that is within the power of the person who is stopping and searching them? My noble friend Lady Harris was consistent on this in response to the 2005 consultation paper Standard Powers for Community Support Officers and a Framework for the Future Development of Powers. She and other policing stakeholders expressed concerns at proposals to include powers to detain and to increase PCSOs’ law-enforcement capabilities, but we recognise that we have moved on from that battle. The standardisation of powers does not stop chief constables giving PCSOs top-up powers should they deem them necessary. When the Government first introduced PCSOs, the idea was that they should be targeted particularly at anti-social behaviour and at providing a visible presence. Giving them powers under the Terrorism Act 2000 to seize vehicles and to search for drugs does not seem to fall within that remit, which seems to be being widened considerably.

How does the Minister believe that the public should be able to distinguish the different members of the police family? As the Government introduce standard powers for PCSOs, it is important that they address that issue so that the public and communities can have a clear understanding, not just in theory and print, but on the street. Finally, will the Minister comment on whether chief constables are given responsibility for ensuring that PCSOs are completely trained and are capable of carrying out their functions before they are given the increased minimum standard powers?

My Lords, I am a member of the Thames Valley Police Authority and have been for a large number of years. I have also been a member of the Association of Police Authorities. I have two vital points to raise with the Minister. First, police community support officers are supposed to be outside the police station and visible to the public for most of their time. That is not the case with police constables, sergeants and higher ranks who are burdened with paperwork and sit in their offices, staring at computers, rather than being out on the street. Anything that extends the powers of police community support officers should not mean that they go back in the office so that the public cannot see them because, despite what my noble friend just said, people want to see a police presence and I am not convinced that people easily distinguish a police constable and a police community support officer. I know that all police community support officers have radio contact with forces to back them up should they get into any confrontational position.

My second point is a major issue that I trust the Minister will take back to the Home Office: it is the funding of police community support officers. At the moment, they are living on almost year-to-year funding, and it is difficult to recruit and retain people in a job when police authorities are by no means confident that the money to pay them will be forthcoming. These issues may be over and above the one that we are debating, but they are worth raising for the Minister to take back.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for their contributions, and I am grateful to the first two speakers for their support for the clarifying powers in this order because we need to ensure that there is clarity. I alighted on the plea made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for greater clarity. He is right that we must address that not only in this order but also in future as the police community support officer system develops. It is still in the process of development. We were opposed by both parties at the outset of our journey towards developing the role of police community support officers, but both opposition parties seem to have come round to support the idea to a greater or lesser degree, which is welcome.

Police community support officers are now a well established part of the policing family, and the public have come to like, trust and respect them. When I was thinking about this order, I asked a number of questions of the officials advising me to flesh out my understanding of how the system has bedded down and works. I was pleased to hear that not only are PCSOs accepted within the policing family and seen as doing a valuable job, but there have been relatively few complaints about the way in which they have gone about their work. The public seem to like them because they can see that they have a distinct role and are dealing with the low-level disorder that many of us run into from time to time—I certainly do and I am sure that other noble Lords do too. In my interaction with PCSOs, I have always found them incredibly helpful. I have no problem identifying a police officer and a police community support officer as they are badged very differently. The PCSOs I see have great big stickers on their backs telling you who and what they are. You cannot really make much of a mistake with that.

The other thing that has pleased me about the PCSO programme is the way they work with police officers. To pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, I think that they have taken away a lot of the burden that was there and freed up time for more complex policing operations, and they have provided that necessary reassurance and presence on the streets. The programme is a very useful addition and supplement to the way the policing service has been developed over the past few years.

I undertake that when we review, as we will continue to review, the designation of powers, we will look again at the important issue of clarity. I take very seriously the issue raised by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, about the different use of PCSO powers in one police force area to another. In a sense, that is why we have introduced this; so that we get a level playing field across the piece to a greater extent. I must say that one should respect the command operation in each police force area and, of course, chief constables will know better what is needed in their police force area and will want to use PCSOs in a more focused way and for different purposes. Obviously not every police force area is the same and has the same sorts of pressures.

I have dealt with the issue of confusion. There is careful badging of PCSOs and most people have managed to grasp the difference, and the difference in duties and responsibilities. As I have just reflected, in some police force areas chief constables will want to use their PCSO service differently. The big emphasis for most people is in tackling anti-social behaviour, and they have made great strides in that. The neighbourhood policing programme is benefiting already from the work of PCSOs, and will carry on doing so.

I pick up on the important issue of training. Of course training has to be undertaken before PCSOs embark on the exercise of their new powers and responsibilities. Chief constables are charged, in general terms of course, to make sure that that happens. I am advised that most forces are planning to carry out additional training by 1 December. In any event, chief officers must carry out this training within a reasonable period of time after 1 December, so that PCSOs are properly trained before they embark on their duties.

The issue of funding was raised, and I can understand that there may be some concerns about that. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, made the point that there is a year-to-year hand and mouth issue here. The funding will not come to a conclusion when the neighbourhood policing programme ends next year. The programme will go beyond then. That was an initial date. Neighbourhood policing is not an add-on as far as we are concerned, nor is it an optional extra; it is an integral part of policing, and, as I said earlier, it is what people want. We remain committed to ensuring that it is firmly embedded in the core of policing, and we will sustain our investment beyond 2008. In due course we will put the funding into the general policing grant so that the resources will continue to be available in the longer term. That is a very important commitment.

I think that I have answered all the points raised. If not, I apologise to your Lordships’ House. There was the issue of PCSOs doing some anti-terrorist work. I think that is right; it is a sensible use of their time. Clearly, one would expect—from our understanding of the way in which these lower-level powers operate—that they are taking some of the more routine work away from police constables so that they can concentrate on the major part of any terrorist event that might have taken place. I am sure that PCSOs will work very carefully with constables in exercising stop-and-search powers, and, where it is necessary—and I am sure we would accept that it would be necessary in some circumstances—the seizure of vehicles.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their interest, support and questions. I am also grateful for the fact that we have now moved on with this debate and that there seems to be a much broader base of support for the development of PCSOs as part of the police service.

On Question, Motion agreed to.