HC Deb 10 May 2004 vol 421 cc8-11
4. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

How many community support officers there are. [171319]

16. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab)

How many community support officers are operating.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)

At the end of April this year, we had more than 3,500 community support officers in 38 police force areas. They provide complementary support with the uniformed police. whose number has risen by 6,000 in the past year alone. They concentrate on the low-level violence, antisocial behaviour and nuisance behaviour that blight the lives of so many of our constituents. They make a vital contribution to the provision of high-visibility and high-accessibility patrols, free police officers for other duties and give reassurance to communities.

That record flies in the face of the claims that the policy would be a failure, that forces would not take it up, that the police would not welcome it and that local communities would reject it. Those claims were simply untrue and the Opposition parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats, were entirely wrong—as they usually are.

Siobhain McDonagh

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I concur with him on the benefits provided by police community support officers in my constituency and. I am sure, in every constituency that is lucky enough to have them. Lucy Heddon, chair of Glebe Court tenant management organisation, said today that, in the short time that they have been in post, her local PCSOs, Mick and Terry, have transformed her life and that of other people on her estate because they are available at night, they are a high-visibility presence, and they are there to tackle the small misdemeanours that were ignored in the past.

The problem in outer-London, however, is that PCSOs are paid outer-London weighting, while just up the road, they receive £1,500 more for inner-London weighting. Those rules do not apply to ordinary police officers. Surely that could be extended to our PCSOs, because we need to retain the likes of Mick and Terry currently working in Mitcham.

Mr. Blunkett

I concur strongly with my hon. Friend's example. There must be a boundary in terms of outer and inner zones and payments, and although an additional £1,350 is paid to officers in Merton, that does not compare with what is paid in the inner boroughs. I appreciate that that is a real challenge. The good news for my hon. Friend and her constituents is that another 10 community support officers are coming out of training at Hendon and will be employed in Merton in two weeks' time. That will be a considerable improvement and a great tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned vigorously on this matter and against antisocial behaviour in Mitcham and Morden.

Dr. Palmer

Does my right hon. Friend accept that in Broxtowe we are extremely enthusiastic about our CSOs and we hope that the application for further CSOs made by Nottinghamshire police will be successful? Does he share my concern that other parties might seek to abolish this post? Will he consider creating a good long-term career structure for police community support officers, because those to whom I talk hope in the long term to work in the police force? I am a little concerned that the best people in the CSO force will be promoted to the point at which they are no longer working on the beat. Will he try to ensure that we provide a good career structure so that that does not happen?

Mr. Blunkett

I, too, hope that we can add to the 62 CSOs currently employed in the Nottinghamshire force, and the third round is being evaluated at this moment. I share the challenge to ensure that people who are recruited can have a long-term career path. Many choose to become uniformed officers, which is good in terms of diversity because the number of people of ethnic minority origin and women coming through from the CSOs is much greater than in recruitment to the police service as a whole. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it would be a terrible tragedy if, for instance, a party cut more than £660 million out of the Home Office budget, and if community support officers were done away with as a result.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

The Home Secretary, of course, repeats an oft-quoted error by suggesting that any such cuts will be made by the Conservative party when it comes into government in about a year from now. Will he comment on the funding of community support officers? I am the first to support the community support officer who is doing good work in Chippenham, and I hope that the chief constable will recruit the second one for whom she is currently advertising. However, is not the difficulty that the funding from the Home Office lasts for a total of only four years, and after that contributions from town councils and parish councils across the patch will be required? The cost of community support officers will be transferred from the Home Office to the unfortunate council tax payer, who is already screaming.

Mr. Blunkett

Let us be absolutely clear: a whole range of individuals and organisations have joined together to supplement the amount that has been provided, both through direct funding for CSOs and through the general police grant. We cannot have two different versions of the same budget from the Opposition. Either the Treasury spokespeople for the Conservative party are right or they are wrong when they say that there will be necessary pain in reducing budgets. When that budget is applied across the board, other than to schools and the NHS, it is inevitable that there will be cuts. Under our proposals, however, and under the forthcoming spending review, there will be additional resources to pay both for additional CSOs and for the continuing rise in the police service, which has shown an increase of 6,000 in the past year alone. With a Conservative budget, cuts would be bound to occur in every part of our service and every part of our country.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

The Home Secretary knows full well that a Conservative Government will add 40,000 police officers. What is more, we will tell police authorities that they can choose whether to spend the money on CSOs or on real police officers. That is real local accountability.

Can the Home Secretary tell us about training for CSOs and how much they have had? Can he confirm that the length of training can vary from just one week to five weeks or more, whereas basic training for real police officers is being cut from 15 weeks to 12? Is it any wonder that people suspect that the Government have a hidden agenda to de-skill policing and use CSOs on our streets to replace real police officers?

Mr. Blunkett

I am very happy to let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: we do have a hidden agenda. It involves providing thousands more CSOs and thousands more police officers at the same time, and decentralising training from the current residential arrangements so that people can be nearer to home and get more into the three months' training for uniformed officers. That is being welcomed by the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

We have heard the comments of the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), on the budget for the 40,000 extra police officers. That was to come from the abolition of the immigration and nationality directorate, but when we announced a month ago that we were going to reduce headquarters costs, the right hon. Gentleman said that that was an outrage and a disgrace. He will not even help us to reduce the administration costs, let alone switch the whole budget into paying for the police force.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab)

The Home Secretary will know that the Police Federation objected vehemently to the introduction of community support officers. Wherever I go, I hear police officers saying what a valuable task CSOs perform on the streets of their areas. Has the federation formally withdrawn its objection, or has it eaten a little bit of humble pie recently?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend will forgive me: as I am to visit the federation in two weeks, I shall not ask it to eat anything. I shall, however, ask its members to join us in welcoming the extra police officers, the extra CSOs, the extra powers against antisocial behaviour, the introduction of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000—all the elements that we are putting into a jigsaw to provide the powers, legislative backing, resources, and manpower and womanpower to make it possible to clean up our streets and give people safety in their homes.