HC Deb 15 July 2003 vol 409 cc31-50WH

2 pm

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that I have done so once or twice before and look forward to doing it again.

I am grateful to hon. Members for showing an interest. I apologise for the late change in subject, which may have disappointed some members of the audience; I know that it disappointed one right hon. Member, who had come prepared to speak on another subject. The change was made because a statement on entitlement cards is due in the foreseeable future, and it seemed a little pointless to have an Adjournment debate on the subject before then.

I chose community support officers as the substitute subject because Broxtowe, in common with many other constituencies, expects to receive six community support officers in the near future; the first are expected at the end of August. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may correct me, but I believe that they have been active in a number of other areas for about 18 months. I know that, in general, early reports have been promising, but there have been various critical voices. Away from the argy-bargy of political debate, we are keen to draw on best practice. I spoke to a local inspector in north Broxtowe this morning, and he was keen that we should learn from this debate as to how other areas have found that CSOs can be most effectively deployed.

I worked hard to get CSOs deployed in Broxtowe, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) for his area. For those Members who have not had the inestimable pleasure of getting to know Greater Nottingham, the city is surrounded by three essentially suburban constituencies; Gedling, Broxtowe and Rushcliffe. They all contain a mixture of urban and semi-rural areas.

Although those Members familiar with Nottingham and its nightlife—I am sure that many Members go clubbing regularly—will know that there is a significant public order issue in Nottingham city when everyone spills out of the pubs and clubs. I have always stressed that the residential areas around the city also have a significant problem of antisocial behaviour. That needs to be addressed, not just for its own sake but because it affects the fear of crime.

In common with most parts of Britain, we in Broxtowe have experienced a decline in crime figures. As the Home Secretary remarked a few months ago, people do not believe that, because of a subtle reason. Most of us, fortunately, do not get burgled often enough to form a qualified opinion on whether the rates of burglary are going up or down. We read about horrific burglaries, rapes, muggings and so on in the newspapers, but we do not have a gut feeling as to the trend.

However, we have a gut feeling about the level of antisocial behaviour. In recent years, the level of antisocial behaviour has increased; there is no serious argument about that. People extrapolate from that; if they see youths on street corners getting drunk, shouting, being a nuisance to passers-by and breaking bus shelters, and those same people read in the tabloids about horrific crimes elsewhere in Britain, they assume that that crime is getting worse. They do not dare to go out at night, because they believe that the antisocial behaviour that they see in their area is translated into large numbers of muggers and other troublemakers.

The other day, I was talking to a chief inspector in Dorset, who said that he knows of elderly ladies in villages who do not dare to leave their homes because they are convinced that the streets are full of muggers. That is partly the effect of the press, but also reflects that extrapolation from antisocial behaviour.

It is not realistic to believe that if we have more police, the problem will be solved. As we know, we now have more police than at any time in British history—certainly in Nottinghamshire, and I think that that is also the case nationally—and that has not solved the problem. One of the reasons for that is that the police are trained on a broad front; to solve murders, to investigate rape allegations or to control riots. They are trained to deal with all the law-enforcement issues that may arise. Antisocial behaviour in the community is one among many of those law-enforcement issues, and competes for the attention of the police with more serious crimes.

No one would suggest that a youth standing on a street corner drinking beer and shouting at passers-by is a serious crime compared with burglary and assault. However, the problem is that if someone lives near that street corner and sees the same youth out there every night with 20 of his mates, but the police always give priority to burglary, assault and rape, that person, and the youths themselves, will get the impression that that aspect of the law is not being enforced.

In preparation for the debate, I have carried out a fair amount of research into the deployment of community support officers. They are less expensive to train than police officers because they do not undergo the full training, and so more of them can be recruited. However, the essential point about community support officers is that their role is designed to be locally focused. That means that they should be able, in the tradition of community policing, to identify the key trouble spots and the habitual troublemakers.

CSOs are trained in giving evidence, because one of the major problems has been to persuade people to give evidence and to give credible accounts to the courts about whom they have seen. CSOs are also trained in the low-level enforcement that is often missing in our towns and villages. Even if they are not trained in or expected to take action on the major, headline-grabbing crimes, their training enables them to specialise to a much greater extent than police officers.

We should accept that, initially, the police had some reservations about the appearance of CSOs, perhaps because they felt that CSOs were designed to be a sort of cheap police force that would eventually replace them. However, as the concept has evolved, I understand that that attitude has largely been superseded by straightforward pleasure that issues that could not be addressed in the past are now being addressed.

I have talked to a couple of the officers involved in policing Nottingham city, where there have been CSOs for some time. They said that the level of low-level antisocial behaviour was sufficient that they could not get to it. Every day, they look at a long list of things that they should follow up, and it is simply a relief if additional people can specialise in dealing with such behaviour and deter it.

There can be substantial drops in crime. For instance, in Kimberley in my area, crime is down by 55 per cent. in the last year. It is important to reinforce drops of that order with a strong message about antisocial behaviour. If people see that antisocial behaviour is being curbed, and if the figures show that the numbers of burglaries, muggings and so on have fallen substantially, they will feel safer in their communities. That is one of the most precious things that any Government and any political class, which is what we all are, can provide for their citizens. Indeed, the original contract between Government and the governed is that we will provide security of the immediate environment.

I am extremely keen to see CSOs in Broxtowe and spreading round the country, but I have several questions to explore. First, what experience has there been elsewhere of how CSOs are most effectively deployed? Obviously, one option is to send them out with experienced police officers. I imagine that that would be a natural introduction to their time in service. People should not just hand them a map and say, "Go and sort out this community." To make sense, presumably there must come a point at which they can operate independently in an area. I should be interested to hear about experience as to how quickly that point comes.

Secondly, when will a full assessment of the impact of CSOs be made? When I asked about that at Home Office questions yesterday, my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety said that estimates of the impact of CSOs on antisocial behaviour had not yet been made. Given that they are a new concept, I hope that such an assessment will be made at some point. I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary guided us on when we might expect that.

I am interested to hear about experience as to how large a community a CSO can optimally serve. Broxtowe is made up of numerous towns and villages, and it is unrealistic to expect that every little clutch of streets will get its own CSO. Obviously, that will not happen with six officers, but the alternatives are for, say, a pair of CSOs to be responsible for a huge area covering 25,000 people, or to concentrate on a small area where it is known that there is quite a lot of trouble and hope to get to the other areas later when the trouble has been dealt with. There is always a risk of displacing trouble.

It would be helpful to know what, according to experience, was an appropriate area for CSOs to deal with. It should not be so small that they are wasting their time or so large that they are accused, as the police traditionally are, of never being seen. When we get the six officers, the police authority and the local council would be grateful for more guidance on what has happened elsewhere.

The next question is the extent to which the role of a CSO differs from that of the community police. We all talk derisively about the need to get away from the "Dixon of Dock Green" concept, but a lot of people think back wistfully to those days and would like a beat bobby to come round every few hours. The police in Nottinghamshire worked out that a beat policeman apprehends an offender every 24 years. In contrast, if officers are deployed on following and studying the habits of known repeat offenders, they arrest roughly two a week. That is a dramatic contrast. Most people, including myself, feel that the presence of beat officers deters crime. However, the difference between arresting two a week and one every 24 years shows that we must concede that the police have a case for deploying their most experienced officers on chasing routine repeat offenders and ensuring that they are caught as soon as they return to crime.

We must balance that work with a visible presence, and the police cannot do everything. I hope that community support officers will fill that role and give people the sense that, as well as the most experienced officers chasing hardened criminals, there is a local presence and somebody whom they can talk to informally. As MPs, all of us are familiar with the constituent who says, "Well, you know, I don't like to say so, but most of the trouble in this area is caused by the people in No. 17", and when asked why they do not report them, they reply, don't dare." An effective community support officer would know that to be the case and frequently would be seen in the vicinity of No. 17. People would know that an eye was being kept on their activities.

The community support officers do not replace the current beat patrols. We all know that the police are stretched, but every community in Broxtowe has a beat sergeant and a team of constables as, I assume, most other parts of the country do. I expect community support officers to work with beat constables and sergeants, and it would be helpful if we knew more about how that co-operation has worked in other areas. We must try to ensure that CSOs are not used by the police as dogsbodies to do things that they cannot be bothered with, and that they are not seen as competitors. The worst case would be if one person reported a crime and did not get a response whereas someone else found that the police and the CSO followed it up in succession.

There must be close co-operation and I want to talk about how that works in practice. What is the typical profile of a CSO, and whom should we encourage to apply? We all have constituents who say, "If they gave me the chance I'd sort things out", and we have tried asking them to become a special policeman. As a rule, they ask how much the pay is, we tell them it is not a lot and the interest diminishes. However, the more serious people who say that might be interested in applying for the CSO posts.

I shall not read aloud the job advertisement, but it would be helpful to know, for instance, whether a community support officer has a slightly older age profile due to the nature of the work, which is unlikely to be as strenuous and physically demanding as that of a policeman controlling a riot. However, the police could be looking for young people who might move on to the regular police force. That raises the question of the long-term career structure.

When I talked with Les Kominiak, the superintendent responsible for police in southern Nottinghamshire, he said that many CSOs, having gained extensive experience in community policing, would be likely to move on to become fully fledged police officers. That is an option and an objective that he would like to be realised, although he would like people to stay in the job, with CSOs becoming more experienced and having a career and reward structure that reflects that experience. Do the pension arrangements for CSOs reflect those of the police force or are there separate arrangements?

To return to the original theme of the debate, I should like to draw on the response yesterday to my question about the powers of detention for CSOs. Interestingly, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety replied that if CSOs have the power to detain people for half an hour, as they do in some areas, it is easier to identify those with whom they are dealing.

I shall not anticipate the statement, which we know is not too many months away, but this seems to be an area in which ID cards could make a significant difference. I am aware that the Government's view is that, although ID cards might become universal, it should not be compulsory for people to carry them to identify themselves when requested to do so.

The overwhelming majority of the people to whom I speak are extremely enthusiastic about ID cards. They feel that if somebody is behaving suspiciously, it should be possible for the police to ask that person to identify themselves; not for routine checks of the kind that became notorious in Brixton, but in cases of documented suspicious behaviour. There is more than one way to identify oneself and I do not say that people should be required to carry ID cards, but we should make it a condition that if a CSO or the police ask someone to identify themselves and if that person can produce their ID card, that would settle the matter. If they could produce another kind of ID and the police or the CSO were satisfied, that would be fine too.

I accept our commitment not to require people to carry ID cards at all times, but CSOs and the police should have the power to ask people to identify themselves if they are behaving suspiciously. Let me give an example; a CSO on Beeston high road sees someone wandering along at 11 o'clock at night, feeling the doors of buildings. It is not illegal to feel the door of a building to see whether it is open. If the officer goes up to him, as he might well, and asks what he is doing, and he says, "I am thinking of writing an article for the local paper on local security and I am doing some research to see how many doors are open", the officer can point out that what he is doing is a bit dodgy and might be misinterpreted, but he cannot arrest him for it. Nor can he ask him to identify himself.

The community support officer might walk on round the corner and the next morning it might be reported that a shop has been broken into, but it would not have been possible for the officer to have deterred that by identifying that it was John Smith—or Oliver Letwin, David Blunkett or whatever figure one might think of—whom he interviewed on the street the previous night.

If I were considering such a crime—although I do not do so frequently—and were stopped by a CSO, if I was identified unambiguously, which an identity card would do, I would probably decide to call it a night and go back to bed. I might try again another night, but that would have acted as a deterrent. However, if I could just say that my name was, say, Letwin, it would be less of a deterrent. I might still be a bit worried that I might be recognised, but if I were wearing a hood and generally slickly dressed I would probably feel that it was quite likely that I would get away with it. When we come to debate ID cards in the coming months, I ask the Under-Secretary to consider seriously—although we should not go back on the pledge not to require people to carry them all the time—allowing the police to require people to identify themselves by whatever means they think appropriate.

If we made that obligatory, we would also need to require the police to log all such requests, with an indication of why they considered the behaviour suspicious. We must avoid a return to the stop-and-search culture that prevailed in Brixton, which ultimately led to riots. Basically, if someone was young and black, they were stopped. The Information Commissioner would have to be empowered to inspect the records of police forces to see whether any stood out as having an unusually high level of such inquiries; if necessary, the commissioner could look at individual records.

We all talk about too much bureaucracy, and a balance must be struck. If we get to the point where we allow community support officers and the police to require identification of some kind, we ought to document the circumstances under which that takes place so that we can verify that it is not being misused.

I return to co-operation between police and CSOs. There have been some press reports of forces in which CSOs have been frequently reported for apparently minor infringements of discipline. One interpretation of that is that officers have felt a degree of resentment towards the newcomers and have been eager to pick them up on any little infraction that, in a regular officer, would have passed almost without comment.

On the other hand, in the Metropolitan police in particular, reports are that co-operation has been very good and that the regular officers have greeted the reinforcements with some enthusiasm. So that we can benefit from the good examples rather than from any bad ones, I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary elaborated on what kind of training and advice needs to be given to new CSOs and existing officers to ensure that co-operation is optimal and that they see each other as partners rather than rivals.

At Home Office Question Time yesterday, the Minister of State said that the power to detain people for 30 minutes was proving successful in a number of areas. The issue is important when it comes to the credibility of CSOs. We all hear anecdotally of eight-year-olds who can quote the Human Rights Act 1998. If it became generally known that CSOs could tell someone off, call in the regular police and give evidence against people, but could not detain people until the police turned up, the more daring troublemakers would exploit that.

I am aware that there are reservations about allowing a new group of people the power of detention, but 30 minutes is not excessive. I was stopped for exceeding a speed limit the other day; it was a fair cop. I apologised and it took roughly half an hour to fill out the relevant forms, which I interpreted as part of the punishment. In our everyday lives, most of us are accustomed to incurring half-hour delays because of the maintenance of public order or traffic problems. If someone gives a CSO reason to suspect that they are having a serious antisocial impact on their environment, it is not an excessive infringement of liberty to allow the CSO to detain that person for 30 minutes.

More cynical people might say that 30 minutes is not enough because the police normally take three hours to turn up, so CSOs would hang about for half an hour and then have to let the person go. Well, that is not the experience in my area. Sometimes the police reckon that the criminal has already escaped and that an urgent response will not change anything, so they turn up a day or two later, which causes irritation. However, when the police genuinely believe that an offender is still on the premises, they arrive quickly.

It is a basic requirement of the co-operation between CSOs and the police that we ensure that if CSOs have the power to detain people for 30 minutes, the police will virtually never fail to turn up within that time.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

The hon. Gentleman is touching on some matters to which I will return, but I want to challenge him about the issue of detention, which caused grave concern when the Police Reform Bill was in Committee.

As the hon. Gentleman described, the police have to give priority to burglary, robbery, rape and murder—the serious crimes—and CSOs are filling in on the less serious crimes. If a CSO detains a lout—I think that that was the word that the hon. Gentleman used—for an antisocial act in a large geographic constituency such as mine or that of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and the police are called out to a robbery or car chase, after 30 minutes the CSO has to say to the young hooligan, "Well, no copper has turned up. I am going to have to let you go." What does that do for the credibility of the system?

Dr. Palmer

The hon. Gentleman is right; that is an essential feature of the arrangement. The expectation should be that in the overwhelming majority of cases the police turn up within 30 minutes. If that is not possible because of the intensive levels of rape and pillage in Somerton and Frome, for instance—without wanting to trivialise crime in that constituency—we need to consider whether the period needs to be longer, or whether a different power is needed to require the offender to come to the police station. I want to raise that issue with the Under-Secretary. I would be interested to know whether we find that in the pilot areas it is possible for the police to arrive within 30 minutes.

I make a distinction between the situation that I described at the start, to which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) referred, and the one that he has just outlined. A hard-working police officer may well be reluctant to turn out for a slightly nebulous report of someone shouting in the street, or a report that someone has been seen throwing bottles. By the time he turns up, the offender might have escaped, and the offence may have been exaggerated anyway. If he has a burglary to follow up, he would put the first issue on one side.

However, if the same hard-working police officer has a burglary to follow up but gets a call from the CSO saying that he has an offender standing in front of him, temporarily detained and ready to be arrested, he would be much more motivated to deal with the situation. If the police feel that CSOs are delivering offenders into their grasp for immediate arrest, that is a very different situation with regard to priority from the question of simply dealing with antisocial behaviour. There seems to be a strong prima facie case for the argument that the power of detention is desirable. Whether 30 minutes is enough, I do not know; I should be grateful for the Under-Secretary's insights into the experience in other areas.

Without wanting to stray outside the limits of today's debate, we should also address the broader question of freedom compared with the crime enforcement carried out by community support officers. That challenge was raised in Hugo Young's article today, in which he suggests that the instincts of Government Members, such as myself, are illiberal. He suggests that where we have a choice between reducing crime and the fear of crime and reducing freedom, we invariably choose against freedom. I am paraphrasing, but that was the substance of his indictment. We have to take such a suggestion seriously because there comes a point where the considerations of freedom override the considerations of crime prevention.

We can all suggest extremes. If we were to intern all teenagers, we would end teenage crime; I have constituents who would favour that solution. However, a long way short of that comes a point where most of us would feel that we were interfering too much in the normal exercise of everyday life. When we consider the tools that CSOs might use, many of them are individually controversial such as evidence from CCTV cameras, evidence from DNA or identity cards. When we examine those, each can easily be justified on the grounds that the benefits of greater community safety outweigh the risks, but there is a slightly more serious case to answer when they are all put together.

Singapore is the most concrete example with which we are familiar. It is widely admired by tourists for the law-abiding behaviour of its citizens, the absence of chewing-gum on the streets and so on. People in that country know that they will be arrested and thrown into prison for offences. Most people believe that Singapore, admirable though it is, perhaps goes a little too far.

We are on solid ground with community support officers. Whereas we must be careful that the gravity of more serious crimes does not lead us into cutting corners in dealing with crime, for the relatively trivial offences of antisocial behaviour, it is widely perceived that there is a huge gap between what people would like to see in their community and what they actually see. My perception from talking to many constituents about the issue is that people would accept a significant increase in surveillance—I deliberately use that loaded word—if it meant a significant reduction in antisocial behaviour. Part of such surveillance is the presence of community support officers who can work with the community to identify the troublemakers.

We all realise that most offences are caused by a small number of people. A member of my own family burned down a beach hut when she was a teenager. I come from a respectable family, whose members do not often do that sort of thing. She went to a beach party with a group of about 20 people. When they got a bit cold, someone asked, "Why don't we set fire to the hut?" Everyone laughed, and they set fire to it. My relative did not suggest it, but she did nothing to stop it.

We are all familiar with the idea of the community ringleader who causes trouble. Part of the job of community support officers is to know who those ringleaders are, to make them know that they are known and that an eye is being kept on them and to reinforce the confidence of others in the community that supervision is being maintained and that something will be done if they report acts, or even planned acts, of antisocial behaviour. Community support officers will also enable people like my relative to have the courage to say, "No, that might get us into trouble. A CSO might come along."

I wish to give the crowd of hon. Members who wish to speak on this debate a chance to speak, so I propose to conclude my remarks in the next few minutes. Communities will welcome the community support officers and are anticipating the role that they will play to the extent that we must be careful that we do not raise expectations too high, as community support officers will not be supermen or women any more than anyone else.

However, reinforcement by people who are based in the community and who are familiar with its troublespots and troublemakers has the potential to make a significant contribution to making our communities feel that we as a political class are delivering the secure environment that is the basic part of the social contract. Those things will be achieved only if we use the CSOs optimally, if we avoid friction with the regular police, if we ensure that the regular police and the CSOs are trained to work together and if we draw on the best practice from around the country. I hope that the areas, including Broxtowe, that are about to get CSOs for the first time can draw on the experience of others.

I am grateful for the chance to speak about the issue at greater length than I had anticipated and look forward to the rest of the debate.

2.45 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on securing this debate and the one that he had intended to have, both of which concern pertinent subjects. I am sure that his suggestion that the Palmers are the scourge of the Nottinghamshire countryside with their speeding and arson was inadvertent. I am also sure that he inadvertently mentioned identity cards. His remarks were nevertheless illuminating because his example suggested that the substantive evidence that caused the officer to request the person's identity was that the person was out at night and was wearing a hood. We might have explored that argument had we been dealing with ID cards.

Dr. Palmer

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech, but I said that the person involved was trying the doors of shops along the high road.

Mr. Heath

I did not understand that the person was trying doors, which is an offence. Perhaps I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman, for which I apologise.

Let us deal with the substance of the hon. Gentleman's contribution because the subject is important. There is a lot of common ground, despite the differences that sometimes occur in debate. It is common ground that antisocial behaviour is a serious problem in all sorts of communities and in all sorts of ways. During the proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill, the hon. Gentleman's county colleague, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), suggested that the mean streets of his constituency were the epicentre of crime in the country. I must say that that is not necessarily the case. Small village communities, such as those that I represent, market towns and the big conurbations all have problems with antisocial behaviour. Our constituents are rightly worried by antisocial behaviour and want solutions to be found.

The importance of the patrol function is the second area of common ground, and the hon. Gentleman spent some time discussing it. He rightly said that for a good many years chief police officers have taken the view that the patrol function is a marginal policing activity because it does not catch and convict criminals, and the evidence suggests that that is the case. That does not undermine the importance of the patrol function in keeping the peace, which is an important part of policing.

The patrol function does three things. It deters—it is possible to overstate that point—and undoubtedly acts to reassure communities that there is a police presence among them, which is desperately important. It is a truism that the fear of crime is almost as debilitating to a community as crime itself. It is appalling that members of the community, who are often elderly, fear even in a village to go out after nightfall because they have read lurid reports in tabloid newspapers that they are about to be knocked over the head by a ruffian. The fact that that is not the case is neither here nor there. They have a real belief that it is the case, and the presence of a uniformed officer is therefore important.

I agree with the hon. Member for Broxtowe that a patrol officer provides intelligence that feeds into deterring and investigating crime effectively. We have lost the direct communication between our police and communities that allows the police to understand what is happening in the community and respond to it, to know the individuals concerned and speak to them and to pick up on the indications of responsibility for crime or impending crime at an early stage. That loss is important.

In my involvement with police forces, I have always stressed the importance of intelligent patrol—making sure that uniformed officers are there at the right time and place to provide the maximum reassurance and deterrence. That means appearing on pensions day at a sub-post office in a small village, and being there at chucking-out time in the middle of a market town on Friday or Saturday night. Those are the times when people need to see a uniformed presence among them and working with them. There is broad agreement that community support officers have a role to play and that they are a plus rather than a minus.

More generally, and without wanting to sound too analytical or philosophical, there are three classes of people. There are, first, core criminals, about whom the community support officers will do nothing. They are the 20 per cent. of those charged with crimes who commit 80 per cent. of crime. They have an extraordinarily high degree of recidivism, and a propensity for committing crimes almost irrespective of the punishment or deterrent set. Community support officers will not have an effect in that area.

The second class is the vast majority of law-abiding citizens, who we often forget, and classify—as the hon. Gentleman did in his humorous aside about locking up all teenagers—as a problem. Very often the view comes through that teenagers are a problem. They are not a problem; some teenagers are a problem, just like some 80-year olds are a problem. We do not do well when we class all young people as the reason for antisocial behaviour and place subsequently inappropriate restrictions on them.

The third class is those involved in antisocial behaviour and petty crime. That concerns the one-off criminal and rowdyism, which can be addressed, deterred and prevented. That is where community support officers, along with a range of sanctions and measures, can have an effect.

One of my worries with the Government—the worry is not new—is that they have addressed the problems of crime time and time again and have introduced 660 new laws during their lifetime. They have been less effective at dealing with the other part of the equation as set out by the Prime Minister in his famous dictum on the causes of crime. Were we to do a lot more about the environment, lighting, facilities for kids, skateboarding parks, recreational opportunities and the effective use of schools, we would reduce antisocial behaviour. Instead we blame anyone who happens to find themselves in a bus shelter at night because there is nothing else to do. We have not addressed some of those community and societal matters with sufficient energy and resources, so we have opened the way for more serious crime.

I was interested to read a series of reports in The Guardian in the last week or so—other hon. Members may have read them—one of which focused on Bristol, a city in which I have some interest, as I was once chairman of the Avon and Somerset police authority. One of our great successes when I was chairman related to the serious criminals who formed the local gangs and were at the head of the drugs trade and every other sort of serious crime in Bristol—the Aggies, as they called themselves. We had a list of 10 top criminals and we had all of them behind bars. That was a huge success for the Avon and Somerset constabulary.

However, the consequence was that a few years down the track those same communities found themselves in the presence of a new breed of gang; the yardies came in and took over the territory. Resources had not been put into putting up barriers against that new invasion of criminal, so we had simply replaced one set of criminals with another. The Aggies have now finished their prison terms and there is gang warfare on the streets of Bristol. That is appalling, and very difficult for the police to deal with.

I say that not because I expect community support officers to do something about that level of crime, but to underline the need to put resources behind the front line of patrol and policing in order to give the community the strength to resist the activities of criminals. There is now a new breed of officer and, although we have some criticisms of what the Government have developed, there will be advantages to community support officers having a common status with other uniformed presences, so that they can work together under common powers and commands, rather than in separate areas.

We understand the Police Federation's criticisms. It is worried that the measures simply allow policing on the cheap and are a substitute for providing police officers. I do not think that those criticisms are entirely justified, but the view of professional police officers is understandable.

We need to understand that community support officers are not police officers. They have a different function and are working at a different level. As the Under-Secretary's predecessor, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), said, they extend the police family—a rather homely phrase, but it expresses what has happened. It is important that we do not expect them to do what they cannot and are not trained to do. As the hon. Member for Broxtowe says, that would undermine their function and their abilities.

It is also important that we select and train CSOs properly for what they do. There is evidence that that has not taken place in some of the forces currently taking on community support officers. I do not want to exaggerate, and I certainly share some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Broxtowe expressed about the experience in the Metropolitan force particularly, but let us be absolutely sure that CSOs are able and prepared to do the job that we want them to do.

One particular power under the Anti-social Behaviour Bill that gives me great cause for concern is that of dispersal. The Under-Secretary knows that we have taken exception to giving that power to CSOs, not least because the Association of Chief Police Officers is worried about the power in itself. I quote from the deputy chief constable of Northamptonshire, Mr. Whitely, who has responsibility for the matter for ACPO: The initial reaction from forces suggests that it would not be enthusiastically used in the operational environment. The arguments against centre around street culture and the likely impact within socially deprived and minority areas. Such a power could, potentially lead to confrontation, disengagement and isolation of some elements of the communities". If ACPO are worried about that happening with properly trained fully competent police officers, the risk of it happening with someone who is not as competent, trained or in the same position is even greater. Will the Government think again?

We should accept that community support officers can play a role in extending the patrol function, particularly to areas that would not otherwise be covered. They are not a substitute for extra, omni-competent police officers or properly trained special constables. They are also not a substitute for a category that I have wanted to see developed but that the Government have shown only occasional interest, which is that of retained, fully trained officers, analogous to our retained firefighters but giving an extra police presence in rural areas. Community support officers have their place, but we must understand their limitations as well as the expectations that could so easily be put on their shoulders.

3 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak. I must admit that when we started, I did not believe that it would be at 3 o'clock, and I am anxious not to squeeze the Under-Secretary out of her time to reply.

I echo the congratulations to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on securing the debate. I am less sure that I congratulate him on the subject that he eventually chose, because I suspect—ungenerous as I may be—that the heavy hand of Government rested on his shoulder and they said that they did not want a debate on ID cards 48 hours before a statement. Nevertheless, community support officers and antisocial behaviour are important, and the hon. Gentleman addressed several issues.

Dr. Palmer

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I want to place on record that I was asked specifically by the Speaker's Office whether any pressure had been put on me to change the subject. I confirm today what I confirmed to the Speaker, that no pressure was put on me. I was simply told that there would be a statement on ID cards soon, and it seemed appropriate to me to change the debate.

Mr. Paice

I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation; I simply claim in aid my natural cynicism after 16 years in this place.

The common ground that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned is shared with my party as well. As a Back Bencher the Under-Secretary spent some time in Committee on the Antisocial Behaviour Bill until she found herself propelled to the Front Bench. That happened before the Bill finished its progress, so she will have seen the issue from both sides. I am sure that she will agree that there was widespread agreement about the problem across the Committee. The disagreement was on the proposed solutions.

There is also common ground on the role of non-police officers in helping to address the problem of antisocial behaviour. From the outset of debate on what is now the Police Reform Act 2002, we emphasised that we want and believe in non-police officers aiding the police in their duties. We have seen neighbourhood and traffic wardens and the development of street patrols, and last week I was in Wandsworth, where the borough council employ a lot of street wardens.

Such people will have a vital role to play, and the area of debate—it is no more than that—is about giving non-police officers a range of police powers. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, the Anti-social Behaviour Bill will increase the range of those powers. He mentioned one or two, and I will not go into the detail of them all, but it seems premature to extend the range of CSO powers when, as has been said, we will not receive the first evaluation of how the initial tranche of CSOs has settled down until September.

There is a more important aspect, which is that the more that the range of CSO powers is extended, the more the distinction between a CSO and a real police officer—a proper copper—is blurred.

I shall now discuss the financial aspects. I am sure that the Under-Secretary will claim it as a great success that the 27 police authorities that bid for CSOs in the first round wanted them despite the doom-mongers—among whom I include myself—who said that there was no demand for CSOs. However, the way in which the Government did it was bound to create demand, because putting in bids for CSOs was the only way that police forces would get any money at all. I remain of the view that if the Government had simply put that money into the policing "pot" and said that police forces could have either police officers or CSOs, most chief constables would have spent that money on police officers rather than CSOs. However, they were not given that option, and it is hardly surprising that there was demand, because it gave forces the opportunity to increase their overall resources.

It will be interesting to see the results of the evaluation in September. Although it is difficult to be precise, it appears that the pay of CSOs is almost in the same league as the bottom of the pay scale for a police constable. The starting pay for a constable is £18,666. I suggest that not many CSOs are earning considerably less than that, so the cost saving is probably much more marginal than the Government had originally anticipated. However, there is a financial saving in the training of CSOs; their training takes three weeks rather than 19 weeks.

Equally seriously, there are no national standards for CSO training—the training is all carried out in individual forces—whereas police officers are trained according to national standards and through Centrex. I am concerned that we are spending almost as much on paying CSOs and investing considerably fewer resources in their training, while extending the range of police powers that they are given. There seems to be a disjunction between the approaches that are being taken.

According to the Government's press release of 2 May, the next tranche of CSOs will receive only 50 per cent. funding. It remains to be seen whether the demand for CSOs will continue when forces are required to find their own resources to complement Government money.

I now turn to the issue of what I call neighbourhood policing, a concept that was central to the comments made by the hon. Member for Broxtowe. He mentioned apprehending a criminal once every 24 years. Policing, however, is not just about apprehending criminals; it is about ensuring that we all live in an orderly society, and that crime is prevented. In the ideal world, the police would prevent all crime and there would be no criminals, but although we would all love to inhabit such a world, we never will.

However, I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that neighbourhood policing has a vital role to play not only in deterring criminals and reassuring the population, but in preventing crime by low-level intelligence gathering in the community of which it is part. Neighbourhood policing also has a role to play in bringing communities together, and in enhancing the physical environment by ensuring, as in New York—the broken windows theory—that things are done; that burnt-out cars and vomit on the street are cleared away, and that broken windows are repaired. If one broken window is left broken, the following week the next window will be broken. Action to prevent that is part of addressing the problems of antisocial behaviour and crime, and is a vital role for neighbourhood policing.

What concerns me is that if we expect CSOs to be playing that role—I believe that that was the nub of the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Broxtowe, and it is certainly the Government's contention—that has two implications. First, we are saying that we have downgraded the role of neighbourhood policing and that it is not a job for a full-blown police officer but a slightly inferior role for a community support officer. That sends out all the wrong messages about neighbourhood policing.

In contrast, I think that neighbourhood policing should be a distinct, positive career path in the police service that needs to be enhanced. It should involve proper career prospects and there should be much less abstraction from neighbourhood policing for the "fire brigade" work of dealing with crime. The risk of using CSOs as replacements for neighbourhood police officers in that role is that we diminish rather than enhance the role of neighbourhood policing.

Secondly, although I may have unwittingly slightly undermined this point in my earlier comments about cost, I have a fundamental concern if CSOs are cheaper than police officers; if they are not, I cannot see why we have embarked on the scheme. I suggested that the saving may not be as great as was originally expected. I can foresee a day when a Chancellor says to a Home Secretary, "Well, I accept that you may want some more bodies in uniform on the street, but you can have 5,000 CSOs or 2,000 or 3,000 police officers. Which is it to be?" We would thus begin the gradual slide of reducing the professionalism of the police force. That would be a very serious trend to start.

I look forward to the evaluation results in September on the various aspects that I have described. The hon. Member for Broxtowe accepted my intervention on detention, and I am grateful to him for that. That gave rise to a great deal of debate during the Committee stage of the Police Reform Bill. I remain of the view that I expressed in my intervention. I am pleased that the Government accepted the need for some pilots to see how the scheme would work, and to see whether my worst fears were realised or unfounded or, as I suspect, somewhere in between; but I think that there are potentially real problems with the use of detention.

Following the hon. Gentleman for a moment down his other side-route on the role of identity and the ability to detain someone while checking their identity, he quite rightly demonstrated that unless someone is required to carry an identity card, one of the fundamental benefits that the public perceive from having them is completely destroyed. If one does not have to carry a card, one cannot be required to produce it. To tell someone that they must bring it to a police station in the next few days, as with a driving licence, is frankly absurd. If someone has given the wrong identity, the fact that they do not turn up at the police station can never be followed up. It is complete nonsense to suggest that, although I have read that that is in part of the proposals.

Another issue is that this time next year there will be 25 countries in the EU, so the citizens of 24 other countries will have the free right to move around this country with just the passports of their native country. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and everyone else knows how easy it is to obtain a forged passport, particularly from some countries either in or about to become part of the EU. That, too, undermines whatever technology may be involved. If someone just produces a Portuguese passport and says that they are a Portuguese citizen—whether they are or not—they will have complied with the necessary legislation. However, the power of detention will not have achieved the fundamental objective—to ascertain or verify the identity of the individual who has been detained.

I shall not detain the Chamber much longer, because I want the Under-Secretary to have the opportunity to respond. I conclude with a completely different point on antisocial behaviour. It is on an issue that we did not debate on Report when debating the Bill because of the timetable, but the Government introduced a new clause on it. It is the problem of travellers. Although I strongly welcome the fact that the Government responded to the pressure that I and others put on them in Committee, I hope that they will consider the matter carefully and that the Under-Secretary will have a chance this afternoon to explain a little more of the background and why they have introduced their amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Requiring alternative sites to be available before the police use the powers that the Government are giving them drives a coach and horses through the enforceability of that legislation.

The Bill will be debated in the other place, and I am sure that their lordships will probe the Government on that, but it is a crucial issue. The Government clearly want to address the problem, and I respect them and congratulate them on their enthusiasm for doing so. But I am not sure that they have not unwittingly created a loophole that will completely nullify the benefit of the Bill.

I am grateful for an opportunity to address the Chamber on this issue, which will not go away. We look forward to the conclusions of the first evaluation. The best thing that I can say about CSOs at this stage is that the jury is out. We look forward to seeing how they settle down. I suspect that they are here to stay in one guise or another, but it is essential to study how they are settling down and how their powers are used if we are to make the most of their role in helping the police to combat crime.

3.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department(Caroline Flint)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on securing the debate, which is on an important issue. All hon. Members present will recognise that antisocial behaviour and the changing ways in which it affects our communities is probably one of the top two issues, if not the top issue, that they come across in their postbags. It has changed the face of law enforcement and the issues that police officers have to deal with. I remember watching "Dixon of Dock Green" as a child. I was brought up in what seemed a rather happier time in policing, notwithstanding the fact that police officers also had to deal with serious criminal issues many years ago. Some of that has not changed, but other things certainly have.

It is increasingly recognised that certain crimes, because of their nature and seriousness, demand the attention of fully trained police officers. Indeed, that was reflected in the debate and acknowledged by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. Antisocial behaviour is not necessarily less serious. If the antisocial behaviour that starts in communities as an irritant is not checked, the people responsible can turn into the full-blown criminals whom our police officers have to deal with.

We must recognise that we need multi-skilled teams. This is not only about community support officers, but about working with local authorities and the health service. That is certainly the case in relation to drugs in the area that I cover. It is increasingly important that the police work alongside drug action teams and other people in that sphere. It is also important to work with community organisations, whether tenants and residents associations, neighbourhood watch or community partnerships. I was told a few weeks ago by a senior police officer in Bristol that where there has been serious crime on the streets, intensive police action has been required to deal with it and to reclaim the streets. The neighbourhoods and the community must be left strong enough to withhold future crime waves by gangs or whatever.

Mr. Heath

The Under-Secretary is right about the point that I made in my speech. Will she accept that dealing with serious crime such as we have in Bristol causes the abstraction of officers from the rest of the police authority area? In our part of the world, for instance, the whole of Somerset has lost officers because they are dealing with the gangs in Bristol. As a result, we are all losers.

Caroline Flint

I am pleased to inform the hon. Gentleman that crime is decreasing in Avon and Somerset. The support from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary and the police standards unit has demonstrated that they have got a grip on their performance issues. Indeed, recent data show positive reductions in recorded crime. Of course, at local level—at force level—it is up to senior police officers to consider the situation throughout their communities and to decide where best to place their resources. There will be short-term and medium-term operations to deal with that, but it is important to recognise that different types of crime or activity, including antisocial behaviour, require different responses.

My major point is that we are trying to build capacity and strength in relation to communities. That is about policing, but it is also about building community partnerships so that local people can take back control of their neighbourhoods and so that a handful of families do not hold whole communities to ransom.

CSOs come into their own in relation to police presence. I do not agree with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) who said that it is just about police forces saying, "Well, that's where the money is. We're going to put in to have that presence in our community." There is demand from communities for that sort of support and those resources in their immediate neighbourhoods and that is reflected in the number of bids to increase the provision.

Mr. Paice

Will the Under-Secretary give way?

Caroline Flint

I want to make some progress because I have only a short time in which to speak, but I will return to the hon. Gentleman if I have a few minutes at the end.

The primary role of CSOs is to provide high-visibility patrols in our communities and deal with lower level crime and antisocial behaviour. CSOs are fully integrated into forces, based in police stations and supervised by police officers. That goes to the heart of the point about teams and good relationships. The police are in control of the process. CSOs complement police officers to provide a better service. We are increasing numbers of police officers to record levels, and, at the same time, we are considering ways to improve the provision of police services to our communities by using mixed-skill teams of police officers and CSOs.

CSOs are not policing on the cheap. Their attributes—a low level of power and targeted training suited to their patrol function—lend them to being better at permanent community patrols. Unlike police officers, whose extensive skills base means that they are likely to be regularly abstracted from their core patrol functions, CSOs are likely to spend long periods without being removed from patrol, acting as the eyes and ears of the police service.

In the communities that I represent—I am talking not about a major town, but about satellite communities—police officers work in partnership with CSOs, with the local inspector. Police officers are still visible, but recognising the different contributions to different levels of crime and nuisance is important.

CSOs support police officers. They are fully trained and empowered by the Police Reform Act 2002 to undertake tasks such as staffing security cordons, carrying out administration at roadblocks or dealing with abandoned cars. Many such tasks do not utilise the full range of skills, or the training, of regular police officers. We hope that CSOs will free up police time so that the police can concentrate on tasks that can best be done by fully trained police officers.

On deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned the size and nature of communities and asked how large a community was. Those are questions for chief officers to determine in consultation with members of their crime and disorder reduction partnerships and in relation to other patrols available in the area. Deployment should be consistent with the application of the national intelligence model, which will ensure the more efficient allocation of resource, where they are needed. We cannot put a blueprint on deployment from on high, at national level. Actively engaging with community partnerships, community safety officers on local authorities and others will determine how best to fit patrols and resources to local needs.

On evaluation, it has been mentioned that we are learning from the process. We are seeing good results and there has been anecdotal evidence about how well supported CSOs are. Chief officers have had the power to designate their staff as CSOs since December last year, so the process is still young, but we have come a long way in seven months. For instance, 1,390 CSOs have already been recruited and a further 1,233 are to be part-funded by the Home Office in this financial year. There will be only five forces not employing CSOs by the end of this financial year.

Despite being in the early stages of the project, we are receiving lots of informal evidence from forces, local authorities, local papers and Members of Parliament that indicates that CSOs are having a significant impact on local communities. I am pleased to say that several forces have reported significant reductions in crime in areas in which CSOs are patrolling.

Anecdotal evidence is encouraging, but we need a more formal evaluation of the impact of CSOs in order to ascertain what works best. All forces that take on CSOs will evaluate their performance, and we will issue guidance to help to standardise the information across the 27 first-round forces. That is important because we want the results to stand up to rigour and provide an evidential base for further developments. We also want to be sure about best practice and that what we are recommending to other forces can be applied in those forces and other communities. It is important that the information goes beyond the professionals directly to the communities, so that they understand what is happening elsewhere and so that demands can be made from the bottom up. We expect to receive interim returns of evaluation findings in September, although it will take longer to collect more scientific evidence.

I was asked about pensions. For pension purposes, CSOs are treated in the same way as all police staff. Each force has different terms and conditions, which also extend to pensions. There is no bar to CSOs becoming police officers through the standard application process. Some forces—including, I understand, the Metropolitan police—are considering fast-tracking CSOs into the police service, as they will already have met some early requirements.

The nature of the training given to community support officers is a decision for their chief officer. It will depend on the role that they perform and the powers that they are designated to exercise. The evaluation is important because CSOs are employed differently in different communities. Once we have that information we will consider what training should be provided for them to carry out their functions. Centrex has provided forces with guidance, and many other forces have adapted the training package devised specially for CSOs by the Metropolitan police.

Generally, the emphasis in CSO training is on problem solving and dealing with low-level disorder and antisocial behaviour. They are encouraged to use their powers only if other approaches are ineffective. They are not trained to deal with more serious criminal offences and are advised to call for police assistance if there is any doubt about their safety or that of the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe mentioned friction between CSOs and regular police officers. Local police forces are engaging more and more with the new resource and getting to grips with how it works on the ground. It is important to make an effort to include front-line police officers in development so that they can also contribute to the debate. However, so far there is no evidence of friction. CSOs are trained and supervised by police officers, and they even patrol with them; they work closely together. That is an important part of the teamwork ethos.

Points were raised about ID cards. We will come to those considerations in due course and, depending on the outcome of that debate, we will consider whether CSOs or the police should have the powers that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe suggested. On the subject of public trust and reassurance, his suggestions for a log are interesting. CSOs can currently ask for the name and address of anyone that they suspect has committed an offence causing injury, harassment or alarm to any person, or loss or damage to property. As my hon. Friend will be aware, CSOs who have the detention powers that are being piloted can detain anyone whom they think has not provided the right details.

On the issue of the detention power, the time of 30 minutes was raised. As I said, the scheme is being piloted in certain areas and we are looking at the outcomes of those pilots as to whether they should be extended. A balance had to be struck between the role of the CSO, given their training and skills, and the need occasionally to detain someone for longer than 30 minutes. Parliament has decided that, in the vast majority of cases, 30 minutes would be long enough and that the role of the CSO would not be too enforcement-orientated at the expense of their other duties. We are entering a new area and will monitor that balance to see what works best. We do not yet have any formal analysis of the results of how those powers are exercised. The initial returns indicate that 30 minutes is proving to be enough in most cases, but that is an issue to which we must return.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridge shire referred to the sums of money. The starting pay of constables does not include significant allowances and progression is obviously much more rapid. It is important to note the difference between cost and salary because of equipment and the additional costs of officers. CSOs are less expensive. We have not conducted a detailed analysis—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Edward O'Hara)


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