HC Deb 16 September 2003 vol 410 cc205-26WH

2 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

The first debate this afternoon is initiated by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The subject is community policing. Before I call the hon. Gentleman, may I congratulate him on being a prolific user of Westminster Hall? I think few hon. Members recognise the opportunities that this Chamber offers, but the hon. Gentleman certainly does.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure that I can live up to that billing, particularly as it was you and I who got the idea off the ground. If nothing else, we will serve as a memorial to the long-term future of Westminster Hall. It is a wonderful Chamber, and we have debates here that we could never have in the main Chamber. We were right to push for it in the Modernisation Committee.

That is my first explanation for what I am doing. My second, as I have said to a number of colleagues, is that I asked for a debate on community safety and, thanks to the good offices of the Speaker, the title has come out as "Community Policing". I shall refer to community policing, but I shall refer also to community safety. If all else fails, do not blame me, blame the Speaker's Office. It is important that we consider the debate at this time. Before we started, I said in an aside to my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety that this was a coming debate.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Would it he in order for the hon. Gentleman to seek an adjournment while I find my colleague who deals with community safety issues rather than community policing, which is the subject on which I was intending to embark?

Mr. Drew

I shall not be so indiscreet as to veer completely away from the subject. particularly as I have a lot of support from the police in Gloucestershire. It is good to see several hon. Members here today including a near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda).

I can talk on this matter with some expertise because, since I was elected in 1997, I have been out with the police at least every three months with inspector neighbourhood area patrols, so I have seen things at the raw end. Many of the experiences that I will talk about are the result of that.

I want to discuss the positive issues of community engagement and the preventive measures that are encapsulated by the title "community safety". I owe the police thanks for helping me construct the debate. I will quickly run through the roll of honour and then say no more about it. I thank the chief constable, Tim Brain and Superintendent Nigel Avron, who has briefed me carefully. I thank the three inspectors of the inspector neighbourhood areas, which is the structure we have in Gloucestershire: Pete Craddock, Mac McGarry and Paul Donovan. I also thank the district council's community support officers Phil Sullivan and Dilys Warren.

To complete the cycle of greatness, I would not want to ignore the voluntary sector. I have done a lot of work with neighbourhood watch with Eddie Whitlock and Phil Hughes, and with victim support with Richard Lacey, with whom I raised some money on the back of a tandem. We rode around 100 miles of Gloucestershire, so I know his backside if nothing else. I shall move quickly on.

The context of the debate is that people care passionately about law and order. All the evidence coming from polling or social organisations shows that the issue of law and order is highly salient. By chance, a group of pensioners came to visit me yesterday from Minchinhampton in my constituency. With no prompting, their first questions were all about law and order. It was the classic thing: "We used to have a sergeant; we used to have two constables in Minchinhampton, and we've got no one now, yet the problems—the burglaries and the disorder on Friday and Saturday night—seem worse than ever."

That problem is the crux of my debate. I said to that group what I always say at police consultative committee meetings: we want visible policing. People have a right to expect, when they pay their bill to the police authority—and there was a whacking great increase in Gloucestershire last year, which I shall not dwell on, but which people noticed and took a view on—that they will see the police actively engaged in their community. However, visible policing is not the same as effective policing.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)

My hon. Friend mentioned the police precept—which was very big—but does he agree that it is often forgotten that the police precept is 9.7 per cent. of the overall community charge bill for Gloucestershire?

Mr. Drew

I agree, and I am not attacking the police. I spend a long time listening to them, and have great respect for them. However, the high precept has made an impression; people want to know what they are paying their money for. Visibility is what they want. Many people still have the notion that the best form of policing is the bobby on the beat. Unfortunately, the criminal fraternity has moved on and society has become somewhat more difficult. Hon. Members know that the police tell us that what is required is intelligence-based policing and the use of modern technology. Policing is now about working in a different way, although there is no escaping the fact that in rural areas—and I make no apology for focusing a great deal on rural areas—a conflict arises. It is not an easy question to resolve.

It is not only through an increase in police numbers that the Government have set about resolving the problem. When I visit INAs, I always meet new police who are in training. The numbers are greater than they have ever been, but so are the pressures. The Government's approach uses a raft of partnerships, which are incredibly valuable. The key ones are the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, but community safety partnerships are also important. The work involves agencies that were previously discrete; now probation and health are locked into the partnerships.

On Friday, the chief fire officer of Gloucestershire, Peter Jones, was saying how much the fire service appreciates being involved in going out on preventive work—not just dealing with smoke alarms. He suggested that, rather than expecting officers to retire at 48 or 49, it would be good to enable them to go on to that work, instead of using front-line officers to do it. I hope that the Minister will take note of that inspired aside from him; I have always argued the same about the police. They retire far too early; I do not mean that they retire from front-line work too early, but we could use their expertise when they retire.

In Gloucestershire, the key to what I am talking about has been the evolution of the tri-service facilities at Quedgeley in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester. Ambulance, fire and police services have come together in a new way of dealing with emergency calls and what is happening is also linked to the new police station at Quedgeley. Those responsible should be congratulated. I have always been in favour of the regional agenda, but I should he grateful for an assurance that it does not go as far as trying to undermine the tri-service arrangements that were put together with a lot of time, money and private finance initiative schemes. We do not want those to be ripped asunder by a sudden decision that the fire or ambulance service is to be reorganised in a way that means they cannot use the facilities.

I want, finally, to look at the importance of the voluntary sector. I have mentioned two voluntary organisations, but I would also include some of the preventive work that is being done with housing and health. Although such matters are not seen as the police's main responsibility, the police welcome engagement with those agencies. Another relevant agency would be social services, as the police argue that too often their biggest problem in the community is that they pick up the responsibility for jobs that others could, and in some respects should, do.

I make no apology for saying that the way that such things best come together is through some form of mutuality. I am interested, as is my hon. Friend the Minister, in concepts of mutuality and new forms of cooperation. I do not think that we should stay with existing systems and structures when better ones could encourage the greater sharing of responsibility and of the resources applied. That sounds like nice fluffy-bunny stuff, but in reality if that is made to work, it can be much more successful.

Much of the issue of community policing is tied in with two important pieces of legislation. They are the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Police Reform Act 2002. The first set up the whole agenda—making organisations work together in a different way so that they bear down on crime and disorder. Whether we like it or not, crime and disorder are the problems of our time. The latter Act brought in more organisations and introduced a more targeted approach—and a more effective one—to specific problems.

In Stroud, the strategies and organisations created on the back of the 2002 Act are working very well. They are clear, popular and easy to defend by those who explain them at meetings. The people who make them work—the police and the CSOs in Stroud district and those in the county council and other organisations—are heroes in a way because they have put so much of their own time into making the strategies as effective as they have become. I make no bones of the fact that trying to persuade the public that the system is working as well as it could is still a problem.

We need to give things time, but the structures are right and the legislation has spawned different areas of activity, such as the work of the racial incident unit. In Gloucestershire, we have not traditionally had a problem with a high level of racial crime, but sometimes an undercurrent of racism has been found in rural areas. Other issues, such as runaway children and domestic violence, have been around for generations, but now, because of the way in which crime and disorder reduction partnerships work, we are at least putting measures in place that can highlight what needs to be done. People come forward with their complaints with more confidence that something will be done.

The Police Reform Act 2002 broadened the crime and disorder context to bring in other organisations. The Government are to be congratulated on that. The Act also brought new appointments; there is a link with current changes that are establishing the idea of community well-being in the framework of local government. That has led to the establishment of new positions. In Stroud, we now have a number of neighbourhood wardens who go into the community, not necessarily under the auspices of the police, although they work very closely with them, and deal with all the relevant issues. They do not deal just with crime-related issues, but with good neighbourliness. They are already making a difference.

Mr. Dhanda

My hon. Friend and I both have a habit of slipping into speaking Gloucestershire from time to time. He mentioned INAs earlier, but I am not sure that all hon. Members are familiar with INAs, but they are policing areas in Gloucestershire. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) was not aware of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also made an interesting point about the involvement of local authorities. Does he agree that one of the most helpful things that the Government have done is to provide match funding to ensure that officers funded by city councils, such a park wardens and city centre managers, can now be beefed up to community support roles?

Mr. Drew

We are always willing to take more funds, wherever they come from, but particularly from central Government. I am sorry if anything was lost in the translation, but we in the west country tend to talk in a dialect and sometimes use abbreviations. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, but no doubt he has similar arrangements in his constituency and refers to them slightly differently.

My final point about the 2002 Act is that it highlights what needs to be done about disorder, but that was not happening with antisocial behaviour orders. We in rural areas have not been great users of such orders, but we are beginning to use them more now because they have been streamlined. I do not entirely belong to the same school of thought as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) when he argues about that, but the public have been way ahead of us in realising the problems that antisocial behaviour causes and we must be seen to be doing something about that sooner rather than later. That is something that rural, as well as urban, Britain should learn from.

Another issue on the back of the two Acts is that so much is tied up in the word "partnership". It has not only spawned many new activities, but has reconstituted some existing activities so that people, certainly the professionals, can see the delivery of services being clearer cut. We are fortunate in having help from central Government. We have a number of bobby buses so that we can send the police out to rural areas. Police stations disappeared generations ago and the visibility of policing is important.

We have also begun to pull together some of the drug and alcohol strategies with the work of drug action teams and a very successful substance abuse group in Stroud. They are now reporting directly to the community safety group and through that to the crime and disorder reduction partnership.

Last, but not least, we were proud to pioneer—not internationally because the idea came from Canada—messages in a bottle whereby older people are encouraged to put a medicine bottle in their fridge with all their details inside. That was encouraged by the police because when they break into a place where someone may be ill, they fear having no easy access to the details. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford pressed that idea with the support of the police. There is much good going on, but much more could be done.

In conclusion, I refer to what I see as the key problems and how the Government are setting about trying to overcome those problems, but I could do with some advice from my hon. Friend the Minister on how we could do better and how the message could be taken to the Strouds of this world to ensure that people understand exactly what is happening. First, there is a degree of complexity between people and partnerships. I have already referred to many of them and one day I shall get someone to draw out for me all the different interrelated partnerships that exist between the statutory, voluntary and private sectors.

There is a worry about lack of co-ordination, as well as expense in terms of time, let alone money, because people must attend so many meetings nowadays. I suppose that we could look at some form of rationalisation, but that, again, has been overtaken by events with the start of the local strategic partnerships within which, supposedly, all the other partnerships sit. I sit on the Stroud local strategic partnership, as I do indirectly on the county partnership. There is much good will but some question about what it is turning up. The crime and disorder agenda often sets the wider agenda for the local strategic partnership. That may be a good thing or may show that other areas are weaker than they should be.

The second issue concerns resources. As always, there will be special pleading by people in rural areas. Sparsity issues and the fact that such areas have traditionally been less well funded do not mean that there are no problems with drug abuse and disorder and that people do not ask why they do not see the police. We must take account of that in the funding structure. The issue must be addressed by local government, police authorities and, of course, central Government.

The raft of measures that the Government have introduced, though highly creditable, are expensive to run. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will assure us that we are not looking for quick fixes but are providing long-term funding streams. The programmes may change slightly over time, but we must see how they work. That is important as places such as Gloucestershire begin to get access to CSOs, who will work with neighbourhood wardens, specials and the full-time police. We must ensure that there is proper protocol and that each office knows what it is to do and that it will be appropriately funded.

Another issue is how we engage the public in policing, particularly the kind that they want: traditional, old-fashioned policing that tackles the criminal fraternity. The approach in Gloucestershire is good. There are regular meetings with consultative committees, and I always find the police accessible. I am not so keen on their phone line, but I believe that they have ironed out many of the problems.

Unfortunately, research from the Local Government Association indicates that people's opinions of the police tend to be worse after they have had contact with them than before. I am afraid that that is not unusual. People have contact with the police in the most pressured situations—when they have been robbed or attacked or something has gone badly wrong in their lives—so it is not difficult to understand that finding. However, improvement is needed in that area. For that reason, the call from the police for support from the other organisations is crucial. It is no good putting together all these different partnerships if the police end up at the front doing all the difficult business. It is important to know that everyone is capable of pulling together. The ASBO experience is a good example. The police have been calling for ASBOs to be used much more often, but other organisations have been less than forthcoming.

I seek from my hon. Friend the Minister guarantees that, once the system is in place, it will be left alone. We must let it work its way through to a natural conclusion, so that people know what the different roles are and that resources are in place. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester rightly pointed out that there was a big debate in Gloucestershire on the precept. People want to know that they are getting value for money and that things are being done.

My last point is that policing must be done in a very positive light. If it is seen to be purely negative—all about catching people rather than prevention—I am afraid that society will always lose. Policing will work much better if partnerships continue and build on a level of positive engagement in which the public and the voluntary sector are included. If that happens, the Government will have done well. More particularly, people will feel much more confident. They will go out in the evening, which is something that many say that they are not prepared to do at present.

2.24 pm
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this very important debate and, as you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on his hard work in securing many other debates like this one. Luck, as well as assiduity, plays a part. I ask for many debates in this Chamber, but they are never called.

In Staffordshire this year, there has been an impressive reduction in crime, and an impressive increase in Staffordshire police's detection rate. I trust the figures, because a few years ago, Staffordshire was ahead of most forces in adopting the ethical recording of the crime that was reported to it. As a result, it bore the pain of an apparent increase in the number of offences committed. I am therefore inclined to trust the improvement shown by the current statistics.

I am pleased to pay tribute to our chief constable, John Giffard, and his police officers, for their enormous contribution to this year's very happy situation. I am sure that they would agree that there is much more to community policing than putting police officers in uniforms and sending them out on to the streets. The police are supported by a great team of people, including the very professional civilian staff who greatly contribute to the work of police officers and help them to carry out their other duties by supporting them in those duties.

Increasingly, we see closed-circuit television cameras on our street corners, which of course means a control room somewhere that is usually staffed by employees of the council or private security firms. Again, they support the police in the valuable work that they do.

Traffic wardens, too, are part of the family of the community police. They do very important work, especially in more rural areas where people get quite het up about those who break road restrictions with impunity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, CSOs are the latest addition to the police family. He also rightly mentioned neighbourhood wardens, who have been doing valuable work in areas that may be more built up than those in the Staffordshire constituency that I represent.

I draw particular attention to the local authorities that are part of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships, and to the support and the resources that they bring to community policing. I shall talk later about special constables, who have an important role to play in supplementing the work of full-time police officers, as do the neighbourhood watch schemes and the public.

The tremendous success of the Staffordshire police relates to other parts of the country in that the police are aided greatly these days by the technology that they use. From a shaky start six years ago, Staffordshire police are now so good at handling calls that, this year, they won two awards, including a European one, for their call- handling prowess. I am grateful to them for making that great improvement in their call handling, which was necessary.

My hon. Friend the Minister may want to talk about the radio system because of the great amount that is being invested in it and the fact that it is diverting funds from other parts of the policing budget because of its importance. Another important new piece of technology is the automatic number plate reader—the ANPR—which is a tremendous aid to policing in Staffordshire. I have been with the police when they have used ANPRs by the side of the road in a community and on the motorway. Last year, I attended the V2002 pop concert, not as a concert-goer but as an observer of the policing operation for what was a huge event. The ANPR was a valuable tool there, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud also mentioned the visibility of the police in rural areas where there are no longer any police stations. Staffordshire is one of the few forces that possess their own mobile police station. At the V2002 concert, the front desk and holding cells—an important attribute of that service—were in full use. The sergeant, whose idea it was, proudly showed me around it and told me that police forces around the country had shown great interest in hiring it from Staffordshire police when they are not using it, for use in rural locations in their areas. That tool has helped Staffordshire police and, it seems, other forces around the country.

Full-time police officers do such magnificent work every day of the year in every community. Thanks to the crime fighting fund, record numbers of police officers in uniform are doing their valuable work for our communities both nationally and locally in Staffordshire. When I was elected in 1997, the police authority in Staffordshire had recently made the difficult decision to freeze recruitment of police officers for three years because of financial difficulties. That caused a problem, and we have been slightly slower in reaching a new high for numbers of police officers than other parts of the country because of the continuing effects of the freeze. We have, however, certainly taken full advantage of the crime fighting fund.

In Staffordshire, the police authority showed political courage in raising the council tax precept for policing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud observed, however, we have suffered electorally as a result. In this year's local elections, there was a big swing away from Labour candidates. When I talked to people about why that happened, many of them mentioned the large increase in their council tax, which was a function of the councils, which raise the majority of council tax, and the police authority. There is an interesting lesson there for politicians of all parties: the public may well clamour for more police officers on the beat, but there is a cost. In Staffordshire, people are beginning to notice the cost. Perhaps they will be more willing to listen to solutions that complement the valuable work of police officers. I want to develop that idea later in my speech.

In August 2002, we moved to a new system of allocating a uniformed police officer to every local government ward in Staffordshire as community beat officers. It is now possible for any Staffordshire resident to know the name and see the uniform of the police officer allocated to their area. That is particularly valuable in rural areas, which have alleged that they have been denuded of police officers and that they therefore never the see the police. Rural areas are now seeing the police.

I can speak from personal knowledge about the presence of a police officer on the beat. In the summer recess, I took the opportunity to accompany a couple of community beat officers as they pounded the beats of the rural areas that they represent. I walked the streets of Penkridge and Wheaton Aston with officers, and I saw the areas that they police. We took the opportunity to stop and speak to local people. For example, PC Calladine, the officer for Wheaton Aston, and I were called across by the local neighbourhood watch coordinator to discuss an issue. Because PC Calladine knows his beat, he took me to a woman who was concerned by vandalism to the local public payphone, and we were able to exchange information about it.

That shows the value, especially in rural areas, of the individual police officer on the beat. I must say that, in the several hours that I spent in Penkridge and Wheaton Aston, the most serious crime that we detected by pounding the streets was an out-of-date tax disc on the windscreen of somebody's car. The police officer cautioned the person responsible and explained that he was going to report them to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which might well prosecute them and would certainly demand repayment of the back duty. That is a valuable service, but police officers are expensive resources.

People must understand that, while police officers are performing such duties, they are not performing the other services that people also want. If, for example, I am woken up by the sounds of an apparent burglary downstairs and dial 999, I do not want to hear that the beat officer will start walking promptly towards my house and will be with me in an hour; I want to hear that the police will be there in minutes. Indeed, I have had to ring 999 once during my six years as a Member of Parliament. I thought that someone was trying to break into my next-door neighbour's house. I did not say, "I am an MP. I expect a super service." Nevertheless, two police cars appeared within minutes of that 999 call, and that was impressive. However, it is important to remember that there has to be a balance between the visibility of police officers walking their beats to give reassurance and to collect human intelligence, and the ability of the police to respond appropriately to situations that might need a fast response or the attendance of many officers.

That brings me to community safety officers. Again, it is marvellous that the Government are offering money from central funds to allow police forces to recruit community safety officers. As a result of that fund, Staffordshire has just announced the recruitment of its first 10 CSOs. I am grateful to the Minister for that. I have spoken to the chief constable about how he intends using that resource, and he is minded—I agree with him—to focus the work of the CSOs on antisocial behaviour.

I feel sorry for the police officers bombarded with calls about antisocial behaviour, because it is often the case that no crime has been committed. Nevertheless, everyone wants to know why the police cannot knock on a neighbour's door and ask them to turn down the music, to stop the argument or to stop using bad language. The police are under public pressure to turn up, so they do what is wanted, but it is not their job because no crime is involved. Using CSOs is a good alternative, because they can add presence with their uniform. They can also supplement the work of the local authority and the housing authority, as they are more likely to be responsible for dealing with antisocial behaviour. I believe that CSOs can play a valuable role. I would be interested to know whether the Minister envisages that being a front-line use of community safety officers.

When people speak of their dissatisfaction with crime levels, they do not say that are too many burglaries—we have seen a hugely impressive reduction in the number of burglaries in Staffordshire. Nor do they talk about car crime or theft, which have also seen huge reductions. They tend to talk about antisocial behaviour. As I said, much antisocial behaviour is not criminal and it is not a priority for the police. However, people consider that it comes under the heading of community policing, and they want something to be done about it. I hope that CSOs will be used in Staffordshire as part of the police response.

I want to talk about the valuable role of special constables, because I have walked the beat with them. I have talked to them about why they chose to do that brave and good work, which they do for no financial reward. I have been impressed with their motivation and their desire to do something good for the community. The fact that such people have the valuable intention to put something back into the community should be encouraged and facilitated.

Since the crime fighting fund starting paying for more police officers to be recruited, special constables in Staffordshire have decided that that they like the work and want to convert to full-time police officers. That has left us with fewer special constables. We have finally woken up to that, and Staffordshire has started a number of campaigns to recruit new special constables. I hope that the Minister can say something about national support for those local recruitment campaigns. I have assured the police in Staffordshire that I want to support them in their recruitment because I know how valuable the work of specials can be.

That brings me to the other partner in policing—the public. The police in Staffordshire organise the neighbourhood watch. The crime reduction partnerships obviously give verbal support to it, and councils pay for neighbourhood watch signs on lamp posts showing that an area has a scheme in operation. I do not think that the commitment of the other partners to neighbourhood watch schemes is as good as that of the police. I would like it to be better, and I would like to hear the Minister's views on that.

The police's support for neighbourhood watch in Staffordshire is excellent. They have dedicated officers, and a good telephone warning and messaging system for their co-ordinators. Neighbourhood watch coordinators have strong support. They have an annual conference, and between conferences they do some recruitment. I support all that, and I have been ever-present when they held their annual conferences in my constituency. I am committed to neighbourhood watch, but I think that the scheme could be much better. That is an example of the public accepting some responsibility for the policing of their areas. I believe that the most effective deterrent to crime is the fear of detection. The police on their own cannot detect criminals very well or frequently without the support of the eyes and ears of the public. So often it is thanks to information provided by the public that the police are able to secure convictions.

Neighbourhood watch is a good example of the formal organisation of the public into recognising their responsibilities and having the opportunity to carry them out. Every area should be a neighbourhood watch area, which is not yet the situation in Staffordshire. I want to hear the Minister say that she agrees with me on the value that I place on that, and that there will be national support for neighbourhood watch recruitment and support once systems are in place. It is so important that, as is the case in Staffordshire, the police can share their successes with their neighbourhood watch schemes as a result of the information collected. Those successes constantly reinforce for people the message that something useful and valuable is being done for their community. I hope that the Minister can speak on that, and also say that the status of neighbourhood watch schemes in the crime and disorder reduction partnerships will be raised in coming years, and that they will be a priority for the support of those partnerships.

It is the personal responsibility of each of us to take care and follow sensible crime prevention advice over matters such as property marking and locking windows and doors when we go out. We should also go that little step further and actively support the police in their difficult and courageous work, in whatever ways we can. That can happen as long as it is not difficult—as long as we can get through when we make a phone call and that members of a neighbourhood watch scheme have the support that they need. That is my wish, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

2.41 pm
Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)

The debate has already been quite an education for me as I have listened to my two colleagues. I now know where to go if I want a ticket for V2002, although I might be dragged into doing a little community policing work. I have also learned that if I ever need to speak to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I should come to Westminster Hall first. It is very useful to know that this is where I am most likely to find him.

I wish to make a couple of brief points on the Gloucestershire background to this debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, we have had a vigorous debate in the past 12 months on policing and funding issues. When last year's settlement came through, we were a little disappointed because we were one of the 19 authorities that received a 3 per cent. increase. At the same time, we must bear in mind that inflation is 2.5 per cent. and that the police grant for Gloucestershire for 2002–03 is at its highest ever level, £55.34 million.

The story does not end there, because we need to take into account a number of subsequent grants to get the full picture for Gloucestershire, not least the rural policing fund that this Government introduced in 1997, which is now worth some £778,000 for Gloucestershire, and is going up. Other contributions include money—about £190,000—towards Airwave, the local communications channel. Just before last Christmas we were told that we would get another £180,000 towards the provision of video interview and rape examination suites. Perhaps the most satisfying thing about being the Member for Gloucester, however, is the tri-service centre, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud referred. It is a £6 million private finance initiative scheme and the first such centre in the country. It works superbly. It is a great capital investment project, reducing crime and doing its bit for the ambulance service and the local fire authority as well.

In addition, we are to have a £25.2 million brand new police headquarters at the same site in Quedgeley. We are lucky. As my hon. Friend also said, we are blessed with some very good local community officers. Dominic Everiss, who works on the boundary between Gloucester and Stroud, is one of many officers who do a good job at a local level. When considering the Gloucestershire experience, we must remember the neighbourhood projects and the work done by people such as Mark Gale—I know that the Minister knows this—in reducing crime and working with communities. They make a huge difference.

During this debate about policing and whether we are making a difference, my hon. Friends have put the case about police numbers and uniformed presence very well. I dug up some figures from the House of Commons Library the other day because I wanted to get a good look at the picture in Gloucestershire. I have a brief summary of the position since 1979, which is as far back as the Library's figures went. In 1979, there were 1,096 police officers in the county. Numbers rose steadily until 1984 when they peaked at 1,149. The figure stayed around that mark for a number of years. It gradually peaked again at 1,174 in 1992, but that was the highest level that it reached under the Conservative Government. It then fell steadily year on year and kept falling until 1999—it takes time to turn round such a problem. At its lowest ebb, in 1999, the figure was 1,104. The crime fighting fund came into force in the subsequent year and the figure steadily rose. In 2002, it had reached 1,183, and it has now risen to its highest ever level of 1,240.

I pay tribute to one of the police officers we have left out: Chris Merrick, who is the divisional commander for the Gloucester and Forest of Dean division. Chris Merrick deserves the plaudits that he gets because he challenged the scaremongering that sometimes goes on. The weekend before last, a front page in our local paper in Gloucester, The Citizen, claimed that the city centre was not being adequately policed. Chirs Merrick put that right on the letters page. He said that, as well as the work that was going on in the city centre, there were another three INAs in Gloucester—Hucclecote, Gloucester South and Barton Street—which all have officers working in them 24 hours a day to respond to incidents and support officers in neighbouring areas". He said: Furthermore, we have many other officers working from Gloucester Central Police Station, such as our Operation Resolve robbery squad, CID, scenes of crime officers, Operation Gemini, Professional Development Unit, the Crime Management Unit, the Divisional Support Group, and our Barton Street-based Road Policing Unit to assist as and when required. Add to this our Force Operations Unit, which includes the Motorway Unit, the Dog Section and firearms teams, and readers may be assured that rather than the 20 officers your article suggests are policing the city centre, the figure can be multiplied many times. He said that the article was inaccurate. He continued: The force as a whole now has more than 1,240 officers—the most it has had in its history".

My two colleagues made good points about the uniformed presence. It is not only a question of police officers; it is also about community support officers and others. I got some statistics from the House of Commons Library on the civilian support staff based in our head offices. In 2002, 545 civilian support staff were based in police offices in Gloucestershire. That is an increase from 1992 when there were 367. The figure is still rising. We have another 60 community support officers, who will be out patrolling the streets. It is important to point out that a uniformed presence on the streets—community support officers—is not about policing on the cheap. It is about communities being empowered and people from communities helping to police their own areas. Involving communities in the policing of their areas can reduce crime. That is the whole idea behind the CSO scheme.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) mentioned specials. We are lucky to have a number of specials working in Gloucestershire and we have a long and proud history of specials. Will the Minister talk about the protocols for specials and how they will continue to fit into the scheme when we have a uniformed presence with police officers and CSOs? It is important that we maintain our specials and that they continue to feel a valued part of policing in our county and beyond.

Mr. Drew

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dhanda

I was about to conclude but I will gladly give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Drew

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with what I have to say, and I want to address the Minister through him. Getting time off to serve is one of the biggest problems that specials face. We ought to encourage employers to see the benefit of serving with the specials as a form of community engagement. The issue is important and it is getting more difficult to resolve.

Mr. Dhanda

I agree and I hope that the Minister can elaborate on that.

We are blessed locally with very good private companies that are ethically minded. Our local Barclays bank and Cheltenham and Gloucester building society are keen to become involved in community initiatives, and I would like the Government to do more to involve them in communities and policing,. If we gave them the opportunity. they would grasp the nettle.

2.51 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing the debate. Stroud is the constituency most similar to my own, so I recognise several of the matters that he has raised—I recently met Gloucestershire's chief constable, Tim Brain, who served part of his career in Avon and Somerset police and whose work I commend.

Listening to the hon. Gentleman, I had running through my head the memory of one of my rare excursions to Gloucester to play a rugby match many years ago, in which a Gloucester forward decided to bite me on the top of my head. I have had a very poor opinion of law and order in Gloucester ever since, but no doubt things have changed.

Mr. Dhanda

The hon. Gentleman is welcome to return to Gloucester. We had the same discussion on Select Committee business in the United States recently, and I assure him that no one will bite him on his head.

Mr. Heath

That is a welcome reassurance.

Community policing is about keeping the peace. That is one of its prime functions. I am a great believer in community police patrols for several reasons. I accept that they do not result in a massive decline in the clear-up rate, and I accept that detection is not their primary function.

The police patrol function distinguishes itself in three ways. First, it deters. That can be over-emphasised, but a uniformed police presence has a deterrent effect. Secondly, it reassures communities and individuals who would otherwise feel vulnerable. Thirdly, it informs the detection process through a constant flow of low-level intelligence, which may have a significant effect.

I am constantly worried by the perception that community policing and the patrol function are marginal activities for police forces, and that those are expendable when times are difficult and resources are stretched. That is not to say that other factors to which hon. Members referred are not important. Policing can be put only into the context of the community that it serves. Environmental considerations such as lighting, children's facilities, the strategic partnerships that have been mentioned, other uniformed presence and other agencies in the field all play a part in creating a safe, law-abiding environment.

I return to whether we have an effective community policing strategy in this country. Inevitably, I refer to my experiences and I make no apologies for that. I had a long involvement with the Avon and Somerset police authority, but for some time I was also a member of the Audit Commission. One of the functions of the commission was to look at the effectiveness of police forces. Just before I left the Audit Commission back in 1996, I recall that we published an extremely useful document, which I revisited to see whether it had any lessons that were still relevant. The document is called "Streetwise: Effective Police Patrol". It was published in February 1996 and it examined the patrol function.

The document came to the conclusion—much of this is still relevant—that the public attach great value to police patrolling, as many hon. Members have said. It asserts that uniformed police officers have a function in reassuring the community. People like to know who their local bobby is and I commend Gloucestershire for achieving that sort of recognition. Effective patrolling underpins an important and basic concept in British policing, which is policing by consent. When a police officer is part of a community and known by it, that underpins a feeling that is the basis of British policing—policing by, for and from within the community rather than something applied by the external force of state control.

Back in 1996, most people were dissatisfied with the way that police functions were carried out and about 80 per cent. of people wanted to see more police. I do not know what the more recent figures are but I would be surprised if they have changed much. People want to see more police and they are worried when their police officers seem to disappear at regular intervals. That is a particular problem in rural areas, as police officers often seem to be taken from rural communities to the cities to meet the latest targets.

The Audit Commission study revealed that at any given time only 5 per cent. of police strength was on the streets. I shall return to that matter in a moment because it is an education as to what happens in reality. There were also criticisms of the way in which the police patrol function was managed. Too often, officers who are on patrol are unsure about what they are expected to achieve and their principal role. The lack of adequate briefings or debriefings was criticised. Often, when a police officer returned to the station at the end of a patrol they could not pass on what they had learned that day to anyone and patrolling was not well targeted.

I return to the figure of 5 per cent. as it is an interesting illustration of where all the police have gone. The Audit Commission considered a medium-sized force of 2,500 officers serving a million people. Of those 2,500 officers, many are on specialist duties of one sort or another, and there are probably about 1,350 available for patrol at the outset. Of course, policing is a 24-hour-a-day activity, so there is a shift pattern. During each shift, 335 of the original 2,500 officers are available. However, that number is cut down by sickness, training, attendance at court and biannual leave. It is reasonable to say that only 250 of those 2,500 officers are available for patrol at that point. People on patrol have to do other things. They have to interview prisoners and fill in forms—they have to do all the things that are associated with their function as officers. Making all those assumptions, we end up with just 125 of the original 2,500 officers available on the street to that county or policing area. That is a rapid and telling decline.

The Audit Commission put it another way. It considered the case of a reasonably big city with a population of, say, 180,000. Such a city will have 1,400 miles of pavement, 850 acres of parks and open spaces, 770 miles of road, 75,000 houses, 230 pubs and 95 schools, and it will have just 10 police officers on the streets. When they are spread as thinly as that, is no wonder that people say that they do not often see a police officer.

There are ways in which the problem can be addressed and the dilution can be mitigated. Geographic policing has been mentioned; it should be standard practice throughout the country. Named officers should police named areas, so that everybody knows who they are. If that is done, one way of undermining it is to move the officer on every five minutes and put a new named person in place. That happens alarmingly often and for a variety of reasons. A named officer in a geographical area has a problem-solving remit and can analyse patterns. He might do it on an ad hoc, unscientific basis, but that can help to identify where the problems lie in the patch and he can feed back information about the patterns. There can also be intelligent patrolling, targeted to ensure that the police officer is visible at the time when it will have most impact on the people whom we seek to reassure—when the pubs chuck out in the middle of a market town or when the pensions are collected at the post office.

If a patrol function is carried out properly, it will go wider than simply policing and will touch on community safety, the subject that the hon. Member for Stroud really wanted to debate. Community policing is more than just a marginal area of police activity. It is not just part of the police function, it is vital to good community relations and the quality of life of an area. At the moment, it is beset by continual funding problems. I accept that there are more officers in our provincial forces than there were a few years ago, but there are still too few to reassure people that they have adequate policing. There are inequalities, and there is a feeling that not only the police but other agencies. such as the magistrates courts, are retreating from rural areas. Everything seems to disappear into the nearest town, or even further away, and there are difficulties with police management.

Notwithstanding all the difficulties mentioned by the hon. Member for Stroud, and the fact that so many officers have joined he regular force, it is important to keep the special strength up. We should have retained officers, as I have said many times. However, the council tax business is now a real deterrent. It is causing problems. People are refusing to pay because they say that they are being asked for more money but are not getting a better service. That is why we hear wild talk about splitting up police authority areas and electing sheriffs—a sort of wild west scenario. It is a consequence of people feeling that they do not get value for money from their police force. The Government need to deal with that; they neglect it at their peril.

3.3 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I cannot pretend to be the aficionado of this Chamber that the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) is, but it is a useful forum for less partisan discussions about issues of concern. I welcome the debate because, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has said, it concerns something that actually matters to the people whom we are elected to represent. I sometimes think that the House spends too long debating issues with which many people cannot readily identify, but today's debate is certainly about an issue that most people identify with. It takes place against a background of rising public disillusionment with the police and the law and order system.

There is an increasing perception among many members of the public that someone who is largely law-abiding—obviously, the description must be qualified—will get everything thrown at them for doing the slightest thing wrong, whereas habitual criminals and people who present a serious problem seem to get away with impunity. That may not be an accurate picture, but I believe that it is a common perception in the communities that we serve.

The term "community policing" is used by different people to describe different things. Some use it to describe the function of a police officer walking down the street or round the village. That is often coupled with references to reassurance, as if that is the be all and end all of the matter. I get very angry when I hear people talking about community policing as a means of reassurance. Reassurance comes as a result of doing what people want, which is preventing, deterring and detecting crime—not from being able to see a police officer. Reassurance is a result, not a fundamental objective, of effective community policing.

My definition of community policing is one in which officers are actively involved in the community. The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made reference to an example in his constituency. There are good examples throughout the country of officers being available almost day and night, often setting their own shift patterns and deciding the best times for them to be on or off duty. Officers are involved with public sector and other organisations that serve the community, such as housing associations, the housing and planning authorities, environmental health, waste collection and so on. They have a vital role in that respect, but they also play a key part in the detection and deterrence function of the police.

It is true that community police officers carry out the function that we have heard about from New York, explained in the broken windows theory about helping to keep the environment attractive, so that it is less of a cause of crime. However, good community police officers are also familiar with the people whom they serve; they have their ear to the ground and pick up low-level intelligence, which often leads their colleagues to significant policing actions. What I am describing raises issues of personnel, including civilians and the countless people who have been described as the police family—not just police officers but CSOs, civilians, street wardens, the accredited community safety officers and, importantly, special constables, whom several hon. Members have mentioned.

I shall not rehearse today the arguments that I have had with the Minister's predecessors about CSOs. The Conservative party has never opposed, and would never oppose, a role for civilians in helping the police. Indeed, a Conservative Government worked hard to promote the concept of civilianisation of police authority posts that did not need a police officer. There are two matters on which we differ strongly from the Government; on one of them we are on the same side as the Liberal Democrats.

One of those matters is police powers. It is our fundamental belief that police powers should be given only to people who have been trained at the same level and with the same rigour—which effectively means regular police officers. The second matter involves our belief that the decision whether to employ CSOs or regular officers should be made at force level, and should not be imposed by Government. Of course, many forces have CSOs, but when the Government produce a ring-fenced fund that is available only to be spent on CSOs, it is hardly a surprise when CSOs are appointed. If the Government had said, "Here's £60 million that we're going to add across the board to police forces' budgets," and left police authorities to decide how many CSOs or regular officers to employ, in whatever permutation, we might have a different picture from that which we have today. That is particularly so as it becomes increasingly obvious that the cost of employing a CSO is not dramatically cheaper than that of employing a regular officer. The cost is cheaper, but not to the extent that was perhaps once perceived. The training costs are obviously very much cheaper, because CSOs get comparatively little training.

The problem of policing versus civilians and the way that that links through to police numbers, to which all hon. Members have referred, is connected to the issue of crime numbers. In the last 30 or 40 years, the number of crimes per police officer has increased at least tenfold, and I have some statistics that estimate that there has been up to a seventeen-fold increase. The burden of crime that we are expecting each police officer to deal with has therefore increased dramatically.

That leads me on to issue of council tax precepts and the growing increases that we have seen over the last few years. We have heard about the increases in Gloucester and Staffordshire, and one can find similar figures in Cambridgeshire and most other police authority areas. However, coupled with that is the point that the hon. Member for Stafford made, which is the increasing public resistance to and concern about those increases. I am quite certain that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome is correct that part of that concern is due to the fact that people do not see any benefit as a result of that increase. That is partly because they do not see the police officers, but it is also due to the increasing problem that police officers do not attend the scenes of crimes that they do not believe to be significant. That is particularly true in rural areas, but I believe that the situation is the same in many urban areas.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many crimes are reported not because the victims ever expect them to be solved, but because they need to report them to claim on the insurance for whatever has been stolen. The consequence of that is that more and more local authorities—both the London boroughs and those outside London—now use their council tax either to pay accredited CSOs or, in some cases, to buy in officers from the police force, because they want to have more control over what is going on, and to feel that they are providing police officers to be seen on the streets by the people they serve. That is an indication of the lack of accountability between police forces and the communities that they serve.

That lack of accountability is largely due to the huge increase in centralisation that we have seen over the last few years of both direct and financial control. There are so many ring-fenced, penny packets of money in police budgets, and the only decision that is open to the discretion of police authorities is whether they get them, rather than how to spend them. One extreme example that my local authority has given me is of an apparently national budget of £2 million to be used for video systems. Dividing £2 million up between 43 forces does not add up to very much and, when one takes into account the huge cost of compiling a bid, which is so commonplace these days, one ends up with a big question mark over whether the plan is worth it.

Lack of accountability is also related to the question of whether the visibility of police officers has anything to do with effectiveness. It was suggested earlier that there is somehow a conflict between visible policing and effective policing. I do not believe that that is the case, as I made clear earlier. The role of a visible community police officer is critical not only in deterring, but in combating and detecting crime. There is ample evidence of that from some parts of the country—the North Wales police has pioneered this approach—and from the United States.

Other hon. Members mentioned the particular problems of rural areas. I stand second to no one in my concern for rural areas, where problems of lack of police numbers, visibility and attendance at crime scenes may be more obvious than anywhere else. It is difficult to see how effectiveness can be increased if the police do not attend crime scenes. There can be no expectation that a crime will ever be solved if no statement, or any other evidence, is taken. Such failures, which are caused by several factors such as centralisation, give rise to public scepticism about policing and encourage the public's resistance to increases in the council tax precept to which all hon. Members have referred.

The fundamental issue that all politicians must challenge is how we rebuild a system of trust and accountability between police forces and the people whom they serve. That is not a criticism of, or a negative reflection on police officers—I have huge admiration for them—but a criticism of the system in which they are ever increasingly forced to operate.

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) referred to the huge increase in the number of civilians in his local constabulary from 367 to 545. Has he looked into the breakdown of what they do? How many of those extra civilians are involved in anything that could be described as combating crime, and how many are involved in the bureaucracy that is now enshrined in every police force, such as filling in forms about Government targets and the countless other administrative functions that now burden every authority?

Mr. Dhanda

I can inform the hon. Gentleman that quite a few of those civilians—I do not have a specific number—are civilian statement-takers, which frees more police officers to provide a greater uniformed presence on the streets.

Mr. Paice

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but most police forces went down that road a long time ago. I suspect that many of the 367 civilians that he referred to at the starting point, which I believe was in 1997, were already performing the functions that police officers need not do. That idea was pioneered by the previous Government.

This afternoon, I have heard some side-swipes at what may be perceived as Conservative policy. As we have made no announcements on that front, any such sideswipe is purely speculative. The role of Government must now be about refocusing the linkage between the communities and the police forces that serve them. That must involve an element of democracy. The partnerships about which hon. Members have spoken highly are a step forward—I would not decry that—but they are not the sole solution.

We have to consider more clearly direct accountability between police forces and their communities. We will then see the dramatic step change in the role of community policing that I believe is behind every hon. Member's speech. We all want that. There is an increasingly widespread belief that it is an important part of policing, but the issue is how we make that happen. We have a long way to go to achieve that.

3.18 pm
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

I am delighted to reply to the debate. I believe that I am one of the few Ministers who spend more time in Westminster Hall than in many other places in Parliament, and I am delighted to be here again.

We have had an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his thoughtful and perceptive contribution, which considered the wider issues of community policing and how that is central to making our communities safer, healthier and more vibrant places for people to live and work in. That is the breadth of today's debate.

I am also delighted that my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) have been able to contribute the views from their patches. I have been impressed by the connection that all hon. Members have with their local police forces. I had no idea that most Members of Parliament were in effect community support officers in their free time. I am delighted to welcome them to the extended police family and I am sure that they are making an excellent contribution to safety in their communities.

In the short time available, I want to address many of the issues that have been raised. First, community policing is not just a warm, friendly feeling. It is not simply about reassurance, but it is key to making our police services both visible and effective. I am glad to agree with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) at least on that. Community policing is not a mutually contradictory way of policing; good community policing means gathering intelligence, knowing what is going on in the patch, feeding into strategic responses and increasing the confidence within communities, so that their members feel able to come forward and give the police information on which they can act. In our drive towards community policing, we must be clear that we want to value, reward and enhance the skills involved. In the past, the community officer was almost at the end of the chain; he did not play the central role that we now envisage.

Community policing is not just about police officers. We have heard a lot about the extended police family, community support officers, neighbourhood wardens, street wardens and neighbourhood watch, and latterly schools watch and hospital watch. Finally, what can people do to re-establish the norms of decent behaviour in the places where they live and work? The extended family embraces all of us. We face a step change, moving from policing by consent, which was emphasised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), to policing by co-operation. That is a significant step. If one is policed by consent, one is a passive recipient of police services, whereas if one is policed by cooperation, one becomes an active player—a citizen with an important role in the process.

Despite the initial reluctance of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, the introduction of community support officers has been welcomed across the country. In Lancashire, we are piloting an innovative use of those officers, a tri-service project that mirrors in some ways the one in Gloucestershire between the police and the fire and ambulance services. We are beginning to pilot community support officers as the first port of call for all the blue-light services. That is an exciting development, creating added value by co-ordinating all our services. It is not about policing on the cheap; it is about thinking creatively about the skill mix that is needed. I am disappointed by the lack of creativity and imagination of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire when considering how we can use that skill mix to get a bigger impact from the investment in our police resources.

We have learned the lesson in the health service. By getting nurses to do things that only doctors used to do and involving therapists more, we get better value out of the trained professionals in the service. The same challenge faces the police. How do we utilise civilians who are beginning to do not only routine tasks, but important forensic investigation, which has not happened in the past and was highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester? We can bring people with a range of skills into the service and we have to be creative about it.

I turn to funding, because it would be remiss of me, as a Minister, not to do so. Hon. Members have acknowledged that funding has increased in the past three years.

There has been a pretty generous police settlement, and I would be the first to acknowledge that local communities, too, have done their bit by being prepared to accept higher precepts and make a contribution from their local areas. I know that precepts have increased significantly but if we look at the absolute numbers, even in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud where there was a 50 per cent. increase, we are talking about 93p a week to pay for those extra police officers and the extra community support officers who are tremendously valued by local people.

There is also the rural policing fund in areas of sparsity and, in addition to the general police grant, specific grants for the crime fighting fund. That is not simply imposed from the centre but has been introduced with the support of all members of the tripartite organisation. There has been Airwave funding, which means that our police officers have better means of communicating with each other. That can make a difference on the ground. The basic command unit funding enables unit commanders to have more autonomy to decide where resources should be put. The building safer communities fund helps the crime and disorder reduction partnerships.

On multiplicity of funding streams, I am delighted to be able to say to my hon. Friends that, by bringing together the money for communities against drugs and for safer communities, we have been able to put into a single pot funding for the crime and reduction partnerships to make a difference in local areas. We have also put into a single pot the money for diversionary activities, the positive activities programme that has been taking place throughout the summer. What were in the past various different funding streams that people found very difficult to access are now in a single pot.

We have significantly more work to do to try to simplify the partnerships and ensure that people are in the "doings" world rather than the "meetings" world. I am hugely conscious of taking up people's time in a whole range of meetings and I want to examine where we can streamline them and make them more effective.

I am delighted to confirm that police numbers are at record levels: 132,268 police officers was the latest count, and there are also 1,600 community support officers out there on the ground and a number of neighbourhood wardens acting locally. We are increasingly providing visible and high-profile funding locally to reassure local people that officers can be out there preventing and detecting crime, because this is not just about reassurance.

In the remaining couple of minutes I shall mention specials and home watch, about which hon. Members have expressed concern. It is right to say that many of our specials have joined the regular force, which is one reason why we have struggled to keep numbers up. I am delighted that we have now got a whole programme to support the recruitment of specials. We have invited forces to bid for co-ordinators and we have a programme to persuade employers that it is in their best interests to have the extra skills that people gain by being a member of the specials and to encourage them to provide time off and ensure that employees are not disadvantaged by becoming special constables. We are making sure that the job of being a special is more worth while and are tasking specials in the same way as police officers. There is always a temptation to get the specials to do the jobs that the mainstream force does not want to do. If specials are willing to volunteer, it is important that they are right at the heart of the action as well as doing local work. Involving them in the way in which they are tasked is very important.

I am pleased that, in Gloucestershire, the number of specials has gone up in the past six months. We are beginning to see numbers come back up through some of the recruitment campaigns that are taking place, but we have to think very carefully about the role of specials in relation to that of community support officers in the future. As we widen the police family, we cannot allow any one section of it to remain static. We must see where they fit in and how work can be done to support them.

Home watch and neighbourhood watch are very under-utilised resources. I went to a conference of neighbourhood watch co-ordinators in my area last week. We have 300 schemes in my relatively small city with several thousand local people prepared to do something to make a difference in preventing and fighting crime in their neighbourhood. That is a huge pool of people whom we can perhaps engage more realistically and substantively in future. Community engagement is a thread that will now permeate every part of our police reform programme and how we can re-establish our relationship with local communities. We need to do that in a real and practical way; we should not talk about community engagement but make it a reality for people on the ground.

I welcome the contributions to the debate made by all my hon. Friends. I can think of nothing more important than increasing the trust and value that local communities have in their police force, and the role of the wider police family in making our communities safer and healthier, and more vibrant places for people to live, work and bring up their families. We face a huge challenge, but I am certainly not pessimistic about it. A great deal of good work has already been done, and a great deal of exciting work remains to be done, in which we can all engage, for the benefit of our constituents.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Time is up. We thank the Minister for her reply to that important debate.