Community Policing

Westminster Hall Debate

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Nick Herbert): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate and thank him for his kind words. I appreciate his long interest in policing matters, as a constituency Member of Parliament and generally, and the passion and commitment with which he talked about community policing. I welcome the opportunity to respond to him specifically and to set out in more general terms the Government's approach to community policing and to the considerable challenge that we must face.

The hon. Gentleman spoke first about the importance of partnership in tackling crime-how the police are involved in a partnership approach and the value of his local community safety partnership. I am very happy to agree entirely with him. I believe that one of successes of the past few years is that local partnerships can be effective in helping to fight crime and in dealing with offenders.

Challenges for us include ensuring that, at a time of fiscal retrenchment, local partners continue to accept their responsibilities and engage with those partnerships, and that, at a local level, they are operating without bureaucracy, are action-oriented and problem-solving, and are not make-work organisations. At their best, the community safety partnerships have helped in the fight against crime.

I would be interested to hear more from the hon. Gentleman, formally and informally, about the effectiveness of his local partnership and how he thinks it might be improved. I am very much looking at such matters at the moment, as part of our police reform agenda. I appreciate and value the contribution of partnerships, recognising that the police cannot fight crime alone-the engagement of other agencies at the local level is required.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman talked about the value of community beat managers and about longevity-people knowing who their local police officers are and having constables out on the beat, with such officers staying in their communities and not moving on. I know from my own constituency how much attachment people have to that. If there is one thing that the public ask for-it is the people's priority-it is to see police officers out on the streets. We have to recognise that front-line policing is broader than just community policing-the police do other important things, such as response policing-but the North Wales police currently receive £3.3 million specifically for neighbourhood policing.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the importance of community support officers, as part of the mix of the available and visible policing in communities. At 30 September 2009, there were 158 police community support officers in the north Wales area. I believe that PCSOs have been an important innovation which has extended the police family. I disagree with those who reject the contribution that PCSOs can make. In my constituency, but also around the country, I have seen the added value that they can bring: a police presence and offering reassurance in neighbourhoods, well supplemented by the wider responsibilities that a neighbourhood policing team has to fulfil.

The fact that PCSOs are not fully empowered is far from being a disadvantage, and can be an advantage in keeping them with a near-permanent presence out on the streets, rather than being tied up by other duties. The hon. Gentleman asked me about PCSOs. We certainly want to see PCSOs continuing as part of the policing family.

PCSOs are not the only members of the policing family. The hon. Gentleman could have mentioned special officers and their contribution as volunteers. There is still untapped potential in the recruitment of specialists. Significantly, in the 1950s, there were more than 67,000 specials nationally, partly as a legacy of the war-now there are 14,000. Steps have been taken to improve the recruitment of specials in recent years, but the number is still far lower than it used to be. As part of our big society agenda we should consider how to encourage volunteering to a greater extent. I have talked to a number of specials. I gave the awards at the National Policing Improvement Agency specials awards ceremony a few weeks ago, and it really came home to me just how much specials can add to the mix of policing. There is potential for expansion in that regard.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I knew about Street Pastors. Yes, I do. I have seen them in action. I went out with Portsmouth police a couple of weeks ago to look at the problems that they have policing the so-called night time economy. Street pastors were engaged with police officers as part of the presence on the streets, doing an important job dealing with people who needed help and preventing the police from being diverted from law enforcement duties. As part of the volunteering mix, and as part of the wider police family, street pastors play a real and important role, which I understand the hon. Gentleman values locally.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of local leadership and singled out Inspector Beasley for having led the increase in confidence in neighbourhood policing in his constituency. I understand how important it is to find local leaders like that, who commit to local policing and build confidence in the local community. Last week I met a highly motivated Inspector in Greater Manchester police who has been involved over a long period in building neighbourhood policing in a difficult part of Greater Manchester-the Gorton estate-where crime has been a significant problem. Much has flowed from his commitment and enthusiasm, his dedication to the area and his determination to bring policing partners together, get people around the table and get the community involved. It is important to ensure that such motivation is encouraged. It is a challenge for chief constables to ensure that they are retaining and recruiting such talented police officers.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree-I think he does-that one failing of politicians in the past is that we have not promoted sufficiently the good work done in community policing? There was a time when community policing was not regarded as being at the forefront of policing work. I am glad to hear that the Minister thinks that that has changed.

Nick Herbert: I agree. There was a move away from community policing in the past and we forgot the fundamental principles on which policing in this country was founded. We have now returned to an understanding of the importance of neighbourhood policing, backed with significant resources. I commend the previous Government for moving in that direction, which was a return to the kind of policing that the public want to see, although it sometimes took a certain amount of time for opinion in policing circles to follow. Neighbourhood policing was regarded by some as a kind of add-on-an accessory that did not necessarily help in the fight against crime, or something that they felt they ought to do. It is important that we value neighbourhood policing, and important that effective neighbourhood policing is celebrated.

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about funding. I understand that. There are two main issues to do with ongoing funding. First, the Government have had to announce funding changes in-year as part of the contribution to reducing the fiscal deficit and to paying down the deficit by £6 billion. The Home Office took a disproportionate share, in terms of the savings that we made in the Home Office centrally and in the central policing bodies. Nevertheless, police forces, which represent the lion's share of the Home Office's spending, had to play some part, so we asked them to reduce their spending in-year. The reduction is less than 1.5% of what police forces are spending this year, but it is a challenge because they have to make an in-year saving. However, most chief constables-I have discussed this with them collectively, including the chief constable of North Wales-understand that it has to be done. We have been urging them to do everything possible to protect the front line and to make the savings in efficiencies of the kind that we have made in the Home Office: cutting wasteful expenditure and bearing down on things that do not need to have money spent on them, so that they can retain recruitment and protect those front line services that are so important.

North Wales police had a £1.2 million cut in revenue and capital spending, but the force will still receive £900,00 more than it received last year and its overall estimated revenue expenditure-the total amount that it will be spending-last year was £157.7 million. As a proportion of that overall revenue spending, the amount that it is being asked to cut in-year is 0.8% of expenditure. I think that most of us would conclude that an organisation ought to be able to make savings of 0.8% of the total amount that they spend by finding the kinds of savings that I have suggested.

The second concern about funding relates to the Chancellor's announcements in the Budget about spending and the savings that are required to be made in Departments in the four-year period of the comprehensive spending review. The Chancellor has indicted savings in the non-protected Departments, including the Home Office, of 25% in real terms over four years. None of us doubts that that would be a challenging figure. Again, as the major component of spending, policing would have to play its part. We do not know what the outcome of the CSR will be. Therefore we do not know what share policing will have to bear.

Last week at the Association of Chief Police Officers conference in Manchester we discussed extensively the kinds of things that we want to see happening to protect the front line. For instance, we want greater sharing of services between the 43 forces, where I believe there are significant savings to be made through centralised procurement and greater collaboration. The Government will play their part by doing everything possible to cut bureaucracy to ensure that there is less paperwork for police officers to do, so that they are not tied up in police stations. We want the police to be crime fighters, not form writers, so we scrapped the remaining central target in relation to policing and the central pledge. We will look again at the police performance framework, which is administered by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, to ensure that police officers can be free to do the job that we want them to do, and we want to reduce costs, which are considerable, in terms of compliance with all the top-down targetry that exists.

Considerable savings can be driven out of police forces and they can make savings individually and collectively. We are working with ACPO to look at how that will be possible and what role the Government can play in securing those savings. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, although policing is entering challenging times, we are committed to ensuring that, as far as possible, police officers will remain visible and available in their communities. We understand that that is what the public want.

Ian Lucas: Will there be fewer of them?

Nick Herbert: The hon. Gentleman knows that we cannot give guarantees about numbers. The previous Government could not do so. During the general election, on "The Daily Politics", the previous Home Secretary refused to give a guarantee on numbers. We can no longer play the numbers game. The test of an effective force is not just the numbers of people working in it. We have to consider how we might ensure that front line availability is increased by considering what roles civilian officers could perform in police forces-for example, whether they could do not just bank-room jobs, but policing jobs, such as contributing to detective work that does not necessarily need sworn officers. We will be able to promote innovative working practices as well.

We cannot give any guarantees about numbers, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do everything possible to create the conditions that enable chief officers to protect the front line. We understand that that is what the public want and that that is their priority. We understand the value that the public attach to visible and available policing and, from the Government's point of view, we will do everything that we can. However, it is for chief constables to decide on the right work-force mix in their forces and it is for them to take decisions and ensure that they are delivering effective value for money, given the available resources. There are not limitless resources for policing-there never were-and the situation is tough.

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6 July 2010

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