Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 18th January 2005.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 151, in clause 113, page 80, line 10, leave out subsections (5) and (6).
Amendment No. 152, in schedule 8, page 169, line 8, leave out paragraphs 2 and 3.
Government amendments Nos. 264 to 266.
Amendment No. 293, in schedule 8, page 169, line 28, leave out
', for a period not exceeding thirty minutes, or' and insert
Amendment No. 292, in schedule 8, page 169, line 28, leave out 'thirty' and insert 'fifteen'.'
Government amendment No. 267.
Government amendment No. 268.
Government amendment No. 58.
Amendment No. 153, in schedule 8, page 171, line 14, leave out paragraph 5.
Amendment No. 157, in schedule 8, page 172, line 24, at end insert—
'(3) A person shall not exercise any power under this paragraph except in the company, and under the supervision, of a constable.'.
Amendment No. 154, in schedule 8, page 172, line 25, leave out paragraphs 8 to 11.
Amendment No. 290, in schedule 8, page 173, line 29, at end insert—
12A Paragraphs 2 to 12 shall not come into effect until the Secretary of State has published an assessment of the cost and effectiveness of the existing system of community support officers.'.
Amendment No. 155, in schedule 8, page 173, line 34, leave out paragraph 14.
Amendment No. 156, in schedule 8, page 175, line 1, leave out paragraph 17.
Government amendment No. 59.
Government amendment No. 60.
Amendment No. 291, in schedule 9, page 178, line 24, at end add—
11 Paragraphs 2 to 10 shall not come into effect until the Secretary of State has published an assessment of the cost and effectiveness of the existing system of community support officers.'.
Amendment No. 294, in schedule 9, page 178, line 24, at end insert—
11 Paragraphs 2 to 12 shall not come into effect until the Secretary of State has implemented a programme of national standards and training for community support officers covering the new responsibilities and duties inherent in this Act.'.
Mr. Mitchell: : We come to the debate on the police community support officers and the extension of their powers. I am most grateful to those who organise these things for agreeing that we might have one big debate on the matter. I can assure the Committee that this is the last substantive issue of concern to Her Majesty's Opposition for discussion today.
It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I say a few words about our amendments before coming to the specific areas that we would like to discuss. The subsection mentioned in amendment No. 150 would allow the Secretary of State to add or remove a provision from the list of offences for which a community support officer may issue a fixed penalty notice for disorder. We seek to remove that aspect from the Bill.
Amendment No. 151 would remove subsection (5), which would amend the powers of accredited persons with regard to fixed penalty notices for disorder. The paragraphs mentioned in amendment No. 152 would give PCSOs the right to investigate licensing offences, which we want to remove.
The purpose of amendments Nos. 293 and 292 is to provide an opportunity to consider the limits to the PCSOs' powers and important practical considerations that follow. Amendment No. 153 would remove the paragraph that gives PCSOs the power to detain a beggar. Amendment No. 157 deals with a part of schedule 8 that gives the power to place traffic signs. A significant difference exists between the physical placement of signs and the decision on where to place them. Although placing a traffic sign may not appear a difficult job on the face of it, in reality it has wide implications for traffic management and road safety. We seek to probe that important and potentially significant issue.
Amendment No. 154 deals with a PCSO's power to photograph an arrested person and with powers of entry, search and seizure for designated investigation officers, which we want to remove. Amendment No. 290 would provide that a full evaluation of CSOs' effectiveness and value for money should be conducted before any additional powers are given. I will come on to the limited evaluation that has been conducted, which the Minister has helpfully made available to us.
Amendment No. 155 would remove the paragraph that gives PCSOs the power to require a name and address from a beggar. Amendment No. 156 would remove the power to photograph a person given a fixed penalty notice away from the police station. Amendments Nos. 150 to 153 and Nos. 154 to 156 deal with powers to control, direct and detain and whether those should be allocated only to fully accountable constables. Allocating yet more powers on a pick-and-mix basis raises the question of what the end game is. Are any policing powers sacrosanct, or in time will civilian personnel hold the whole panoply?
Under amendment No. 291, we want a full evaluation of CSOs' effectiveness and value for money. Under amendment No. 294, we want to ensure that adequate training is provided to PCSOs before they receive their new powers. We want to probe the Minister on those issues. She may well be able to satisfy us on some of them, but perhaps not on others; we shall see. I shall return at the end of my remarks to Government amendment No. 58, which is important.
The Minister has teased me in numerous debates about where the Conservative party stands on CSOs, so let me reassure her at the outset of the debate that we are not opposed to them in principle. However, we do not think that they are proper policemen and women. They have a role in terms of their visibility, which is reassuring and helpful in looking after our neighbourhoods, and they certainly have a role in neighbourhood policing, but we are concerned that the Government are moving too quickly, without proper evaluation of how they should develop the role of PCSOs.
Where PCSOs are the eyes and ears of the police, they do an excellent job. Twenty-three are coming to my constituency and the surrounding area, and I look forward to seeing them have precisely the impact that I have described. Indeed, bicycling the other night to where I stay when I am in London, I came across a couple of PCSOs who were walking the area and I was able to inform them of some yobbish, loutish behaviour that had been going on near there. They were extremely helpful, saying that they would report it and would be back the following night, as I believe they were. So I am in no doubt that in the limited way that I have described, PCSOs can play a helpful role in neighbourhood policing.
That said, several concerns are evident from our amendments. I shall raise first what I call function creep. When PCSOs were originally proposed, in the Police Reform Act 2002, they had a number of fairly limited roles to perform. Since their introduction, however, there has been a steady creep in the powers that they are allocated. The Bill is designed to extend their powers even further, without, as yet, any empirical evidence as to the effectiveness of the exercise of their existing powers.
In clause 113 and schedules 8 and 9, there is an effort to enable a wide range of powers to be allocated to a wide range of individuals in a wide range of circumstances. We believe that the power to control, direct and detain should be allocated only to fully accountable police constables, for all the reasons that have emerged during our debates: political independence, impartiality, training and so on. It is not efficient or effective to allocate such powers on a pick-and-mix basis. The continual need to increase powers given to PCSOs and other accredited persons under such a piecemeal approach clearly shows that insufficient consideration has been given to the provision of and dynamics of police powers to control, direct and detain. The Bill therefore represents yet another example of creeping powers for PCSOs, despite the absolute lack of clarification of their role, skills and general effectiveness.
A number of bodies, including Liberty and the Police Federation, expressed concerns that once PCSOs had been introduced, extensions of their powers would inevitably follow. Clause 113 makes it clear that those concerns were right. Under this clause, PCSOs will be able to exercise a variety of new powers, including those of search, seizure, entry and detention. I understand that the Police Federation is extremely concerned about those proposals, as are we. It will have to work with them. Certain policing powers should remain the preserve of those who have full and appropriate training.
I am sure that the Government will seek to advance the measures by giving examples of situations in which it would have been desirable for CSOs to have the powers, and we shall listen with interest if the Minister does so. However, we believe that that misses the point. CSOs should be used only in a supporting role. If there are examples of situations where the exercise of extra powers would have been of use, then this is an argument for a greater number of police officers, which is Conservative party policy, and not for an extension of the powers of CSOs. The Bar Council, in response to the Government's proposal to extend the powers, argued that on most occasions where an extension of powers is discussed, CSOs will be in front-line police work. The Police Federation have said that at a time when NCS and NCIS officers are facing a reduction in their powers to tackle serious and organised crime, bestowing CSOs with even more powers is a clear and unjustifiable contradiction.
Secondly, the powers to detain and arrest included in the Bill will inevitably lead to confrontational situations where, without the necessary training, equipment or skills, PCSOs will be putting both themselves and the public at risk. Our amendments provide an opportunity to consider the limits to the PCSOs' powers, and the important practical considerations that would follow. It is precisely because of the inherent problems that citizens have never been encouraged to make arrests themselves.
In paragraph 2 of Schedule 9, why has 30 minutes been chosen? Is that a reasonable response time for someone committing a section 3 or 4 offence in a busy urban area? What happens to the detained person when 30 or 15 minutes are up? Will there not be disputes in courts about the timing?. What is the Government's view about the difficulties inherent in that? Is it an arrest? Will the PCSO be subject to the codes of practice we discussed earlier, which govern the behaviour of policemen and women? What happens if the offender gets violent? What protection does the PCSO have against such violence? What training? What equipment? Do they have handcuffs or a truncheon? Is this not more properly police work? If the PCSOs have to be minded by policemen, is that not, of itself, a case for more police?
Giving PCSOs the power to detain will remove them from the street and take them out of the public arena, in which they were created to operate, which is a breach of my first principle of what PCSOs should be used for. The Government's regulatory impact assessment for the Bill expressly states that they do not want to do that. This is another example, I submit, of muddled thinking from this Government. The regulatory impact assessment specifies a key benefit of increased powers for PCSOs:
''Increase the capacity of PCSOs and accredited persons to deal with anti-social behaviour without eroding their high visibility role, thus helping to improve reassurances within communities.''
Giving the right to a PCSO to detain will surely remove them from the communities they are intended to serve.
The power to search and seize is dangerous, and is surrounded by complex procedure. If the person to be searched is violent, as drug-traffickers or those carrying weapons often are, what protection does the PCSO have? Is it in his training or equipment? Will the PCSO be subject to the police codes of practice? If so, they must be selected for their ability to quickly translate the action into the law's requirements. That requires the ability and training that police men and women receive, not the shorter course for PCSOs. What provisions are being made by the Government to monitor that? If these tasks are to be done, there is no substitute for their being done properly, by properly trained and equipped police officers. Police work should be done only in that way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) made an excellent point on Second Reading. He pointed out that under the last Conservative Government, of which he and I were members, the thrust of government policy was to civilianise, to free police to go on the streets. He teased the Minister with the fact that, under Labour, we are putting civilians on the streets, so that police can spend more time filling in forms and being in the police station. It a point that the Minister should bear in mind.
There is no doubt that the exercise of the additional powers, including the powers to search and detain a person and deter begging, are likely to put PSCOs at greater personal risk. Consider what the Bar Council said regarding the power to deter begging:
''We have serious reservations about the prospect of CSOs dealing with begging. Many people involved in begging have mental health difficulties and can be extremely difficult, volatile or even dangerous. On any view this is front line policing and ought to be the preserve of the police force.''
Lack of training for PSCOs is a great concern. Currently, the Metropolitan Police Service CSOs receive only three weeks' training. If those officers are to take on extra powers, they will require far more rigorous training to ensure that they discharge their responsibilities effectively and safely. The Government's comments on the issue of PCSO training do not measure up to what is required. The regulatory impact assessment states:
''Forces will need to give some additional training to the PCSOs in order for them to exercise the (new) powers. These costs should be minimal and can be met from Police Authority budgets.''
The RIA also states:
''The training for all the new powers would probably require about one day's extra training.''
Those statements confirm not only that the Government seek to do the training on the cheap, with no extra money being provided to train PCSOs effectively, but also that they do not grasp the amount of training required to ensure that PCSOs, and the public, remain safe.
My fourth point is that there has been no independent and comprehensive evaluation of the current system of PCSOs. There is public and police concern about giving police powers to people who are not policemen and policewomen. They are not selected, trained, supervised or equipped to the same standard, and the public may only find the extension of their powers to be acceptable if they can be shown to be efficient and cost-effective. They have a short history, which ought to be evaluated before additional powers are given to them.
What is the cost to the Exchequer of CSOs compared with police officers? What training will they receive? Who will train them? If they are to be trained by the police, what is the cost of taking the trainers out of service or away from training police recruits? Who will supervise them? What will that cost? What protective equipment will they need? How much extra will that cost? What is the Minister's response to the chairman of Hampshire police authority, who said that PCSOs are not value for money?
As the chairman of the Police Federation has said,
''The role of the PCSOs must be fully clarified before a national rollout, and there must be national standards for their training which is commensurate with their responsibilities.''
Unless that happens, either police authorities will reject the use of PCSOs, and this part of the Bill will have been a complete waste of time, or the extension of powers to PCSOs will prove to be unpopular, misguided, expensive, dangerous and totally counter-productive. The Home Office interim report, the ''National Evaluation of Police Community Support Officers'', does not provide us with any confidence that the roll-out of powers has been based on any factual proof of effectiveness. The report states that there is only
''limited evidence as to whether the presence of PCSOs has an impact on crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour''.
''Few of the force evaluations (upon which this report is based) include a rigorous analysis of crime and incident data for areas before and after the introduction of CSOs. Where this is done, it is very difficult to attribute any changes to the presence of CSOs.''
The Government should not be increasing the number of PCSOs across the country or extending the powers available to them without the knowledge that they are indeed effective, providing value for money and reducing crime. We want to hear the Government's response to all of our points before we consider which amendments we should bring to the Committee by way of a vote.
Government amendment No. 58 deals with search and seizure powers for alcohol and tobacco and powers to seize and detain controlled drugs. Will the Minister tell the Committee why the Government have introduced that important new clause now? Why was it not included in the published Bill? Why did we not have a chance to discuss it on Second Reading? There have been an extraordinarily large number of amendments tabled by the Government on the Bill, many of a technical or an uncontroversial nature.
The Government wish to build on the powers of PCSOs and designated persons under the terms of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 regarding confiscation of alcohol, in addition to the powers under the Licensing Act 2003 that allow search and confiscation. That is an expansion of the powers of the PCSO into a volatile area of policing. Alcohol consumed either in the street or on licensed premises by young or old often has the effects that we read about every day in the papers. Police officers, in dealing with such incidents, have physical protection, training, knowledge of law and experience. Giving the power to PCSOs removes them from a support role and places them in a front-line policing role. Will the PCSOs, in the Minister's opinion, have the experience and training to deal with what are often antagonistic crowd situations?
The power to search is also clearly part of the provision. If a person fails to comply with the PCSO's request to surrender alcohol and the PCSO has reasonable belief that the person has alcohol or a container for alcohol in his or her possession, the PCSO may search him for it. A police officer in similar circumstances will not have the same power: a police officer will have to act in accordance with the guidelines under code A of the PACE codes of practice. In such circumstances, the officer will have to complete a stop and search form to remain compliant with the codes, which come into operation in April. Yet under the amendment, it seems that PCSOs will not have to be similarly accountable for their suspicion. That is giving PCSOs a power not enjoyed by sworn and accountable police officers.
The most dangerous aspect of the new clause is that headed:
''Powers to seize and detain: controlled drugs''.
That presents a scenario in which the PCSO is not only dealing with a potentially violent drunkard but with an unpredictable, potentially psychotic person, who may be legitimately in possession of controlled drugs, or—more likely—in possession of them for dealing purposes or for his own use. An untrained, unequipped and inexperienced PCSO would thus be dealing with a situation with the potential for considerable violence, searching people who might be carrying some form of weaponry to protect either themselves or the drugs or cash that they were carrying. The situation might well turn violent if the suspect were threatened with arrest or the seizure of the substances that they carried.
We of course must assume that the PCSO would in the first instance have the necessary knowledge of the range of controlled drugs under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 to form the suspicion necessary to call upon the designated powers. The PCSOs will require further training on how to search for substances while preserving their own health and safety in respect of the potential for needle-stick injuries and exposure to HIV and hepatitis. Furthermore, they will need the skills and techniques necessary to prevent the loss of evidence due to the disposal of substances through, for example, swallowing by the offender. Those are clearly front-line policing matters.
My concerns are exacerbated by the fact that the new clauses have been tabled so late and may not receive the scrutiny that they deserve. I rest the Opposition case there, but I have bowled many questions at the Minister, and I hope that she will be able to satisfy us that in at least some instances the powers will be given, through training and use, in a manner that will not place the public or PCSOs in harm's way.
Without wishing to be in any way unkind, to the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, this may be another matter in relation to which he is on a journey: the Conservative party's position on community support officers is changing incrementally as time goes by. As I have made plain on previous occasions, we have always felt that community support officers were a good idea. Some are now deployed in my constituency, and I am extremely pleased that they are there. I have been to see them and shaken them by the hand, and I am delighted to have them patrolling the streets of some small communities that would otherwise not see a police officer regularly, because of the paucity of officers in the rural county of Somerset.
Just to be clear, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not take his remarks as any unkindness; since the day I became the shadow police Minister I have made it clear that, in the narrow terms that I define, we welcome PCSOs. Our great concern is that the Government are moving too quickly and too fast, and giving them powers for which they are not trained. That has been the burden of my speech. They have a valuable role in policing, but it must not be overstated. That was my view on Second Reading, and I said so on the Floor of the House.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his personal position; I am not sure that that position has always been adopted by his colleagues in relation to previous legislation on this matter. However, he gave us an example of his work with community support officers—indeed, I am getting slightly worried about the Conservative Front Benchers, who seem to be acting as a sort of vigilante force. It is entirely commendable, but one wonders what risks they are running fighting crime in such a hands-on way.
I should like to make it absolutely clear to the Committee that there was no act of personal bravery on my part, as there was in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. I merely reported matters to the PCSOs and disappeared behind my front door.
I shall not tease the hon. Gentleman further.
Many of us support the concept of CSOs and see them as a potentially valuable part of the policing family, as I believe we are supposed to call the variety of officers now available. However, we also recognise—this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—that there is a huge danger of expecting too much of them. They have a particular role to play—a role that should perhaps be more carefully circumscribed. I can think of no purer illustration of the concerns of many than the Prime Minister's response during Prime Minister's questions a couple of weeks ago. Inadvertently, he talked about community support officers supplanting full-time police officers—we know that he meant supplementing, but he said supplanting, and it appeared in Hansard as supplanting, even though No. 10 is normally assiduous in having such misspeaks removed. That is precisely the concern that many people feel.
To return an important point that I made earlier in our consideration of the Bill, when the Minister of State was not present, there is a real fear that the role of community support officers is expanding from below, as it were—that there is an incremental approach to their powers. SOCA and the officers who will be involved with it—we are told that they are not police officers, irrespective of the fact that they are—are taking on specific roles at the top. There is a danger that the real police force, the attested officer, will become a narrowly circumscribed rump between the two—the police will become more like a gendarmerie whose primary function is the keeping of the peace instead of genuinely omnicompetent constables. The Minister must be aware of that very real fear among those who are watching what the Government are doing. That is why we need to test carefully any proposal to extend the powers of CSOs beyond what they should be. As I said earlier, they should be the eyes and ears of the police service, providing a visible presence on the streets to offer reassurance to the population and to report to and pass information on to the police service.
Inevitably, somebody who is put on the street in a blue uniform will at times face circumstances in which he wishes he had greater powers than he has been given by statute. That is not the test, however. The test is not whether it would be useful in such circumstances for a CSO to have the power; it is whether it is sensible for CSOs to be diverted from their primary function in order to exercise a power for which they have not been adequately trained or prepared. That is why we have to consider the Government's proposals critically.
I have no problem with some of the suggested powers—for example, I have argued almost from the start that community support officers should have a bigger role in traffic offence policing in villages, because it is nonsense to require the attendance of a police constable rather than use such officers to deal with minor traffic offences. I get much more twitchy when we deal with powers of search and seizure, because we are coming close to, if not exceeding, the proper powers of a police constable.
The point about the placing of traffic signs on which I need reassurance is this: signs placed incorrectly could confuse a motorist coming into an area, who is unused to the way in which the signs are positioned. Therefore, without people receiving the right training, such powers and responsibilities, if wrongly used, could lead to accidents and worse. I need to be satisfied that that will not be case under this creeping increase of powers, and I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said about the inherent dangers.
I am grateful for that explanation. We are talking about supervision rather than anything else; I do not believe that someone will be recruited as a CSO who is so deficient in common sense as to not understand their basic duties. However, they put themselves at risk and there is a question about their capacity to react to unforeseen circumstances when dealing with search and seizure powers. I also have a fundamental concern about whether such powers are intrinsically linked to the attested officer, the office of constable or the equivalent in bodies such as Customs and Excise, rather than to CSOs. The Minister needs to persuade me on that.
I can understand the rationale behind the proposal, especially in the case of community support officers patrolling areas set up as alcohol-free zones by byelaw in a town centre and effectively acting as—I hope that this is not an inappropriately disparaging term—security officers. There is an argument that they should be able to deal with whatever nuisances they find in those circumstances. However, the Minister must assure the Committee about how those powers will be used, because they raise question marks about what happens not when it all goes right, but when it all goes wrong. That is my concern.
I do not want to put community support officers at risk, nor do I want them to be diverted from their principal duties. I do not want to put police officers at risk through having to put right the deficiencies of their colleagues. I want the criminal justice system to work effectively. For all of that to happen, the Home Office has to have a clear idea of where the boundaries should be set, but I have a feeling that they are shifting in the same direction and that the police service is being squeezed in the middle. I do not want that to happen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome have advanced a wide variety of arguments that I would have made, and I support pretty much everything that has been said so far. However, the key question that arose in the debate was at what point does an effective CSO become an untrained and cheap policeman? That point will come. Despite supporting CSOs and continuing to do so, we have grave concerns, first, that the measures proposed in the Bill will shift the balance and, secondly, that because CSOs have been in place for only a short period, it is too early to understand fully what their proper role should be and how they have settled into their role to date. The Government have not done enough research or put together enough information to explain the position of CSOs across the country and where we should go from there.
Whichever way we consider the matter, CSOs amount to policing on the cheap. We support them, mainly because we are desperate to see uniformed people in our towns and villages, but CSOs are no alternative to fully trained police officers. More to the point, CSOs do not come free from central Government. They are normally provided on a matched funding basis. There is always a cost to the local taxpayer, because central Government will never pay the whole amount. There is a good side to CSOs, in that they are not tied to central Government targets. For instance, at one point Cambridgeshire was not meeting the arrest targets set by central Government—something that the Conservatives will get rid of. The chief constable's response was to send all the local police officers into the local cities so that he could meet the then Home Secretary's targets for the year; however, the CSOs at least were not moved from the villages in which they were policing. There are therefore advantages in having CSOs, but it is still policing on the cheap.
There are risks, most of which have been set out. Those that come to mind particularly are the concerns that many have expressed about CSOs intervening in public order situations, including searching people, dealing with beggars and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said in broadening the debate, dealing with drugs crimes. On average, CSOs will have three weeks' training. That may be enough to enable them to perform their basic tasks and to train them to use the basic equipment, such an anti-stab vest, effectively, but is three weeks enough time to train them to use a baton or CS gas? Such issues are of concern.
The discretionary exercise of CSOs' powers varies from police force to police force. Each chief constable can decide on the applicable powers that he or she feels are appropriate to his or her area. That seems right if we consider CSOs' basic powers, but as those powers grow the need for uniformity becomes more persuasive. I share the concerns that have been voiced so far in this debate and look forward to hearing what the Minister says about the monitoring of CSOs once the powers in question are given, in different ways, across the whole country.
We have had an extremely interesting debate. I think that the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is now in discussion with the usual channels. I was about to say he was in danger of slightly sullying his reputation, with just a little hyperbole in his contribution. I hope that my contribution will reassure him that there is method in what the Government are doing, that there is rigorous analysis of the appropriate role for community support officers, and that we are certainly not in the business of uncontrolled mission creep or function creep, which I genuinely appreciate would give rise to concerns among hon. Members.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon made a good point that as community support officers become established in the fabric of the extended police family—clearly they are to hear to stay—then there is a need to ensure some consistency around their training standards and role. We must try to balance that with the important discretion for chief constables to decide which powers are appropriate for their community support officers in the context of the local policing challenge. Our Government are committed to recruiting an extra 20,000 CSOs.
My contention was that the process should be conducted now.
I will come to evaluation, monitoring and analysis of CSOs' role in due course. I was about to say this Government are committed to recruiting an extra 20,000 community support officers over the next three years. They will become an established part of the policing scene. In the two years they have been patrolling our streets, CSOs have really proven the success of the extended police family in England and Wales. I am delighted that hon. Gentlemen have praised the community support officers patrolling their own constituencies. I join them, for I have an extra 12 community support officers coming to my constituency shortly. I will be delighted to welcome them, for they are enormously reassuring to my community. Most community support officers spend about 70 per cent. of their time on patrol in their local areas. They are highly visible, which contributes to the reassurance they are able to give to those communities.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield—and to some extent the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—talked about the possible diminution of the role of the attested officer and the beat constable. I want to place on record the sentiments I have expressed on a number of occasions: I see community support officers as a complement, an addition to the record numbers of police officers we already have patrolling our streets. I want them to direct their attention towards the low-level, antisocial behaviour that is top of our constituents' priorities but that, in the past, has often not received the attention it deserved because of other demands on police service. CSOs are in addition to our police officers.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said that the Conservative Government were in the business of supporting civilianisation. They certainly were, for they had more civilians and 1,100 fewer police officers. We have more police officers and more civilians. Our approach is probably more appreciated by the British people than the hon. Gentleman's—which was, in practice, reducing the number of police officers available to protect our communities.
I see an important role not only for the constable but for all the federated ranks in our service, but again their role is changing. Many police constables will say that they welcome the opportunity to be leaders of neighbourhood teams. Increasingly, that is the job they are taking on. It is pretty complex, leading a team of police community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. Exercising influence over accredited persons who are not directly under their command and control requires a new set of skills but when I talk to police constables who are carrying out this role, many of them tell me they do not really know how they managed without the community support officers. They see them as a really good asset, provided they are concentrating on that low-level role.
The Minister is touching on a crucial thing. One plus point of what the Government have been doing in this area is the re-emphasis on the patrol function. Again, I have been arguing for many years that it is a specialism—something we need to nurture within the police service. The concept of the patrol function did not just happen by accident. It is not a marginal add-on to fighting crime while rushing around dealing with the big stuff. It is actually crucial to effective policing.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The danger, however, is that people start talking about neighbourhood policing as a kind of warm, fuzzy way of carrying out the job when it is actually hard-edged and driven by intelligence, through the national intelligence model and community intelligence. Indeed, community support officers are some of the best people for getting community intelligence. Local people will often talk to a CSO when they would not necessarily talk to a police constable. Because they are out there 70 per cent. of the time, CSOs make relationships with head teachers, shopkeepers and so on. Police constables, too, have such relationships, but CSOs are an excellent additional source of the intelligence that drives good, successful, hard-edge, proactive neighbourhood policing.
What the hon. Lady says is true, but I hope that she will not forget the point made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), who made it clear that, in respect of such relationships, PCSOs should not be a substitute for the beat officer. She will recall that point being made in Westminster Hall last week. There is substantial agreement between all three parties on the question of neighbourhood policing, but I agree with her hon. Friend on that important point.
I am glad that we have some consensus across the parties. I want to deal now with some of our differences.
The hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield and for Huntingdon raised the issue of evaluation and asked whether we should be rolling out increasing powers in advance of national evaluation, which is due this summer. An interim evaluation, which has been circulated to members of the Committee, looks at the experience of CSOs in 27 forces.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is right that evidence on the impact of CSOs on reduction of crime is limited, but it is early days. However, their impact on public satisfaction is amazing. In Leeds and Bradford, 96 per cent. of those who had had contact with CSOs were satisfied with the way in which the situation was handled. In Northumbria, satisfaction with the police has risen by 32 per cent. in areas where CSOs have been introduced. They are certainly visible in Westminster, where 86 per cent. of respondents have seen a CSO. In St. Helens, in connection with one of our most intractable problems, young people reported that their interactions with community support officers were more positive than interaction with police officers.
The interim evaluation also shows that CSOs have had a significant impact. In Bradford and Leeds, 64 per cent. of people said that the visible presence of police officers including a CSO reassured them about their personal safety. That is good early evidence. We have commissioned an extensive report into community support officers; it is a huge study and it will report in a few months. However, the evaluation and research is ongoing, and I see no reason for us to halt in our tracks pending that full evaluation because, to a significant extent, I am reassured by the interim evaluation.
We disagree with the Minister. She should not be spending hard-earned taxpayers' money without the sort of evaluation being in place that she says is coming down the tracks. It is her duty as a Minister to act as guardian for the taxpayer—the hard-working families who cough up the huge sums of extra tax under this Government—and she should not spend that money until she has that evaluation.
She can pluck quotes from the interim paper as well as I can, but she should at least accept that one of the top indications of the impact of CSOs is to be found on page 4, where it states:
''Currently, there is limited evidence as to whether the presence of CSOs has an impact on crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour.''
That is not the evidence that the Minister or we require for the spending of large sums of money on rolling out a more expensive programme of PCSOs. That is the point.
I was trying to be as fair and open as I could in indicating that parts of the evaluation were strong on visibility and public satisfaction but that evidence on crime reduction is still in early development.
I can trade further information with the hon. Gentleman if he so wishes. In the 12 months following the introduction of CSOs in Leeds city centre, vehicle-related crime fell by 31 per cent., and personal robbery by 47 per cent. I am not going to say that robbery was virtually halved as a result of CSOs being deployed in that city centre. Making that direct link would be premature and pretty disingenuous, and I will not do so.
The hon. Gentleman should take note of the public's satisfaction on the visibility and accessibility of CSOs and their impact on people's sense of reassurance. He should also be aware that, in the British crime survey of 18 months ago, some 21 per cent. of people were very concerned about the impact of antisocial behaviour on their quality of life. However, in the past 18 months, that is down to 16 per cent.—down by a massive five points. Given the introduction of CSOs, with their focus on low-level antisocial behaviour, it is not entirely a coincidence that people perceive the incidence of a range of things, including fly-tipping, graffiti, abandoned cars and gangs hanging around beginning to come down quite dramatically. That is testament to the Government's investment in the together campaign against antisocial behaviour, which is so popular with members of the public.
The powers that we seek to introduce through the Bill are designed to enable CSOs to deal with situations that they routinely face. It is not about extending their powers into a massive new area of work. I want them to concentrate on antisocial behaviour. Quite often when they are going about their patrolling business, they will come up against certain circumstances. In the Bill, we have tried, quite forensically, to see whether they need additional powers to cope with certain things that arise day to day. An example is begging. Often, CSOs will be out on the streets and will see people begging. Currently, under public order legislation, they have powers to deal with aggressive begging, but they do not have powers to deal with passive begging, which in its own way can be quite intimidating to people who want to use a cash machine or do their shopping in the city centre.
These powers mean that, after careful examination, a CSO can detain the beggar. They can ask them to stop begging and, if they do not stop, they can ask them for their name and address. What kind of name and address they might get from a beggar I am not sure, but if the beggar does not give a name and address he can be detained and the CSO can get a police officer. That is good not only for the public, in that we can get begging off the streets, but for beggars. Some 80 per cent. of beggars beg to feed a drug habit. If a CSO can help to channel a person into drug treatment, we can create a virtuous circle in getting them off the street. Let us consider the respect campaign in Nottingham and the antisocial behaviour trailblazer scheme in Brighton, which has been directed at begging and street drinking. The success of those campaigns in clearing up the begging and street drinking that make people's lives a misery is phenomenal. That is an example of the way in which powers have been targeted.
We are not involved in mission creep in a general sense, or in getting CSOs to take on more of a policing role. We are trying to ensure that chief constables still have the power to designate their CSOs with powers, which is important. Most of the Opposition amendments would remove the powers that we propose and prevent us from increasing the effectiveness of CSOs in dealing with low-level crime and antisocial behaviour. Another example of the powers that we are giving CSOs is the power to enable them to deal with some licensing offences where young people are attempting to buy alcohol in an off-licence. That is a big problem. In fact, the problems of binge drinking and antisocial behaviour are very much in the news at the moment.
We are saying that a CSO has the power to enter an off-licence on their own to try to enforce those licensing offences. However, they can go into a pub only in the company of a police officer, because we recognise that that could be a more confrontational environment. CSOs do not have the power to go into nightclubs at all. That is an example of the way in which we have tried to stagger powers. Rather than giving CSOs the power to enforce licensing offences in any environment, we have said that an off-licence is not likely to be too much of a problem and they can enter one on their own. If they go into a pub, they need to do so with a police officer, for added protection, but they cannot go into nightclubs, because that could be too confrontational.
What the Minister says about the treatment of an off-licence as opposed to a pub is right. Conservative Members can understand the logic of that, but she will have noticed that it was not one of the circumstances that I raised when I ran through a plethora of circumstances that are far more confused in dealing with the different roles of a trained police officer and a PCSO.
Let me deal then with one of the matters that the hon. Gentleman did raise, which is the power to put up road signs. I genuinely do not understand why he takes exception to that. We are giving CSOs that power because often a CSO might be the first person at the site of a road traffic accident or incident. If they can put up signs, they could prevent further harm from being done as a result of people entering the site where the accident occurred. With proper training and supervision, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, there is no reason why CSOs should not put up road signs. Indeed, if they did not do so when they were the first on the scene of an accident, they might not be doing their duty as a citizen to try to ensure that they mitigated the danger before other emergency staff arrived.
I reject the charge that we are embarked on a wholesale expansion of CSO powers. We are not. They are extremely carefully targeted. I have dealt with evaluation, and I do not accept that we should delay things while it takes place.
I turn now to the Government amendments, which are important. They are new powers. Hon. Members have raised the issue of CSOs dealing with young people and the related powers that they have to deal with alcohol and tobacco. Again, in their day-to-day business, when they are out patrolling, they will find youngsters smoking and drinking on the street causing a nuisance to local residents. CSOs should have the power to search for alcohol and tobacco that the youngsters could have concealed about their person.
Often the CSO will approach youngsters who are drinking out of open containers. They may well be able to take the container off them and pour it away, but the youngsters could well have further alcohol concealed about their person, in their pockets, or under their coats. They could also have cigarettes. The provision with regard to controlled drugs is simply an incidental provision. If they are searching for alcohol and tobacco and come across some cannabis, it would be a pretty silly state of affairs if they were able to confiscate the alcohol and the tobacco but could not seize the cannabis and had to allow the person to go on their way with it. It is a question of what they might find incidentally while carrying out their duties in those circumstances.
Similarly, the powers that we have to search persons to see whether they have a dangerous item or whether they are carrying anything that could help them to escape are incidental powers. The Police Federation told us that it supports the power for a CSO to search someone for something that would be dangerous, because it recognises that that power is there to protect the CSO. If a CSO detains someone and believes that he is carrying something that could be used to injure him, but does not have the power to search the person for that item, his power is incredibly frustrated. It is a sensible, simple power for the protection of the CSO. It is certainly not intended to send the CSO on a proactive search for dangerous items. They do not have the power to undertake those kind of stop and searches. It is important that we circumscribe the powers in a proper, ordered, coherent and rigorous manner.
I am also not happy with the amendment that seeks to shorten the period of detention to 15 minutes. That is not realistic. We said 30 minutes. In our evaluation of the pilots of detention powers, in two thirds of detentions police officers arrived in about 15 minutes. There is a significant number in which it takes up to 30 minutes. The other amendment removes the period altogether. Some people might well take exception to CSOs having the right to detain people for an unlimited period. We think that we have it about right with the 30 minutes. Again, I reject both amendments.
I have covered most of the items that have been raised. The final items are powers for CSOs to enforce bye laws. That will be hugely welcomed by local authorities. Many of our present bye laws go unenforced at present. CSOs will be able to enforce bye laws for skateboarding in parks and other kinds of nuisance. Civilian enforcement officers in local authorities now have the power to enforce bye laws as well, so that is not a huge step for CSOs to take.
I reassure hon. Members that the powers that are set out in these provisions have been carefully considered. CSOs are not taking on the role of police officers. They are there to help, assist and complement the work of our attested police service. In that role they are more or less universally welcomed, not just by the public, because that is beyond contest, but by the vast majority of police officers whom I meet up and down the country who see them as an extremely helpful resource in their fight against crime and antisocial behaviour.
This is has been a helpful debate in a number of ways. I differ with the Minister on a number of points, but I agree with her on others. If she believes that the vast majority of police officers are relaxed about these extra powers being given to CSOs, she needs to get out more. The police officers to whom I have spoken, particularly in the Police Federation, are very concerned. One reason why we tabled this plethora of amendments today was to flush out some of these points.
We agree with some of the Minister's points—we are a responsible Opposition and we tabled probing amendments—but fair is fair: there are issues on which she made her point, but others on which she did not. She has a brass neck to quote the British crime survey and attribute any of it to CSOs. I am tempted to get out the little list I keep in my diary of how crime has rocketed and detection rates have plummeted under this Government. However, in the spirit of good will that has pervaded the Committee almost from the first minute of our deliberations, I shall resist that temptation unless she provokes me further in that respect.
Secondly, we are concerned about training. We want to be satisfied that the training of PCSOs gives value for money. We hope that the evaluation that the Minister says will be done in the summer will help in that respect. Our third concern also relates to evaluation: the money should not be spent in advance of a full evaluation. That remains our position, and nothing that she said detracts from those concerns.
We may well support the proposition that there should be 23,000 more PCSOs, subject to the evaluation, but that is no substitute for the Conservative's costed pledge—40,000 policemen and women, at the rate of 5,000 per year, starting from day one after an election. The PCSOs are no substitute for properly trained—[Interruption.] I seem to have got the Committee's attention. They are no substitute for the extra 40,000 police who are at the heart of the Conservative party's appeal at the next election.
I listened carefully to the Minister, and we may wish to raise these matters on Report. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 113 ordered to stand part of the Bill.