Neighbourhood Policing

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on obtaining this debate, and on how he presented his case. It was gleefully unpartisan, and he made some important points. He will recognise that, historically, this country has always had citizen-based police organisations; we have had special constables, of course, for some years. In many ways it is regrettable that in recent decades?the situation certainly predates 1997?that practice seems to have diminished. That is why many of the new initiatives are very positive. Our policing model, in contrast with that of European nations, has always been firmly drilled into local communities.

Much as I think that neighbourhood policing is important, a visible police presence alone should not be the be-all and end-all of the policing challenge. I find that to be the case particularly in central London, where intelligence-led policing has great import, not least in fields such as counter-terrorism. The Metropolitan police and a range of other agencies, including the City of London police in the eastern part of my constituency, do painstaking work, but that approach has a less high profile. I appreciate that the villages in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency regard policing as being about bobbies on the beat and a visible presence, but it is important that we give as much credit as possible to a lot of the other work that goes on behind the scenes. In my constituency?in Westminster at least?the local authorities are at the forefront of a partnership with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service over PCSOs and a range of other initiatives, some of which I shall discuss in my brief contribution.

Many of the new initiatives were key to restoring public confidence in the aftermath of 9/11. At the outset, the concern in London was that too much of the PCSO initiative was driven by a campaign to keep numbers high. PCSOs are added routinely to overall police numbers; no doubt Ken Livingstone and his mayoral campaign will make much of that. However, I have always supported the idea of PCSOs, even in the immediate aftermath of 2001, when such support was not terribly fashionable in the Conservative party. To be fair, they have worked well, although if there is one slight criticism it is that there is a risk that they have helped to crowd out special constables. From my work with the City of London police, it seems that the cadre of special constables feel that they are now third-class citizens compared with PCSOs. Becoming a PCSO is now an alternative career route in policing.

In Westminster, we have an initiative called CivicWatch, the key to which is that the police safer neighbourhood sergeant is partnered with a local government officer, which ensures effective liaison between the police and the local authority. I hope that the same applies throughout the country. We have found that one of the few positive by-products of the early retirement rule in the police is that some very talented ex-superintendents can come on board and work at City hall in Westminster. We currently have a retired superintendent, Dean Ingledew, who headed up the west end police service, and before him we had Bob Currie. That arrangement has worked extremely well in developing those partnerships.

The only potential flaw in the safer neighbourhoods initiative is that most community aspirations are not within the gift of the police but are down to local authorities, which means that the strength of the partnership, which hopefully extends beyond the political divide, is key. For as long as there is increased pressure on local government financing arrangements?I am sure that there will be for the foreseeable future?it will be all too easy for such innovative programmes to fall by the wayside. It is therefore crucial to keep that relationship as strong as possible.

Crime and antisocial behaviour are as big a problem in my constituency as they obviously are in Stafford, but community confidence and perceptions have improved, which stems from the ability to report incidents easily, to see a reaction within a reasonable time and to receive feedback from the responsible authority. That helps to build confidence through the reassurance cycle, through which we can reduce the fear of crime and improve many of the positive perceptions.

In central London, our innovative partnership initiative is between the council, the Metropolitan Police Service, the London fire brigade, which comes under the auspices of the Mayor of London, and CityWest Homes, our own arm’s length management housing organisation?we have some large housing estates in Westminster. It was established five years ago as a pilot project in three areas, but has been such a success that it has been rolled out across Westminster, which is now divided into 26 distinct CivicWatch areas, closely aligned to ward and police boundaries.

Obviously the terrorist threat after September 2001 and July 2005 has resulted in more police on the streets of Westminster. I think that all hon. Members who walk around the streets of my constituency will be impressed by the number of PCSOs, although I suspect that that is in contrast with other parts of the capital. In part that is done to raise confidence. Although central London has a relatively small residential population, some 900,000 people come to work in the 7 sq m of my constituency every day. Behind CivicWatch are some specific ideas: to combat crime, antisocial behaviour and persistent environmental problems; to reduce the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour; to signpost young people to alternatives to poor behaviour, and broadly to improve community confidence in service delivery.

David Taylor: I am grateful to my MP?at least for four days a week?for giving way. The hon. Gentleman mentioned his positive attitude towards PCSOs, but does he agree that the initial reluctance and doubts about the value of PCSOs and co-operation with them, which was reasonably widespread among the police force, has virtually disappeared? It has certainly disappeared in Leicestershire. It would help if his party abandoned the tired old rhetoric about plastic police and became more enthusiastic about the role that they can play.

Mr. Field: There is no doubt that there was some hostility, not least from the Police Federation, which no doubt lobbied Labour Members as much as they did Opposition Members when the PCSO initiative began. In fairness, at the outset my party might have been slightly hostile to the idea of PCSOs, for public relations reasons as much as anything else, but we have now moved away from that hostility. I shall not take words out of the mouth of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), but I am sure that he will comment on that. However, where special constables, PCSOs and the police work together, they work extremely well. If there is a residual problem, it is with the Police Federation in certain parts of the country, which obviously is worried about terms and numbers. However, it has worked well and I am certainly a believer in neighbourhood policing and similar initiatives. PCSOs clearly have an extremely important day-to-day role in ensuring that that works.

I appreciate that many other hon. Members wish to contribute, so I shall end on one brief point. Without getting over-bureaucratic, the example of Westminster works extremely well. It has a three-tiered approach towards running the CivicWatch programme: local briefings and meetings occurring on a weekly basis in each CivicWatch area to enable local teams to share information and direct problem-solving activity on the ground; fortnightly meetings chaired by a chief inspector and a CivicWatch manager, which looks at best practice within the 26 areas; and an accountability meeting every six weeks, which is open to the public as well as the leader of the council and the police borough commander.

These are exciting times in policing. My main point is that, historically and rightly, policing in this country has been very much citizen-led, of which we should be very proud, instead of the police being a class apart, as they are in many countries in Europe and across the world. Some of the initiatives being discussed are very important as we look forward to 21st-century policing, because there was a sense among the public that the police had lost their way in relation to their neighbourhood responsibilities. I look forward to the Minister’s response.