At the last Election, I promised that if elected I would spend some of the absurdly long periods when Parliament isn't sitting work-shadowing in local public services, charities and businesses. So far, I have spent time in a local primary school, at our local hospital, with Marks & Spencer, at the local Job Centre Plus and in a school for children with severe learning difficulties. They have been some of the most rewarding weeks of my time as an MP, giving me a much greater insight into the issues facing my constituents than simply meeting with an organisation's Chief Executive for an hour. Over the Easter recess, I spent a fascinating three days with Croydon Police.
On the first day, I was assigned to the Response Team - the officers in police cars who respond to 999 calls - and in particular to the Area Car, which is faster than the other cars on duty with a specially qualified driver. The officers in this team work incredibly hard - our shift started at 3pm and when I left them completing some paperwork just after 10pm the officers I spent the shift with hadn't had any break at all, apart from a very quick toilet stop. But I also saw a number of ways in which their time could be used more effectively. At one point, we arrested someone and it initially looked like we were going to have to take him to Tooting because there weren't any free cells at either Croydon or South Norwood Police Stations. Then, when the officers managed to convince their superiors to let them bring him to Croydon, we spent over an hour outside the station queuing to book him into the Custody Suite. Thankfully, this problem has been addressed since I completed my work-shadowing with the opening of a new custody suite at Windmill Road with significantly more cells. There were also a couple of calls that we attended where it was an ambulance that was really required - for example, a lady who had drunk so much that she was a danger to herself - but once we were there the Ambulance Service downgraded the priority of the call. Now I appreciate that all public services are under real pressure at the moment but, unlike the police, the NHS has had its funding increased marginally (though it is facing significant demographic pressures) so it really isn't fair for them to increase the burden on the police.
On the second day, I spent the morning with a detective who specialises in domestic violence cases and learnt a lot about the multi-agency approach to dealing with this under-reported crime. I spent the afternoon with the Task Force, a team of officers that deals primarily with robbery and burglary across the borough. Once again, I was struck by how hard officers work but also by how some of their precious time is wasted. On this occasion, we had been asked to go to Electric House because the UKBA were planning to remove someone with no right to remain in this country who had a record of violent behavior. He was due to come to Electric House sometime between 2.30 and 4.30pm but never turned up so six officers spent two and a half hours sitting around waiting. I was left wondering why the police couldn't have been called when he arrived.
I spent the third day with a Safer Neighbourhood Team, a very different style of policing to the Task Force. The officers clearly knew their ward - and the key offenders - very well, which is not always the case due to the Met's policy of moving people around fairly regularly. There was quite a distressing case where two officers arrested a young man who should have been in court that day. When we went into his home, it was clear that there were a lot of children living in overcrowded and pretty unpleasant conditions - bare floorboards, holes punched in doors etc. I asked one of the officers afterwards if he would be reporting the situation to Social Services. He replied that he would but that it was "well below the level at which someone will intervene". When I asked him at what level someone would intervene, he said that since he had been on that team he had only managed to have one set of children removed from their home and on that occasion he had found them sleeping in a bed covered in dog excrement and it still took six months to get them out. I have raised the general issue of the level at which we intervene with both the Council and the Borough Commander.
There were three general issues that came up over the course of the three days.
First, it was clear that a number of officers had concerns about the effectiveness of PCSOs. This was not a comment on the individuals concerned - many PCSOs go on to become police officers - but on the fact that most criminals know they don't have the same powers and this limits what they can do. On one occasion, the area car responded to a call from a block of flats where some kids were apparently causing a disturbance in the stairwell. When we got there, two PCSOs were already on scene but they'd waited outside until officers arrived. Given that a PCSO costs nearly as much as a police officer, it does raise the question whether we would be better off with a few less people in uniform but all of them police officers with full powers.
Second, I have long been concerned about the relationship between young people and the police and, in particular, how stop and searches are carried out. Over the course of the three days, I saw a number of searches carried out and was reassured on two counts: they weren't random - these were people who were on the list of known offenders or suspects that officers had been tasked to look for on that shift; and the searches were carried out in a respectful way. I've mentioned this to a few young people since and they say, "Well of course they did it properly, they knew you were watching" and of course there may be some truth in that but actually I found all the officers I spent time with very aware of the need to handle these situations the right way.
Third, a number of officers understandably raised issues relating to police pay, pensions and terms and conditions with me. I was impressed with the way they did it: they universally understand that the Government has to tighten its belt and that they have to take their fair share of the pain but they feel - and I can understand why - that the combination of a pay freeze, pension reform and the Winsor proposals is too much. They're also not convinced that the amount of paperwork is being reduced. I will be passing on their concerns to the Home Secretary.
These three days showed me how hard police officers are working to keep us safe but how their time could be used to better effect. I have already met the Borough Commander, who is 100% committed to using the resources he has to best effect, to discuss what I saw. I am very grateful to him for letting me spend three days with his officers and to all the officers, PCSOs and support staff who I spent time with.