Police suffer 'death by patronising' from Blears

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The Independent Online

A Government minister was barracked by police officers yesterday and accused of subjecting them to "death by patronising" as it was suggested that the number of constables could be reduced in favour of civilian patrollers.

A Government minister was barracked by police officers yesterday and accused of subjecting them to "death by patronising" as it was suggested that the number of constables could be reduced in favour of civilian patrollers.

Hazel Blears, the minister responsible for policing, gave her full support to the growing use of community support officers (CSOs), who have very limited powers. She was jeered as she toldthe Police Federation conference in Bournemouth: "As far as we're concerned CSOs are here to stay."

Metropolitan Police delegate PC Des Keenoy told the minister: "All the people on my branch would say you never shut up - there is such a thing as death by patronising."

He dismissed CSOs as "yellow clad numpties," after their reflective jackets.

Ms Blears responded by describing Mr Keenoy's comment as "one of the most patronising... I've heard for a long time".

Ms Blears insisted CSOs were very popular with the public, who like to see uniformed officers on patrol. She also stressed that the Government was committed to maintaining the current record number of 138,155 police officers.

But Chris Fox, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the number of police officers in England and Wales may fall slightly as those of CSOs swell.

"We are probably at the peak of the number of police officers we can afford and therefore expansion may be at CSO level.

"The number of police officers may reduce but it won't reduce by many, and the number of CSOs may increase. It depends entirely on how much money we have available," said Mr Fox.

David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is expected to be tackled about the issue of CSOs when he speaks at the conference today. He will tell delegates that the Home Office will continue to fund extra CSOs, but will insist they are not a replacement or substitute for fully trained officers. Mr Blunkett will also say that it is essential for the police to build stronger links with local neighbourhoods to improve respect for the law.

Earlier, the chairman of the federation's constables' committee, Bob Elder, said use of CSOs could also "con" the public into thinking streets were safer: "Given the choice, the public would far prefer a fully trained bobby on the beat, sworn to protect life and property and to uphold law and order, rather than a limited community support officer patrolling the streets after just three weeks' training."

Delegate PC Nick Dimmer from Sussex police said: "We have two CSOs walking down the road at a time, each costing £18,000 - that's £36,000.

"A police officer on his own is £21,000. It's a false economy."

CSOs were introduced in September 2002 after reforms by Home secretary David Blunkett, and were dubbed "plastic policemen" and "Blunkett's bouncers" by critics.

There are now 3,500 in England and Wales. They are civilians, not sworn police officers, but have the power to detain a member of the public for 30 minutes, using force if necessary.