Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Hughes: We have now come to provisions on detention and arrest. Our amendments are to clause 72, which, in turn, proposes amendments to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It is a controversial clause and I give notice that we shall vote against it. It is controversial not only from our perspective, or that of a libertarian—I understand that the police are equally unhappy about it. Therefore, its inclusion in the Bill surprises me and I seek an explanation from the Minister. The Government often say that things are done because they are necessary to support the police and help their work, but one of the representative bodies of the police—the Police Federation—strongly opposes the proposal.

The first amendment is to line 28. As drafted, the proposal would change the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to include the use of a telephone procedure for review of detention in cases in which a person has been arrested but not charged. The procedure would apply if it is

    ``not reasonably practicable for an officer of at least the rank of inspector to be present in the police station where that person is held to carry out any review of that person's detention that is required''.

Committee members will remember that, for good reason, there are general police and criminal evidence powers, and extended powers under the Terrorism Act 2000, under which people may be detained for investigation subsequent to arrest and prior to charging. That is perfectly normal, although we could debate the length of that period of detention. However, it is perfectly reasonable to have additional powers in serious cases; allegations of terrorism fall into that category. The question is, how does one extend that period, or judge whether a person should be further detained? At the moment, that must be done by a police officer of senior rank coming and reviewing the detention there and then, in front of the detainee.

A fundamental issue is involved that could affect us all. When someone is arrested and held for questioning, European and international convention rights govern how he must be held in custody, the limit of that custody and the protections to prevent exploitation by the Executive, the police and people acting on behalf of the state. It is therefore important to guarantee people's rights when in custody. It seems to me and to others that those rights should not be eroded for the administrative convenience of the police.

A police officer of sufficient rank may find it difficult to reach the place where the person is held. If the police officer usually has that difficulty, places where people are detained should be arranged in the knowledge that sufficient police will be available at any one time in the vicinity, to use yesterday's phrase, to come to conduct the review.

A second batch of reasons relates to whether an adequate review is possible by telephone. Judges may make injunctions following a telephone request. However, a telephone review is, by definition, even using video conferencing and other facilities, not only a less acceptable method than a face-to-face review of a person's detention, but, from the point of view of the prisoner, an entirely different kettle of fish. Instead of a detainee seeing and knowing that he is face to face with the person conducting the review, the review is conducted by a remote, impersonal and possibly invisible person; the detainee may not be able to see him and he may not be able to see the detainee. If the defendant cannot speak face to face to the reviewing officer, the potential for abuse of the defendant's circumstances seems great.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): The explanatory notes state that the provision can be used only in limited circumstances. Has the hon. Gentleman assessed the number of officers, whom he would like to be pounding the beat, who would be taken off the beat to perform what he regards as an administrative convenience for the police? The debate relates not only to protecting the rights of detainees, but to effective use of police time.

Mr. Hughes: I understand that, but in the case of normal policing, rather than Terrorism Act stuff, there are increasingly fewer custody suites and an increasingly smaller number of police stations where people are held, certainly in my borough and other urban areas. One of the reasons why fewer have been made available is to reduce the number of police officers who engage as custody officers. I am working on the basis that, under the proposed system, when a person is in custody in one of those places, a permanent source of police officers will be on duty there.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton, but if there are rural police stations in the non-urban part of her constituency, up on Dartmoor, I presume that they will not have custody suites. Certainly that is generally so. People are not held at such police stations, but at the nearest county or town custody suite. In my urban constituency, that would obviously be much nearer than it would be in a rural or partly rural constituency. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I do not believe that it is sufficient to tilt the balance in the other direction.

The amendment is an attempt to alleviate an unacceptable position: to make it less unacceptable. The amendment would not make the Bill acceptable if it were accepted, but it would improve it. It would remove the words ``not reasonably practicable'' and insert the words ``extremely difficult'', to provide a much higher threshold for the police to have to pass before they used the telephone to conduct a review under section 40 of PACE.

Amendment No. 215 would do the same in relation to video conferencing facilities. The advantages of the current arrangements are that a face-to-face check of a person in custody by an officer of a relatively senior rank allows such a person to be confident that a serious review is being conducted into whether he should be detained further. If people receive only a telephone call or are talked to by video link, they may feel that the police are only going through the motions and not taking the deprivation of their liberty seriously.

Who would be willing to monitor whether the police always used such procedures for a good reason and not merely for their convenience? As in any organisation, one member of the police would not want to undermine the argument of a colleague, who had decided that the interview could be conducted more easily over the phone, simply because it would take an hour of his time to go from A to B and back.

11.15 am

An additional benefit of a face-to-face review is that junior custody officers feel more supported, and are less open to unjustified allegations that can be made by people in custody against police officers. If a senior officer is present to check the cell and talk to the prisoner, it is more likely that the custody officers would be assured that everything was in order and that they would not be subjected to unjustified charges.

A face-to-face review also allows the condition of a person in custody to be seen. There have been far too many deaths and injuries among people in custody. There is great anger that the Government have resisted initiating a general review of that. I have called for such a review, and many people would be encouraged if it were initiated. Today, I repeat my call to the Government to agree to such a review.

Mr. Charles Clarke: On the narrow but very serious point of deaths in custody, will the hon. Gentleman concede that the incidence has decreased because of measures that the police have introduced? The situation is better than it was before. Of course, there is still a great deal to do, but I hope that he will acknowledge that progress has been made.

Mr. Hughes: I do acknowledge that, and am pleased about it, because it is a difficult matter in which the public must have confidence. By definition, one is dealing with a situation in which only a few people will know what has occurred, which makes it different from a fight in a street or in a pub. I am not undermining the commitment of Ministers to ensure that the regime is better. It is improving, but there is a chronology of cases in which families—often, but not always, from the black community—feel extremely aggrieved and believe that they have been badly treated by discriminatory practice.

We all know that, sometimes, people are not willing to discuss matters, yet they may communicate by body language. A person may have an injury, which may not be visible through video conferencing, let alone over the phone. A face-to-face interview would show whether somebody is lame, clutching a hip or in pain. A prisoner may be more confident to speak to somebody sitting opposite him or her than to a person down the phone who has never been seen before, or a person at the end of a modern telecommunications system at the other end of the country. Such an interview will also protect the police, because they will be reassured that an accurate record of events will be made. The Minister knows that I am in favour of the video recording of interviews, and I understand that that is the general plan of the Government and the police.

The police think that the provisions are detrimental to prisoners' rights and believe, according to the briefing that I have received,

    ``in protecting the rights of a prisoner, that decisions as to review should be carried out on a face-to-face basis; thereby alleviating any complaint or suggestion that due consideration has not been given to continued detention. Years of using PACE''—

in terms of its procedure, not the paperwork—

    ``has brought a level of trust and fairness into the Criminal Justice system.''

That point is consistent with the Minister's recent intervention.

There is far less argument now in the courts about what did and did not happen in interviews. That is due to recording, which provides much better safeguards and satisfies people that the process is followed fairly. The police argue that the process has been challenged much less frequently because there are considerably fewer opportunities to abuse it. They view the clause as watering down a tried and tested system. That would not be in the interests of the police or prisoners.

Like the Liberal Democrats, the police would argue for the deletion of clauses 72 and 73. I hope that the amendments will be accepted and that the Government will concede that it would be preferable to withdraw the clauses so that the Bill can proceed without them.

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