Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Norman Baker (Lewes): I wish to respond to the Under-Secretary's comments about the implementation date that he now proposes for the IPCC. I thank him for his customary courtesy in letting me know about that in advance. If Ministers always displayed such courtesy, the Government might find it easier to get their business through the House.

It is obviously regrettable that a body that is welcomed as a concept by hon. Members of all parties will come into being a year later than many would have liked. However, the Under-Secretary is right to say that, if the advice from officials means that he is not confident that the body will be up and running effectively and efficiently by April 2003, he will delay its introduction. The worst thing would be if a body that everyone wants to be in place were unable to carry out its work in a way that inspired confidence among the public and the police. If that delay is the price that has to be paid, it is one worth paying.

On the substance of the amendment, I listened, as always with care, to the hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Newark. The latter has experience of Northern Ireland that I lack, and it is worth reflecting on. I understand what was said about a matter that is not a complaint being referred to the new body, and so I understand why the amendment has been tabled. However, I caution the Under-Secretary not to accept the case without reservation, for the very reason that he himself gave.

The new commission is being proposed because there has been a history of dissatisfaction among members of the public about how complaints about the police have been handled. That is why the proposal has been made. It is important that the body is seen to be independent, rigorous and one that will inspire confidence in people with complaints that they want to take forward. A diminution of the title may have a beneficial effect in terms of how the police regard it—and I do not underestimate that—but it may have a detrimental effect on people who want a truly independent body for the purposes set out in the legislation.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Ainsworth: I beg to move amendment No. 151, in page 7, line 31, at end insert—

    '(bb) he is a person in relation to whom a designation under section (Police powers for contracted-out staff) is or has been in force;'.

The Chairman: With this we may take the following Government amendments: Nos. 152, 170, 172, 174, 178 to 191, 193, 194, 196 to 203, 205, 206, 212, 213, 217 to 221, 224, 225, Government new clause 9 and Government amendments Nos. 241, 242 and 244.

Mr. Ainsworth: I was hoping to make a substantial speech.

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The Committee is aware that a key aim of the police reform programme is to free police officers from the bureaucratic burdens that keep them in police stations so that they can fight crime on the streets and provide the physical presence that reassures our communities.

One of the ways in which we are doing this is to allow properly trained civilians to take on tasks which do not require the full skills and training of a police officer. That is the basis of the provisions of clause 35, which allow for chief officers to designate community support officers, investigating officers, detention officers and escort officers employed by the police authority to carry out the range of duties listed in schedule 4.

Since the publication of this Bill, several police forces have been in touch with us about their plans to contract out custody services to private providers. They have indicated that it would help to maximise the effectiveness of such plans if private providers could make use of the various custody-related powers that we are aiming to open up to civilians through the Bill. They include powers to search, fingerprint and photograph detained persons and to escort such persons between police stations and between police stations and other locations.

As an illustration of the potential benefits to the police, Cheshire constabulary has suggested that contracting out escort duties relating to custody could save 27,000 police hours per annum, or the equivalent of 15 officers released to front-line operational duties.

Norman Baker: Did the Under-Secretary hear the report on Radio 4's ''Today'' programme this morning? A senior judge believes that a huge cost to the taxpayer is incurred through the use of private escort services for prison duties, because one in seven prisoners now turns up late for court. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the system, it does not seem to be policed very well.

Mr. Ainsworth: I did hear part of the report. The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but it largely related to provisions for the Prison Service and is not directly relevant to our discussion. I hope that he does not seek to deny that we have had genuine representations. In the Wiltshire area, I have personally seen that custody suites and detention arrangements have been civilianised to the great satisfaction not only of those working in those areas, but of police constables working with those detention arrangements. We have had those representations.

There is a belief among certain forces that substantial benefits can be gained, in terms of cost and in the expertise that can arise through specialisation. I am not making that up or trying to prove something to the Committee in the absence of representations having been made. According to the police in those forces, further significant savings would be available from the contracting out of detention duties within custody suites. Cleveland police are looking to free up 23 officers through such a scheme.

There are clear potential benefits from civilianisation through improved efficiency, saving resources and freeing up police officers from other

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duties. That is the message that we are receiving from the police service. With suitable safeguards in place, there is no reason why some of the powers open to police authority-employed designated persons could not also be available to civilians employed by private providers.

New clause 9 sets out the framework of powers for contracted-out staff. I stress that the clause opens up to contracted-out civilian staff only the powers relating to detention at police stations and to escorting—and no others. Investigatory and on-the-street powers, which the Bill will make available to police-employed investigating officers and community support officers, will not be opened up to contracted-out staff.

With regard to the powers of contracted-out staff, we have created a third category of empowered civilian staff who will be employees of the companies contracted to provide detention and escort services to the police authority. Such a person would be able to apply to the chief constable for designation as either a detention officer or an escort officer—or both. Before granting the designation, the chief officer would have to be satisfied that the person was suitable to exercise the relevant powers, capable of carrying out the associated functions and appropriately trained—as is the case for designated civilians employed by the police authority. Also, as is the case for the employer of accredited persons, the chief officer would need to be satisfied that the contractor is a suitable person to supervise the designated person.

Lady Hermon: Following on from that point, clause 9(2) states that the matters that the police complaints commission can investigate are

    ''the handling of complaints made about the conduct of persons serving with the police''.

If we proceed with the contracting out of tasks such as finger-printing and so forth, are the persons involved ''serving with the police'' and liable to have complaints against them investigated?

Mr. Ainsworth: I shall come to that point later on.

As part of the designation process, the chief officer would be able to endow the contracted person with appropriate powers. The relevant sets of powers would be those currently described in the parts of schedule 4 that cover detention officers and escort officers. The chief officer could choose freely from those lists of powers in respect of each individual designation, and each power would come with the capacity to use reasonable force, where such a capacity was available to a constable using the same power.

Where a designated person ceased to be an employee of the relevant employer, or the contractual arrangement between the employer and the police authority was terminated, the designation would lapse. Much of the supporting infrastructure of the provisions that are already envisaged for persons who are designated and accredited by a police authority would also be applied to contracted-out persons, such as the requirement to wear a uniform, the offences of assaulting, obstructing or impersonating a designated officer, the obligation on contracted-out staff to have due regard to the relevant

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provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes of practice, and the provision for the chief officer to modify or withdraw the designation at any time.

In addition, new clause 9 includes provisions for dealing with allegations of misconduct by contracted-out staff who are exercising police powers. Designated persons will work very closely with the police, often on police premises, and will be recognised by many as part of the police service, as they carry out what have traditionally been police functions.

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does the designation of powers to the detention officers include the performance of intimate body searches?

Mr. Ainsworth: Again, I shall seek to address that point at a later stage.

Our intention is that when designated workers provide services to the police, complaints about them—or allegations of misconduct where there is no complaint—should be handled in a manner which is as close as possible to the procedures that are followed when police officers and employees of the police authority are involved.

Regulations under this clause will ensure that there is one system for dealing with complaints involving police officers and designated persons. We do not want a member of the public to have to pursue several complaints through different avenues when those complaints have arisen from one incident involving police officers and designated persons.

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Prepared 13 June 2002