Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: We understand the motivation of the Liberal Democrats in tabling the amendment, and will listen with interest to what the Minister has to say. The hon. Lady is right that over the whole country and the whole range of powers that are exercised, not a huge number of intimate body searches are conducted. Nevertheless, a large number of searches are made of groups of passengers coming into the United Kingdom from certain countries.

I have a constituency interest in the matter, because as hon. Members will realise, my constituency is not far from Heathrow airport. Some of my constituents work for Air Jamaica. It is common knowledge that a huge number of passengers coming into the UK on Air Jamaica flights have been on the receiving end of intimate body searches, for reasons that I am sure we all understand. I also have senior officers in the various security forces and the police force at Heathrow among my constituents, who have discussed with me the sensitivity of some of these issues.

I understand, therefore, what the hon. Lady says about the importance of handling such difficult searches with great care. I know that the Minister, those who advise him and police officers with responsibility for such delicate matters, are aware of the sensitivities and the balance that must be struck. However, the onus is on the Government to convince not only the Committee but the country as a whole that it is wise to extend the powers to conduct intimate body searches beyond the category of highly qualified, highly trained police officers and medical personnel with the required training and safeguards who are

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working with the police, as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole mentioned. Although this is perhaps not an issue on which we would go to the wall, she was right to raise it.

Norman Baker: I reiterate what my hon. Friend said and thank the Minister for taking the trouble to write in such detail about this amendment. It is very helpful when a Minister does that, because it enables us to see the argument and construct our approach accordingly. The issue is a difficult one. I have read the Minister's letter carefully and I understand his point of view. Clearly, the preferable solution is for a medically trained person to carry out such searches, not merely because they are better able to do it and, frankly, know what the human body is—I will end up down a difficult road if I pursue that point.

Medically trained people would be less likely to cause problems and more likely to have the support of the person being searched. They are less confrontational and regarded as neutral in such situations. Police and civilian officers would not be seen as neutral.

I was pleased to hear in the Minister's letter that only five searches were carried out by constables last year. It is good that the number has been kept so low. Ideally, none should be carried out, and if any are necessary, registered doctors or nurses should carry them out. However, if a search must be conducted by someone other than a doctor or nurse, for the best possible reasons, my hon. Friend and I believe that it would be more defensible and effective and would be regarded better by the public if it was carried out by a proper police officer, rather than a civilian. I, and the Minister, want to avoid circumstances in which someone is intimately searched by a civilian, nothing is found, there is a hoo-hah and they say, ''I have been searched by a civilian, which is outrageous in this country.''

4.45 pm

What if someone is searched and nothing is found? Do they not have a reasonable case for saying that their privacy has been violated? What is the test to justify the search? Is it reasonableness? Will the Minister confirm that, irrespective of who carries out the search—whether a civilian or a police officer—in all cases it will be carried out by someone of the same sex?

Mr. Denham: I thank Opposition Members for having raised the issue constructively. I realise that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will be aware of this, but for those reading the record in the future, an intimate search for drugs may be carried out only on medical premises by a registered doctor or nurse. The matter essentially involves things that are likely to cause harm to someone else.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about the safeguards and tests that will apply. Under section 55 of PACE, such a search may be carried out only with the authority of a senior officer. That authority can be given only if there are reasonable grounds for believing that the person has concealed on him something that he may use to cause physical injury to himself or

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others. In addition, the authorising senior officer must have reasonable grounds for believing that the item cannot be found by a different method. Someone who pursued a complaint against the decision to conduct an intimate search would have to pass those tests.

The search must be conducted by a registered doctor or nurse, unless the senior authorising officer considers that that is not practicable. There is no question of the authorising officer judging what is desirable. The PACE codes are clear. The search must be conducted by a registered doctor or nurse, and only when that is not practicable will alternative arrangements come into play. Under current legislation, a few times a year police officers are authorised to carry out an intimate search.

As the Committee is aware—I wrote to Opposition Members—the revised draft PACE codes of practice were issued for consultation on 12 June. Annexe A to code C covers intimate searches. The revised draft codes stipulate that a proposal for a search to be carried out by someone other than a medically qualified person should be considered only as a last resort and when the authorising officer is satisfied that the risks associated with allowing the item to remain in place outweigh the risks associated with removing it. That is a further test.

Notes for guidance have been added that include advice on the factors that the authorising officer should consider before authorising an intimate search. As hon. Members will appreciate, the codes are subject to consultation. Once comments have been considered and any amendments have been made, the final codes will be presented to the House and another place under the affirmative resolution procedure, which gives the possibility of further parliamentary scrutiny.

Norman Baker: I may have not understood correctly, in which case I apologise, but I thought that the reason for the power was that there was felt to be a real risk that someone might harm themselves—perhaps, as in the example in the Minister's letter, with razor blades—and that that would be a sudden matter: someone would see a razor blade, and the person held would say that he was going to kill himself, creating an immediate issue about removing the item. That is why, I believed, the power was being authorised. In such circumstances, how will it be possible to have authorisation from a senior officer, who may be some way away? How would that apply if the search was carried out by a civilian rather than a police officer?

Mr. Denham: It remains the case that in all circumstances, even if a matter is pressing, authorisation must be obtained from a senior officer. However, it is inevitable that the senior officer may not be physically present to give authorisation, perhaps by virtue of being out at an incident, in a rural area travelling between one police station and another, or whatever. In those circumstances, authorisation may have to be given by telephone, but it must be given.

Let me deal with the question whether the power should be extended beyond police officers. I have some sympathy with the view expressed by the hon. Member for Lewes that, in the limited number of cases in which

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an intimate search is made, public acceptability will be greater if they are carried out by a police officer. However, if the search happens to be carried out by any of the 125,000 police officers at constable or sergeant level, we will have to allow for the possibility that they may not have received recent training in this respect. In practice, a dedicated detention officer may be better trained in this power than a police officer who has not done custody duty for many years and not been recently trained in these skills. It is not self-evident that, in all circumstances, it is better for a search to be carried out by a police officer. However, I accept the general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument.

We have to strike a difficult balance. There are huge gains to be made in operational efficiency by using civilian detention staff. Our fear is that, if the power to conduct an intimate search on that limited number of occasions a year was used, forces might feel that they could not take the risk of civilianising the service, because of the need to ensure that adequate other cover was in place. The question for the Committee is whether we should face that risk, given the limited number of occasions on which a non-medical member of staff exercises the power in the average year. It would not be worth losing the potential gains of significant civilianisation to cover that small number of occasions. If we add the fact that the civilian detention staff are probably more likely to be appropriately trained and certainly more recently trained than a general police officer—not necessarily a specialist detention officer who is a police officer—the case is made.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): I am slightly uneasy about the Minister's argument, although I am listening to it with great interest. As I understand it, the existing powers vested in police officers to conduct intimate searches are used only rarely in any event. In that case, as a matter of first principle, it seems likely that not much police officer time will prima facie be freed up by extending the powers to CSOs. In those circumstances, would it not be sensible simply to ensure that there are appropriate numbers of trained officers in relevant stations?

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