Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Ms Blears: I understand the important issue that my hon. Friend raises. I have absolutely no doubt that the matter to which he refers caused a huge amount of anguish and distress to his constituent. I am aware of similar cases, and I am also aware that the fingerprints are retained at the chief constable's discretion. Therefore, there is the possibility that my hon. Friend's constituent, no doubt ably assisted by him, could make representations to the chief constable that in the circumstances, it is appropriate that the fingerprints be disposed of.

There are many cases in which people who are acquitted go on to commit further crimes. It is a matter of getting the balance right. There are a number of examples of people in such circumstances who have had their fingerprints taken to try to identify them, and when those fingerprints have been compared with the NAFIS database, crime of the most serious kind has been solved. For example, a man arrested for a relatively minor assault in Lewisham gave false particulars. His fingerprints were taken at the police station using live scan technology, which showed that he was wanted in connection with an incident in Brixton in which a young woman was enticed into a crack den and subjected to a multiple gang rape. The crime was solved as a result of using the identification evidence.

There are other similar cases. Someone arrested for aggravated burglary was found to be one of three suspects wanted in connection with an operation on a major gun crime in which someone had been shot in the neck and was subsequently in a coma for four months. These are serious matters, and yet again, I do not underestimate the need to get the balance right to ensure that police can use identification evidence to enable them to detect and solve more crime. We currently have 900,000 unmatched items of scenes of crime identification. We could solve an awful lot of those crimes if we tried to carry out identification. The Committee should not support the amendment tabled
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by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, which would limit our ability to use the technology and fingerprints in that way and restrict the ability of the police to take the action that I have outlined.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield spoke to amendment No. 304, which would remove the requirement for a constable who takes fingerprints away from the police station to inform the suspect that his fingerprints will be subject to a speculative search and to make a record that the suspect has been informed. The amendment would not remove that obligation when fingerprints were taken at the station, and we feel that the same requirements should apply when a constable exercises those powers in the street.

The provisions do not impose an unduly bureaucratic burden. I understand that people may feel concerned about officers having to record things, but an officer would make a record in his pocket book in any event, and it is perfectly proper that someone should have the safeguard of being informed that it is likely that their records will be used in the way specified. I ask the Committee, for the reasons that I have given, to resist the amendments. I think that the clause is entirely sensible.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked whether CSOs would be able to take fingerprints. The answer is no. I reassure him that we consider the power to be of a status that should be limited to police constables.

Mr. Heath: Generally in the course of the Committee's consideration of the Bill, I have been encouraged by what the Minister has said. I have no fundamental disagreement with her on the provision, but she has caused me some concern simply by her reasons for rejecting my amendment. Had she simply said that the words were otiose, as the hon. Member for Beaconsfield suggested, I should have been perfectly happy and said, ''Well, I knew that really, but it was an opportunity to get the debate on to the grounds that I wanted.''

The Minister said, however, that the amendment would unnecessarily restrict the use of fingerprints; that the prints could be used for purposes other than establishing identity; and that one of the prime functions of the power would be for a speculative trawling of the scenes of crime database to see whether the person involved had committed an offence of which they would not, by definition, be suspected by the arresting officer.

Although I can understand that that is a good idea in investigatory terms, it is effectively prohibited by the clause. Subsection (7) provides, through proposed new subsection (1BA), that the prints

    ''must be destroyed as soon as they have fulfilled the purpose for which they were taken.''

The purpose for which they would be taken would not be a speculative trawl of the database of scenes of crime, but establishing the identity of a person reasonably suspected of committing or attempting to commit an offence. Thus, they could not be used to establish the identity of someone who had committed
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an offence for which there were no reasonable grounds for suspicion. It would pay to revisit the clause if the Minister's intention is what she said it was.

We have had a useful debate about the national database of various forms of identification material. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead says on the matter—and I do not have many occasions to say that in this Committee. He is right: we have either national databases or databases that are firmly founded on the principle that someone has been convicted of an offence. We do not choose the people for whom there will be a database, and set up a partial database founded on the simple fact that they have been accused of something that has not resulted in a charge.

4.30 pm

That is a matter for serious concern.I was interested in the exchange about ID cards between the hon. Members for Cotswold and for Beaconsfield. I feel that there is a fifth column in the Conservative party against the party's position on identity cards, which was perhaps evidenced by the fact that, before Christmas, less than half the Opposition came out to vote as their leader required on the subject. Nevertheless, the party's position is clear: it supports identity cards, but there are we are.

What the Minister said raises more questions than it answers, despite the fact that we might have had a satisfactory reply in the pre-emptive debate occasioned by the untimely intervention of the hon. Member for Huntingdon. I will read what the Minister said carefully. We may have entered into a slightly more confusing area of intention and confusion than she suspects, but for now I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 108 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 109 and 110 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 111

Staff custody officers: designation

Mr. Heath: I beg to move amendment No. 189, in clause 111, page 78, line 31, at end add—

    '(5) No person shall be designated as a custody officer under this section unless he has previously been a police officer of at least the rank of sergeant.'.

We now come to one of the more controversial elements of the Bill—the Government's proposal for it to be permissible for civilians to act in the capacity of custody officers for the purposes of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The Minister will know that the proposal has occasioned considerable upset among the ranks of serving police officers, whose concerns are shared by a number of legal authorities. The Law Society has expressed its concerns, and some well-placed commentators on the systems that apply for custody have indicated how unhappy they are. I preface my further remarks by saying that I want a lot more custody suites—an issue that we have debated
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previously. One of the difficulties for the police service, particularly in rural areas, is that insufficient custody suites are in operation.

The effect of not having custody suites is twofold. If a police officer wishes to arrest someone and take them to a custody suite, they are often required to take that person a considerable distance. That is irksome in itself, but more importantly, it takes the police officer, who will be on duty, out of area for a significant period. For those of us who represent rural constituencies, the effect cannot be underestimated. Literally half a duty period can be taken up in transporting an arrested person to a custody suite, doing the necessary paperwork and then, hopefully, returning.

That is a bad thing in itself in terms of police officers' abilities to do what we want them to do in the local community. However, it has a further malign effect, which is that a conscientious police officer, knowing that to be the case, will have to judge between making the arrest and thereby leaving the area for which they are responsible unprotected or not making the arrest and finding another form of disposal. There is therefore a perverse incentive not to make the arrest.

Why do we not have enough custody suites? The reason is partly that they are expensive, which we understand. As fewer police stations are in operation and as police stations are smaller affairs than they used to be, so there are fewer custody suites. Moreover, it is often difficult to find the resources to provide the specialist custody officers who allow for the custody suite to be operational even if it exists. That is the situation in my own force area at present. There is a perfectly good custody suite in Frome police station that is not available for use because it has no custody sergeant, as the marginal capacity of the policing district to provide for a custody sergeant is not there in terms of the personnel available. The result is that a person arrested in Frome on a Friday or Saturday night has to be taken up to Bath or down to Yeovil, either of which takes an hour and a half to three hours out of a police officer's day. I understand that that is a significant argument in support of the Government's wish to revisit the whole subject of custody officers.

I am not persuaded, however, that the Government have the right answer. The difficulty is that the custody sergeant, within the architecture of PACE, has a significant role to play. The custody officer is not simply the person who holds the key to the cell; they have to be responsible for the health and safety of the people who are detained in the cells, to know about the protection of evidence and all that goes with that, and most importantly, to make an assessment of the terms under which an arrest has been made, on the basis of their experience. On occasions, the custody officer will have to tell a colleague police officer that they do not have grounds for detaining a particular person in the cell and that that person must be released. Sometimes that colleague police officer may not be a rookie constable who has come in with someone whom they have arrested on flimsy grounds, but a detective chief
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inspector who is very keen for that person to be arrested, although there are no legal grounds for that to happen.

It is therefore desperately important that the person that makes that decision has not only the knowledge base and experience to enable them to make an appropriate decision, but the authority to stand up for the decision that he or she has taken. That is why it is important that we have a clear idea of the sort of person who can perform the duties of a custody sergeant. Let us recall that that matter was expressly examined by the Runciman royal commission on criminal justice in 1993. I have with me an article by Professor Michael Zander, QC, who was a member of that commission. He quotes what the commission said in paragraphs 25 to 26 of its inquiry report:

    ''It is in any case important that the police should take full responsibility for the integrity of the evidence gathered, during the interview process as in other ways. This will only happen if they remain accountable for ensuring that such evidence is reliable because everything possible has been done to prevent the suspect from coming under unfair pressure. To make another body responsible for the custody officer role would mean a serious risk that the police would no longer regard the responsibility for ensuring fair treatment of suspects as being theirs. In our view, therefore, everything possible should be done to develop and strengthen the performance by the police of the custody officer role. We recommend accordingly that the custody officer should continue to be a police officer of at least the rank of sergeant.''

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Prepared 18 January 2005