Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Grieve: I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. He might also agree—I think that we discussed this matter when considering the Criminal Justice Bill—that the custody sergeant has an important role to play in taking exhibit evidence and ensuring that it is properly labelled, identified, listed and retained.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I have mentioned that issue in passing as part of the role of the custody sergeant.

I would need a high level of persuasion from the Minister to believe that someone without police experience would be able to exercise that authority and make such assessments. I am not saying that that is impossible; clearly, that is not the case, because somebody may have been trained and have achieved the same level of seniority. However, it is difficult to believe that a person could make the judgment without the genuine experience of having worked as a constable or sergeant in the police force. More important, it is even more difficult to believe that other police officers would think that a civilian taking on that role had the necessary authority and experience. That is a crucial element of the equation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It seems to me that two aspects need to be considered. If civilian employees with less training are asked to do the job of those who have received considerable training, there are two possibilities. First, people might be held in custody longer than they should be. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, people might be acquitted because incorrect procedures were applied during custody. After all, the notes, evidence and procedures involved in incarceration and custody are important evidence at trial. If that procedure is wrong, criminals may get off who should not otherwise do so.
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Mr. Heath: That certainly has to be taken into account. However, one can overstate that part of the argument. For instance, it may be the Government's intention to employ eminent QCs in criminal practice as custody officers, as they would have a clear idea of what was required in evidential terms, but I doubt it. I suspect that that is not the Government's intention, but I am not sure what their intentions are. Do they wish to meet a demand for custody officers that would otherwise not be met? Or do they wish to make custody officers cheaper by saying that they no longer need to be police officers, at least not in the rank of sergeant? If that is the intention, it is not a particularly noble one, although it is perhaps understandable that the Government may want to spread resources more thinly and more widely. Either way, we cannot avoid the fact that it is difficult to envisage someone without appropriate training or experience working in that role—a role that is crucial to the operation of PACE.

The amendment is modest. It would provide for civilians employed in that capacity to have been police officers of at least the rank of sergeant. Some might say that that would reduce the Government's position to the absurd, and I happily accept that the pool of qualified people who might be relied upon to perform the role, were the amendment to be accepted, would be extremely limited, and that it would not make a great difference. However, it would have the great merit that those working in the custody suite would know what they were doing.

Why do the Government think that the clause as it stands is a good idea? Extending civilianisation for the sake of it is not a good enough argument. There are strong grounds for having civilian elements in the police services and for relieving custody sergeants of some of their more routine tasks through the addition of civilian support, but theirs is a specific role, laid down in statute, and it has a high level of responsibility. Custody sergeants have performed their role in an exemplary way since the post was created. All the evidence is that they have done an extremely good job, and they are rarely challenged in the courts about the execution of their duties.

4.45 pm

The onus is on the Minister. First, she should explain why the measure is felt necessary beyond the fact that it is possible. Secondly, how does she believe that the real concerns of those who look at the system from the outside and believe that essential and intrinsic safeguards need to be maintained will be met? Thirdly, how does she believe that a custody sergeant with no experience in the police force will have the confidence of colleagues who have to have a working relationship with that person in the custody suite? I think that it would be almost impossible for a civilian to establish that confidence. If the Minister can satisfy me on all those grounds, I might be persuaded that it is a sensible way forward. However, I think that she will have some difficulty.

Mr. Mitchell: On this amendment and clause, no matter how beguiling the Minister is, we will have to differ. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has
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done the Committee and the House a service in tabling his amendment. I hope it may be agreeable if I make what might be called a clause stand part contribution to the debate in the interests of the efficient use of our time.

My suspicions about the Government's approach to the matter were first raised during the wind-up speech by the Under-Secretary on Second Reading. The hon. Lady said:

    ''Questions were raised about custody officers and I have to say that the Northumbria pilot scheme found that custody sergeants were champing at the bit to get out of the stations and be with the public. It has been greatly welcomed, and I see no reason why properly trained police staff cannot undertake the role to the same standard as police officers—a view shared by ACPO.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1135.]

Leaving aside the last point, it seems that that was an extremely misleading comment, which displayed a lacuna in the Under-Secretary's understanding of the role and the experiment. The Northumbrian experiment is not about releasing custody sergeants to front-line policing. When I looked into that, I was advised that the experiment seeks to replace police officers who assist the custody sergeant in a number of roles—custody assistants, in other words—with civilian staff. The role of custody officer in Northumbria, as in the rest of the country, remains that dictated by PACE: the custody officer can only be a substantive police sergeant.

It is not particularly surprising that we should approach the whole episode and issue with a degree of caution, a point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The Conservative party agrees in principle that some police roles can and should be civilianised. In a range of areas, police officers can and do work extremely well with civilian staff. It might well be said that the control room is a good example of what one might call the mixed economy, where civilian staff work alongside police officers.

Jailers in custody suites, those who take statements for minor offences, those in control of dogs, parking enforcers, scene of crime investigators, those who deal with forensics, vehicle examiners and accident investigators are examples of roles for which it may not be necessary to hold the office of constable. However, we absolutely disagree with the Government's proposals to civilianise the role of custody sergeant. That is a step too far. It is the exception that proves the rule in the process of civilianisation, which in other respects we support, and which, indeed, we started to intensify under the last Conservative Government.

Custody is a core policing function. Before taking responsibility for a custody suite, sergeants accumulate several years experience of the custody environment, at the very least. That knowledge is invaluable in such a challenging and demand-led environment. One can give training to a civilian member of staff, but one cannot, by dint of a training course, give people the years of experience gained. Custody officers determine whether arrested persons should be detained or are free to go. They make quasi-judicial decisions as to whether or not arrests are
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lawful. Only police officers have the authority and accountability to perform such a role, and only those working in custody suites have the expert experience.

We agree with the Government's statement in the consultation paper that the custody officer has ''a crucial role''. That role is crucial to the well-being and safety of those in custody, as well as being the guarantor of their rights. It is crucial in ensuring that the investigation of those in custody does not overstep the boundaries laid down by Parliament, the preservation of which is the custody officer's specified statutory duty and responsibility. Among others, I am advised that Liberty, the Bar Council, the Law Society and Justice have serious concerns in this regard. Each organisation draws attention to the fact that custody officers are experienced individuals who safeguard the civil rights and well-being of those in custody. Liberty states:

    ''The custody officer is the custodian of PACE. They are responsible for the well-being of those under arrest, and must ensure adherence to PACE requirements. The function is invariably carried out by an experienced police sergeant . . . It is easy to imagine a situation where a civilian officer could be placed under pressure to overlook breaches of PACE by senior CID officers.''

The present system ensures that custody sergeants are sufficiently experienced, and of sufficient seniority to be able to command respect for their decisions. The Home Office consultation paper ''Policing: Modernising Police Power to Meet Community Needs'' describes the role of custody officer as

    ''largely administrative and process driven''.

That Home Office view is not accepted by the Police Federation or the Bar Council, and it seems to me somewhat simplistic. Custody officers will work independently from investigating officers. They will make important decisions under pressure—for example, when to call in the force medical examiner, whether a suspect should hospitalised, or whether to put a suspect on suicide watch. Decisions will also be made that affect the course of the investigation—for example, whether a suspect should be interviewed, held, charged or released on bail. A custody officer needs the personal authority to overrule an investigating officer and the experience to make accurate decisions quickly. The Government's argument that the role is largely administrative does little justice, therefore, to the scope and importance of the custody officer's role. There is no substitute for experience to give authority to those people who make important judgments and decisions in these circumstances.

What is really happening is that the Government are looking at ways to save money. On Second Reading, the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who has held the role of Minister for Police, commented:

    ''While we shall make many economic gains by using civilian staff in a general role in custody suites, is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that now is the time to extend that role to cover the duties of the custody sergeant?''—[Official Report, December 7 2004; Vol. 428, c.1052.]

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That is a very important question. The custody officer is vital in the judicial process and works to ensure that the law is exercised with care and respect for the rights of a suspect at all times. That is a core police responsibility, and the Government should think again about this measure.

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