Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Grieve: I do not want simply to repeat what has been said, but I speak, if only to give my own angle on this, because for some six years before I was elected to Parliament—from 1990 to 1996—I was a lay visitor to police stations in Hammersmith and Fulham. In that capacity, I made regular visits to the local stations, of which there were three within the borough, to visit the custody area and see those who had been arrested and detained. I have absolutely no doubt about the crucial nature of the custody sergeant's role. Various points have been made to the effect that it is a demanding job in terms of understanding the rules and priorities, and the need to take personal responsibility for those detained. On top of that, however, it is a job that demands status, which does not necessarily come from being a senior officer in the hierarchy of the police force.

My police station visits never left me in any doubt that the custody sergeant was the man in control of the custody area. It was a control that he exercised not only towards the police constables bringing in detainees whom they had arrested—both in terms of vetting that detention to ensure it was justified and in ensuring that proper procedures were observed—but towards more senior police officers. That was authority that a proper custody sergeant could exercise towards those responsible for carrying out investigation into the person under arrest. One would see senior officers in charge of such investigations deferring to the custody sergeant in relation to any matter concerning the welfare of the detained person.

I simply do not see how that status, acquired as one of the great fruits of the 1980s and expanded over the years, will be preserved if we move to civilianise those in charge of the custody area. I am sympathetic to there being many functions in respect to the care of those detained at police stations that can properly be given to civilians to carry out. Heaven knows, the old matron who used to be in charge of female detainees in the past was not a police officer. But the task of being in overall control should remain with a police officer of sufficient standing and, above all, status within the hierarchy to discharge properly the quite onerous responsibilities placed on him.

The fact is that the system has worked extremely well. The Minister may correct me, but I am aware of very few complaints nowadays about the manner of detaining individuals in police stations or the way in which they are investigated once at police stations. That is in large measure because of the custody sergeant's presence and to his having an established role within the police.

I am wholly unconvinced by the proposals. I will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say, but my own view is to vote against the clause. If we do not succeed, I shall return to the matter on Report, and I understand that the other place will be exercised about
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the point when the Bill eventually reaches it. Whichever way one looks at it, I hope the Government will think again, for sympathetic as I am to the idea of using civilian staff in the custody area to free other officers, the custody sergeant should stay.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am not surprised that such august bodies as Liberty, the Law Society and the Bar Council have concerns about this matter. My hon. Friends, and indeed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, were absolutely right to express reservations. I begin to feel that the Bill is, in parts, trying to give us policing and criminal justice on the cheap. I am concerned about that, because something serious will go wrong and everyone will turn round and say, ''Ah yes, but these civilian custody officers''—or whatever they will be called—''only received minimal training.'' At the very least, we need to know from the Minister how much training officers are expected to get before they will be put in charge. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I would have no problem with a high-powered criminal barrister—or, indeed, a well qualified solicitor— fulfilling these roles. However, I would have a problem with someone relatively intelligent but who had had very little training.

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Section 38 (8) of the Police Reform Act 2002, which we are amending much of in this Bill, gives an idea of the circumstances that custody sergeants may face. They could be faced with people who are in an emotional state, or who may be drunk or high on drugs. Sometimes, custody sergeants face very difficult situations. Subsection (8) gives a clue to that, because it states:

    ''Where any power exercisable by any person in reliance on his designation under this section is a power which, in the case of its exercise by a constable, includes or is supplemented by a power to use reasonable force, any person exercising that power in reliance on that designation shall have the same entitlement as a constable to use reasonable force.''

We are starting to talk about having to use reasonable force. For example, if there is a fight or if somebody is about to injure themselves because they are high on drugs, swift intervention is needed. It will take only one case in which somebody is seriously injured or, God forbid, kills themselves or is killed by somebody else, and there will be a huge clamour to go back to having custody sergeants and for people to be properly trained to do the job.

I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the need for more custody suites. In the Cotswolds, only one squad car is available at night for 300 sq miles—half the Metropolitan police area. God knows how many police officers are in the Metropolitan police area, but it runs into many thousands each night of the week. The other day, when somebody was found dead on the road, the one squad car was taking somebody to a custody suite in Stroud, 30 miles away. It took the officers 20 minutes to get back and sort out the dead body on the road. That is what is happening in our rural areas because of the scarcity of police officers.

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The whole issue of custody and custody suites needs to be seriously considered by the Government. I am concerned, not only with the most serious aspects of the matter, which I have already outlined, but that ordinary people will not be convicted for the crimes that they should be. Clever lawyers will examine custody notes very carefully indeed, and if the PACE provisions have not been followed absolutely to the letter, they will use that to ensure that their client pleads not guilty and cannot be convicted.

I have serious reservations, and the Government should think very carefully before they introduce the provision in the Bill. I hope that they will drop the proposal, because the citizens of this country do not want their criminal justice and policing to be done on the cheap. They want it done by proper police officers with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly said, the appropriate experience and training, who know what to do when difficult cases arise. I am not trying to get at the Minister, but I urge her to give a second thought to the matter, and I hope that my hon. Friends will vote against the clause.

Mr. Djanogly: The interesting thing about the clause is that almost everyone disagrees with the Government's position. The Law Society has said:

    ''Decisions on suspects' civil rights made by custody officers are too important to be carried out by a civilian.''

Liberty and the Police Federation are equally opposed, and one wonders why the Government are ignoring the consensus.

Would a civilian custody officer have the authority and experience to cope with a scenario such as a detective superintendent seeking inappropriate access to an arrested person? I give that example because a retired senior police officer told me that the police often wanted to question suspects held in custody in a way that was incompatible with PACE—sometimes only slightly incompatible—but the sergeant, as custody officer running the police station, would put a stop to it because they had the authority to do so. They occupied the police station in the same way as they now say that one needs tanks to occupy towns after one has taken them. The retired officer said that they were a solid force, equivalent to the old matrons in the NHS who knew intimately what was going on around them and took responsibility for their surroundings. The Government are being unwise to get rid of this important role, and police stations and individuals detained in them could be worse for it.

Vera Baird: I, too, am concerned about the proposal, on the basis of my court experience over the years, and for the same reasons as Conservative Members. We should make some strong points, however.

The proposal has nothing to do with expense. Because we have rightly and properly recruited large numbers of police out on the streets, there is an urgent need for supervisory officers out on the streets to supervise them. I can see the need for that.

The burden of deciding on charging, and so on, has been hugely relieved by the fact that the CPS is now in police stations. That has taken the top slice of
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responsibility off custody officers. I can see why there appears to be an opportunity here, but my concerns are best summarised in the following way: it would be difficult to train into someone the experience needed to be able to decide whether to accept a charge; whether someone has used their reasonable suspicion appropriately; whether they have arrested someone properly and told them why they are being arrested; whether the case will survive; to decide, right at the beginning of the case, whether someone is entitled to an appropriate adult when interviewed; to provide protection against senior detectives who may feel that they urgently need access to someone when the duty of the custody officer is only to allow regular and noted access; and for decisions about bail, visiting and access to legal advice to be taken. It would be hard to train someone to take decisions of that kind. They are, it seems to me, decisions best taken on the back of having some experience of policing. I do not see it in quite the same way as the other civilianisation programmes related to the police.

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