Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. and learned Lady is doing the Committee a service from her experience, reiterating the PACE requirements. Would she not agree that if it is clear to a Crown Prosecution Service officer when he or she receives a file that there is a defect in the way the PACE requirements were carried out while someone was in custody, they will have to recommend that the case does not proceed? One requirement for the CPS is the likelihood of a prosecution being successful. Clearly, if procedures are not being followed correctly, that cannot be the case, and we will reach a situation where, if mistakes are made—they are likely to be made, with less experienced and less well trained people doing the job—guilty people will escape conviction.

Vera Baird: I do not know whether the CPS would take decisions such as that at an early stage. It may be that cases would fail later on, because serious challenges were made to the procedures. There are twin dangers of having someone who is insufficiently trained in the role: first, the civil liberties of the person in detention will not be protected, and secondly, the evidence will be contaminated because procedures have not been carried out. Both are equally damaging. I am worried that it is not possible to train someone up to do this job, unless they have the experience of being a police officer in the first place. It is probably a jump too far.

Mr. Clappison: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Lady on this occasion. All the points she made were important, but the final one will take some answering from the Minister. Whatever training civilian custody officers receive, they will not have the practical experience that a police officer can bring to the role, particularly a police officer of status.

I share the concerns expressed across the Committee. I have some sympathy with the Government's objectives of trying to make the best possible use of the police and bring in civilianisation
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wherever proper and appropriate, but the Minister has some important questions to answer as to whether or not the clause is the right way to do so.

I hark back to PACE itself. Much what we are doing challenges the structure of that Act, not least with regard to custody officers. Great attention is paid in that Act to their role, such as who will be a custody officer and what happens if one is not available. Custody officers are given important decisions to take, many of which they still take, not least decisions about bail, which the hon. and learned Lady just mentioned. That is extremely important from the point of view of civil liberties. Decisions on bail have to be taken properly and the rights of an individual being brought to a police station must be properly protected. Those are important issues, and the Minister has to answer this debate with some care.

Ms Blears: That is precisely what I intend to do in answering a good debate on a significant and important matter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome for saying that his mind remained open a chink and that if I addressed some of the issues relating to independence, integrity, training, supervision and experience, he might just support us. I will do my utmost to widen that chink so that he will feel a little more comfortable. Unfortunately the mind of the hon. Member for Beaconsfield appears to be made up. Whatever I might be able to say to him today, he seems fairly implacably opposed to the provisions.

Mr. Grieve: Pretty implacably.

Ms Blears: Not entirely implacably, so perhaps there is a chink of light there too.

Mr. Heath: My placability is limited.

Ms Blears: We are going to get into relative implacability shortly, which would be a fantastic debate.

Obviously, I understand the concerns expressed by the hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield, for Cotswold and for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar. I feel very strongly about this provision, partly because it is a difficult one. It is easy to promote the things in the Bill that are straightforward and gain a degree of consensus. This is one of the provisions on which people genuinely have some pretty trenchant views and opinions. Hon. Members have cited the Law Society, Liberty and other organisations. Equally I can say that in response to the consultation we received support from ACPO, Unison and, perhaps not unexpectedly, a whole range of police forces. They thought that the provisions could be implemented. I would not pretend that the weight is entirely balanced. Clearly there is a range of views about the provisions.

I feel strongly about the provision because it is symptomatic of the fundamental change that we are seeking in our police service. Several hon. Members have helpfully said that they support the move towards increased civilianisation and that there should be a move to modernise the work force, to flexibility and to
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people taking on roles that they have perhaps never taken on before. We are increasingly seeing escort officers, custody officers, detention officers and investigating officers, which we would not have seen four or five years ago in the police service. All those roles would have been carried out by fully warranted police officers in the service.

In the past few years, we have made an incremental shift towards convincing people that it is possible for people other than fully attested warranted officers to carry out some of the functions that are important in our police service. That is the important point for me. We have to examine the function and see what we can put in place to ensure that it is properly carried out. That is why I was grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar for amplifying the responsibilities of the custody officer under PACE.

I asked for some fairly extensive details about that. The role of the custody officer is perhaps on a different level from some of the other roles that we have civilianised. Many of the things that the custody officer has to determine are matters of judgment. They relate to charging, establishing whether people are fit to be detained, access to legal advice, access to medical attention and looking at whether detention should be extended. These are important matters requiring experience and judgment.

Mr. Mitchell: That is what we said.

Ms Blears: Indeed, and I seek to explore the areas of agreement before I delineate the areas in which we can take those steps. Let me assure the Committee that I do not consider that the role of custody officer covers simply administration and process. It involves significant matters of judgment and serious decisions. It is not our intention to dilute either that key role or the ability of the custody officer to act independently of the investigative process.

5.15 pm

Several hon. Members have talked about the need for the custody officer—the custody sergeant as it is now—to be independent, to have status and to be able to question the decisions of officers who turn up with people whom they have arrested, whether or not the charge is correct. That is right; the authority comes from legislation—the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which provides that the custody officer has the right to question such decisions and to have that independence, integrity and status. It also provides that, if the custody sergeant's decision is questioned, he or she can immediately refer the matter to a superintendent. The power will remain exactly the same for civilian custody staff officers. Under the terms of the legislation, if their decisions are questioned or there is any question of their integrity or independence being compromised, they will be able to refer to a superintendent. That is an important consideration.

It has been argued that the Government are pursuing the role as a way of providing policing on the cheap—I think that that was the phrase that the hon. Member for Cotswold used. Let me dispel that impression at the outset. This is not about policing on the cheap; it is about identifying the functions that
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need to be carried out and the most appropriate people to do that, and about giving chief officers the flexibility to deploy their resources in the most effective and efficient way. I make no apology for that. We spend a lot of money—more than £10 billion—on the police force, and I am determined to get best value out of that investment. That means giving chief officers the ability to say, ''These are our resources, and these are the tasks that face us. How do we put the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time?''

There are parallels to be drawn with some of the work force modernisation that has occurred in the health service, through which we have sought to change people's roles and jobs. Now people in the health service are doing things that they would never have dreamed of doing five years ago, never mind 10 years ago. Similarly, across the public services, as part of our reform programme, we are trying to create flexibility in the work force, and I hope that hon. Member for Cotswold would support that as a way of getting maximum value out of the investment that we make.

That is a very important role for the police service. Tackling change is important. It is always comfortable and attractive to cleave to the things that we know, to carry on doing them in a traditional way because it has worked well and to feel that we cannot make any improvements. I understand that position. However, sometimes it is necessary to think ahead, to be more innovative and to find new ways of doing things that benefit the service as a whole.

Mr. Mitchell: I am sorry to inject a harsh note, but the Minister is patronising the Committee and, indeed, the many bodies outside this House that understand that it is comfortable not to have change, but think that this particular change is wrong. That is the burden on the Opposition Benches. We are not frightened of change—we want to see a lot of change in the police service—but this is a mistake. The judgment is wrong, and the Government should think again.

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