Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

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Mr. Mitchell: The Minister is sullying her otherwise excellent reputation for taking Opposition points about the Bill seriously. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary is right to say that it is a top priority for the Conservative party to stop the way in which the police are drowning in paperwork as a result of the micro-managing efforts of the Home Office and the Minister in directing what happens at a local level. He made the point that we are determined to achieve that.

Having examined this issue carefully and talked to the people who deal with the role of custody sergeant, however, we have decided that this provision is a mistake. We are in favour of civilianisation, but this provision, as I said earlier, is a civilianisation too far. That is why we are opposed to it.

Ms Blears: I am grateful for that semi-clarification. I would have thought that the words of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden were fairly clear.

Mr. Mitchell: My right hon. Friend said ''Subject to.''

Ms Blears: Indeed. He said:

    ''Subject to the obvious practical concerns about training and supervision''. —[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1065.]

That seemed fairly clear to me. I do not want to trespass on private matters—[Interruption.] I am sure that Opposition Members can resolve that matter for themselves.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome would restrict custody sergeants to being retired or former police sergeants. That would be a very limited pool to draw from, and it would make things difficult. The key issue is not what a person is or was, but whether that person is suitable, competent, properly trained and experienced to carry out that role. Some police sergeants might not have had the necessary training in the specific role of being a custody officer. His amendment would therefore not necessarily serve the purpose for which he tabled it. The decision on custody officers needs to be an operational one to make our police services more efficient and effective; his amendment would not help to take that issue forward, and I ask members of the Committee to resist it.
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Vera Baird: I raised this matter on Second Reading; indeed, I seem to remember being the only Member who did so. I am therefore quite surprised at the overwhelming opposition that has suddenly come from the Opposition Benches today.

Would my hon. Friend the Minister say that since the change in clause 112 provides that no one can be appointed a custody officer unless they are either a staff custody officer or a sergeant, we can afford to change the law to permit the pilots? If the pilots turn out badly, as would happen if cases had to be abandoned or a great many detainees complained that they had not been supervised properly, one could fall back on the fact that even in the new law the role of custody sergeant is retained. If, after the pilots, staff officers prove not to be viable, no harm has been done, because one can fall back on custody officers. Is that right?

Ms Blears: We want to encourage the implementation of the provision because it has a whole range of advantages for the effectiveness of the police service. Clearly, it allows for either a police officer or a staff custody officer, so a police officer could continue in the role if necessary.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for her comprehensive reply. I understand her intentions and the fact that she believes that the change should not occasion the alarm that it causes to some. However, she has not yet persuaded me, and I shall amplify a little the reasons why.

The Minister mentioned some of the members of ACPO and some of the forces that have expressed an interest. She will readily acknowledge, however, that other chief constables have said ''Over my dead body will I have this happening in my force at this time,'' because they do not believe that it is the right way forward. Those chief constables are not necessarily against the principle of civilianisation. I place on record again the fact that I am not against a critical examination of the roles of police officers or of a finding that a task could be performed by civilians in a way that released police officers to quintessential policing duties. That is not a problem. Indeed, when I was involved with a police authority, we took the lead in many such areas, including the civilianisation of the work of scenes of crime officers, who do not need to be serving police officers in order to perform their functions. In fact, the civilianised SOCOs were largely retired police officers with the training, confidence and experience to do the job. That brings me back to the amendment.

I want to say a few words in response to the debate. We underestimate and undervalue the rank of sergeant in the police force. One thing that we could do to greatly increase the effectiveness of the police is understand the role that sergeants can play and cherish it. Too often, it is seen as a rank that people pass through on the way to greater things, but I deplore that attitude, because officers who are prepared to work in that area and use their experience in the front line—an expression that is often used—are crucial to the success
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of the police service. The role is seen as crucial to other organisations, but it is particularly so to uniformed bodies.

I part company with the Minister on one thing: I believe that the custody sergeant is, crucially, a front-line role. I did not have a problem with the Northumbria pilot scheme because it dealt with those in ancillary roles, and I have no difficulty today with her statement that she is going to roll out the Northumbria pilot across the country to see whether it is possible to take out some police officers working in subordinate roles to the custody sergeant, because those roles could be performed instead by civilians.

I come back to the point that the custody sergeant's specific role, as set out in legislation, requires particular authority. The Minister said that that authority comes from legislation. I disagree entirely. It does not come from legislation; the powers—the duties and responsibilities—come from legislation, but the authority comes from having worked for 20 years in the roles of constable and sergeant and from the experience that comes from having worked in those roles. That is the authority that matters.

I want the Minister to understand that I do not doubt her good intentions. I have said it before, but I share many of her aspirations for the police service, and I recognise many of the problems. The danger is, first, that the Government sometimes give the impression that they are not wedded to the office of constable and would be happy to see that role diminished in the policing family, at least for the attested constable or officer. Secondly, they are prepared to undermine the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which I believe has been remarkably successful and is a bulwark against which practice can be measured. Both impressions, if true, are unfortunate, and she should take great pains to resist them.

I shall not press the amendment, although I still think that it has some merit. It would at least ensure that the right people are in the right job and that they have the authority to back it up. The Minister has yet to convince me of the merits of her case, and the debate will clearly continue. As we intend to vote against the clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Mitchell: I do not wish to prolong the debate, because there is a clear division across the Committee on the matter we are discussing. We, too, will vote against the clause.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome put his case extremely well. I emphasise that Conservative Members have no problem with the concept of civilianising where possible. It was given tremendous impetus under the last Conservative Government, as the Minister will be happy to make clear. However, in promoting the concept, it is important not to civilianise too far and to know when a post cannot be civilianised. As the hon. Gentleman said, in his
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judgment, which we share, the post in question is not one that can be civilianised, because it is an important, front-line policing post that needs experience to fulfil it. We are not persuaded by the Minister's argument.

The hon. Gentleman made another valuable point: there is too much dismissal of police experience. We spent our first sitting talking about the issue of police members of SOCA. The Government play fast and loose with the experience that police have, which enables them to fulfil these tasks as we would wish them to do. The role of custody sergeant is an important part of the criminal justice system. The Minister has not won the argument in Committee, although she may win the vote, given the Government's majority. We wish to return to the matter on Report, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield said, I have no doubt that it will attract the interest of those in another place.

Vera Baird: Is the hon. Gentleman persuadable, given his commitment to civilianisation when that is possible? As I said very clearly, I have serious doubts about it. The form of the proposal is such that we cannot pilot it now because of PACE. If we change the law, the office of custody officer remains; if the pilots are a disaster, no chief constable need have a civilian custody officer in charge. He can fall back on having a custody sergeant. Is it not therefore worth a try?

Mr. Mitchell: The hon. and learned Lady is very persuasive. She gave the Minister a lifeline on that point when she intervened a moment ago. My problem with that argument is that I looked into the comment made by the Under-Secretary on Second Reading, and it was exceedingly misleading. I went on a similar journey to that of the shadow Home Secretary. We started off thinking that there was a case for what is proposed, but as we talked to people who have to operate the system on both sides—those who certainly know more than I do about these matters—we became convinced that it was an error.

The Minister has not won the argument in Committee, which is why, no matter what the vote determines, we will return to it later in the parliamentary process.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 6.

Division No. 9]

Baird, Vera
Blears, Ms Hazel
Brown, Mr. Russell
Cairns, David
Griffiths, Jane
Heppell, Mr. John
McWalter, Mr. Tony
Taylor, Ms Dari

Clappison, Mr. James
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Heath, Mr. David
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 111 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 112 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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