Joint Committee On Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 377 - 379)



  Q377  Chairman: Mr Bynoe and Dr Best, thank you both very much for coming today. We gather that your Chairman has been unavoidably detained, so we are very grateful to you, Mr Bynoe, for stepping in at short notice. You understand, I know, the point at which we have reached with our inquiry into deaths in custody and of course it is probably right to say that we are taking evidence from you at quite a good time in that, in a couple of weeks' time, the Police Complaints Authority will cease to exist as a public body and will be replaced by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, so this is probably quite a good opportunity for you to share with us some reflections on the way in which the PCA can react to, deal with and try to eradicate deaths in custody. If I could first ask something about what you perceive to be the impact of the Police Complaints Authority. Would you say that, in the last eight years in which you have been operational, your organisation has had any impact on the levels of deaths in custody or the ability of the system to allocate blame or learn lessons or provide redress?

  Mr Bynoe: Thank you very much for inviting us to give evidence. I do apologise for the fact that my Chairman cannot be with you this evening but, as a deputy, I have to deputise. I am familiar with the material both earlier sent to you and with the questions which your clerk has kindly provided us in advance. We will share the questions, Dr Best and I, and the first falls to me to answer. It is a difficult question to answer, firstly because any answer would appear to be self-serving in that, if you are invited onto a public body, you are expected to have an impact, so one is bound to answer the question affirmatively "yes". In part, the answer to your question is "yes" because one can point to changes that have occurred during the last eight years and claim for the Authority perhaps a small but significant contribution in making those changes. The written evidence that we supplied took you through the annual reporting of the body to the Home Secretary and you are familiar with the first report that is summarised there, referring to the conference and following report on the subject of deaths in custody. Just to give you an example of impact, we highlighted in detail in that report some simple but necessary measures to raise the levels of practice in custody areas and the approach staff would take to assessing risk and dealing appropriately with the vulnerable detainee/vulnerable prisoner. In two respects, we said change was needed. Firstly, to ensure that custody staff saw the drug intoxicated person as at risk in the same way as the alcohol intoxicated person and, of course, at the time, Code C under PACE provided protections for the alcohol intoxicated but not for the drug intoxicated prisoner. From April of last year, the new Code C of the current edition of PACE puts the drug intoxicated prisoner on exactly the same footing as the alcohol intoxicated prisoner. So, simple changes that were needed in 1998/99 have fed their way through in that sort of policy journey into practice. Another example, rousability. Many cases over the past eight years highlight the failures of custody staff, civilian detention staff, police officer staff, custody officers and sergeants, to appropriately address this question of whether the person in their care is ill, is recovering from intoxication, is near to death or is perfectly okay and is asleep. Code C, for many, many years, simply provided wholly inadequate guidance to the practical staff on the ground having to do the job as to what the obligation to rouse amounted to. Way back in 1998 at our conference and in 1999 in our report, we said, "You must give exact guidance to practical staff as to what rousing means." It is now in Code C. It is a difficult question to answer because getting it into the Code is one thing and getting it into practice another completely different thing. So, at all stages, when you claim there has been impact—and we are just talking of one example here—the impact on the practice of custody staff in addressing the risk of the vulnerable—you have to step back and ask, is it really happening? It is probably too soon, far too soon, to judge whether, in practice, rousing is now done according to the Code. So, partly the Authority, in its last few weeks, say that many of these important changes maybe have reached the policy or the procedure level, but we cannot be confident about whether it has reached the practical ground level, the lino level, of the custody areas where these things need to happen. Every time that one is tempted to say that things are much better, that the custody area is a safer environment, more safety conscious, one of my colleagues is asked to supervise an investigation into an incident which reveals about it all the things that we have been hammering on about for the last, probably, ten years. Recent experience is that, I, as Deputy Chairman with my colleague Wendy Towers, the other deputy, are frequently discussing these critical incidents and I know from my personal knowledge that recent cases will have revealed the same sorts of human errors, faulty judgments and failing facilities which the Authority has highlighted over many years.

  Q378  Mr Stinchcombe: As a Member of Parliament, obviously I have particular concerns about all constituents that I represent. Recently, one of those constituents died in a police cell. A few weeks before that, somebody came to my surgery having been detained in a police cell on suspicion that he had been drunk when in fact he had been mugged and was a victim of brain injury. It is really important and vital particularly in those kinds of incidents that there is an adequate level of training consistently available across the nation in all of the custody suites and also adequate levels of staff. Is there any variation in the levels of staff and in the level of their training across the country?

  Dr Best: I think we would have to begin by making some kind of caveat about our own response path. We deal primarily with death cases, so looking at death cases, I think we would say that, yes, there is significant variation and the variation is not just between police forces, it is within police forces as well. We are frequently surprised when we read the final investigation report at the inconsistencies in the levels of training that we observe that are successfully identified by the police investigating officer and we know that officers themselves are aware of this. When we did some work with custody officers in the Met last year, they were very keen to point out to us how limited they felt their own training was and the picture is one of inconsistency. It manifests itself frequently in two particular points. One is identifying the initial illness and the second is immediately responding to somebody having been taken ill and I think we can say that it is not simply a time sequence of gradual improvement in this area, there are clear inconsistencies.

  Q379  Mr Stinchcombe: Do custody officers have their training before they take up their duties or is it provided after they take up their duties?

  Dr Best: There are now national standards that forces are working towards and our experience is that they have not yet been adequately implemented and have not filtered down to that ground level. We cannot answer that without proper research but what we can say is that we have certainly encountered anecdotal evidence that custody officers have been in place for some period of time before they receive even first-aid training in some forces. So, yes, there is inconsistency both in refresher training and in initial training. The baseline level of knowledge and awareness of the kind of issues that we were speaking about earlier, drugs, alcohol, mental health, tends to be very, very low.

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Prepared 17 December 2004