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Baroness Anelay of St Johns: When the Minister opened our proceedings today, she pinpointed accurately the two major issues on which this House expressed concerns at Second Reading. She was careful to explain in detail why the Government feel that the role of the custody officer could be developed in a new direction.

We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, that custody sergeants, as they are now, have a supremely important role. It is certainly the case that we, too, wish to ensure that custody sergeants have the levels of skill and authority to enable them appropriately to carry out their duties.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has already referred to the strong feelings of the Police Federation on this. In its briefing the federation makes it clear that custody officers have an unusual role in the justice system because they have the right, under great pressure and at short notice, to determine whether someone is free on the streets or not. I know that none of us, let alone the Minister, underestimates the difficulty and importance of the role. Further, if a person is detained, the custody officer is then wholly responsible for his or her safety and well-being.

It has been argued that only the substantive rank of sergeant carries the authority and responsibility to deny a senior officer access to a suspect at an inappropriate time or under inappropriate circumstances. Only someone with that clout—if I may call it that—might be
 
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able to persuade more senior officers that they may not override the custody officer's decision. All those points have informed our position on this matter.

Initially, we thought that this role was most appropriately open to being civilianised—a ghastly term—but as we listened to the development of the arguments, we came to appreciate more fully the case being put by the Police Federation. However, we continue to listen. Earlier today the Minister made considerable efforts to explain the Government's position, particularly on ensuring that whoever performs this role in the future should be well trained and held in sufficiently high esteem by their colleagues to be able to carry out the current role with the same efficacy.

While I have been able to listen to the noble Baroness, my colleagues in another place have not. I anticipate that she chose her words so carefully that they may feel that she has done enough to assuage their concerns, but I cannot speak for them. The Bill is to come before us again tomorrow for consideration on Report, and I shall certainly ensure that both the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, and the Minister are made aware of our position before then. But if Hansard bears out what my ears have heard, we may not need to press the matter further.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: This is a very important matter. The noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Anelay, have set out the case in such detail that I need not say much. But it surely cannot be right to civilianise this element of police work. It is all right to civilianise clerical workers, telephonists, mechanics, drivers and so forth because they are not an inherent part of police work itself. However, the custody officer is very much part of police work.

It is essential that criminals should recognise that they are being held in police custody, not in the custody of some civilian. They are being held because they are suspected of having committed a criminal offence. They would have been arrested by a police officer and would have been taken to a police station. At that point they should be put in a police cell and looked after by a policeman. What will criminals think if, after being arrested and charged in the police station, they are handed over to some civilian who is to look after them from then on? That simply cannot be right. It sends out the wrong message not only to the police, but also to civilians and criminals.

I hope that the Government will listen to what has been said and that they have been in close contact with the Police Federation. The federation represents those who do the job on the ground. It is not done by Ministers and staff in the Home Office. Policemen do the job on the ground and in this instance they have the expertise, experience and knowledge and thus should be listened to.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said, the Bill will have its Report stage tomorrow. We are in a difficult situation and I believe that if it were being given proper consideration in Committee and on Report, we—not I, as one who is simply Independent Labour these days—in the form of the main opposition parties would press
 
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this Question to a vote. They probably do not want to do that but, given the assistance the Government have been given today by all sides of this House to get the Bill through, they ought to be good enough to hold conversations with the Secretary of State and persuade him to make this concession. Tomorrow—or perhaps even tonight; it would be marvellous if she could do so—I hope that the Minister will be able to say that, having considered all aspects of the issue and having listened to the concerns of the Police Federation and the debate in Committee, the Government have decided that the proposition that the clauses should not stand part should be agreed and that they will no longer proceed with this part of the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, that we have listened to the arguments very carefully indeed. We agree with both the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris and Lady Anelay, that the role of the custody officer is extremely important. They are absolutely right to point out that the job deserves authority and strength because it is that person who has to determine the question of access to an individual and/or whether they are or are not detained.

However, the Bill is predicated on real change. I said earlier that the agency brings together senior and other individuals from a number of different agencies—immigration officers, Customs officers and others—many of whom have similar expertise. Most important, however, is that anyone who undertakes this enormously responsible job should be properly trained, be given the proper level of independence and should be able to do the job currently being undertaken by the custody officer—irrespective of the agency from which they may have originally come. Only people with those skills should be entrusted with this role.

I hope that I have made clear that we are as concerned as all noble Lords about the skills and abilities that need to be evident for the discharge of this role. The chief officer must be satisfied that a person designated as a staff custody officer is suitable, capable, and has received adequate training. It does not mean that a police officer will not do the job because it may be that the chief officer's designation determines that the most able and appropriate person is a police officer. It does not necessarily mean that that has to be the case.

Clauses 116 and 117 provide for the introduction of a new category of police staff—that of staff custody officer—and some consequential amendments to PACE. A person will be capable of being designated in this role if he or she is employed by the police authority for a particular force and is under the direction and control of the chief officer of that force.

The role of custody officer under PACE is recognised as a significant safeguard both for the suspect and the integrity of the custody and investigation functions. I emphasise that there is no intention to dilute the key role
 
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of the custody officer, nor to dilute the ability of the custody officer to act independently of the investigative process.

However, two issues have to be considered. First, as recognised by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary's thematic report, Modernising the Police Service, published in 2004, there are currently hundreds of experienced police sergeants acting as custody officers at a time when front-line supervisory experience is at a premium. Secondly, much of the work of the custody officer is largely process-driven. That does not suggest that the work is either routine or simply administrative. Far from it. The role of custody officer requires significant skills and abilities and, above all, requires the aptitude to apply those capabilities fairly, correctly and in circumstances where they may potentially attract adverse views from both policing colleagues and suspects' legal representatives.

So, in dealing with the skills and abilities issue, the chief officer must be satisfied that a person designated as a staff custody officer is suitable, capable and has received adequate training. I set out earlier today the national occupational standards developed by Skills for Justice that are already in place and have formed the basis for an integrated competency framework, which sets out the tasks and outcomes to be achieved in the custody officer role.

The National Centre for Policing Excellence is currently developing guidance that, in turn, will set out how the standards are to be achieved. The tripartite system that is being developed will not only clearly set out occupational standards for use by existing custody officers but, importantly, have in place definitive standards for both police and police staff employed in this task.

I understand the possible concerns of Members of the Committee that the custody officer has to be an experienced police officer who has the authority to make and impose a decision with independence. The authority and the independence of the role is set out in PACE, and that Act provides the custody officer with recourse to a superintendent in the event that his or her authority is questioned. The 1984 Act recognised similar concerns about a police sergeant undertaking the duties that we are now hearing about a member of police staff performing.

Added to this, we know from responses to the 2002 review of PACE, from pilot studies on the use of police staff and from the consultation exercise on police powers last autumn, that many police officers welcome the introduction of staff custody officers and the opportunity to get out from behind a desk.

We are currently discussing with the police and other key stakeholders the potential to pilot the role of staff custody officers in six force areas. The pilot studies would focus significantly on selection, training requirements and the practical application in the police station. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, is particularly concerned about that.

The pilot study would be subject to independent evaluation and would look to determine three elements: the efficacy of using police staff for this
 
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important role; the ability to use police staff solely in the role of custody officer; and the ability of a staff custody officer to make all decisions under PACE, with the potential for using a police sergeant or other rank in the role of custody supervisor.

We are not wedded to a specific outcome other than providing the ability for chief officers to make best use of the skills and knowledge available to them in the handling and treatment of suspects. I believe that this will help allay some of the perceptions and provide an opportunity to build on the already successful use of police staff in a number of force areas. The piloting, the testing and the independent evaluation will ensure that we have got it right and that chief officers have the flexibility to exercise the discretion in a robust and appropriate way.

Much will depend on the evaluation, which will assist us in deciding whether we have got it right, whether it works, whether it is practical, whether it is safe and whether it is proper. We think that it will be. We shall see. The pilots will help us to determine whether it is and we think that the Committee will be pleased by the results.


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