New clause 42 - Powers of authorised officers executing warrants

Part of Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 6th July 2004.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 6th July 2004

I welcome you to the Committee this afternoon, Dame Marion. I was exploring the difficulties that could flow from Government new clause 42 and new schedule 2, which deal with the powers of authorised officers executing warrants. I was explaining my concerns about an individual who is probably very skilled and conscientious in what they do, but who nevertheless has not been trained and does not work within structures such as those of a police force, in which someone who holds the office of constable would work. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) appropriately widened the concerns, and it is a substantial concern to me that such an individual would not be trained in arrest. They will be trained if they have a good employer, but not all of them will necessarily be trained in that area.

Those people will be working within a structure that has no obvious rank structure—there is no senior officer to whom they are responsible, as a police

constable would be responsible to a basic command unit commander or, in the final reckoning, to a chief constable—and no recognised complaints structure. Indeed, the Minister's failure to provide even a glimmering of a structure this morning suggests that that has not figured much in the Government's thinking so far.

There is also a real fear—although I do not want to overstate this—that occasionally an officer will take action in circumstances involving delicate community relations, for which we insist that police officers have special training. We go out of our way to ensure that they exercise their powers of arrest, and particularly their powers of search, properly. Indeed, a huge study has just been launched to ensure that police officers use the power of search appropriately. None of that applies to authorised officers.

I foresee a further operational problem. One advantage of not being able to effect a forced entry to premises or to make an arrest without a constable attached is that the local police will be aware of the circumstances, and of what is happening. There is therefore a clear opportunity for the local police commander to say, ''Hang on a minute, you will jeopardise a police operation if you do things in that way at that time.'' There is a real possibility that a court official could arrive halfway through a surveillance, blast their way through the door and start doing cack-handed searches while the crime squad waits outside, frustrated by the fact that its entire operation is being brought to naught by such action.

The Minister is smiling, as if that would not happen. Let him consider the history of operations in which more than one force was involved, or in which a force and Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have failed to communicate properly. If he considers all the opportunities for destroying what may have required many months of patient police work, he will realise that this is a real threat, which should be avoided.

For all those reasons, I am wary of the proposal. I want effective enforcement of court orders and fines imposed by a court. I want things to happen within the rule of law, and I want to ensure that everyone involved is properly trained, and that there is redress beyond the very basic redress of a civil remedy that the Minister seems to advocate in the case of an action that falls outside the scope of paragraph 2 of new schedule 2. We are not yet satisfied that that is the case.

I want to ask one direct question. The authorised officer is defined as an authorised officer as specified in the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980. Could that include, mutatis mutandis, the designated officers under the Courts Act 2003? It seems to me that although they would not normally be operating in those circumstances, there is a mix and match between them. There are fines officers appointed by the Lord Chancellor, there are designated officers under the Courts Act who are, effectively, appointed by the local magistrates bench, and there are these authorised officers. I want to ensure that we are talking about the same species in all instances, and that there is a

read-across between the different pieces of legislation. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response, because he has not yet convinced me that this is not a hefty sledgehammer with which to crack a relatively small nut.