'(5) No person shall be designated as a custody officer under this section unless he has previously been a police officer of at least the rank of sergeant.'.
We now come to one of the more controversial elements of the Bill—the Government's proposal for it to be permissible for civilians to act in the capacity of custody officers for the purposes of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. The Minister will know that the proposal has occasioned considerable upset among the ranks of serving police officers, whose concerns are shared by a number of legal authorities. The Law Society has expressed its concerns, and some well-placed commentators on the systems that apply for custody have indicated how unhappy they are. I preface my further remarks by saying that I want a lot more custody suites—an issue that we have debated previously. One of the difficulties for the police service, particularly in rural areas, is that insufficient custody suites are in operation.
The effect of not having custody suites is twofold. If a police officer wishes to arrest someone and take them to a custody suite, they are often required to take that person a considerable distance. That is irksome in itself, but more importantly, it takes the police officer, who will be on duty, out of area for a significant period. For those of us who represent rural constituencies, the effect cannot be underestimated. Literally half a duty period can be taken up in transporting an arrested person to a custody suite, doing the necessary paperwork and then, hopefully, returning.
That is a bad thing in itself in terms of police officers' abilities to do what we want them to do in the local community. However, it has a further malign effect, which is that a conscientious police officer, knowing that to be the case, will have to judge between making the arrest and thereby leaving the area for which they are responsible unprotected or not making the arrest and finding another form of disposal. There is therefore a perverse incentive not to make the arrest.
Why do we not have enough custody suites? The reason is partly that they are expensive, which we understand. As fewer police stations are in operation and as police stations are smaller affairs than they used to be, so there are fewer custody suites. Moreover, it is often difficult to find the resources to provide the specialist custody officers who allow for the custody suite to be operational even if it exists. That is the situation in my own force area at present. There is a perfectly good custody suite in Frome police station that is not available for use because it has no custody sergeant, as the marginal capacity of the policing district to provide for a custody sergeant is not there in terms of the personnel available. The result is that a person arrested in Frome on a Friday or Saturday night has to be taken up to Bath or down to Yeovil, either of which takes an hour and a half to three hours out of a police officer's day. I understand that that is a significant argument in support of the Government's wish to revisit the whole subject of custody officers.
I am not persuaded, however, that the Government have the right answer. The difficulty is that the custody sergeant, within the architecture of PACE, has a significant role to play. The custody officer is not simply the person who holds the key to the cell; they have to be responsible for the health and safety of the people who are detained in the cells, to know about the protection of evidence and all that goes with that, and most importantly, to make an assessment of the terms under which an arrest has been made, on the basis of their experience. On occasions, the custody officer will have to tell a colleague police officer that they do not have grounds for detaining a particular person in the cell and that that person must be released. Sometimes that colleague police officer may not be a rookie constable who has come in with someone whom they have arrested on flimsy grounds, but a detective chief inspector who is very keen for that person to be arrested, although there are no legal grounds for that to happen.
It is therefore desperately important that the person that makes that decision has not only the knowledge base and experience to enable them to make an appropriate decision, but the authority to stand up for the decision that he or she has taken. That is why it is important that we have a clear idea of the sort of person who can perform the duties of a custody sergeant. Let us recall that that matter was expressly examined by the Runciman royal commission on criminal justice in 1993. I have with me an article by Professor Michael Zander, QC, who was a member of that commission. He quotes what the commission said in paragraphs 25 to 26 of its inquiry report:
''It is in any case important that the police should take full responsibility for the integrity of the evidence gathered, during the interview process as in other ways. This will only happen if they remain accountable for ensuring that such evidence is reliable because everything possible has been done to prevent the suspect from coming under unfair pressure. To make another body responsible for the custody officer role would mean a serious risk that the police would no longer regard the responsibility for ensuring fair treatment of suspects as being theirs. In our view, therefore, everything possible should be done to develop and strengthen the performance by the police of the custody officer role. We recommend accordingly that the custody officer should continue to be a police officer of at least the rank of sergeant.''
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. He might also agree—I think that we discussed this matter when considering the Criminal Justice Bill—that the custody sergeant has an important role to play in taking exhibit evidence and ensuring that it is properly labelled, identified, listed and retained.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I have mentioned that issue in passing as part of the role of the custody sergeant.
I would need a high level of persuasion from the Minister to believe that someone without police experience would be able to exercise that authority and make such assessments. I am not saying that that is impossible; clearly, that is not the case, because somebody may have been trained and have achieved the same level of seniority. However, it is difficult to believe that a person could make the judgment without the genuine experience of having worked as a constable or sergeant in the police force. More important, it is even more difficult to believe that other police officers would think that a civilian taking on that role had the necessary authority and experience. That is a crucial element of the equation.
It seems to me that two aspects need to be considered. If civilian employees with less training are asked to do the job of those who have received considerable training, there are two possibilities. First, people might be held in custody longer than they should be. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, people might be acquitted because incorrect procedures were applied during custody. After all, the notes, evidence and procedures involved in incarceration and custody are important evidence at trial. If that procedure is wrong, criminals may get off who should not otherwise do so.
That certainly has to be taken into account. However, one can overstate that part of the argument. For instance, it may be the Government's intention to employ eminent QCs in criminal practice as custody officers, as they would have a clear idea of what was required in evidential terms, but I doubt it. I suspect that that is not the Government's intention, but I am not sure what their intentions are. Do they wish to meet a demand for custody officers that would otherwise not be met? Or do they wish to make custody officers cheaper by saying that they no longer need to be police officers, at least not in the rank of sergeant? If that is the intention, it is not a particularly noble one, although it is perhaps understandable that the Government may want to spread resources more thinly and more widely. Either way, we cannot avoid the fact that it is difficult to envisage someone without appropriate training or experience working in that role—a role that is crucial to the operation of PACE.
The amendment is modest. It would provide for civilians employed in that capacity to have been police officers of at least the rank of sergeant. Some might say that that would reduce the Government's position to the absurd, and I happily accept that the pool of qualified people who might be relied upon to perform the role, were the amendment to be accepted, would be extremely limited, and that it would not make a great difference. However, it would have the great merit that those working in the custody suite would know what they were doing.
Why do the Government think that the clause as it stands is a good idea? Extending civilianisation for the sake of it is not a good enough argument. There are strong grounds for having civilian elements in the police services and for relieving custody sergeants of some of their more routine tasks through the addition of civilian support, but theirs is a specific role, laid down in statute, and it has a high level of responsibility. Custody sergeants have performed their role in an exemplary way since the post was created. All the evidence is that they have done an extremely good job, and they are rarely challenged in the courts about the execution of their duties.
The onus is on the Minister. First, she should explain why the measure is felt necessary beyond the fact that it is possible. Secondly, how does she believe that the real concerns of those who look at the system from the outside and believe that essential and intrinsic safeguards need to be maintained will be met? Thirdly, how does she believe that a custody sergeant with no experience in the police force will have the confidence of colleagues who have to have a working relationship with that person in the custody suite? I think that it would be almost impossible for a civilian to establish that confidence. If the Minister can satisfy me on all those grounds, I might be persuaded that it is a sensible way forward. However, I think that she will have some difficulty.
On this amendment and clause, no matter how beguiling the Minister is, we will have to differ. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has done the Committee and the House a service in tabling his amendment. I hope it may be agreeable if I make what might be called a clause stand part contribution to the debate in the interests of the efficient use of our time.
My suspicions about the Government's approach to the matter were first raised during the wind-up speech by the Under-Secretary on Second Reading. The hon. Lady said:
''Questions were raised about custody officers and I have to say that the Northumbria pilot scheme found that custody sergeants were champing at the bit to get out of the stations and be with the public. It has been greatly welcomed, and I see no reason why properly trained police staff cannot undertake the role to the same standard as police officers—a view shared by ACPO.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1135.]
Leaving aside the last point, it seems that that was an extremely misleading comment, which displayed a lacuna in the Under-Secretary's understanding of the role and the experiment. The Northumbrian experiment is not about releasing custody sergeants to front-line policing. When I looked into that, I was advised that the experiment seeks to replace police officers who assist the custody sergeant in a number of roles—custody assistants, in other words—with civilian staff. The role of custody officer in Northumbria, as in the rest of the country, remains that dictated by PACE: the custody officer can only be a substantive police sergeant.
It is not particularly surprising that we should approach the whole episode and issue with a degree of caution, a point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome. The Conservative party agrees in principle that some police roles can and should be civilianised. In a range of areas, police officers can and do work extremely well with civilian staff. It might well be said that the control room is a good example of what one might call the mixed economy, where civilian staff work alongside police officers.
Jailers in custody suites, those who take statements for minor offences, those in control of dogs, parking enforcers, scene of crime investigators, those who deal with forensics, vehicle examiners and accident investigators are examples of roles for which it may not be necessary to hold the office of constable. However, we absolutely disagree with the Government's proposals to civilianise the role of custody sergeant. That is a step too far. It is the exception that proves the rule in the process of civilianisation, which in other respects we support, and which, indeed, we started to intensify under the last Conservative Government.
Custody is a core policing function. Before taking responsibility for a custody suite, sergeants accumulate several years experience of the custody environment, at the very least. That knowledge is invaluable in such a challenging and demand-led environment. One can give training to a civilian member of staff, but one cannot, by dint of a training course, give people the years of experience gained. Custody officers determine whether arrested persons should be detained or are free to go. They make quasi-judicial decisions as to whether or not arrests are lawful. Only police officers have the authority and accountability to perform such a role, and only those working in custody suites have the expert experience.
We agree with the Government's statement in the consultation paper that the custody officer has ''a crucial role''. That role is crucial to the well-being and safety of those in custody, as well as being the guarantor of their rights. It is crucial in ensuring that the investigation of those in custody does not overstep the boundaries laid down by Parliament, the preservation of which is the custody officer's specified statutory duty and responsibility. Among others, I am advised that Liberty, the Bar Council, the Law Society and Justice have serious concerns in this regard. Each organisation draws attention to the fact that custody officers are experienced individuals who safeguard the civil rights and well-being of those in custody. Liberty states:
''The custody officer is the custodian of PACE. They are responsible for the well-being of those under arrest, and must ensure adherence to PACE requirements. The function is invariably carried out by an experienced police sergeant . . . It is easy to imagine a situation where a civilian officer could be placed under pressure to overlook breaches of PACE by senior CID officers.''
The present system ensures that custody sergeants are sufficiently experienced, and of sufficient seniority to be able to command respect for their decisions. The Home Office consultation paper ''Policing: Modernising Police Power to Meet Community Needs'' describes the role of custody officer as
''largely administrative and process driven''.
That Home Office view is not accepted by the Police Federation or the Bar Council, and it seems to me somewhat simplistic. Custody officers will work independently from investigating officers. They will make important decisions under pressure—for example, when to call in the force medical examiner, whether a suspect should hospitalised, or whether to put a suspect on suicide watch. Decisions will also be made that affect the course of the investigation—for example, whether a suspect should be interviewed, held, charged or released on bail. A custody officer needs the personal authority to overrule an investigating officer and the experience to make accurate decisions quickly. The Government's argument that the role is largely administrative does little justice, therefore, to the scope and importance of the custody officer's role. There is no substitute for experience to give authority to those people who make important judgments and decisions in these circumstances.
What is really happening is that the Government are looking at ways to save money. On Second Reading, the Minister's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who has held the role of Minister for Police, commented:
''While we shall make many economic gains by using civilian staff in a general role in custody suites, is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that now is the time to extend that role to cover the duties of the custody sergeant?''—[Official Report, December 7 2004; Vol. 428, c.1052.]
That is a very important question. The custody officer is vital in the judicial process and works to ensure that the law is exercised with care and respect for the rights of a suspect at all times. That is a core police responsibility, and the Government should think again about this measure.
I do not want simply to repeat what has been said, but I speak, if only to give my own angle on this, because for some six years before I was elected to Parliament—from 1990 to 1996—I was a lay visitor to police stations in Hammersmith and Fulham. In that capacity, I made regular visits to the local stations, of which there were three within the borough, to visit the custody area and see those who had been arrested and detained. I have absolutely no doubt about the crucial nature of the custody sergeant's role. Various points have been made to the effect that it is a demanding job in terms of understanding the rules and priorities, and the need to take personal responsibility for those detained. On top of that, however, it is a job that demands status, which does not necessarily come from being a senior officer in the hierarchy of the police force.
My police station visits never left me in any doubt that the custody sergeant was the man in control of the custody area. It was a control that he exercised not only towards the police constables bringing in detainees whom they had arrested—both in terms of vetting that detention to ensure it was justified and in ensuring that proper procedures were observed—but towards more senior police officers. That was authority that a proper custody sergeant could exercise towards those responsible for carrying out investigation into the person under arrest. One would see senior officers in charge of such investigations deferring to the custody sergeant in relation to any matter concerning the welfare of the detained person.
I simply do not see how that status, acquired as one of the great fruits of the 1980s and expanded over the years, will be preserved if we move to civilianise those in charge of the custody area. I am sympathetic to there being many functions in respect to the care of those detained at police stations that can properly be given to civilians to carry out. Heaven knows, the old matron who used to be in charge of female detainees in the past was not a police officer. But the task of being in overall control should remain with a police officer of sufficient standing and, above all, status within the hierarchy to discharge properly the quite onerous responsibilities placed on him.
The fact is that the system has worked extremely well. The Minister may correct me, but I am aware of very few complaints nowadays about the manner of detaining individuals in police stations or the way in which they are investigated once at police stations. That is in large measure because of the custody sergeant's presence and to his having an established role within the police.
I am wholly unconvinced by the proposals. I will listen carefully to what the Minister has to say, but my own view is to vote against the clause. If we do not succeed, I shall return to the matter on Report, and I understand that the other place will be exercised about the point when the Bill eventually reaches it. Whichever way one looks at it, I hope the Government will think again, for sympathetic as I am to the idea of using civilian staff in the custody area to free other officers, the custody sergeant should stay.
I am not surprised that such august bodies as Liberty, the Law Society and the Bar Council have concerns about this matter. My hon. Friends, and indeed the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, were absolutely right to express reservations. I begin to feel that the Bill is, in parts, trying to give us policing and criminal justice on the cheap. I am concerned about that, because something serious will go wrong and everyone will turn round and say, ''Ah yes, but these civilian custody officers''—or whatever they will be called—''only received minimal training.'' At the very least, we need to know from the Minister how much training officers are expected to get before they will be put in charge. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I would have no problem with a high-powered criminal barrister—or, indeed, a well qualified solicitor— fulfilling these roles. However, I would have a problem with someone relatively intelligent but who had had very little training.
Section 38 (8) of the Police Reform Act 2002, which we are amending much of in this Bill, gives an idea of the circumstances that custody sergeants may face. They could be faced with people who are in an emotional state, or who may be drunk or high on drugs. Sometimes, custody sergeants face very difficult situations. Subsection (8) gives a clue to that, because it states:
''Where any power exercisable by any person in reliance on his designation under this section is a power which, in the case of its exercise by a constable, includes or is supplemented by a power to use reasonable force, any person exercising that power in reliance on that designation shall have the same entitlement as a constable to use reasonable force.''
We are starting to talk about having to use reasonable force. For example, if there is a fight or if somebody is about to injure themselves because they are high on drugs, swift intervention is needed. It will take only one case in which somebody is seriously injured or, God forbid, kills themselves or is killed by somebody else, and there will be a huge clamour to go back to having custody sergeants and for people to be properly trained to do the job.
I reiterate the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome about the need for more custody suites. In the Cotswolds, only one squad car is available at night for 300 sq miles—half the Metropolitan police area. God knows how many police officers are in the Metropolitan police area, but it runs into many thousands each night of the week. The other day, when somebody was found dead on the road, the one squad car was taking somebody to a custody suite in Stroud, 30 miles away. It took the officers 20 minutes to get back and sort out the dead body on the road. That is what is happening in our rural areas because of the scarcity of police officers.
I have serious reservations, and the Government should think very carefully before they introduce the provision in the Bill. I hope that they will drop the proposal, because the citizens of this country do not want their criminal justice and policing to be done on the cheap. They want it done by proper police officers with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield rightly said, the appropriate experience and training, who know what to do when difficult cases arise. I am not trying to get at the Minister, but I urge her to give a second thought to the matter, and I hope that my hon. Friends will vote against the clause.
''Decisions on suspects' civil rights made by custody officers are too important to be carried out by a civilian.''
Liberty and the Police Federation are equally opposed, and one wonders why the Government are ignoring the consensus.
Would a civilian custody officer have the authority and experience to cope with a scenario such as a detective superintendent seeking inappropriate access to an arrested person? I give that example because a retired senior police officer told me that the police often wanted to question suspects held in custody in a way that was incompatible with PACE—sometimes only slightly incompatible—but the sergeant, as custody officer running the police station, would put a stop to it because they had the authority to do so. They occupied the police station in the same way as they now say that one needs tanks to occupy towns after one has taken them. The retired officer said that they were a solid force, equivalent to the old matrons in the NHS who knew intimately what was going on around them and took responsibility for their surroundings. The Government are being unwise to get rid of this important role, and police stations and individuals detained in them could be worse for it.
I, too, am concerned about the proposal, on the basis of my court experience over the years, and for the same reasons as Conservative Members. We should make some strong points, however.
The proposal has nothing to do with expense. Because we have rightly and properly recruited large numbers of police out on the streets, there is an urgent need for supervisory officers out on the streets to supervise them. I can see the need for that.
The burden of deciding on charging, and so on, has been hugely relieved by the fact that the CPS is now in police stations. That has taken the top slice of responsibility off custody officers. I can see why there appears to be an opportunity here, but my concerns are best summarised in the following way: it would be difficult to train into someone the experience needed to be able to decide whether to accept a charge; whether someone has used their reasonable suspicion appropriately; whether they have arrested someone properly and told them why they are being arrested; whether the case will survive; to decide, right at the beginning of the case, whether someone is entitled to an appropriate adult when interviewed; to provide protection against senior detectives who may feel that they urgently need access to someone when the duty of the custody officer is only to allow regular and noted access; and for decisions about bail, visiting and access to legal advice to be taken. It would be hard to train someone to take decisions of that kind. They are, it seems to me, decisions best taken on the back of having some experience of policing. I do not see it in quite the same way as the other civilianisation programmes related to the police.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Not entirely implacably, so perhaps there is a chink of light there too.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
I do not accept that. I do not think that the judgment is wrong, and it is important to set the changes in a wider context as well as dealing with the specific issues that have been raised, as I shall now do. I do not intend for a moment to patronise either the outside bodies or the Committee, as I think that the issues are important.
Training is a key issue. People need to be reassured that those who will undertake the role will be properly trained and will have the right skills to do the job. National occupational standards are being developed by Skills for Justice. They will form the basis of an integrated competency framework. I know that that is a bit of jargon, but it is an established way of making sure that we can tell which skills are required for the job and how they relate to the tasks that have to be performed. Centrex, the national centre for policing excellence, which developed a doctrine of good practice, is currently developing guidance that will set out how the national occupational standards are to be achieved. It will establish standards not only for the new civilian custody officers, but for existing police custody officers. That will enhance the training that is available to them.
I can understand hon. Members' concerns, which is one of the reasons why, if we proceed down the proposed route, I believe that it is important to undertake a number of pilots to see how the staff custody officer role might work. I am keen for the training to relate not just to theory but to practice. I take on board the points that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made about experience and knowledge, understanding how such decisions arise and the ability to react to them. I envisage the pilots involving not only theoretical training, but the shadowing of experienced officers, learning about judgment and getting a feel for the job.
There is no shortage of volunteers for the pilot projects. Police forces are incredibly keen to take advantage of the opportunity to release some of their custody sergeants from the roles that they now fill.
In the consultation, the Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Avon and Somerset, Hertfordshire and Hampshire constabularies and North Yorkshire police and Surrey police were all keen to support the changes. Surrey police is one of the forces undertaking a major work force modernisation pilot, redesigning its basic command unit and considering different people doing different jobs in different places with different skills.
The Minister listed less than 20 per cent. of the police forces in the country; she got seven out of 42, which might be a significant figure. It is important for the Committee to know whether she was referring to the senior management of those police forces in close liaison with the Home Office or whether the main bodies of those forces were consulted. They will have to implement the decision if Parliament gives her the powers that she seeks.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman will seek to press the matter. I am also aware of the Police Federation's representations to many Members of Parliament communicating its concerns, which are serious. I hope that the Police Federation will take my comments as a general reassurance that I recognise the importance of the role in question, and the need for independence, integrity and status. The job does not simply involve process. Officers need to be properly trained. Part of that training will involve on-the-job experience and learning from experienced officers. I hope that that will reassure the Police Federation, which has genuine concerns about this matter.
I think that the Minister is genuinely trying to address the Committee's concerns. Will she expand her comments on the training? How long do the qualifications take to obtain and for how long does she envisage that the shadowing role will take place? However much training somebody receives, it is not until they have experienced a difficult situation in the cells that they can prove whether they are up to the job.
I understand the point entirely. The amount of training to be given for roles in the police service is a matter for chief constables because it is an operational matter. The purpose of developing the national occupational standards, the framework and the pilots is to explore the issues that have been highlighted. Until we are absolutely reassured that the job can be done properly and in accordance with the legislation, I do not want to take the necessary step. The hon. Gentleman himself said that if the duties are not carried out properly, there will be a defective case file and an ineffective trial. That is not something that the Government want ever to happen. The length of time involved would be an operational matter for the chief constable. The role in question is a serious one that requires proper training and we do not want policing on the cheap. I am not sure what the pay rates will be, but I would imagine that the job will be complex and not likely to be done for a small amount of money.
I can inform hon. Members that 10 forces have volunteered for the pilot study and that two others are in discussions, so a fair range of forces would like to take part.
Yes, indeed. The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the remarks that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary made in winding up the Second Reading debate about the Northumbria police work force modernisation pilot. That is an extensive pilot, involving £4.5 million over the next four years. The hon. Gentleman is right; that is a matter of extending the roles of other custody officers within the custody setting. It does not get to the heart of the custody sergeant's role, because until we change the law that must still be carried out by a police officer.
The Northumbria pilot has covered everything but the bit that can no longer be done. That has released 91 full-time equivalent police officers to the front line, getting them out of the custody setting. That has been welcomed by not just the officers, but the people of Northumbria, who have more officers on patrol.
I am grateful to the Minister for correcting the record, because I am sure that if she looks carefully at what I said and what Hansard records, she will see that a misleading impression was given to the House of what was happening. I am glad that she has now taken the opportunity to correct that.
I do not think that that needs a response.
There has been a massive increase in the number of police officers. I think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar made that point. It is the biggest ever increase; there have been an extra 12,000 officers in recent years, and because of that, there have been strains and stresses connected with the need for front-line supervision. The service needs to get some sergeants out into the community, supervising the neighbourhood teams, which are an increasing part of the way in which we organise our police service.
Many sergeants whom I have met have told me that one of the least attractive roles is that of custody officer, because it means being stuck inside and not doing the work in which people want to be involved. Getting those officers out is not simply expedience; it is a matter of playing to their strengths. Many of those sergeants do not want to be in the custody office day in, day out. They joined the police to be out on the beat fighting crime and bringing criminals to justice. That is another reason for the process that we have begun.
I hope that with my undertakings to pilot the system, conduct proper training and invest properly, and my recognition of the difficult judgments that people in the role need to make, hon. Members will have a little courage and take a view that accepts that things can be different. We do not have to do things as we have always done them. We can make improvements by doing things differently. I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield; as an independent lay custody visitor—a hugely important role carried out by members of the public—he will have seen some of the difficult decisions that are made.
One of the most important things that we can do to free up our front-line police officers is to redesign the custody process. We have said that, on average, police officers spend about 64 per cent. of their time on front-line duties. In the next three years we want to drive that figure up to something like 73 or 74 per cent. That would release the equivalent of 12,000 extra police officers to look after communities. That is why measures such as the one that I am outlining are important to us. Officers say that one of the most frustrating things to them is the time that they spend in custody. They arrest someone and take them to the custody centre, where it takes for ever to get through. Redesigning the custody process is very important.
I have one final comment to make. I am surprised when Opposition Members ask me who is in favour of the change and say that every sane person is against it. I have looked at the report of the Second Reading debate, in which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said:
''The Bill outlines plans for civilian staff to be designated as staff custody officers for the purposes of PACE. Subject to the obvious practical concerns about training and supervision, some of which the Home Secretary dealt with in his speech, I support the proposal. We need more police on the streets and less paperwork, and I believe that it will help to achieve that.''—[Official Report, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1065.]
I could not have put it better myself. In addition to the Association of Chief Police Officers, Unison and a range of police services, the shadow Home Secretary supports the proposal. I am amazed at the implacable opposition from Conservative Members in the Committee today. I know that they have difficulties with the Identity Cards Bill—they cannot decide whether they are in favour of it or against it—but I thought that we were fairly sure about where the Opposition stood on the Bill that we are considering. I should welcome some clarification. Perhaps hon. Members would like to consult the shadow Home Secretary on the matter.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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?
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.