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'(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.''