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Clause 111 - Staff custody officers: designation

Part of Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:30 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:30 pm, 18th January 2005

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.