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Clause 111 - Staff custody officers: designation

Part of Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:45 pm on 18th January 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 4:45 pm, 18th January 2005

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.