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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.