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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 Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold 4:45 pm, 18th January 2005

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.