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Custody (Police Stations)

Volume 468: debated on Monday 26 November 2007

4. What assessment she has made of the efficiency of procedures for dealing with people being taken into custody in police stations. (167483)

The efficiency and effectiveness of police custody and custodial care remain under constant review within the police service. Others are equally involved, including the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

During my time on the parliamentary police scheme, I spent two and a half hours waiting at the custody desk to book in a prisoner. A police officer said that waits of four hours were not uncommon. When supermarkets have queues at the checkouts, they open more tills until the queues have disappeared. What are the Government doing to ensure that extra capacity is being built into custody areas so that we can get police officers back on to the streets as soon as possible?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point and it is interesting to see that he has brought his supermarket skills and experience to the House. However, the issue is not simply about capacity; it is about a whole range of other factors, as I am sure his police force in West Yorkshire will have told him. Those other factors include what we do with the review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, in terms of the whole process, and the level of civilianisation, or otherwise, inside custody suites. Many of the elements that are in place are there for a declared purpose. As Ronnie Flanagan said in his interim report:

“There is undoubtedly a great deal of good and necessary bureaucracy within custody suites, much of it put in place to protect the vulnerable, to ensure due process of the law and to provide accountability for police actions.”

However, the hon. Gentleman’s point about capacity at particular times is well made and I will take it back to all police forces.

Does the Minister agree that it is about time we had a root-and-branch review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act? In some cases, it offers a perverse incentive and discourages officers from making arrests due to the amount of bureaucracy that is necessitated when they arrive at the custody suite.

I have to disagree with my hon. Friend when he says it is about time that we had a root-and-branch review. We are nine months or so into the review that started last March. I agree that we need to get on with it and get to a stage where we know exactly what the parameters of PACE are. PACE has been around for a long time and there is popular consensus that it does what it is supposed to do—protect and look after the interests of those who encounter the police in the custody process. However, we need that review to report as soon as possible.

I accept that the PACE forms are there for a purpose and are important evidentially. However, does the Minister agree that, in many other regards, police officers spend far too much time filling in forms pointlessly?

They do and have done in some cases, which is why we are looking at that in some detail. I have had a range of round-table and other meetings with a whole host of forces. However, the House should not run away with the notion that every single piece of paper a police officer is required to fill out comes from the centre. Often it is to do with local devices. Neither PACE nor bureaucracy goes to the import of the original question, which was that we need to look at, operationally and in other terms, getting people through the custody process, while their rights are protected, on an optimal basis.

I wonder whether the Minister would have a word with the Lord Chancellor to see whether he can get a grip on the number of people who are being decanted from the prison service into custody suites in police stations. According to senior figures in Leicestershire, that is becoming quite a substantial problem. Does the Minister anticipate that things will improve in the years to come? Even though Leicestershire is being reimbursed, it must be seriously inconvenient for the police to have to use their cells in that way.

I certainly can agree with my hon. Friend that things will improve, as he says, in the years to come. Operation Safeguard has been well executed by police forces throughout the country and it has not, to date and to my knowledge, impinged on the operational ability of the police forces involved.

Last year, according to the Home Office’s own figures, the amount of time that patrol officers spent on paperwork increased from 16.5 to 16.6 per cent., and the amount of time that patrol officers spent on patrol fell from 19.1 to 17.3 per cent. Is it not high time that the Home Secretary got a grip and cut red tape so that our police can get out there and spend more time catching more criminals?

Beyond the rather overblown hyperbole, the hon. Gentleman does, as ever, have half a point. There is broad consensus across the policing family and certainly in Government, and we are all actively working together to ensure that police are spending more time out on patrol. Rather as Ronnie Flanagan says about bureaucracy in his interim review, likening it to good and bad cholesterol, I would not want the House to run away with the notion that all paperwork is bad. Very often it is more than appropriate that there is a paper trail when the citizen encounters the police for whatever reason, good or ill. Is there too much? Does bureaucracy always have to be driven down so that our police can spend more time on the beat? Absolutely. Rather than being so shrill, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will work with us to ensure that that happens.