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Police Custody: Rights of Minors

Volume 710: debated on Monday 14 March 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Gareth Johnson.)

I thank the Minister for her attendance at this late hour. This debate is motivated by the need to protect minors. Public bodies all have a responsibility to protect minors. Protecting the rights of minors while in police custody is vital, but children across our country have gone overlooked. Some of the most vulnerable in our society are suffering under insufficient safeguards, and reform is desperately needed.

I thank Deborah, my constituent, for being brave enough to share her experience with me. She used to work just around the corner for the civil service, and she is the mum of Jayden, whose story I will be speaking about today. I also welcome Dr Miranda Bevans and Dr Vicky Kemp, both professors of law and experts in this field, who have been invaluable in their conversations with me and in the preparation for this debate, and who are in the Public Gallery.

Jayden is a 15-year-old boy from my constituency. He is currently in the first year of his GCSEs and is described by his mum as,

“bright and sociable, part of a large close-knit family”.

Jayden was in his school uniform and on his way to school when he was arrested. There had been a complaint from a bus driver about a group of boys and the police had been called. By 10 that morning, Jayden found himself sitting in a custody cell made for adults.

Deborah, his mum, was worried when Jayden did not return home from school. She called his friends, their parents and the school. She was scared that her son had been harmed, knowing that too many children and young people have been stabbed and died on our streets, and desperately hoped that her son was not another victim.

At 6.46 pm, Deborah received a call from the station, notifying her of her son’s arrest, nine hours after he was originally detained. He was alone for nine hours, and there was clearly no concern from the police about the level of chronic despair and anxiety he was feeling. By way of explanation for the nine hours, she was told a work shift change had taken place and custody was busy. In my view, there was no justifiable reason given for that level of neglect.

The chance is that Jayden left home at 8 am to go to school, and just under 11 hours later his mum was called. We must ask why he was treated so carelessly and who else that has happened to. Deborah told me that Jayden had asked for a phone call, but had not been permitted to make one. Again, that is stripping someone of their rights. It was as if he was being punished before being been found guilty, and that is simply not good enough.

I remind the House of the law that already exists to protect children while in police custody. The Children Act 2004 places a statutory duty on police,

“to have regard to the safety, welfare, and well-being of children.”

A rights-based, “child first” approach in every encounter with the police is enshrined in the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s national strategy. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, or PACE, requires that detention is only authorised when strictly necessary and custody officers should prioritise vulnerable detainees.

Jayden’s mum, as the appropriate adult and person responsible for his welfare, should have been notified “as soon as practicable” under code 3 of the statutory guidance to the 1984 Act. Jayden should have been given a phone call, as it is only under specific circumstances that that right can be denied or delayed.

Simply put, the law as it currently stands failed to protect Jayden, and it probably fails to protect other young people like him. The Minister may respond by saying that she cannot comment on the specifics of an individual case and to follow the pre-existing complaints system, which my constituent is doing. I understand that, but the reality is that this should never have occurred in the first place, and it is far from an isolated incident. This means that something is fundamentally wrong.

There are countless similar stories, many of which go formally unreported. Here are just a few from in and around my constituency and across the country. One child spent 34 hours in custody, including 10 hours post charge, with an appropriate adult only arriving after 16 and a half hours of the detention. A 16-year-old boy was kept in a holding cell with adults for three and a half hours without his mother or solicitors being notified. In 2019, a 10-year-old child was detained for 23 hours, from 7 pm on Wednesday to 6 pm on Thursday. Imagine that—a 10-year-old child being detained in a police cell for 23 hours.

We all know that not all young people, parents and carers complain. They do not complain for a number of reasons. Just one incident coming to the public’s attention means that there are likely to be many more similar cases—probably more than we can imagine. In my recent conversations with Miranda and Vicky, I have heard of many more situations where it is entirely inappropriate for young children to be kept in a police cell. The law is simply not properly protecting children while they are in police custody. The overall number of children held in police custody has decreased over recent years, which is a welcome development. However, children are often detained for a long time, mirroring adult stays in a police cell and that, again, is not acceptable. Also substantial racial disparities exist in the overnight detention of children.

It is important to make this point: most custody officers up and down our country are trying their best to look after children who arrive in their custody. Being in custody is a risky environment for children and self-harm is shockingly prevalent in these cases. The legislation is not strong enough to prevent this. The procedure needs to be fleshed out, and a stronger and more serious stance needs to be taken. In accordance with PACE, whereby detention is used as a “measure of last resort” and for the “shortest possible time”, will the Minister consider and commit to halving the amount of time that children can be held in custody from 24 to 12 hours? Will she also carry out a review looking at self-harm and mental health following young people’s interaction with custody and the overnight detention of children in police custody?

In our system, the appropriate adult, often the parent, carries responsibility for oversight of due process—a role that they are unprepared for. What parent could ever envisage being the appropriate adult for their child in custody? What parent would ever even know what to do? Therefore, education is key to make sure that appropriate adults can fulfil this vital oversight role. In 1991, the royal commission on criminal justice recommended the use of educational video resources to address that gap. Dr Miranda Bevan, in association with the National Appropriate Adult Network, recently produced a short animation educating appropriate adults about their role. It has received good early feedback. Will the Minister talk to the police powers unit and lead the Home Office to adopt it?

As well as reforming the system for the future, we need to deal with the ramifications of this issue here and now. Stays in custody are often the only interaction that children have with the criminal justice system. Police custody cells are designed for adults suspected of criminal activity and not for children. That environment can be deeply harmful for a child. As the House has heard, there are traumatised children walking around in my constituency inevitably shaken by their experience in custody. It shapes their perspective on the police force and sets in train fear and dread towards those who have been tasked with the mission to serve and protect. The unfair treatment of minors while in custody will have an impact on communities, so this situation really does need to be put right.

Deborah recently said: “I am constantly worried about my children coming into contact with the police that are here to serve and to protect our streets.” She recently told me that because of his experience Jayden is now afraid of the police, when in fact he should feel that the police are there to help those in trouble. Where and who can people like Jayden go to when they need help if those that help him also oppress him? This breakdown in trust is an unnecessary and avoidable situation that also lessens the morale of the overburdened police force. The Conservatives claim they are a party of law and order, but surely a condition of law and order in our country is a healthy relationship between its people and their police service. Will the Minister increase and update the training to aid cross-cultural communication? Will she commit to greater funding for conduit organisations that act as a bridge between ethnic and poorer communities and the police?

One of the primary roles of Government is to protect vulnerable people and vulnerable children involved in the youth criminal justice system. Will the Minister work with me to make sure they are properly protected while in police custody?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) for bringing these matters to the House, despite the lateness of the hour, and I acknowledge the importance of the topic in front of us this evening. I thank her constituent Deborah, who I understand is here, and I very much thank the hon. Lady for telling the story of her constituent and her son Jayden. I also acknowledge that we have Dr Miranda Bevan with us and I will speak about her contribution later in my remarks.

Custody is a core element of the criminal justice system and is critical for maintaining public confidence, obtaining intelligence, bringing offenders to justice and keeping the public safe. However, children should only be detained in custody when absolutely necessary. Where there are opportunities to divert children away, these must be considered. It is right and proper that children are acknowledged as a protected group with specific needs. Their treatment in detention is governed not only by domestic legislation, but by the UN convention on the rights of the child, which the UK has signed and ratified.

Everyone who works with children has a responsibility to keep them safe. Specific safeguards apply to children detained in custody, including a legal requirement for an appropriate adult to be present for interviews and strip-searches, if they take place, to ensure their rights are protected. Officers must take into consideration a child’s age when deciding whether it is necessary to arrest them and determining the time at which an arrest takes place.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 places a legal limit of 24 hours on how long an individual can be detained in custody by the police before they must be charged with an offence or released. It can be extended by an officer of superintendent rank or above under certain circumstances, and further by a court up to a total of 96 hours. These legal limits apply to both children and adults. Police officers must follow those requirements when detaining children in custody. The hon. Lady has referred to a case where she is stating that that did not take place, and I know that she is raising that complaint with the specific force—I think in her case that is the Met police—or with the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

It is right that these procedures and requirements are subject to scrutiny and oversight. That is why Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services regularly inspects police custody suites. Via its inspection programmes of approximately nine forces a year, it monitors the treatment and welfare of children in custody and makes recommendations for police forces and partners in maintaining and where necessary raising service delivery. We expect forces to respond to those recommendations and take action when concerns are raised.

The hon. Lady has raised an excellent point about the opportunity of a custody period for the police to engage with those young people who might be involved in crime and pursue possible diversionary activity to prevent them from becoming further involved in the criminal justice system. We recognise that this is a perfect moment for that to take place. Several London custody suites have youth workers physically present to support detained children and engage with them and their parents.

The hon. Lady spoke about training for police forces and she is right to recognise that. The police uplift introduced by the Conservative Government is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to increase the diversity of the police. Attracting a broad range of talent, cultures and backgrounds to policing is a core ambition in our drive to recruit 20,000 additional police officers, and we are working really hard to deliver the diverse police workforce that our communities need by co-ordinating efforts between Government and policing not only to attract more diverse candidates into policing, but to ensure it is a career where all recruits can thrive. We have recruited more than 11,000 additional officers as part of that programme.

I am pleased to say that the police officer workforce is more representative than ever. The latest data shows the highest proportion of minority ethnic and female officers since records began. There are now more than 10,000 black, Asian and minority ethnic officers across the police workforce. The Met police are our most diverse force, with 5,479 officers from minority ethnic backgrounds as of 31 December 2021 and some 21.4% of its joiners since April 2020 coming from those communities, but of course we must keep going further.

The hon. Lady is right that it is not simply about numbers; the training and cultural competence that officers possess is critical to successful policing. The College of Policing’s foundation training for all those entering the service includes substantial coverage of police ethics and self-understanding, including the effects of personal conscious and unconscious bias. The initial training undertaken by all officers also covers hate crimes, ethics and equalities, and policing without bias.

Further training is then provided in specialist areas throughout an officer’s career. For example, training for police investigators includes a specific focus on bias, policing fairly and the practical effects of those fundamentals on the investigation process. Training for those involved in public protection includes methods to raise officers’ self-awareness of their own views, stereotypes and biases. We agree with the hon. Lady that it is vital that all police officers have the right competences and values, and an understanding, especially when dealing with the most vulnerable in our society.

The hon. Lady mentioned the important work carried out by Dr Miranda Bevan of the London School of Economics looking at and working with the National Appropriate Adult Network. Together they have recently developed video guidance for family members acting as appropriate adults to ensure that they can effectively support their children while detained. We are grateful for that work, which is groundbreaking and provides easily accessible information in what is often the most difficult of circumstances. The Home Office has been deeply involved in the development of that innovative project and will be working to raise its profile through as wide a dissemination as possible. We agree with the hon. Lady that it is an incredibly helpful piece of work.

Home Office officials are also engaged with research funded by the Nuffield Foundation to examine the impact of PACE on the detention and questioning of children and to explore the merits of a more child-centred approach to the police custody experience. We look forward to the findings of that research and will consider its recommendations carefully.

This is a vital issue and I repeat my earlier thanks to the hon. Lady for securing the debate. I am clear that, although it is vital for public safety that the police should have the required legislative powers to detain people in custody, they must use them judiciously, appropriately and within the law. Police custody suites must be safe places for everyone and that of course applies to children.

I may not adjourn the House until I have notified the Royal Assent to any Act relating to the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill, agreed upon by both Houses. The House is accordingly suspended. I will arrange for the Division bells to be sounded a few minutes before the sitting is resumed.

Sitting suspended (Order, 14 March).

On resuming—

royal assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2022

National Insurance Contributions Act 2022

Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022.

House adjourned.