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Independent Review: Deaths in Police Custody

Volume 630: debated on Monday 30 October 2017

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House on the publication of Dame Elish Angiolini’s independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody and this Government’s substantive response to the report and its recommendations.

In 2015, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, then the Home Secretary, met the relatives of Olaseni Lewis and Sean Rigg, who had died tragically in police custody. The families’ experiences left her in no doubt that there was significant work to do not only to prevent deaths in police custody but, where they do occur, to ensure that the families are treated with dignity and compassion and have meaningful involvement and support in their difficult journey to find answers about what happened to their loved ones. I know that everyone in the House will want to join me in expressing our sorrow and sympathy for all those families who have lost loved ones who died in police custody.

It is essential that deaths and serious incidents in police custody are reduced as far as possible and, when they do occur, that they are investigated thoroughly, agencies are held to account, lessons are learned and bereaved families are provided with the support they need. The House will want to join me in acknowledging the incredible efforts of our country’s police forces and officers, the vast majority of whom do their jobs well to give substance to the Peelian principle of policing by consent. However, when things go wrong, policing by consent can have meaning only when swift action is taken to find the truth, to expose institutional failings and to tackle any conduct issues where they are found.

It is for those reasons that the Government commissioned in 2015 the independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody and appointed Dame Elish as its independent chair. Dame Elish concluded her review earlier this year and, having carefully considered the review and its recommendations, the Government are today publishing both her report and the Government’s response. The report is considerable in scope and makes 110 recommendations for improvement, covering every aspect of the procedures and processes surrounding deaths and serious incidents in police custody. It is particularly valuable in affording a central role to the perspective of bereaved families and demonstrating beyond doubt that their experiences offer a rich source of learning for the police, investigatory bodies, coroners and many others with a role to play when these tragic incidents occur. As for the Government’s response, I stress to the House that the issues identified in Dame Elish’s report point to the need for reform in several areas where we have begun or set in motion work today, but her report also highlights complex issues to which there are no easy answers at this time. The Government response that I outline today is to be seen as the start of a journey—a journey which will see a focused programme of work to address the problems identified.

As the House will understand, I do not intend to go into the detail of the Government response in respect of all the report’s recommendations. Instead, I will highlight key areas of concern and our approach. The first relates to inquests, which are intended to be inquisitorial, to find out the facts of a death, and should not be adversarial. Despite that, Dame Elish finds that inquests currently involve legal representation for interested persons, particularly those connected to the police force, and little or no help for bereaved families. The Government recognise that legal advice and representation may in some circumstances be necessary in the inquest process, which is why we have protected legal aid for advice in the lead up to and during inquest hearings. However, it is also clear that the system needs simplifying so that legal representation is not necessary in all cases, and the Government will investigate how we can meet this ambition and take it forward over the coming months.

As an initial step towards addressing those concerns and ensuring that the bereaved can have confidence in the arrangements, the Lord Chancellor will review the existing guidance so that it is clear that the starting presumption is that legal aid should be awarded for representation of the bereaved at an inquest following the non-natural death or suicide of a person detained by police or in prison, subject to the overarching discretion of the director of legal aid casework. In exercising the discretion to disregard the means test, it will also be made clear that consideration should be given to the distress and anxiety caused to families of the bereaved in having to fill out complex forms to establish financial means following the death of a loved one. That work will be completed by the end of the year.

As a next step, the Lord Chancellor will also consider the issue of publicly funded legal advice and representation at inquests, particularly the application of the means test in such cases. That will form part of the upcoming post-implementation review of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, due to be published next year. Although there are cases where legal support is required, we believe we can go further towards building a non-adversarial inquest system, which I hope the House will agree is better for all involved. The Lord Chancellor will also consider, to the same timescale as the legal aid review, reducing the number of lawyers who attend inquests—without compromising fairness—and making inquests more sympathetic to the needs of the bereaved.

This country is proud to have world-leading police forces. The police put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public with honesty and integrity, upholding the values set out in the policing code of ethics. Police integrity and accountability is central to public confidence in policing, and a system that holds police officers to account helps to guarantee that. The Government must ensure that the public have confidence in the police to serve our communities and keep us safe.

When things go wrong, swift action is needed to expose and tackle any misconduct. Action must be open, fair and robust. The Government will therefore implement legislation later this year to extend the disciplinary system to former officers so that where serious wrongdoing is alleged, an investigation and subsequent disciplinary proceedings can continue until their conclusion, even where an officer has left the force. We will also make publicly available a statutory police barred list of officers, special constables and staff who have been dismissed from the force and barred from policing.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission has an important role to play, and it has undergone a multi-year major change programme that has seen a fivefold increase in the number of independent investigations it opens each year compared with 2013-14. On Friday 20 October, we reached another major milestone in reforming the organisation, with the announcement of the first director general of the new Independent Office for Police Conduct. The new director general will start in January 2018, when the reforms to the IPCC’s governance are implemented and it is officially renamed the IOPC.

The Government are strengthening safeguards in the custody environment. It is clear that police custody is no place for children. Provisions in the Policing and Crime Act 2017, shortly to be brought into force, will make it unlawful to use a police station as a place of safety for anyone under 18 years of age in any circumstance and will further restrict the use of police stations as a place of safety for people aged 18 and over.

The work of the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs Council to improve training and guidance for police officers and staff in this area is to be commended. Also drawing on learning from the IPCC’s independent investigations, their work has contributed to a significant reduction in the number of deaths in custody in recent years.

Making improvements in other areas, however, requires us to tackle entrenched and long-standing problems that cut across multiple agencies’ responsibilities. The Government will not shy away from the long-term collaborative work that that requires, which is why we commissioned the Ministerial Council on Deaths in Custody to play a leading role in considering the most complex of Dame Elish’s recommendations—those on healthcare in police custody, on inquests and on support for families.

The ministerial council is uniquely placed to drive progress in those areas and has been reformed to ensure an increased focus on effectively tackling the issues that matter most. It brings together not only Ministers from the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice but leading practitioners from the fields of policing, health, justice and the third sector. In addition, the ministerial council’s work is informed by an independent advisory panel that brings together eminent experts in the fields of law, human rights, medicine and mental health. This will introduce necessary oversight and external challenge to ensure that lessons are learned.

In my role as co-chair of the ministerial board, I am personally committed to helping drive through the ministerial council’s new work programme, and I will do so in a way that is transparent to the families. Every death in police custody is a tragedy, and we must do all we can to prevent them. The independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody is a major step forward in our efforts better to understand this issue and to bring about meaningful and lasting change.

I thank Dame Elish Angiolini for her remarkable contribution on this important issue, as well as Deborah Coles for her continuing commitment to preventing deaths in police custody. But I particularly thank the bereaved families who contributed to Dame Elish’s review. They have laid their experiences bare in order for us to learn from them and to spare other families the suffering they have endured, and I cannot commend them highly enough.

In addition to publication on, I will place in the Library copies of the report of the independent review of deaths and serious incidents in police custody, its accompanying research documents, the Government’s response to the review and the concordat on children in custody.

I commend this statement to the House.

There are many aspects of the Government’s statement to welcome, but does the Minister agree that this long-standing issue of deaths in police custody is of particular concern to our urban communities and has been for decades? In my constituency, this goes back as far as the death of Colin Roach in 1983, and this year we had the very sad death of 20-year-old Rashan Charles, who died in July following contact with the Metropolitan police in Dalston. I, personally, have had to comfort too many families who said goodbye to their son in the morning and he never came back.

Can the Minister explain why we have had to wait two and a half years for the publication of this report, which I understand was completed 15 months ago? Does he agree with the United Families and Friends Campaign that officers must be held to account? In that context, however, I welcome what he said about dealing with former officers, as it will give some comfort to families. Is he able to explain why a disproportionate number of these deaths in custody happen to black men? The Minister has said that this is the start of a journey, but does he appreciate that this must be a journey with an end? Families want to see some prospect of the recommendations being implemented, or at least an explanation of why they are not implemented, and an end point to this journey? Does he agree that we pride ourselves in this country on policing by consent but if that is to be real for every community, we must deal with this long-running issue of deaths in custody? May I assure the Minister that I campaigned on this issue long before I was a Member of Parliament, and in my current role as shadow Home Secretary I will be pursuing him, both on the overall burden of his statement and on all the detail?

I thank the shadow Home Secretary for her constructive approach and for putting me on notice that she is going to hold my feet to the fire—I welcome that, because she has worked with victims of these tragedies. Together with the Home Secretary, I have met some of the families, and their accounts are overwhelming in terms of what they have had to endure, not just with the original loss, but the journey from that point. It has been absolutely unacceptable and the report is devastating, because it is a story of system failure and human failure going back over many, many years. This was recognised by the current Prime Minister and she was absolutely right to commission this report, and it is our responsibility now, after all these years of failure, to tackle this and do something right for families in the future—I am absolutely committed to that.

We did take some time to publish this review, because it is a very comprehensive review, with more than 100 recommendations that needed to be looked at seriously and worked through properly. It is a cross-government response, and I hope the shadow Minister will see it as substantive. On the accountability of police, yes, the families are very clear about that; they have worked and had to endure journeys of nine years to get nowhere in terms of a conclusion, and that is unacceptable.

I beg to differ a little on the point the shadow Home Secretary made about black and minority ethnic people being more likely to die in police custody; that is not what is suggested by the data I have seen, which is that the proportion of black people who die in police custody is lower than the proportion arrested. I believe the Independent Police Complaints Commission has published results of a 10-year study that bears that out, but I am more than happy to discuss this with her personally. But the most important point is that this report has to be a catalyst for change, and I hope that on both sides of the House we work together to make sure that finally happens.

I applaud my hon. Friend’s statement. He is clearly a man on top of his brief. As someone who has had the privilege to serve as a special constable in the past and who spent 25 days with Northamptonshire police under the police parliamentary scheme, may I say that we should applaud the work of the vast majority of custody sergeants up and down the land who take their job incredibly seriously and serve thousands of prisoners well each and every year?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, drawing on his own experience. As I said in my statement, on every day in every force, the vast majority of the work that the police do is absolutely fantastic and is conducted to the highest levels of integrity and professionalism. Nevertheless, when things go wrong—and they do go wrong—we have to get to the truth and there has to be accountability. The report demonstrates that in the past the journey has been too difficult, there has been too much defensiveness and there has not been a strong enough feeling that the system is on the side of the families and the victims. That is what we have to change.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and like him I thank Dame Elish Angiolini and her colleagues for their invaluable work. In her report, Dame Elish speaks of the humbling dignity and tenacity of the families of those who have died in police custody, and like the Minister and the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), I pay tribute to them and those who have supported them.

I have three questions. First, the report suggests that a national coroner service is required to overcome inconsistencies in funding and practice between different local authorities. What is the Government’s initial thinking on that? Secondly, the report emphasises how vital what happens in the immediate aftermath of a death in custody is. Will the IPCC be funded to ensure that an officer or a team can attend quickly after a death in custody to co-ordinate the initial steps, as recommended in the report? Finally, the report reminds us that we must also remember that in 2015 there were 60 deaths of individuals within two days of their leaving police custody. What steps will be taken to ensure that the risks of that happening are properly assessed and reduced?

The hon. Gentleman makes three important points. The recommendation on a national coroner service is one of the recommendations on which the Government are least persuaded at this time. The ministerial council will explore the idea, but the Government’s first instinct is to explore what further role the Chief Coroner can play in meeting some of the report’s recommendations and requests.

The hon. Gentleman asked about what happens after an incident and the role of the IPCC, and he is clearly critical of that. If he reads some of the Family Listening reports that came out with the review, he will see some really shocking stories of how bereaved families are treated at that deeply traumatic moment. That has to change, and it is one of the things I will be discussing with Michael Lockwood, the first director general of the new Independent Office for Police Conduct.

I welcome the report and the Government’s response. In West Yorkshire, we had the tragic case of Mark Camm, who died as a result of being held in police custody when he should have been sent to hospital as an emergency. His family campaigned for many years to uncover the truth about the lack of monitoring of him in a police cell. They also endured real difficulties because of the failure of the IPCC to investigate properly and in a timely way and ensure that lessons were learned from the case. I therefore welcome the Minister’s statement. Nevertheless, the report states:

“NHS commissioning of healthcare in police custody was due to have commenced in April 2016, but was halted by the Government earlier in the year. This report strongly recommends that this policy is reinstated and implemented.”

Will the Minister set out what the Government are doing in response to that recommendation? It is clear that appropriate emergency healthcare is immensely important in these cases.

I could not agree more with the right hon. Lady. Underlying a number of these tragedies is the fact the victims of these incidents were in the wrong place. They should not have been in police custody. We are trying to change the regulations to make it clear that police cells can be considered a safe place only in the most exceptional circumstances, and never for children. On healthcare in custody, there is different practice throughout the country. The short answer to her question is that it is one of the areas of complexity that we are taking to the ministerial council, which I co-chair. Its first meeting is on Wednesday.

The Minister is absolutely right that the provision of adequate healthcare is fundamental, but that must include mental healthcare. We know that far too many people who end up in police cells should be in mental healthcare somewhere else. What can be done that is practicable? This must go beyond simply policing. The second issue is that the delays in the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the coronial system are unacceptable both to families and police officers. We must shorten the time. Will resources be made available to ensure that that happens?

The hon. Gentleman uses his experience to make a very important point. I am sure that he is aware that additional funding worth some £30 million has been made available to secure alternative places of safety and I welcome that. On his broader point about mental health, he knows that, at long last and as a result of campaigning across the House, more investment is going into mental health. He will also know from talking to his local police force that more and more police time is being spent safeguarding and looking after people with various mental health conditions and that should not be their job. The discussion for us, both at a local and national level, is about responsibility, investment and resources to make sure that those who are suffering on the spectrum of mental health, anxieties and disorders are being treated in the right way and in the right place.

I thank the Minister for his statement, his personal commitment to following this matter through, and especially the better support for bereaved families. May I take him up on his point about making sure that we find the right places in which to detain people? We have heard about it in respect of people with mental health problems, but I want to press him on the point about those who are intoxicated. Dame Elish makes a very strong recommendation—recommendation 22—that the Government should consider drying-out centres, which international evidence suggests may be safer and cheaper than police custody. What is the Government’s response to that specific recommendation? Could not this idea reduce pressure on the police and A&E and provide a much safer environment for these people?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point. I am very committed to this matter. Having sat and listened to families talking about their ordeal, it is impossible to leave the room with any sense of neutrality or indifference. This is the moment when we must drive change. On his point about drying-out centres and alternative places of safety and support, the Government must be open minded. If there are good examples of places where that works, and the evidence supports it, we must consider it. That will be something that we take to the ministerial council, which has been charged with the follow-up to this review.

May I associate myself with the positive remarks about Deborah Coles, who is my constituent? What is the Minister’s expectation of bringing the perpetrators of violence in police custody to genuine justice—not just retirement and what appear to the average person who sees it as a nod and a wink?

May I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady’s constituent, whom I am meeting again later this week, on doing a great job over many years? The hon. Lady raises an important point. The critical thing is that the investigations are, and are seen to be, genuinely independent of the police. She will know from accounts and from listening to families that that is not the perception. Things have changed, and they are moving in the right direction. The new director-general of the IPCC has the powers and the freedom to move the matter on further, and that is critical to building some trust in the system, which, for reasons I completely understand, is lacking at this moment in time.

I note what the hon. Lady says about Deborah Coles being her constituent. Clearly, Deborah Coles can be a constituent of only one Member, but I did know her at university 30 years ago, as did the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin). She was a formidable campaigner for social justice then, and she is clearly a formidable campaigner for social justice now.

I thank the Minister for his statement. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has an average of one death in custody every two years, and I have no doubt that it will learn lessons through the National Police Chiefs Council. Given that there are three separate legal jurisdictions in this kingdom, what thought has the Minister given to the devolution issues, particularly when we are seeking to give assistance through legal aid for inquests and families who most need that assistance?

The hon. Gentleman raises the important point of devolution, which I will certainly take to the ministerial council. I note the statistics for Northern Ireland. The figures for England and Wales are obviously significantly worse, so I am open to learning from examples of good practice in Northern Ireland.

One point that the Minister made about supporting bereaved families was the starting presumption that legal aid should be awarded for representation at inquest. Can he give me an indication of which facts would actually rebut the presumption that legal aid would be granted?

As I said, the director of legal aid casework will have some discretion. The key thing is to shift the default setting. At the moment, legal aid is available only in exceptional circumstances, and this is a shift in the assumption so that bereaved families in these situations will have access to legal aid. The Justice Secretary is working through the details of how that will work and the underpinning guidance, which will be published before the end of the year.

Every death in custody is a tragedy, and I hope that the journey to which the Minister refers is a quick one. There are 110 recommendations in the report. Will he confirm that the Government will respond to each and every recommendation? When will the response be forthcoming? He has not been specific in that regard.

I did make it clear in my statement that we published our response today and I am placing it in the Library. When the hon. Lady reads it, I hope that she will see that it is a substantive response to all the thematic considerations that Dame Elish has brought forward.

In Croydon, we had the tragic death of Seni Lewis in a mental health hospital, which was one of the cases that led to this important review. Following the lessons from the Seni Lewis case, does the Minister agree that non-natural deaths in a mental health setting should also trigger an independent investigation—with the emphasis on independent—as already happens when a death occurs in police custody and in prisons? Will the Lord Chancellor’s review of legal aid for bereaved families, to which the Minister referred, also cover the deaths of people in mental health custody?

I met the Lewis family, and it is impossible not to be moved by what they have had to endure. The announcement today about a change in assumption regarding access to legal aid refers to deaths in police custody and prison. The Justice Secretary is conducting a wider review of access to legal aid in other situations.