Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham): I want to discuss the escorting of prisoners, and bring my experience to bear on this matter of great importance. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was a criminal advocate. One of the most difficult situations for the police was where an individual was arrested at one end of the country on a warrant from a magistrates court or crown court. The individual would, quite properly, immediately

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have to be transported back to the other end of the country to be brought before the court at the first available opportunity. That is a regular occurrence in the courts. For example, an individual could be arrested in Lewes on a warrant from Wrexham magistrates court. It would then follow that the police—it may only be the police as the law currently stands—must escort that individual from Lewes to Wrexham magistrates court on that particular day at the first available opportunity. That means that an officer would have a five-hour drive, which, with the return journey, would amount to 10 hours, so a whole shift can be spent simply escorting a prisoner.

10.30 am

At a time when we all rightly value police officers, that is a substantial drain on a police force in any constituency. It is important that the new provision is introduced, because regulated individuals who are not police officers can properly carry out that function. We must recognise that drain in discussing the other side of the coin, which has been brought up by Opposition Members, concerning the regulation of the individuals who will transport prisoners in such circumstances. We must get the system right and ensure that the individual is under similar obligations to a police officer. My mind was put at rest by the Under-Secretary's statement that the situation will be as close to that of a police officer as possible.

It is impossible to make the position exactly the same, because the sanctions that would apply to that individual cannot be the same as they would be for a police officer. That would require a situation in which the contract in a particular case would have to address the obligations of the contractors on an individual basis. The undertaking that has been given concerning the production of the regulations, coupled with the Under-Secretary's assurance that those regulations will be as close to the current rules as possible, means that we are taking the correct way ahead. It will produce the benefit of freeing up police officers from such an onerous, tedious and relatively straightforward obligation, while including the necessary safeguards for private contractors.

For the benefit of the hon. Member for Lewes and after this morning's reference to a judge's comments about late arrivals at court under the private system, I should tell the Committee that my experience in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the Prison Service had an appalling record of producing prisoners late at court. I spent many mornings simply waiting for someone to be delivered.

Mr. Hawkins: My experience in the west midlands was exactly the same as the hon. Gentleman's. The situation was bad when the systems were nationalised.

Ian Lucas: It pains me to say this, but the measure introduced by the Conservatives, which I vehemently opposed at the time, improved the situation. I admit that I was wrong.

Norman Baker: I do not know how to follow that, but I shall do my best. It has taken my breath away.

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I begin by saying for the sake of clarity that the Liberal Democrats do not object in principle to particular functions being undertaken by the private sector. It depends on the functions, safeguards and conditions. I was interested by the comments of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) about how the Prison Service—I shall not talk about it too much, just as an example—was inefficient in delivering prisoners some years ago. However, it appears that the private sector is also inefficient in delivering prisoners, judging from the comments that we heard this morning.

The Under-Secretary talks about potential savings: yes, a paper exercise will bring potential savings and I agree that a police officer should not be tied down for 10 hours at a time transporting prisoners, but we must have a contract and a system that work, otherwise, we will have a hived-off private sector arrangement that is not subject to a tight contract and in which people are employed on poor wages. Whatever the problems, employees will not feel that they have to turn up each day. It will end with a van not turning up to escort a prisoner, a police officer—in Lewes or elsewhere—having to look after the prisoner at short notice, and the escalation of Crown court costs because the prisoner has not turned up. This morning I heard that cost estimated at £8,000 a day. What appears as a small saving on paper can, without proper implementation, amount to a huge cost.

I have serious concerns about new clause 9. I am not sure, Mr. Stevenson, whether we can vote on it separately, but my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I would like to do so.

We cannot agree to what is set out in this part of the Bill without knowing exactly what powers will be available and what safeguards will be in place, which will be the subject of debate on later parts of the Bill. We seem to be asked to give carte blanche. We can talk about the principle here, but its acceptability will be governed by the details to be debated later.

One concern rehearsed at length—I shall deal with it briefly—is about dealing with complaints. It is not clear—I am unsure whether the Under-Secretary's comments were welcome—whether complaints against private sector individuals will be brought within the remit of the IPCC. People employed by private companies are subject to separate regulations, so I am uncertain how the matrix will work. Will the Under-Secretary provide further clarification?

Intimate body searches are a sensitive issue. The Under-Secretary should recognise that many people are queasy about allowing people who are not formally police officers to carry out such searches. My noble Friend Lord Dholakia raised the matter in another place. He said that the issue of body searches in police stations was, in his experience, one of the reasons for the sparking of severe race tensions in Britain's inner cities. My noble Friend knows about these issues and we should not skate over the matter. The Under-Secretary must recognise the degree of sensitivity and respond to the earlier intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.

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What happens if the private contractor fails to live up to the required standards? If I understood him correctly, the Minister said that if an individual employee were found wanting, the method of dealing with the problem would be to delete him from the contract. I am unsure what would happen if a three or five-year contract were signed with a private sector company that turned out to be hopeless. When Group 4 started to operate in the prison service, it was the subject of criticism and ridicule across the country. Other examples of hopeless private sector outsourcing could be cited. Indeed, the Criminal Records Bureau seems to be going down that road at present. What can be done if a contractor proves ineffective and useless? Can a contract be terminated early, or is it simply a question of tweaking? That is important because otherwise we shall end up with more police time being used for the reasons to which the hon. Member for Wrexham alluded.

I should put on record that I am unhappy about the way in which the Government have introduced new clause 9. The Under-Secretary might have read the piece in The Guardian—I know that Labour Members pay great attention to The Guardian.

Mr. Hawkins: Not so much now.

Norman Baker: Indeed. Some Labour Members prefer the Daily Mail, but I shall not go down that road.

I shall quote Patrick Wintour's piece in The Guardian of 25 April. It said:

    ''The government has deliberately misled parliament over secret plans to privatise part of the police force, including a new detention officer empowered to carry out intimate body searches.

    A leaked briefing paper prepared by Home Office civil servants instructs the Home Office minister Lord Rooker not to tell his fellow peers of plans to contract out detention officers to the private sector.

    The leaked paper—prepared for the report stage of the police reform bill in the Lords on April 16—states: 'On no account read out the following paragraph'''—

which I shall now read out.

    '''At the moment the bill does not allow for detention officers to be contracted out to the private sector, but we are hoping to be able to put forward amendments in the Commons to enable that.'''

If the Government had that in mind, they should have come clean with the House of Lords and had a proper debate. Although I am sure that the Under-Secretary was not involved, the suspicion must be that the conclusion was reached that it would be easier to get the amendment through the Commons than the Lords because, of course, the parties are more balanced in the Lords. [Interruption.] It is an outrageous suggestion I know; how could that possible be the case? Although the Under-Secretary was helpfully courteous at the start of this sitting, no such courtesy was afforded to their Lordships when the decision was taken not to reveal the Government's thinking.

New clause 9 raises worries, especially a philosophical worry about the range of powers given to escort officers and detention officers. For example, what happens if a person resists or causes problems while being escorted? Where would that leave the private sector employee or the person who was being escorted? What would happen if a person objected to a

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private individual conducting an intimate body search? Would that person have the right to demand that the search was carried out by a police officer? That safeguard should be in place. Has the Under-Secretary considered giving detained individuals the right to request that a body search is conducted by a police officer because that could be one way to address the situation? I am prattling on about that idea, but I hope that the Under-Secretary will write down the point and remember to respond to it.

There are so many uncertainties about the range of powers, the safeguards and the uncertainty of the complaints procedure that I, for one, am unable to support new clause 9 until we have safeguards and detailed discussions. For that reason, may we have a separate vote on new clause 9? If that is not possible, my colleague and I will vote against the group of amendments, although the other amendments in the group are not necessarily controversial.

 
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