HL Deb 03 May 2002 vol 634 cc979-84

2.12 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 15th April be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Codes of Practice) (Visual Recording of Interviews) Order 2002, a copy of which was laid before the House on 15th April, be approved. This order has been seen by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

We are debating the order which, with the approval of this House and another place, will bring into effect the code of practice on the visual recording of police interviews with suspects in police stations. The order has been made in line with the powers conferred by Sections 60(A)(1)(a) and 67(4) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. It cannot have effect until it is approved by a resolution of each House.

Under Section 66 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has a duty to issue codes of practice to regulate the police in the exercise of their powers. There are currently five codes of practice (A to E). Code E sets out the procedures to be followed for the audio tape-recording of interviews of suspected persons.

By virtue of Section 60A(1)(b) of PACE the Home Secretary now has the power to require interviews to be visually recorded at police stations. However, it is our intention at this stage that such interviews will be confined to a limited number of police stations to enable us to evaluate thoroughly the process before any decisions are made about its wider application across all police forces in England and Wales.

The effect of the order that we are debating today will, if approved by both Houses, be to bring the new code of practice into operation in the sense that it will then be available for use and will regulate the manner in which the recording of interviews is to take place. The code does not of itself make the visual recording of interviews mandatory. A second order, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Visual Recording of Interviews) (Certain Police Areas) Order 2002, has also been laid before Parliament. It is that order, which is subject to the negative resolution procedure, that will make the interviews mandatory in only those police stations participating in the pilot scheme. If, at a later date, we wanted to extend the pilot areas, a further order would be needed to make visual recording mandatory in the new areas.

In accordance with the provisions of Section 67 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Home Secretary has previously prepared and published a draft of the new code of practice, and has considered representations made to him about the draft and modified it accordingly. The code, entitled "visual recording with sound of interviews with suspects" was laid before Parliament on 10th April. The code of practice both ensures that the prerequisite to the pilot is in place and that the procedures are applied consistently, fairly and openly across the police stations participating in the pilot scheme in a properly regulated fashion.

The code of practice has been drafted in consultation with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service. The provisions of the code will govern the way in which interviews should be recorded visually. The code mirrors much of the existing Code E for audio-taping as it is the medium by which the interview is recorded that we are seeking to evaluate, not the process of interviewing.

At Section 2, the code emphasises the need for the recording to be carried out in an open and transparent manner to enable the suspect to have confidence in the impartiality and accuracy of the process. The scope of the interviews to be recorded visually, which are set out in Section 3, broadly follow the scope of those interviews that are currently audio-recorded. Additionally, we have included instances of anyone who is deaf or speech-impaired and requires sign language to communicate. The code also includes provisions emphasising the integrity and security of the process.

I should like to assure your Lordships that what we are proposing here is not contentious. We want to facilitate a pilot scheme that will enable us to undertake an evaluation of the visual recording of interviews with suspects, using both analogue video and CD digital technology. The aim of the pilot scheme is to establish the nature and extent of any benefits to the criminal justice process of visually recorded interviews compared with the present system of audio-taping.

The use of video-recording police interviews with suspects is by no means new. In this country, the West Midlands Police first introduced experimental schemes at two police stations in 1989, followed by the Metropolitan Police, West Mercia and Kent.

Elsewhere, forces are also considering or have already carried out their own limited trials of video-recording. In other countries, the history of having a visual record of an interview stretches further back. Canada first began testing its use in 1985.

In this country there has been some hesitancy about extending the use of visual recording. In contrast, other jurisdictions regularly use the technology, and prosecuting authorities use the visual recording of the interview in the preparation of the case; and, where required to produce interview evidence in court, the visual medium is commonly used as the best way of presenting the evidence. That is the situation in most Australian states and throughout New Zealand.

There are several reasons why visual recording is still only emerging in England and Wales. One factor is that other countries have generally gone from a situation in which interviews were not electronically recorded at all to one in which they are video-taped. In this country, however, the first means of electronically capturing interviews to be introduced was audio-taping, and, following field trials in the mid-1980s, audio-taping was gradually rolled out nationally. The reason why audio rather than visual taping was selected at that time as the means of recording interviews was undoubtedly that video technology was at a relatively early stage of development and comparatively expensive.

But, as we know, in recent years there have been major strides in video and digital technology, with an associated reduction in the costs of the equipment involved. There is now a developing view, particularly among those who have experience of video-recording, that the recording of interviews in this way offers benefits over and above those of audio-taping. In principle, such recording offers an end to disputes in court about what actually happened during police interviews. However, without piloting the idea we cannot be sure whether these benefits can be achieved in practice. That is what we now intend to do.

There are a number of reasons why it is now appropriate to carry out an evaluation of visually recorded interviews. Perhaps the most compelling argument is that allowing the court to see what occurred in the interview room will considerably enhance the quality of justice. It is increasingly being argued that visual records represent the best evidence of interviews with suspects and are of considerable assistance in understanding the meaning of what was said during the interview. The benefits are not one-sided: being able to see the suspect as they are at the time of the interview may help establish innocence in some cases just as much as guilt in others.

There is wide experience from other countries to show that broader use of visual recordings in the preparation and conduct of cases is a viable option. In New Zealand and some Australian states, for example, videos are regularly viewed by prosecutors and the defence and shown in court in contested cases as a matter of course.

It may also be argued that developing the use of a visual record of an interview is a logical use of the available technology. When it was introduced back in 1988, audio taping represented the most cost-effective use of the technology available at that time in order to capture the contents of police interviews accurately and reliably. This is perhaps no longer the case and visual technology, in the formats of video and digital, has improved immeasurably.

There is widespread interest among police forces in moving from audio to video recording. A number of forces have for some time used video recording, while others are actively considering doing so. There is a danger that without a lead from the centre a plethora of different systems, working to different standards and procedures, will develop, which will eventually need to be regulated. One purpose of carrying out research at the present time, therefore, will be to identify good practice and assist in the development of guidance, which will highlight the way forward.

Over the past 12 months, officials have been working with the Association of Chief Police Officers and colleagues in the Crown Prosecution Service and Lord Chancellor's Department to establish a pilot scheme by which we can undertake an evaluation of the visual recording of interviews with suspects. We propose that the scheme will take place at three police stations in each of the following force areas: in Kent at Tonbridge, Gravesend and Chatham; in Hampshire at Basingstoke, Southampton and Portsmouth; in West Mercia at Redditch, Worcester and Telford; in the Metropolitan Police area at Edmonton, Bromley and Colindale; and in Essex at Southend, Colchester and Harlow.

The pilots will last for 12 months, with an option to extend their duration to 18 months if further field data are required to inform the evaluation report. The scheme will be managed by an interdepartmental steering group, which will include representatives from the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service. The evaluation will be undertaken by an independent team from Goldsmiths College and the University of Kent.

As I said earlier, the aim of the pilot is to establish the nature and extent of any benefits to the criminal justice system of visually recorded interviews compared with the present system of audio taping. We will need to look very closely at what the independent evaluators have to say before arriving at any conclusions about how the use of the technology is more widely promulgated. However, as a way of determining what the advantages might be, this scheme really does offer us the first systematic approach for testing so many of the assertions that have been made to date. For those reasons, I commend the code to the House and ask the House to approve the order.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 15th April be approved.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I agree that this is certainly a useful code and that it should go through today. I have only one or two points to make on the way past.

As the Minister said, it is to be pursued in pilots, at a cost of £2.1 million, in areas not too far away from the Home Office—in the more comfortable areas of the country, one might say, for the most part. That will no doubt lead to further development of the system and the methods of using it.

The Minister seemed a little worried about the possibility that different systems might be used in different places and thought that that might be undesirable. I think that it is desirable, particularly in the early stages, that different systems should be used by the different forces, so that an assessment can then be made of the best way of doing things.

I notice that this does not apply to interviews conducted under the Terrorism Act 2000. Paragraph 3.2 of the code states that there is to be separate provision for such interviews. That makes one wonder why paragraph 2.5 of the code—which provides that a police officer's identity need not be disclosed if the interview is being conducted under the 2000 Act—is necessary, as it seems to be repetitive. Furthermore, some of the recording systems seem to entail three cameras. It is difficult to see how an officer can keep his back to the camera in such circumstances. Undoubtedly those systems will not be used in such cases.

I think that I have solved the other point myself, but I should like the Minister's confirmation. Paragraph 3.3 of the code and subsequent provisions provide that, in certain circumstances, the custody officer should be given control over whether an interview is held. For example, if a room with the necessary equipment is not available, the custody officer can give permission for an interview to be held without such equipment. However, the Police Reform Bill, which the House is currently considering, provides that some detention officers may be provided by private companies. Am I correct in thinking that the custody officer covered by the code will always be a police officer even if some of the other detention officers are from civilian firms contracted to assist police in this respect?

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his extensive explanation of the order, which I support. I trust that the pilot is a success for justice.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Shutt, for their very brief comments. I had a difficult choice to make about whether to put all the details on the record. However, I decided that, because of the seriousness of the issue, people should be able to read a full record in Hansard of what we are intending.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, was, as ever, very perceptive in his observations, and made one or two important points. His point on the various systems was both interesting and important. Although different technological systems will be tested, given that the recorded interviews will be evidence, it is important that the interviews are conducted properly, fairly and consistently. We are trying to ensure consistency in approach, not necessarily consistency in the type of technology used. However, procurement being as it is, I suspect that we shall eventually adopt a specific form of technology.

The noble Lord, Lord Cope, also asked about detention officers and custody officers. He was right to make that observation on detention officers. The custody officer will always be a sergeant or above and it will be for him or her to determine whether the interview can take place. I think that that is quite an important safeguard which will help protect the rights of the interviewee and ensure that the interview is properly conducted in all circumstances. There will undoubtedly be difficult times with those who have been arrested and who face serious allegations and need to be interviewed, and there may well be occasions when an interview would be completely inappropriate because, for example, the building is not right. The individual cannot be interviewed in those circumstances.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, referred to paragraphs 2.5 and 3.3. He said that they were similar and that they were not necessarily essential to the code. Paragraph 2.5 of the code has been inserted to allow for difficulties that might arise in cases of serious and organised crime as opposed to terrorist crime, although, of course, terrorist crime is also organised and serious. That is why there are two distinct parts to the code. We believe that the protections that have been built in for officers who may well conduct interviews with people suspected of having committed terrorist offences are very important to protect those officers from potential future threats and intimidation.

We want the measure to work. We are grateful for the support that we have received for the introduction of videotaped interviews. We believe that it will make a significant contribution to reducing delays in the criminal justice system and improving the quality of evidence. We have to be certain that we can ensure those factors in the future and that the benefits can be achieved in practice. That is why we are being cautious in bringing forward pilot schemes before a full roll-out.

To sum up, the scheme affords an important step forward for the police and criminal justice system to adapt modern technology to existing work practices. I have no doubt that we shall all literally watch with interest to see how it proceeds.

On Question, Motion agreed to.