HL Deb 02 July 2004 vol 663 cc468-73

12.52 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 27 May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the order has been seen and cleared by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the House of Lords' Merits Committee on 15 June.

The order, subject to the approval of the House and of another place, will bring the revised codes of practice into effect, from 1 August 2004. Under Sections 60, 60A and 66 of PACE 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 six codes of practice, Codes A to F. The current versions of Codes A to E came into force on 1 Apri1 2003. Code F on the visual recording of interviews, which places no statutory requirement on the police, was introduced in April 2002. Since then further legislative changes in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have affected police powers and procedures and parts of the current codes require review.

Since their introduction in 1985, the codes of practice have been reviewed every four to five years. This meant that parts of the codes were often out of date and lacked accuracy and relevance to statutes in force and best practice. As noble Lords will be aware, Section 67 of PACE, as amended by Section 11 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, enables a simpler, less bureaucratic approach to amending the codes. That has enabled us to look at revising the codes at more frequent intervals, potentially on an annual basis. This current set of proposed amendments makes use of that process.

The amendments before your Lordships' House largely reflect the provisions of Part 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003. We have also taken the opportunity to make a small number of other amendments. I will cover the changes in a bit more detail shortly but the key considerations in making amendments to the codes are: to reduce bureaucracy; to free-up police officers' time for front-line duties; and to improve police efficiency and effectiveness. I am sure that your Lordships' House is in full agreement with delivering those aims. I am also certain that there is similar accord in ensuring these are achieved at the same time as maintaining adequate safeguards and protections for members of the public. That remains an important balance. Where we have sought in the codes to introduce or adapt police powers and procedures, we have also looked to ensure that the rights of the individual are taken fully into account.

Part of that approach is also reflected in the process of consultation. PACE, as amended by Section 11 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, allows for a more focused consultation exercise. We chose to adopt that approach but also included other organisations such as the coalition of children's charities and Liberty.

It is important to add here that the consultees were also involved in the process of drafting guidance on the measures included in Part 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 on areas such as extended periods of detention, telephone reviews of detention, street bail, recording property and warrants to enter and search. That resulted in the issue of guidance to the police service and others through the issue of Home Office Circulars Nos. 60 and 61.

More importantly, it meant that key stakeholders were actively involved at an early stage in the codes revision process. That has proved to be very beneficial and I know that stakeholders welcomed that degree of involvement. We intend to build on that when looking at how best to develop the codes to ensure that form and content are best suited to the needs of practitioners in the criminal justice system and to the public.

Turning to the proposed amendments, I hope that they will not prove to be contentious. Changes to Code A consist of amending the stop and search provisions in relation to items of criminal damage provided for by Section 1 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003; and to the introduction of the requirement for police and police staff to record encounters with members of the public. The latter provides for the implementation of Recommendation 61 of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report. This is a significant amendment focused on making police stops more accountable and transparent.

In Code B we are proposing to take account of the provisions of Section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allowing a person to accompany a police officer in the execution of a warrant. We are also proposing that in searches conducted under Schedule 1 of PACE or Schedule 5 of the Terrorism Act 2000 the senior police officer present can be in charge of the search, irrespective of rank. It currently stands at inspector level. This is a procedural rather than a statutory requirement which has been in Code B since 1985. That is not to say that it is not effective but it does not suggest that it is necessarily the best use of a senior officer's time. A constable exercises the powers of entry, search and seizure regularly and frequently under PACE and other statutes without the need for an inspector's presence.

We must maximise the use of officers' time and this is a good example of what can be achieved, bearing in mind that the constable is exercising powers by a warrant issued under the authority of a circuit judge.

Code C contains a number of changes arising directly from the Criminal Justice Act 2003, including: the requirement to record a suspect's property; extended detention periods; telephone reviews of detention; bail elsewhere than in a police station and the role of the Crown prosecutor in the charging process. Members of this House debated vigorously but always constructively some of these measures during the passage of the 2003 Act and it would be inappropriate to return to those arguments here. I would say, however, that guidance issued on implementation of these measures reflects the concerns raised at the time by their Lordships. The noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, gave noble Lords opposite the opportunity to comment on that guidance in draft format and, as I mentioned earlier, we provided a similar opportunity to key stakeholders. We have sought to ensure that the contents of the legislation and the guidance are fully reflected in the code.

We have also made an important clarification in Code C in relation to the attendance of the arresting officer at the police station when the suspect is brought before the custody officer. At present the code requires any comments by the suspect on the arresting officer's account to be recorded. That implies that that account has to be put to the suspect, but not that it has to be by the arresting officer. That has raised concerns and some confusion. The change provides clarity on the need for arresting officers unnecessarily to attend the police station with every suspect. That is a more effective use of a police officer's time and enables more time to be spent on frontline policing.

There is nothing to prevent the arresting officer attending the police station with the suspect, being called into the police station by the custody officer, or being contacted by radio or telephone. The key issue is that the arresting officer is able to decide on a case-by-case basis how best to deal with the suspect. We must look to provide officers with operational discretion where it is in the best interests of tackling crime and disorder and where safeguards for the suspect are maintained.

In Code D, amendments take account of Sections 9 and 10 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which concern the circumstances in which police may take fingerprints and DNA without consent following arrest for a recordable offence and in police detention. Minor revisions are carried out in Codes E and F, but in all codes we have amended the text to refer, where appropriate, to police staff. That enables more effective use of civilian support staff, as provided for in the Police Reform Act 2002.

Taken both individually and together, the changes will achieve the aims of improving efficiency and effectiveness, reducing bureaucracy and freeing up police officers' time for frontline duties. The codes will now be in line with current legislation and provide a more up-to-date platform towards future regular and more frequent review. We are conscious that change has implications for training and skills, and are working with practitioners and training providers on those issues. However, we are also conscious that change should mean improvement and we have achieved that in the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 27 May be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive explanation of the matter. He was right to remind the House that there has been an opportunity to comment on the draft guidance, and that there has been consultation. Both those matters showed good practice that we hope to see in other issuing of guidance. I can therefore say that we support the order, although I have one or two brief comments to make.

The Minister said that the Government intended to update the codes more frequently, potentially annually, because the process whereby they can be updated has become more straightforward. We can all understand that it is good practice that the codes should reflect legislative change as quickly as possible, so that police officers who have to implement their side of any legislative change are able to do so in a good-practice manner.

It is also right, however, that we recognise that any regular updating brings with it an additional burden on the police, in that they have to go through regular retraining to adopt changes. On this occasion, the group of amendments to the PACE code is fairly hefty and weighty. Although the codes try to reduce the bureaucracy that by the nature of legislation is imposed on the police, the process of updating in itself brings new requirements for them to go through training. For the constable on the beat, that is no mean feat—no pun intended; that was awful.

The Minister referred to matters that were the subject of debate on the then Criminal Justice Bill last year. Like him, I well recall our debates on the recording of property by the police after an arrest, and I certainly do not seek to reopen debate on the issues. Those matters were so contentious because we were trying to achieve a balance between taking up too large a part of police time in the recording of every tiny bit of a person's property, as against the importance of ensuring that someone who has been charged but not yet convicted should have the right to have their property properly recorded so that it can be reclaimed at the appropriate point.

Further than that, my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral pointed out last year that proper recording of the evidence can be of great use to the police as well. He said: Without the obligation to record, there will be disputes as to what was originally in the suspect's possession, particularly where money is concerned. Items may have evidential value or be used to assist in inquiries into other matters".—[Official Report, 30/6/03; col. 698.]

It was right that this House took recording very seriously. At Third Reading, the Government agreed to make some useful changes to their original plans on the matter. The codes today properly reflect the intent of the House at the time. I therefore think that what the Government have brought forward does not bring in any onerous or bureaucratic requirement, but achieves the right kind of balance.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the comprehensive explanation that he gave of the changes being made. I have questions to ask on only one matter; namely, Code A on stop and search. In spite of the fact that there was consultation on the draft guidance, as the noble Baroness acknowledged, we are still anxious about the reports published recently concerning the excessive use of stop and search against members of the Islamic minorities in this country. Were any special efforts made to consult representatives of the various Muslim communities? What views have they expressed? Does he think that the application of variations in Code A, particularly the reflection of the recommendations of the Lawrence committee, will have an impact on the relative frequency of stops and searches applied to members of those minorities? That frequency has changed fairly drastically since 9/11.

The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but there is an impression that police officers differentially target people whom they consider likely to be from one of those communities, because they have it in the back of their minds that those people are more likely to be involved in the commission of terrorist offences. That could lead to disproportionate leaning on members of those communities, as there was in former years on members of the black communities. If that were to happen, it would be very harmful for community relations in this country. I hope that he will be able to give us some assurances on the point.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful for the thoughtful responses from the noble Baroness and the noble Lord on the matter. The noble Baroness put her finger on it in saying, in supporting the order, that it was important that we established good practice so that we properly reflected our legislative intent. I was most grateful to her for her concluding comments—that she genuinely felt that we had achieved that objective and taken meaningful strides forward to reduce bureaucracy, while introducing a range of measures that placed some bureaucratic burdens on the police service. We have genuinely striven to get that balance right. It is very hard to achieve, and there is recognition of that difficulty. We have made good progress, however, and the order has gone a long way in that general direction.

As ever, the noble Lord is very diligent in pursuing points with regard to stop and search. I appreciate where he comes from on that. We are at one in wanting to ensure that we get the balance right in terms of stop and search, but must recognise that there have been problems in the past. It is worth putting on record that the Government are committed very strongly—as much as we have ever been—to race equality. There is certainly no magic key, tool or single solution to the complex problem regarding stop and search. But we do not want to run away from the issues. We are working carefully with minority groups. From our perspective, it is important to achieve an honest and open debate about stop and search, its use and value, and to have a forum where we can conduct that debate.

If we are to try to help this exercise we need to improve our levels of understanding and the appreciation in wider communities of the difficulty that confronts us all. To that end we have launched the Criminal Justice System Race Unit, which works across the criminal justice system to try to achieve a balanced and proportionate approach to stop and search. A stop and search action team has been formed to take forward some of that work to ensure that the police's power of stop and search is used fairly and effectively—and that it is of value to the prevention and detection of crime. After all, if stop and search as a tactic, a strategy and a technique winds up ethnic communities it will not achieve its purpose at all. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was right to remind us of some of the difficulties that it can create. Certainly in the past and in my previous professional life I have been very aware of the concerns raised and the issues involved.

However, I do not think that there can be any denial that stop and search has a value in the criminal justice system. If we were to stop using it or to use it in a way that became ineffective and we missed important activities that led to the commission of a major crime or terrorist incident, the Government would be understandably and rightly criticised—as any government would be—for failing to ensure that that power and approach could be used by the police as part of their battery of measures available for preventing and detecting crime.

I am grateful for the support of both opposition parties during this short debate. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.