On Wednesday the 29th of April 2009 I attended a meeting of the Cambridgeshire Police Authority. Members of the public are able to submit questions in advance and they are read out, along with answers which have been prepared by the authority’s secretariat in conjunction with the police.
Prior to reading out my questions and providing the answers the acting chair of the authority for that meeting, Ruth Rogers, spoke to say that she felt the authority and the constabulary were doing a great job; implying I thought, that she was affronted by the fact I was coming to the authority suggesting there was room for improvement. She said the authority and constabulary had problems with communication and the public impression they give and it was important that the public had confidence in their work. I took that as inferring that in her opinion, and perhaps that of the authority, there was nothing actually wrong beyond problems of “communication” and “impression”. I disagree.
Having observed three full police authority meetings I detect a sharp divide between the Chair / Vice chair, who tend to take the view of the constabulary and are reluctant to challenge them or hold them to account, and some of the elected councillor members who are able and prepared to fulfil their role effectively.
My Question – PACE Codes
I am very concerned that Cambridgeshire Police hold the view that the PACE codes are merely guidance which they can choose to ignore. Does the Police Authority support the Police Force in holding this view?
It is my view that there are many important safeguards intended to protect people when they are stopped, searched, arrested, questioned and detained by the police contained only within the PACE codes.
Is it the case that when people are arrested in Cambridgeshire they’re offered a copy of the PACE codes, then the custody sergeant says menacingly – “I wouldn’t bother – we don’t take much notice of those here”?.
On a specific point – why are Cambridgeshire police still ignoring the requirements of PACE Code A with respect to Stop and Account, even though since 1 January 2009 PACE Code A has been amended to significantly reduce the information which has to be recorded. Currently receipts, as required by section 4.12 of PACE code A are not being issued.
Cambridgeshire Police Authority and Constabulary have full regard for all codes of practice. At its 26th February Scrutiny and Audit Committee the Authority called in a paper from the Constabulary to provide:
- Background information regarding changes to Stop and Account procedures.
- An update of the current position within Cambridgeshire Constabulary.
- Details of future action to resolve recording issues.
This paper set out that:
- Following the publication of the Flannigan review, the Chief Constable took the view that officers would cease to use the paper based system and record abbreviated details, in line with the pilot Forces, in their Pocket Note Books.
- This decision was reached following legal advice and a pragmatic approach to reducing bureaucracy, improving the quality of the interaction and removing any disproportionate delay as a result of the recording process. This is particularly important in respect of our diverse communities, where English may not be a first language.
- It is recognised that the current process does not allow data to be easily obtained and therefore scrutinised by either the Constabulary or the Police Authority. Cambridgeshire Constabulary is committed to providing an IT solution to overcome the current data issues.
The issue of receipts remains outstanding and another mechanism will have to be found if an IT supported print out is not a viable option. It is anticipated that a solution should be available within the next six months. The Authority will monitor progress with implementation of a solution.
With respect to your comments regarding the custody sergeant, Codes of Practice under PACE are offered to all detainees when brought into custody. The Authority would wish you to pass on specific details of allegations of inappropriate behaviour to the Constabulary so these can robustly investigated.
Response and Comments
I was not given the answer in advance; I was handed a written copy of the answer while it was being read out to the authority.
I felt that by putting the question I had effectively drawn the Police Authority’s attention to an important area which I feel they ought be taking seriously. While the written answer, prepared by the Authority’s secretariat, appears to have missed some of the point of my question I am confident that at least a couple of elected councillors who are members of the Police Authority share my concern.
Members of the Authority did not get to see a written copy of the questions and answers at the meeting (they have now been made available online). Authority members were forbidden by their Standing Orders from discussing the points raised by the answer themselves.
Mr Wilkins, a Cambridge City County Councillor and member of the Police Authority spoke to me as I left the meeting to say he, for one, realised I was not suggesting any inappropriate behavior on the part of custody sergeants, but drawing attention to the fact that offering the PACE codes isn’t much use if the force policy isn’t to follow them. The fact he, as a Police Authority member, wasn’t able to make this comment to the meeting itself is a major problem with the authority’s standing orders. While my slightly flippant phrasing of the question may have been lost on members of the secretariat I believe it was effective at drawing the attention of members of the authority to an area where they ought be doing more.
No timetable is given for the introduction of a new IT system which will enable compliance with the PACE codes and the issue of stop and account receipts. My concern is much broader than the issue of stop and account though; as I said in my question there are many other areas where key safeguards are only in the PACE codes and I am very uneasy with Cambridgeshire Police’s stance that they can ignore them.
I believe Parliament ought make clear the PACE codes must be followed, they are not voluntary guidance. I have been advised that alongside such a change, there would have to be a change in the way the PACE codes are amended to ensure ministers were not given too much power; I think all that is required is for MPs to use the existing procedures to ensure that documents such as PACE codes which are “laid before both houses of Parliament” are properly scrutinised by MPs.
An email I received from Cambridgeshire Police confirming they ignore PACE code A can be read here. I have also raised the matter with my MP, and through him Tony McNulty, Minister of State at the Home Office.