I hadn’t planned to write this blog now; I had intended to write one on the role of Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs). Visiting suspected terrorist detainees (also known as those detained under the Terrorism Act / TACT) is definitely part of this, but is specialist role and makes up a small proportion of our visits. However, recent awful events have overtaken and it seems like a good time to explain the role of ICVs after TACT arrests take place.
Before that, I will begin by sending my best wishes to all of those affected by the Westminster attack that took place on 22 March. We frequently attend meetings in and around Parliament and are hugely grateful to those who keep us safe and our democratic institutions accessible. We also work closely with police officers and, when a police officer is killed, it is apparent how deeply all police feel the loss. My thoughts are with all of the victims and their families and loved ones.
ICVs are volunteers that have a unique role following such an event and this blog will explain and pay tribute to their service.
The role of an ICV
In the regular course of custody visiting, ICVs make unannounced visits to police custody suites. They are admitted quickly and check on the rights, entitlements and wellbeing of detainees by interviewing them and checking custody records. They also check the conditions of custody, reporting to staff at the time and sending reports to their PCC (in England and Wales), Police Authority (in Scotland) or Policing Board (in Northern Ireland).
ICVs and TACT detention
We have a special group of ICVs who are qualified to visit TACT facilities and speak to suspected terrorist detainees. Unlike normal visits, TACT visits tend to be arranged (although can be unannounced); as there are relatively few detainees and ad hoc visitors are unlikely to find detainees. Instead, constabularies contact scheme managers as soon as practicable after someone comes into TACT detention and ICVs arrange to visit. Also unlike standard custody, suspects can remain in detention for up to 14 days. ICVs will visit throughout this time; ideally new pairs of visitors will attend throughout the detention.
The ICVs who make these visits will be experienced, having completed at least 18 months of regular visiting. They have additional security clearance and attend additional specialist training. It is not easy to qualify to be one of these visitors; you must show commitment, personal development and undergo a reasonably intrusive security check. This is no small ask of a volunteer and our ICVs invest a lot in their role.
Furthermore, the role comes with additional pressures. Visits, by their nature, are not planned in advance and ICVs may be called in at very short notice at any time of day or night. ICVs conduct themselves professionally, but the visits will still take an emotional toll. The role is under more scrutiny and ICVs can make additional requests such as viewing recordings of the detainee. They have an additional duty to act as the eyes and ears of the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (IRTL) and will send a report to him following their visit. Max Hill QC has recently taken on this role; you can read more about it here.
However, the central role of the ICV remains the same in TACT detention as it does elsewhere. ICVs are members of the public, in attendance to ensure the rights, entitlements and wellbeing of detainees are met and respected. They will interview detainees and check the conditions of custody, raising any immediate concerns and reporting to their PCC, Police Authority and Policing Board as well as the IRTL. In short, these volunteers are members of the public ensuring that all is as it should be in custody.
Why do ICVs visit suspected terrorist detainees?
The short answer to this is that it is important to have public oversight of such a high-pressure and unseen area of policing. If we unpack this further, there are many more reasons to visit.
I often hear the phrase ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’, anyone who works in policing circles does. If the police who detain suspects are ‘the public in uniform’, it is important that our practice embodies these principles and that local members of the public can monitor a hugely important area of policing. Moreover, this public access to detention delivers independent public reassurance that detainees are being treated appropriately.
I am pleased to say that every custody police officer or member of staff I have met values ICVs. ICVs bring a different perspective to staff, they point out any issues to prevent them turning into problems and ensure that detainees are treated humanely. This, again, is particularly important in TACT detention. The police that I have met who work in this area are very aware that their work must stand up to scrutiny and be beyond reproach. In providing independent oversight, the ICV also safeguards the police and staff by helping to prevent harm and deliver objective reports on treatment.
More formally, ICVs have a role as the ‘eyes and ears’ of the IRTL who uses their reports to inform his own work. Most recently, David Anderson (the previous IRTL) articulated this perfectly his annual report:
“I have previously explained the arrangements by which I exercise the Independent Reviewer’s power to visit detention centres (colloquially known as TACT suites)…In exercising my functions in this regard, I relied heavily during the period under review on the reports completed by Independent Custody Visitors, which are sent to me usually on a same-day basis or on the day following an inspection. I sometimes make contact with custody visitors to discuss problems identified in their reports. If they do not set my mind at rest, I have the option of visiting myself in order to observe the problem…
I applaud the Independent Custody Visitors for the tireless and often thankless work that they perform as a public service and on a voluntary basis. Their reports are a great help (and almost invariably a reassurance) to me. The ICVs are an important guarantor of confidence in police detention, including terrorism cases.”
The formal role that ICVs complete helps to ensure confidence in police detention.
Finally, and importantly to me, in carrying out this role ICVs are the embodiment of human rights in action. I often see human rights quotations on my Twitter feed, but my favourite is by Deborah Levy, quoted in The Guardian and cited in the anthology ‘Here We Stand’:
“When we turn our back on human rights, we numb the knowing parts of our minds and make a space for something terrible to happen to someone else. We are connected to each other’s cruelty and to each other’s kindness.”
The days following terrorist attacks are often, rightly, marked with tributes to those who have protected others and shown kindness in adversity.
I close this blog by paying my own tribute to our fantastic volunteers who conduct this difficult role. They protect the very human rights that others attempt to destroy. In doing so, they make sure that we are connected to each other by kindness, not by cruelty. I am honoured and privileged to work alongside them. Thank you to all of our ICVs who undertake this role.