I was fortunate enough to go to university and study a subject simply because I loved it. As a somewhat foolhardy teenager, I chose to read Politics and Philosophy without any real idea of what I’d do once I finished. Since graduating, people occasionally ask what I studied, there’s usually a slight awkward pause after I answer, followed by a ‘what do you do with that then?’ It’s hard to reply – I think a bit, link it to policy, talk a lot, make jokes that fall flat. This is a proud occasion where I can confidently say that I am using that learning effectively.

I borrowed the title of this blog from a book by Will Hutton. He received an honorary degree when I graduated and, at the time, his book was on the shelf of any respectable politics student. It is appropriate both because custody visiting reports on the state of custody and that custody visiting is fundamental to the relationship of the state to the public it serves.

The state and custody visiting

The police are in place to enforce the law, but this is based on a system of ‘policing by consent’ in the UK. Policing by consent means that the police gain their authority through the support of the public and are described as ‘the public in uniform’. So far, so good. However, history has shown us that the public’s trust can be shaken. Last weekend saw public unrest in London as protesters were angry with the police after a young, black man died after being apprehended. We await Dame Elish Angiolini’s report into ‘Deaths and Serious Incidents in Police Custody’, and custody visiting was established following the Brixton Riots of 1981. Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) are members of the local community who volunteer to make unannounced visits to police custody to check the rights, entitlements and wellbeing of detainees as well as the conditions of detention. They are entitled to visit custody where they represent their community and ensure that the public has oversight of this high-pressure area of policing. In doing so, ICVs have an important role in creating policing by consent.

ICVs will report to their local policing authority – be that a Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) in England and Wales or Police Authority or Board in the City of London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They will resolve local issues, but scheme managers also deliver quarterly reports to ICVA and we collate national themes and issues to raise with partner organisations and resolve.

In 2016/17, for the first time, ICVA has pulled together this feedback in an annual report, soon to be published in full on our website.

The state of custody

Our annual report raises a number of themes. I will preface them with some big caveats. ICVs conduct thousands of visits each year, indeed our schemes have conducted over 9,000 visits, interviewing over 26,000 detainees in 2016/17. However, we do not have a robust data collection methodology yet. We will work with the College of Policing on this, but for now, we present these findings as qualitative data. Furthermore, custody suites vary massively and what may be an issue in one area may be absolutely fine in another. With these caveats in mind, this is the state of custody, told to us by ICVs.

Positive feedback

We are pleased to report that a key theme of ICV reports is that visitors are impressed with the humane and effective custody suites that they visit. We hear positive feedback from detainees and see, first hand, the care that custody staff provide. We can see this theme reflected in many inspectorate reports and, in contrast to our UKNPM partners who have reported serious problems in other areas of detention, police custody suites fare well. Indeed, the police have done a fair amount of work to increase transparency in this area including TV showsTwitter feeds and working in partnership within the National Custody Forum.

Whilst we have received largely positive feedback, a number of further themes have emerged as areas of concern or for work ahead.

Staffing levels

We have received numerous reports of concern over staffing levels in police custody. We have heard of cases where ICVs have not been able to access custody suites and / or carry out their full duties because there have not been enough staff in place to escort ICVs in their visit.

Such shortages raise a number of alarms. They prevent proper monitoring of police custody and leave constabularies open to criticism or suspicion of poor transparency. Furthermore, when these shortages are during ‘business as usual’, they present a risk that constabularies will not be able to respond to additional demands.

Cleanliness and physical custody

A further common theme of reports is concerns about the physical custody environment. These are often small issues such as untidy kitchens, but can be more endemic problems where custody suites are due to be replaced. Although usually a low key problem, it is a frequent one and one that we encourage our schemes to tackle locally.

Access to mental health beds

We have received feedback on access to mental health beds from a number of schemes and professionals. This issue results where a person is arrested of a substantive criminal offence is assessed under the Mental Health Act as needing hospital admission whilst in custody, but there is apparently no bed available in a psychiatric unit. This can lead to the Custody Sergeant having to decide between holding a detainee without power to do so, but able to keep them and / or the public relatively safe; or releasing the detainee with risk to themselves and / or the public. Furthermore, this can mean that distressed detainees are held in an inappropriate environment.

This issue has been widely reported and ICVA has discussed it at the PACE Strategy Board, alongside the NPCC and College of Policing (mental health lead, Inspector Michael Brown). These discussions have instigated a work stream between the Home Office and Department of Health to attempt to resolve the problem. This is a complex partnership issue and, with limited resources, is likely to take some time to sort out.

Spitguards

ICVA and the UKNPM published letters and challenges regarding spitguards to the Home Secretary, and ICVA to the Home Affairs Select Committee. These challenges are available online. ICVA received significant media interest, appearing in a number of television interviews. ICVA’s Chair and the UKNPM attended a meeting with the NPCC lead on Use of Force to further outline our worries and will continue to follow up the issue.

Visiting Terrorism detention

In March 2017, an attack occurred in London where a terrorist struck a number of people with a vehicle on Westminster Bridge before attacking and killing a police officer at the palace of Westminster. The attacker was shot and killed at the scene, however the incident preceeded further attacks and a subsequent high increase in the number of arrests and detentions under terrorism legislation. ICVA has responded to this by surveying schemes for capacity, revising training manuals and offering a free conference to all schemes. ICVA’s response will help to ensure that terrorism detention is effectively overseen by ICVs, working alongside the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (IRTL), Max Hill, QC.

Conclusion

Any regular reader of this blog will know that ICVA is hugely proud of the service that ICVs provide. It is a real testament to our democracy that community members can visit custody at a moment’s notice; the importance of custody visiting cannot be overstated. Looking at the state of custody – there is much to be celebrated, but there are challenges and we will continue to highlight them to those in a position to solve problems.

ICVA is also keen to do more. As well as pushing the issues we have found, we want to become more robust in our data collection, clearer about what ICVs find in custody and to become a louder and more influential body representing schemes. We are working every day to do so. I am about to hop on a train to deliver training on mental health and children in custody. We will run a further conference on terrorism detention next month. We are part of working groups responding to problems that custody visitors uncover.

Whilst my degree, read so long ago now, may not have been the most vocational one I could have chosen, it has equipped me to recognise what checks and balances look like. I am proud of the little cog that I play in the much bigger mechanism of our state and pleased that I am putting that degree to work.

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