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Government scheme ‘ineffective at preventing abuse and death in custody’

A government scheme which allows lay people to check the welfare of people detained in police stations is ineffective, new research says.

The Independent Custody Visiting Scheme which aims to prevent abuse and death of those in custody, should be radically reformed according to retired solicitor, Dr John Kendall.

He told the British Sociological Association’s online annual conference that after taking part in the scheme for three years, he interviewed 76 volunteer visitors, detainees, police, lawyers and administrators about their experiences of it.

Visitors to the stations failed to challenge the police when necessary, did not see their role as preventing deaths in custody, never visited the stations at night time and only had superficial training.

The research comes at a time of concern over custody practice, with around 20 deaths of people each year.  Dr Kendall’s proposal for reform was rejected by the scheme’s governing body.

In the scheme, around 2,000 unpaid volunteers made more than 10,000 visits to police stations each year and spoke with 30,000 detainees about their welfare, writing short reports of their findings for police and crime commissioners. The initiative is maintained by the Home Office.

In his research, carried out for his PhD at the University of Birmingham, Dr Kendall asked visitors what they would do in a hypothetical case where they saw a detainee holding his head, moaning but otherwise unresponsive, and the custody sergeant refused to act. Only four said they would call an ambulance. The others said they would either make a note in their report or try to get a senior police officer to help.

He found that visitors spent only three minutes on average with each detainee, and the visits took place in the detainee’s cell, with a member of the custody staff within sight and hearing, which inhibited discussion.

 Dr Kendall told the conference that: “The problem is that the visitors are volunteers, they lack expertise and are poorly trained with no input from defence solicitors, and are completely controlled by the police and crime commissioners, who can hire and fire visitors and who supervise their conduct and training.

 The visitors had no understanding of their role in dealing with deaths in custody, they didn’t understand that they were supposed to be there deterring conduct of that sort.

 “They weren’t aware that there were a number of deaths in custody. They didn’t understand about inquests and very few had any idea about the problem at all, which I found quite shocking.”

His recommendations include that visitors should be managed by an independent body, trained to understand deaths in custody, have statutory powers for immediate access to custody blocks, and that their visits should be random and unexpected, with confidential access to detainees. His proposal to set up a trial of his new system in one police area was rejected on the advice of the scheme’s governing body.

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