ICVA Volunteers across the UK given opportunity to influence United Nations anti-torture committee report
In 2019, the United Nations Committee responsible for the prevention of torture and ill-treatment in detention visited the UK for the first time in its history. This gave independent custody visitors and me the opportunity to show the UN delegation UK police custody suites and explain first-hand about the challenges we see in our day-to-day work. This week, the UN delegation publishes its report following this visit, and we learn what it has to say about UK detention.
The UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) was established in 2009 under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), the international human rights treaty designed to use regular, independent monitoring as a safeguard against abuse and to prevent torture and ill-treatment. The Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA) is one of the UK NPM’s twenty-one members which each independently monitor places of detention including police stations, prisons, court-custody facilities, immigration detention and social care institutions.
The United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) is the international body established by the OPCAT. Consisting of 25 independent experts, the SPT is the largest human rights treaty body of the United Nations. It monitors how OPCAT is implemented in countries globally by conducting visits to places of detention. This week the SPT delegation published its report to the UK Government on the findings from its UK visit.
The report highlighted the diverse work of the UK NPM members, as well as acknowledging the challenges they face. It recognises the scale of work undertaken in the UK with “… 66,000 monitoring visits per year…and … 1,500 inspections” carried out by NPM member organisations across the UK. The UK NPM has collectively responded to this report, echoing the calls of the SPT for swift action on the part of the government to implement many of the SPT’s recommendations.
During their UK visit, the SPT visited eight police stations and found that whilst generally material conditions were good, there was also cause for concern. I was able to accompany SPT colleagues and two ICVs on a visit to a central London police station. During their visit, I also had the opportunity to discuss findings of monitors with the SPT delegation. I was proud to see the work of the Independent Custody Visitors recognised by the SPT in their report, who noted: “…the professionalism of the visiting team of ICVA is highly commendable…” We were particularly encouraged by the importance placed on the rights of detainees in police custody in the report.
I was delighted to see the SPT report highlight areas of concern in relation to police custody detention which we personally raised to the delegation. An over-arching issue is the need for those detained in police custody to be made routinely aware of, and offered access to, all their rights and entitlements. The report and its recommendations highlight the existence of a ‘request culture’ in some areas of UK police custody. This means that detainees are not always being routinely offered basic services, such as toilet paper or access to showers which can have a serious impact on their dignity. Whilst rights and entitlements leaflets are offered, receiving entitlements is then dependent on detainees themselves knowing their rights and feeling comfortable to make requests to custody staff. The SPT’s report also emphasised our concerns over the ability of women and girls in police custody to speak to someone of the same gender. Whilst ICVA acknowledges that great strides have been taken to ensure that this is the case, ICVA continues to receive some reports whereby this is not the case, which is a breach of legislation (PACE Codes C and H) covering police custody in England and Wales.
Independent custody visiting schemes have told us that staffing in custody has an impact on the proactive offering of entitlements in particular, and that availability of female officers has had an impact on adherence to the PACE Codes.
ICVA echoes the report recommendation that detainees in police custody should be made routinely aware of, and consistently proactively offered, all rights and entitlements during their detention period.
The SPT report highlights that “Persons from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups are more than four times likely to be detained than people from White ethnic groups” and recommends that the UK take urgent measures to tackle the causes of this and ensure protection of minority ethnic groups from torture and ill treatment.
At ICVA we want to help ensure that everyone taken into custody is treated fairly. It is for this reason that ICVA have been working with the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) on a project specific to race and gender in police custody to better understand how equalities are monitored by independent custody visitors. The work is focussed on exploring potential barriers and good practice to the effective monitoring of ill treatment.
ICVA is a proud member of the UKNPM, representing independent custody visiting schemes in England and Wales, and applauds the collective strength of the NPM covering a range of detention settings across all four nations of the UK.
The recommendations made by the SPT are invaluable in strengthening the call for action by the government to areas of concern in UK detention settings.
You can read the government response to the SPT report here.
Sherry Ralph is Chief Operating Officer at ICVA and has been representing independent custody visiting schemes who monitor police custody as part of the UK NPM for over four years. Sherry has a long history of working with vulnerable people both in and out of detention settings, both operationally and in policy.