Huntingdon volunteers look back on 25 years of maintaining detention rights

MEMBERS of Huntingdon’s Independent Custody Panel are responsible for checking the rights of detainees in Huntingdonshire’s cells are being met, no matter the charge. Last month the scheme celebrated its 25th anniversary and it is more relevant than ever.

THE riots last summer left most people feeling vulnerable and scared. At the time comparisons were made with the Brixton riots of the early 1980s.

Then as now, the scale of disorder on the country’s streets shocked the nation. Among a number of changes recommended by Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the riots 25 years ago were changes to the way detainees were treated in police custody.

His recommendations led to the creation of the Police and Evidence Act and Independent Custody Visitors’ Panels up and down the country. Their role is to check on the treatment and welfare of detainees.

Tom Quilligan, chairman of Huntingdon’s ICV panel said: “People were being picked up off the streets and being thrown into police cells. They were in police cells, they didn’t have rights. Their medical and dietary needs weren’t being met. There was no limit as to how long they were held.

“There was a concern they were receiving punishments before they had been tried.”

Last year panel members undertook more than 60 unannounced visits to the cells in Huntingdon and St Neots. While some detainees welcome their visits as a chance to break up the monotony of their stay behind bars, others suspect they are linked to the police and can refuse to see them.

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Around 40 per cent of the 173 people in the cells at Huntingdon agreed to be interviewed by panel members. In an effort to increase that number, further changes have been made to the way visits are conducted.

“Our role is to check on the welfare of the people in detention. It doesn’t matter what they are in there for. They could be a murder suspect, and they would still have the same rights to food, clothing and proper bedding. The duty officer would give the detainee a bit of a spiel about what we were there for.

“In the past the sort of person who was likely to refuse had 10 minutes beforehand had a physical altercation with the duty officer. Now we do self-introduction.”

Mr Quilligan has been a visitor for the past 10 years. An environmental manager for Dairy Crest, he became involved in the scheme after hearing about it from a fellow scout leader.

While going from a scout leader to a custody visitor can seem a huge leap, Mr Quilligan, who lives in St Ives, thinks there are similarities.

“We see children in the cells. If a 14-year-old girl is shoplifting in Huntingdon, she might be very aggressive in the shop but, by the time she is in a police cell, she is very different.”

Checks are done not only on the condition of the detainee, but also the environment of the cell and custody suite. Findings are compiled in a report, which is sent to Cambridgeshire police.

INFORMATION: If you would like to become an ICV panel member e-mail