MPs call for 'urgent' inquiry into firms running police cells

Security firms in the dock as 'inadequate' civilian staff are criticised over deaths and injuries in custody

MPs are demanding an urgent inquiry after a series of deaths and serious injuries in police custody suites staffed by private security companies.

The move follows a recent investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission into how a man suffered brain damage and permanent paralysis after falling into a coma while in a Brighton police cell in 2008.

The report into the events which nearly killed Gary Reynolds, 41, is believed to be severely critical of several custody assistants employed by Reliance Security Group, which has a 30-year contract with Sussex Police to run its custody centres. The Reliance custody assistants did not properly check Mr Reynolds, and assumed he was drunk and asleep, allowing him to fall into a coma which went undetected for several hours.

The IPCC recommended disciplinary action against three Sussex police officers involved with Mr Reynolds but it has no authority to make similar recommendations to Reliance, even though it was created in 2004 amid growing concerns about deaths in custody. Nor are the private employees subject to licensing by the Security Industry Authority, which regulates bouncers and security guards employed by Reliance and other firms. Two of the custody assistants criticised in the Reynolds case have since joined Sussex Police as trainees.

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the IPCC found serious shortcomings with Reliance staff in two previous investigations involving Kerena Thornton, who died in Brighton Custody Centre in 2005, and Christopher Allen, who died in Crawley Custody Centre in 2007. The quality and accuracy of note-keeping by the assistants is believed to have been inadequate in all three cases.

A fourth, similar, investigation is thought to be near completion, after which the IPCC will make national recommendations in an attempt to improve the quality and accountability of all security firms involved in policing duties.

Five police forces – Sussex, Cleveland, West Mercia, Warwickshire and Thames Valley – have contracts with Reliance to run their custody centres which include the provision of assistants to work under the supervision of police custody sergeants. The contract between each of the five forces and Reliance – which may or may not include poor performance clauses – is unique and not open to public scrutiny. The remedial actions taken after a serious incident are also not made public.

Reliance was founded and is chaired by Brian Kingham, one of Britain's richest men; he is also a prominent Conservative Party donor.

Several MPs from the influential Home Affairs Committee last night called for an urgent inquiry into this apparent "accountability vacuum" as forces across the country consider part-privatisation to save money.

Gary Streeter, a Tory member of the Committee, said: "There needs to be more transparency in these agreements and clarity about who is responsible and accountable as this is going to be happening more and more as police budgets get tighter and forces contract out activities such as custody services and forensics. I will ask the Committee to look at this as a matter of urgency."

Tom Brake, Lib Dem member, said: "We do need cast-iron assurances that they have the appropriate level of training and skills to carry out their roles. These firms should not be able to hide behind commercial confidentiality."

In a statement, the IPCC commissioner, Mike Franklin, said that despite the fact the IPCC had no power to influence disciplinary action against privately employed staff, he expected any concerns about their actions to be dealt with appropriately. He added: "We are finalising an investigation which contains recommendations calling for aspects such as contracts between forces and service providers, and training to be standardised."

According to Sussex Police, its contract with Reliance clearly sets out standards for quality and training, and issues are monitored monthly by a police business manager.

A spokeswoman for Reliance said: "We have been operating in police custody facilities since 1999... and look after 225,000 detained persons in police facilities each year; many have underlying medical problems, injuries and mental-health issues, and each has to be cared for individually. Although rare, adverse incidents do happen, and, in such events, Reliance co-operates fully with any subsequent investigation to ensure that it learns and acts upon any relevant lessons."