Release under Investigation: Metropolitan Police

Tuesday 16th March 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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09:53
Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members participating must wipe down their workstations at the conclusion of their speeches. No one is speaking virtually. I have the pleasure of calling the mover of today’s motion, Sir David Amess.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the use of Release Under Investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

Since the Policing and Crime Act 2017 was introduced by the Government in April 2017, there has been a substantial use of suspects being released under investigation, more commonly known as RUI, by police forces around the country, with the Metropolitan police the heaviest users of this controversial practice. Moreover, since the introduction of RUI, there has been a substantial decrease in the use of pre-charge bail. Being released under investigation means that someone is suspected of a criminal offence and that the investigation into their alleged criminal activity is ongoing. They may have been arrested, but they have not been charged, nor has their case been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service. However, they are not out of the woods, because the police are still suspicious that they might have committed a criminal offence.

The controversial nature of RUI is that it places those accused of crimes effectively in a state of limbo, not infrequently waiting many months or even years for the police to make a decision on whether to recommend a charge or recommend that no further action is taken against the accused. I cannot stress too much to my hon. Friend the Minister that the time the accused waits for a decision is a time when that individual suffers enormous stress and strain from all points of views and, as I will come on to, can ultimately take a terrible toll.

By way of background, when RUI was created in 2017, the purpose of its introduction was to overhaul the use of police bail. The very good intention was to remove the onus on those involved in lengthy investigations of having to frequently attend a police station to have bail extended. On face value, RUI was well intentioned, but as is often the case it has since fallen foul of the law of unintended consequences, and this power has been badly abused, in some cases by overstretched police.

When suspects or their legal representatives inquire about the progress of their case, they are frequently told by the police that they are pursuing “further lines of inquiry”. When they ask what these are, they are told, “This is confidential”, and when they ask how long the inquiry will take to conclude, they are told, “It’s difficult to say, but you will be updated”. The update often takes the form of a derisory monthly email simply saying that “Our inquiries are ongoing, but you will be updated”, which then results in much the same email being sent the next month, and the month after that, and so it goes on, in many cases for years. Indeed, RUI is often perceived, to the detriment of both alleged suspects and alleged victims, to be a pending tray for more complex cases, allowing overstretched detectives to tackle simpler cases with an easier prospect of conviction, which is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

It is clear that this system is not an improvement on the previous system of pre-charge bail, which had clearly defined time periods, whereby the suspect was updated on the progress of the investigation. That also helped to focus the minds of the detectives investigating a case.

So, with that in mind, the Law Society has proposed, as a minimum requirement, that the police should be required to explain to suspects who have been under investigation for more than four months why there is a delay in determining their case, and I would be very grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify whether or not he shares the Law Society’s view.

To paint a picture, typically what happens is that someone is interviewed under caution by the police, but there are not sufficient grounds to charge them. However, the police do not want to dismiss that person as a suspect just yet; instead, they want more time to make their inquiries, before deciding whether or not to refer the person’s case to the Crown Prosecution Service. The police therefore choose to release the person under investigation, which allows the person to leave the police station, but the police can still seize their personal property as evidence.

The person will be told about the outcome of the investigation at some point in the future. That creates a great deal of uncertainty, because they do not know if the police will eventually charge them or drop the case against them. To make matters worse, the investigation process has no maximum time limit, which is absolutely ridiculous. It means that the person could be kept waiting for weeks, months or even years before discovering their fate.

For someone to have the threat of prosecution hanging over their head can be very unnerving and may even damage their ability to earn an income. As has been previously stated, people in this position are left in a state of near-paralysis. Unsurprisingly, that can have a severely deleterious effect on a suspect’s mental health.

In preparation for this debate, I contacted an established firm of London solicitors that frequently interacts with the Metropolitan Police and it explained that

“Of three clients, one client who was under RUI and was in his early 50s has developed a brain tumour, which can only be partly removed. The other has begun to experience psychotic episodes and is now registered with local police by the crisis team. The other suffers from severe depression.”

I am not surprised. Tragically, the firm’s explanation continues:

“We know of at least one case in our office where a client took his life, having been accused of an offence in circumstances where he believed that if charged, he would not be able to see his children, only for notice to be sent within days of him taking his own life advising that the police were taking no further action.”

My goodness, how could I live with my own conscience had I been part of this process? I do not know. Taking that horrific example into consideration, does the use of RUI not ride roughshod over the principle of Blackstone’s ratio—that it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffers?

How widespread is the use of RUI? This is a difficult question to answer, as since 2017 no reliable, national police data has been published on the numbers of suspect RUIs. Indeed, a report in December 2020 by the Criminal Justice Inspectorates found that some forces cannot even identify cases involving RUI because their IT systems cannot flag these cases centrally. Simply, that is not an acceptable explanation.

Nevertheless, data obtained by the law firm Hickman & Rose says that in 2018, 236,996 cases, almost a quarter of a million individuals, were at the time released under investigation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is ridiculous. Some 56,555 of those were from the Metropolitan police area alone. Not only is there an issue with the sheer scale of people under RUI, but there is a clear issue with the length of time suspects are subject to RUI. Available data shows that the average time spent before a final decision is made is 139 days. The average length of police bail, by comparison, was 90 days. It is just not acceptable. Some may even have to wait years for justice, in the case of alleged victims, or for vindication of those innocent of the crimes levelled against them, making a mockery of the central tenet of our criminal justice system: the fact that you are innocent until proven guilty.

The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association reported recently that when a sample of 109 RUI cases was examined, more than 69 had been ongoing for between 18 months and two years. That is just not acceptable.

In fairness to the Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis, whom I do recognise is in the eye of the storm at the moment, I attended a virtual briefing of the APPG on policing and security just a few months ago. When I raised this issue on the call, the Commissioner did admit that the whole system of RUI was, indeed, not working and needed to be replaced. When the professional head of the Metropolitan Police Service acknowledges that the system has to change, changes should be made. I would have hoped that it might have been in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that we started to debate yesterday, and will further debate today.

Having checked the Metropolitan Police Service’s business plan progress report, I was pleased to see that the Met has implemented a so-called RUI recovery plan, led by commanders in Met Ops and frontline policing. However, much more needs to be done. The continued, unfettered use of RUI is unsustainable. I am therefore pleased to see that the Government have concluded their review into pre-charge bail, and published the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but I must ask the Minister: in light of the Bill, what is to become of RUI? Will it be abolished? Will it be reformed—or, essentially, will it stay the same? Although I am not prejudging the Minister’s reply, I must tell him that I am not going to leave the issue alone. I want a precise answer.

The effects of delayed justice on the individuals involved cannot be stressed enough. My former parliamentary colleague Harvey Proctor, although he was not subject to RUI, spent many years fighting to clear his name after the fiasco of Operation Midland. The cloud over his reputation led to the loss of his job. He lost everything, including his home. The failings of the Metropolitan police have never been satisfactorily investigated, and a public inquiry or independent external investigation by another force is long overdue. It should have happened by now. I shall listen carefully to my hon. Friend the Minister, but if he cannot satisfy me on this subject I, and several colleagues, will consider calling for a full-scale debate in Parliament on Operation Midland and who should be held to account.

In summary, who guards the guards? Since its introduction, despite noble intentions, RUI has been an untimely policy failure. I have no doubt that its excessive use by forces has been exacerbated by previous pressures on police numbers; but that is simply not good enough. The use of RUI has had far-reaching ramifications for both victims and suspects, some of whom have, tragically, taken their own lives with the sword of Damocles still hanging over them. I am therefore pleased to note that the Metropolitan police leadership sees the continued use of RUI as unsustainable and has at least tried to remedy its excessive use. Furthermore, it is my hope that the 2,000 extra police already announced by the Government—and under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, a fellow Essex Member who is doing a wonderful job at the Home Office—will mean that crimes can be resolved more quickly, removing the need to use RUI in the future.

As the age-old legal maxim states, justice delayed is justice denied. I am keen to hear the Minister’s reply, which I hope will be to say that RUI is to be discontinued sooner rather than later.

11:18
Kevin Foster Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kevin Foster)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing the debate. It is always a pleasure to respond to a fellow Blue Fox, and to have a chance to set out the Government’s latest thinking on RUI.

My right hon. Friend spoke quite a bit about the use of RUI by the Metropolitan Police Service. Yes, it is the highest user, as the largest force. However, the statistics for 2017-18 show a discrepancy in the percentage use following an arrest. For example, in some forces the rate is nearer 20%. For the Metropolitan police it is about 37%. In the force with the highest rate it is nearer to 60%. Clearly, discrepancies in the use of the process are producing such a contrast; and it is not driven by such issues as rural versus urban forces, or metropolitan versus county forces. The Government are committed to ensuring that the police have the powers they need to protect the public and to ensure the welfare of vulnerable victims at the heart of the criminal justice system, but it is clear that something needs to change in this area.

The process overall has been raised as an issue in the debate, and it is something that we are looking to reform and put right. Last week, the Lord Chancellor introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and it will hopefully receive its Second Reading later today. The Government are using this opportunity to reform pre-charge bail and improve wider confidence in the criminal justice system with the Bill’s wider provisions. It might be helpful if I say a bit more about how the Government see the context behind the reforms.

As my hon. Friend identified, the Government made changes to pre-charge bail through the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to address concerns that suspects were being left on pre-charge bail for long periods of time while also being placed under conditions that severely restricted their liberty. In some cases, they went far beyond the concept of having to attend a police station to renew bail; some were on onerous bail conditions for very long period of time. In some cases, those individuals were eventually told they would face no further action, following years of being on those restrictions.

My hon. Friend rightly highlights some similarities and crossover into RUI, where someone does not have clarity on where they are going. To address that, in terms of pre-charge bail, the Government introduced statutory timescales at which the progress of investigations could be reviewed, and further bail periods required authorisation by the appropriate rank in the force concerned. The changes also introduced judicial oversight into the process to ensure that pre-charge bail was being used appropriately and any restrictions were proportionate to the circumstances faced. It has now become clear—my hon. Friend gave some useful information on this—that some of the changes have led to unintended consequences. In some cases, the police have released suspects under investigation rather than on pre-charge bail. There are a couple of sides to that and why we feel reform is important.

While the 2017 Act changes were intended to reduce the number of suspects being placed on pre-charge bail for lengthy periods of time, it was also not intended that victims could be left with inadequate protection—the other side of this—in the absence of conditions that could be applied. Similarly, we do not want people waiting for outcomes for lengthy times. Too often, we have heard accounts of suspects who have been arrested on suspicion of very high harm offences, such as domestic abuse, have been released under investigation rather than placed on bail, where sufficient conditions would be in place to protect victims and witnesses. As my hon. Friend may be aware, that was tragically highlighted in the case of Kay Richardson, who was murdered by her estranged husband following his release under investigation even though there was evidence of previous allegations of domestic abuse. That is simply not acceptable. The first priority of a Government is to protect their citizens. That is why we must change the law, and we are seeking to do so with—I hope—my hon. Friend’s support on Second Reading later today.

Aside from release under investigation not providing adequate protection for victims, as he rightly highlighted, it has often left suspects in limbo, given that the process is not subject to any timescales. Much like pre-charge bail before 2017, suspects are being placed under investigation for lengthy periods of time with no real sense of how investigations are progressing. At the same time, as I said, victims are left unprotected, given that conditions cannot be applied to release under investigation. We believe that we need to put that right for all parties involved.

The Government launched a public consultation in 2020 to understand how we could create a more effective pre-charge bail regime that would balance the needs to safeguard the public with the rights of individuals who have been arrested on suspicion of offences. As has been touched on, we obtained views from law enforcement, members of the public, charities, the legal profession and others to enable us to create a system that will protect the most vulnerable but also ensure that individuals are not effectively left in limbo during an investigation, with the obvious consequences that my hon. Friend pointed to. Allegations of some offences—not petty offences—can very much hang over someone and really affect their life. They may not be able to move forward or perhaps change job. As he said, there is an impact on career and employment as well. We are conscious that RUI cannot just be a file that cases are popped in because they are difficult. If it is to be used, that must mean that a case is still being progressed.

As already mentioned, reforms will be brought into effect by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and I very much thank my hon. Friend for the additional thoughts he has provided today to help us take that work forward. Our proposed changes will encourage the police to use pre-charge bail where it is necessary and, crucially, proportionate to do so. They will also require the consideration of key risk factors in the decision-making process, which we are putting into statute because of what the conditions are. Officers will need to consider factors such as the need to safeguard victims of crime and to safeguard the public when determining whether to release an individual on bail. We expect this to lead to a significant decrease in the use of release under investigation.

We also recognise that there is a need to bolster victims’ confidence in the system. That is why we are inserting a new duty that would require the police to inform the victim of the conditions on suspects, and seek the victim’s views on such conditions where it concerns their safeguarding—let me be very clear, it is their safeguarding. This duty will also apply when there is any variation of these conditions during the course of the suspect’s bail. We do believe it is crucial that victims have the opportunity to provide input or information when key decisions are made that could affect their safety.

To put it the other way around, again, to ensure a just system, police investigations should continue to be conducted as quickly and efficiently as possible. We are clear that we will look to issue much more rigorous national statutory guidance via the College of Policing about the use of release under investigation. Again, we are conscious that long periods of limbo are not acceptable in the criminal justice system. RUI is not a position that forces can just put somebody in: they need to be clear about the reason why they have released the person under investigation, rather than deciding to take no further action, or charging and allowing a court to resolve the matter.

We will be more widely amending the timescales on pre-charge bail periods so that they better reflect police investigation lengths, because we recognise that the current 28-day first period of bail has created challenges for the police, and we have engaged with them at every stage to get this right. I know that hon. Members will appreciate the changing landscape of criminality, investigation methods and tools. It has evolved over recent years, particularly examining digital chains of evidence and establishing forensics, which may take slightly more time but can still be vital in securing prosecutions. Again, we are conscious that there is a need to balance those things while making sure that the process is moving forward. We believe that the future guidance will be far more effective at delivering these outcomes than the current position is.

As I say, we will also look to work with the police sector to improve the data available on pre-charge bail and release under investigation so that we can much more effectively monitor its use and the effectiveness of this system, ensuring justice both for victims and, at the same time, for those who have been accused of a crime and have a right to know that the police will deal with it as efficiently and effectively as they can. As my hon. Friend has touched on, there is a presumption of innocence in the system, and people should not have their life left on hold without the investigation progressing.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess
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I very much hope to catch Mr Speaker’s eye in today’s debate. If I am hearing my hon. Friend correctly, the Bill that we are dealing with today will tackle everything surrounding RUIs. Could he also comment on Operation Midland, because I do intend to raise these matters on the Floor of the House later?

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster
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The Bill will reform the pre-charge bail process and remove some of the disincentives against it that we now believe are inappropriate, or have created unintended consequences. RUI is a process that is not actually set out in law and statute, so the Bill would not change that; however, we are clear that we want to issue much more rigorous guidance on its use. The figures I gave are the differential between forces’ arrests: some are about 20%, and one is 60%. That tells us that there is a need for much more rigorous guidance on how this process is used, and also what information should be provided to the defence so that they know the progress of the case. I do not think I can do justice to Operation Midland in about 30 seconds, but I am sure that the Minister responding later will be able to do so.

We believe that the changes will allow for further protection of victims, clearer timescales for suspects, and more confidence in the system among the police. I very much thank my hon. Friend for having brought this useful debate to the Chamber today.

Question put and agreed to.

11:29
Sitting suspended.