Release under Investigation: Metropolitan Police

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Tuesday 16th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.