Release under Investigation: Metropolitan Police Debate

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Department: Home Office

Release under Investigation: Metropolitan Police

Ian Paisley Excerpts
Tuesday 16th March 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.