Examination of witnesses

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:42 pm on 15th March 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Chief Constable Sara Thornton and Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley gave evidence.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley 3:16 pm, 15th March 2016

We will now hear oral evidence from the National Police Chiefs Council and the Metropolitan Police Service. We have until 4 pm. Will the witnesses introduce themselves?

Sara Thornton: My name is Sara Thornton. Until a year ago I was the chief constable of Thames Valley police. I then became the chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, whose responsibility is to bring together the chiefs—primarily those in England and Wales—to work together, co-ordinate and collaborate on operations.

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: My name is Mark Rowley. I am assistant commissioner with the Metropolitan police. On top of my responsibilities with the Metropolitan police I am the National Police Chiefs Council lead for counter-terrorism.

Q Jack Dromey:

Welcome to both of you. May I begin by asking about bail? The provisions in the Bill follow on from deliberations in this House, including by the Home Affairs Committee. I have two questions. The first is more general, on what was described last week as the Gambaccini case, where individuals are not indefinitely on bail. The Bill seeks to address that. What are your views on that and the associated practical problems?

Secondly, I know that Mark has previously expressed concern about what we called last week the Dhar clause. In other words, if the police are to be required to take certain steps in respect of bail in future, the view has been expressed that as the law stands there are not sufficient powers for the police to prevent what happened in the Dhar case. I would be grateful for comments on those two related questions.

Sara Thornton: If I may, I will take the more general issue first. You referred to the Gambaccini issue. We understand absolutely the difficulties when people have uncertainty hanging over their lives for a very long time, so we absolutely understand when politicians want to legislate to deal with that. We are quite comfortable with the criteria, but the concerns we have are threefold. The first is in respect of the 28-day and three-month timescales and the basis for them. The College of Policing has done some survey work that looks at all bailed cases. The average times are a lot longer than that. Very often, people are bailed for a long time because of reliance on third parties—for example, third-party statements, whether they are medical evidence or cases from social services, or whether they are about phone downloads or computer equipment investigations. There are real issues about why people are sometimes on bail for a long time and the timescales do not seem to take much account of that.

The second issue is about the impact of bureaucracy. There has been some work—I think it is in the House of Commons Library—about just how many cases this legislation might apply to and the time it will take, in terms of superintendents’ time and court time. I understand that there are suggestions about how much that might cost. I know that the superintendents are concerned, because we have fewer of them than we used to have  and the whole process in the Courts Service is to try to reduce the number of cases going through the courts. That is a second, practical issue.

Thirdly, I suspect that the consequence of this will be that far fewer people will be released on police bail. In some ways, that is a good thing, but I think a lot of people will be released on police bail but will still be a suspect in a live criminal investigation. So you are, in effect, creating a new category of person. The difficulty with that is they are subject to no requirement to review the case, and no framework, so potentially it is more problematic. If that were me, I do not know whether I would prefer to be on bail or still a suspect in a live criminal investigation.

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: I agree with all the general points that Sara has made. Speaking to the Home Affairs Committee on the back of a particular case, but without discussing that case, there was some debate around offenders who are on bail before charge—this is before charge, not post-charge.

Parliament has, in the past, legislated—this is not just about terrorism, but about all offences—to enable police to put conditions on people who are on bail before charge. Those conditions might simply be to make sure people do not flee—like handing in documents, a passport and so on—or they might be to stop reoffending, such as restrictions on association with believed criminal associates. We make the point that this is a very odd piece of legislation, because while Parliament legislated to allow these conditions to be put on, Parliament did not make it an offence to breach those conditions. That creates something that I have previously described as toothless. When someone breaches, the police have a power to arrest, but then have to release pretty much immediately, so it is of limited value.

Let me give some facts about the context of counter-terrorism, which was discussed previously. We are arresting a little shy of one person a day in the counter-terrorism network across the country—it was 339 people last year. About one-third of those arrests result in bail. Four in 10 of those on bail are there for terrorism offences, five in 10 for financial crime, fraud and so on, and the other one in 10 for a range of other matters. We look to use bail conditions to try to prevent people fleeing the country and to prevent reoffending, but we face the challenge that to breach the bail conditions is not an offence.

As we try to control the risks posed by potential terrorists, we have three things we can do, broadly. The first is surveillance. Surveillance is a very resource-intensive activity and is only used against the most dangerous individuals. The second control, of course, is ports controls, which, despite everyone’s best efforts, will never be completely perfect. The third control for people on bail is bail conditions and some ability to enforce them. In that context, it seems odd to have these powers that are unenforceable.

I will finally extend it beyond terrorism, because the same issues apply to officers dealing with complex cases, perhaps involving child abuse or domestic violence, where their long investigations sometimes involve digital evidence and there are real dangers about offenders and victims coming back together during the investigation. Those conditions are useful in that circumstance as well. Again, the lack of robust enforceability is a challenge.  We have had conversations with the Home Office on these points, and I am aware that it is thinking about whether there is more that can be done.

Q James Berry:

I should declare that I have been instructed in cases involving both of the witnesses in their previous roles as chief constables. Can I ask first about the Dhar case? There was a lot of public scrutiny of that case, but there were a number of complicating factors behind it, including the availability of passports. Generally speaking, as well as increasing the legal powers to enforce breach of bail, is there something to be done within the police service about the operational practice around seeking the correct bail conditions and enforcing them?

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: I will not talk about an individual case, because in every case you look at, you think there are some things to learn from it. I absolutely accept that, Mr Berry, and there are things we can learn from that case. The point about enforcing is exactly my point. Our ability to enforce is limited, and that affects the conditions that officers apply and how they follow up. If you know you are putting a power on somebody where you have little ability to follow up, that affects how you use it. That is an understandable reaction.

Q James Berry:

Since that case, is there now routine consideration of flight risk for CT cases, to ensure that all action is taken to mitigate the risk of flight?

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: There always has been routine consideration. We are constantly looking to see if there is anything more we can do to reduce the risk of flight in any one case. That goes all the way through to our border systems in trying to spot people leaving the country, and all the way back to how we deal with people on bail.

Sara Thornton: If I may, I will give a volume crime example. If you were to bail somebody with conditions whom you were investigating for, say, domestic violence, maybe the condition you would put on them would be not to go near the victim. If that is breached, all you can do is arrest the offender and bring them into custody. The custody clock starts again and so, frankly, what you would probably do is bail them out pretty quickly. So there is very little, in fact there is no, sanction for that breach.

Q James Berry:

Coming to the more general point about the limitation on the length of time you can hold someone on pre-charge bail, Chief Constable Thornton, you said that some people would not be released. What else would the police do to respond to that limitation on your powers in cases where at the moment you are taking longer to investigate?

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: There are several steps you can take, aren’t there? I share the concerns that have been articulated. We could always look at whether there are ways we can accelerate some components of investigation, and there will always be work we can do to improve on that front.

There are some fundamental limitations around issues that have been discussed already, such as digital evidence and some of the increasing challenges faced in that space. There is also the dependence on third parties for evidence—different professions and different expert  witnesses. It is not in our gift as police officers and investigators to speed up any of those. That is a real challenge for us.

As has been said, you end up with this decision: do we keep somebody on bail or do we keep them under investigation but not on bail? I am not sure that the latter is actually a preference, but it is simply how the police will have to adapt in some cases, if the case is going to take a long time. You lose the guarantee that somebody is going to return to custody, and the suspect probably loses some understanding of the exact timescale of what is going to happen.

Q James Berry:

Finally, are there any particular categories of offending in respect of which you are especially concerned about having a restriction on the time you can bail someone for pre-charge?

Sara Thornton: There are certain offence types and sorts of investigations. Any investigations that require the examination of digital forensic material will be problematic. Often, child sexual abuse investigations, where you have masses of third-party material within social services, can be problematic. Indeed, so can financial offences where you have got frauds and you are trying to get information from banks. It would be a mixture of different sorts of offence types, but also investigations that involve certain sorts of evidence.

Q Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham):

Will you say what powers you actually need and how the system would work if it were an offence to break a bail condition?

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: In the same way that at the moment it is an offence to breach a bail condition post-charge, one could bring the same sort of approach pre-charge. You would not make it life imprisonment; it might be a year for the maximum sentence or something like that. It would not be the most serious offence but it would give some degree of traction.

If you were considering legislation, you could think about whether you put that in place for breaches of bail for all matters or just for serious crime and terrorism. There are ways you could consider it. You could consider how a subject may appeal to a judge against the conditions put on them. There are things you can put around it, but fundamentally it is the ability to say, “If you breach that condition, there is some follow-through from the legal system.”

Q Mr Kevan Jones:

Sara raised the issue of domestic violence. It is terrifying for a woman.

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: Exactly.

Q Mr Kevan Jones:

Would you cover that?

Sara Thornton: Absolutely . If it was an offence to breach police bail, for which somebody could be charged, not only would there be a sanction; it would also mean that when you look at their criminal record in future cases, you know that they have a history, on the record, of breaching bail. I am not completely confident whether a police bail has been breached now, but it almost certainly would not get to be a criminal record and I am not sure it would be that transparently available to all other police officers .

Q Jack Dromey:

May I raise a completely separate issue? Sara, I remember an event that we were at last year where you talked about the new challenges of vulnerability and information. We heard earlier very impressive evidence from children’s organisations. In the Bill, we talk about a duty to collaborate and to co-operate, but in a different context. In relation to information and vulnerability, do you think ensuring that all statutory agencies fully and properly play their part in the identification of vulnerability by way of data sharing is something that we might usefully address in the Bill ?

Sara Thornton: In terms of data sharing, I do not think that the problem is with legislation or lack of legislation. I think it is, for whatever reason, a lack of will or of a culture. Sometimes, frankly, it is lack of understanding of the law. I am not sure it needs any further legislation .

Q Mims Davies:

Will you comment on the potential changes to the rank structure and whether there is a feeling at the moment that it is fit for purpose ?

Sara Thornton: The College of Policing completed a leadership review last year. It made 10 recommendations, one of which was to look at the rank structure. As part of the debate about implementation, the question was asked, “Who owns the rank structure?”. It was unclear whether it was the Home Secretary, the chief constables or the college, thus the reason for this in the Bill.

My colleague, Francis Habgood, the chief of Thames Valley, is leading some work with the College of Policing to look at potentially rationalising the rank structure. Some of the work they are doing at the moment is looking at five key levels. It is very much a work in progress, but I think that all chiefs, when they read the leadership review, understood the issue and were pretty confident and supportive that we needed to do some work on it .

Q Lyn Brown:

Police and firefighters perform very different roles. Firefighters have a right to strike, as is reflected in their particular terms and conditions. Police officers face significant restrictions on their public life and business interests that do not apply to firefighters. For many retained firefighters—part-time firefighters—a second job is essential. Do you think it would be unnecessary and inappropriate to inflict these terms and conditions on firefighters ?

Sara Thornton: We already have experience in police forces. As a chief constable, I had police officers and police staff. Police staff were largely unionised, they could strike and they were not subject to the same terms and conditions. My argument would be that chief constables are quite used to running an organisation where there are different terms and conditions of service—some people can strike and some cannot. When I was a chief officer, on the few occasions when the unions did strike, it caused some minimal tension, but it was manageable .

Q Mims Davies:

I was going to go on to ask about the changes to the firearms legislation and whether you believe it will help to keep the public safer .

Sara Thornton: My colleagues who run the National Ballistics Intelligence Service have been very involved with the work of civil servants and the Law Commission  on this area. It is not an area I am expert in, but I understand from them that they are very supportive of the clarity of definition in the terms “lethal” and “component parts”, and of the offence for articles that would convert a firearm. Their one concern is on the definition of “antique firearm”. They would like the addition that it should be something that was manufactured prior to 1919, to make it absolutely clear. If that was added to the Bill, then they are very supportive of what is in there.

What is interesting, from doing some research for this appearance today, is just how many antique firearms are involved in crime. It is a significant number, and it is important that we deal with them.

Assistant Commissioner Rowley: If I may add to that, from a counter-terrorism perspective, one of the handful of factors that gives us an advantage in the UK is the low availability of firearms. It is not something that we should be at all complacent about because it is clearly not at zero and we have seen changes in the marketplace, so if Parliament is prepared to tighten up these loopholes, that is just another step in trying to maintain the competitive advantage that we have.

Q Amanda Milling:

May I go back to collaboration? I will ask much the same the question that I asked the last panel, which is on the patchiness in the collaboration between emergency services. While we have examples of excellent practice across the country, there are examples where there has been resistance to change. I am interested in your views on the duty to collaborate and the extension of responsibilities. Specifically, I would like to understand how you feel about the single employer model and how that could improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the services.

Sara Thornton: Of course, the pattern of collaboration for police forces has not primarily been among emergency services but with other police forces and, in some cases, with local authorities and other organisations. There are substantial amounts of collaboration across the country—whether with regard to counter-terrorism, organised crime, the provision of firearms or the provision of technology—that are largely between forces.

In terms of collaboration with the fire brigade and the ambulance service, I think the duty to collaborate, which is on the face of the Bill, sends a very strong signal from Government that, “This is what we want you to do.” As you say, there are already some collaboration activities. They are patchy, but quite frankly there has never been that duty to collaborate. I think this is Parliament saying to the forces, the fire service and the ambulance service, “We want you to do this.”

In terms of what it says about police and crime commissioners, as I have understood it, where a local case is made, there can either be the governance arrangements or, indeed, the single employer. Again, that is where the local case is made—I think that provides a reasonable safeguard. Of course, there are areas where the police service is not coterminous with the fire service, but that is not the majority of areas. There are cases—for example, Dave Etheridge, my former colleague from Oxfordshire who was here earlier today—where they are part of the county council. It would be quite difficult to extricate part of the county council, but in a lot of places, if a local case is made, it seems to me that it is not insurmountable.

Since this was announced, I have met the chief fire officers. We have set up a little working group of chief police officers working with the chief fire officers. They are coming to the chief constables’ council in April because we are very keen to talk and to work out how we can shape this together to ensure that we can work together to protect the public.

Q Jack Dromey:

May I ask a follow-on question? Sara, the duty to collaborate is welcome—of that there is no doubt. We are seeing ever more collaboration and integration not just with police and fire, but with other statutory services. We heard evidence earlier about the importance of dialogue between the police service and the fire service. We have elected representatives for the police service and we have elected representatives for the fire service, so is it not right that any eventual coming together should be by way of agreement between those elected representatives?

Sara Thornton: As I understand it, it talks about where a local case can be made. What I do not understand—I can give you a further note on this—is whether anyone can be forced into it. I would have to look into the detail on that, but, as I have read it, the local case suggests some sort of agreement.

Q Jack Dromey:

The local case is made by the PCC to the Home Secretary. That does not mean that the views of locally elected representatives responsible for the fire service can be taken into account. That cannot be right, can it?

Sara Thornton: I think if the Home Secretary were to consider such an application, she would want to know what the views of the local fire authority were and I am sure that she would take those into account. It might be that you want to put in some qualification that, as part of that case, views need to be sought and to be part of the argument.

Q Jake Berry:

I have one final point. Recent police research revealed that the PCC governance of police forces, as opposed to the old police panel governance, has saved the taxpayer around £2 million every year. If there were similar savings to be made by the extension of PCC governance to the fire service, do you think that both the fire service and the police service could usefully use those savings to prioritise front-line services ?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

That is a difficult question.

Sara Thornton: Collaborations of all kinds deliver all sorts of benefits. They can concentrate expertise, save money, help you to deal with crises and share best practice. In the same way that we already have collaborations with the fire service, which are about shared control rooms and shared estate to save money, if there is more of that, there is more potential to save money.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

I thank the witnesses for their evidence. Not only the brevity, but the accuracy of their responses means that we managed to finish earlier than anticipated. The Committee will be suspended for 15 minutes.

Sitting suspended.