Clause 43 - Pre-charge bail

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:00 pm on 27th May 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 95, in schedule 4, page 203, line 33, leave out

“If it is reasonably practicable to do so” and insert

“Unless there is an exceptional reason not to”.

Amendment 96, in schedule 4, page 203, line 38, at end insert—

“(4AA) If it is reasonably practicable to do so, the investigating officer must consider the personal situation and the needs, as they appear to the investigating officer given all the circumstances of the case, of the alleged victim (if any) of the relevant offence on—

(a) whether any of the conditions that are relevant conditions should be varied under subsection (1), and

(b) if so, what variations should be made to those conditions.”

Amendment 97, in schedule 4, page 203, line 40, at end insert “and (4AA)”.

That schedule 4 be the Fourth schedule to the Bill.

New clause 54—Offence of breach of conditions of pre-charge bail—

“(1) The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 is amended as follows.

(2) After Section 37 insert—

(1) Where a person has been arrested and released on pre-charge bail under subsection 37(7), that person commits an offence if they breach any condition attached to that pre-charge bail.

(2) A person guilty of an offence under this Section will be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale.””

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:15 pm, 27th May 2021

The full package of these reforms will be named “Kay’s law” in memory of Kay Richardson, who was murdered by her ex-partner following his release under investigation despite evidence of previous domestic abuse. No conditions were imposed and the police gave Martin the keys back to the home he had shared with Ms Richardson. Martin let himself into the house and waited for Ms Richardson, who was 49, before attacking her with a hammer and strangling her. Kay’s mother Audrey Richardson said:

“They might as well have gone and opened the door for him”.

I think we will all want to keep in mind Kay and her family, and all victims of perpetrators who have caused harmed while on RUI, as in Kay’s case, or while continually in breach of bail conditions.

We are all largely pleased with the provisions on pre-charge bail, in that they reverse what amounted to mistakes made in the 2017 reforms, but it is important, if we want to achieve justice that is fair and efficient, that it comes alongside the Government investing in every part of our criminal justice system and tackling some of the many challenges that it faces.

To set the context, the reforms pursued by the Government in 2015 to 2017 introduced the presumption against the use of pre-charge bail. These reforms also introduced strict time limits on the use of pre-charge bail. They were designed to reduce both the numbers of individuals subject to, and the average duration of, pre-charge bail. That was supposed to address concerns that unconvicted individuals were being subjected to pre-charge bail conditions for long periods of time without due process.

The House of Commons Library says:

“There is no official data about who is released from police custody and how they are released. However, data obtained from various freedom of information requests suggest that the number of suspects released on pre-charge bail fell substantially following the 2017 reforms.”

The use of RUI

“increased rapidly as a result.”

A BBC investigation found that in one three-month period, 12 forces released more than 3,000 suspects of violent crime, murder, rape and sexual offences. Officers use RUI when they want more time to gather evidence and when the preconditions for pre-charge bail have not been met. There is no requirement for RUI suspects to report to the police, and the police have no power to place conditions on their movements or activities—although some RUI suspects will voluntarily attend further questioning at the request of the police. There are no time limits within which officers must conclude their investigations against RUI suspects and the police are under no obligation to keep them informed about the progress of their investigation.

Many stakeholders from across the criminal justice system have been critical of these 2017 reforms. The use of RUI, particularly in cases involving violent and sexual offences, puts vulnerable victims at risk because pre-charge bail conditions are not imposed on suspects. There are also concerns that the rights of RUI suspects are being undermined. Investigations against RUI suspects, on average, take longer and the police are not required to inform suspects about their progress while investigations are ongoing.

Zoë Billingham of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said in December 2020, on the police and Crown Prosecution Services’ response to the changes, that the full consequences

“had not been thought through”.

The report said that of 140 cases examined, in 62 cases a suspect was released under investigation when bail with restrictions should have been used. The inspector said:

“These cases included domestic abuse, sexual offences and offences against children—serious crimes. This is extremely worrying, especially for the victims in these cases, who had no bail conditions in place to keep them safe.”

The report found one case where a suspected paedophile was arrested and, after three months, the bail restrictions lapsed. This was because delays in getting digital evidence from the suspect’s devices meant police feared they would fall short of meeting the threshold to get bail extended. The report also raised particular concerns about domestic abuse cases. Billingham said:

“It has a profound effect on victims’ confidence that they are being taken seriously and staying with cases that can drag on for months and years.”

We welcome the changes, but have suggested some amendments; I will talk about amendment 95 first. Part 3 of schedule 4 would impose a duty on officers to seek the victim’s views on whether pre-charge bail or street bail should be applied, and their views on what conditions should be attached, when it is reasonably practical to do so. Amendment 95 simply strengthens that wording, so that the views of victims must be sought by the investigating officer when setting pre-charge bail conditions, not

“if it is reasonably practical to do so”,

but unless there is an exceptional reason not to do so; it tilts the balance in favour of seeking the views of a victim. It is vital that there be greater consideration of the needs of the victim in setting bail conditions, to protect them and ensure that they are able to continue through the criminal justice process safely and with full confidence.

Amendments 96 and 97 would ensure that the personal situation and needs of the victim, as well as all the circumstances, are taken into account to ensure that any variations necessary to the conditions can be put in place to protect the victim. The needs and situation of the victims must be taken into account when setting pre-charge bail.

It has, sadly, often been the case that victims—largely female victims of rape, domestic abuse or sexual exploitation—are hesitant to provide complete evidence of their personal situation or needs due to fear that the perpetrator will find out and put them, or their family, at risk. It is not right that victims do not feel that the police can protect them enough. Pre-charge bail can be broken and, as this is not a specific criminal offence, the custody clock can currently be run down by continuous breaches of pre-charge bail conditions.

I will talk about the measures in the specific context of domestic abuse, which represents one third of violent crime recorded by the police, and approximately one fifth of all adult homicides—half of all adult homicides when the victim is female. It affected 2.3 million adults in the last year. The criminal justice system still has a long way to go in bringing perpetrators to justice and in providing a consistently good response for domestic abuse survivors.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a notable decline in the number of offences prosecuted by the CPS relating to domestic abuse, despite there being no reduction in prevalence and an increase in offences recorded by the police. Between April 2014 and March 2020, the annual number of domestic abuse-flagged cases referred to the CPS by the police fell by 37%, with similar declines in prosecutions and convictions. In the year ending March 2020, only 9% of domestic abuse-related crimes recorded by the police led to a charge or summons, and the CPS convicted 47,000 domestic abuse cases, compared to 758,000 police-recorded offences relating to domestic abuse.

As incidents of domestic abuse often take place in private, the complainant may be the only witness. CPS guidelines for prosecutors state that:

“Giving evidence may be very difficult for them, or may cause additional difficulties (for example, fear of reprisals; safety of their children; increased family pressures or serious financial repercussions; fear of being 'outed'; fear of a lack of support by the criminal justice system, or specialist support organisations; or, an emotional attachment or loyalty towards the defendant), leading to uncertainty about the course of action they should take.”

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I support the amendments that my hon. Friend is putting forward, because the intention is to put the victim at the absolute centre of all of this. Does she agree that we also need the resources to enable the police to back that up, and to enable the voluntary sector and social workers to put in place the support that she is talking about?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nearly 5,000 women are turned away from refuges each year, because the support just is not there and so much provision has been taken away. That applies across all kinds of different aspects of the support that should be in place.

It is well known that separation and reporting to police are periods of heightened risk in abusive relationships, and the effectiveness of bail conditions can be critical. The Centre for Women’s Justice has said that it hears from frontline women’s services that breaches of bail are extremely common, and that women often cease to report them once they find that nothing is done by the police after their initial reports. Some victims withdraw support for prosecution in such situations and sometimes disengage from the domestic abuse service. In its briefing, the Centre for Women’s Justice says that

“in the worst case scenarios women feel so unprotected that they reconcile with suspects and return to abusive relationships, because the separation has increased the dangers they face in the short term. As the only power available to police following a breach of pre-charge bail is to arrest the suspect and release him again on bail, officers sometimes say there is nothing they can do. Police often don’t contact a victim until some time has passed since the reported breach, and many breaches are by phone or electronic communications. In these situations there is little purpose in arresting and releasing the suspect on bail again, and it is understandable that officers take no action.”

New clause 54 has been tabled to probe the Minister and to seek some clarifications and assurances on a number of problems that the police deal with and that have been brought to my attention by several police organisations. New clause 54 would make a breach of any condition of pre-charge bail, such as not being allowed to go to someone’s house, to turn up at the school gates or to visit a certain restaurant, a criminal offence. That would prevent the custody clock being run down by purposeful breaches of bail, and it would particularly protect victims in domestic abuse cases, so that abusers are less likely to breach conditions by returning to the home of the victim. If the enforcement around breach of bail could be strengthened, it would likely drive down the number of offenders who breach bail conditions, and it would allow the police to focus on the worst offenders. It is a straightforward amendment, which was drafted with victims in mind but was recommended to us, as I say, by senior members of the police.

The Police Superintendents Association has spoken to us about making the breach of pre-charge bail conditions a stand-alone criminal offence. Paul Griffiths was clear about this in the evidence session. He said that the PSA has concerns about breach of police bail and that

“bail conditions are imposed and then suspects continue to breach those bails. Of course, those bail conditions would be there to protect victims or even the wider public. It could be extremely useful to us for that to be an offence in its own right. I note that there is an introduction to prevent the start of the custody clock, which was another risk that we thought may come from somebody who would consistently breach their bail, risking an impact on the investigation custody time limits for other aspects for which they were under investigation. The Bill suggests that three hours is sufficient to deal with that breach of bail, and that seems appropriate, but it could be beneficial to the police service for that to be an offence in its own right in terms of processing individuals for such breaches.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 18 May 2021; c. 30-31, Q45.]

Could the Minister give us her views on that opinion and on the problem that we are seeking to overcome?

I appreciate that part 5 of schedule 4 would make amendments to the functions of the PACE clock, as it would suspend a detention clock for three hours when someone is arrested for failure to comply with bail. The amendments are supposed to prevent suspects from running down their PACE clock by repeatedly breaching bail. However, the view of many senior police whom I have met is that it is not long enough and that they would prefer the breach of pre-charge bail conditions to be a separate offence. I am aware that the Minister might say that to make the breach of pre-charge bail conditions a stand-alone offence could create an imbalance whereby the breach of post-charge bail conditions is not a stand-alone criminal offence, but I would appreciate her giving her views on how we can tackle this issue.

The Centre for Women’s Justice had a slightly different proposal, which is a two-stage process whereby a breach of bail conditions triggers a presumption that the police will impose a domestic abuse protection notice and apply for a domestic abuse protection order. Once the order is in place, a further breach would be a criminal offence, so it creates a “two strikes and you’re out” process. Perhaps the Minister will give us her view on that.

I reiterate that we very much welcome these much-needed reforms to pre-charge bail. Can the Minister talk us through what plans the Government have to monitor the changes to ensure they are effective and how they will ensure that the data on how each police force deals with suspects after they have been released from custody is clear and can be sufficiently reviewed so that victims across the country can be better protected?

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 2:30 pm, 27th May 2021

I am in the unusual position of having found out that things were going wrong with pre-charge bail at the same time that the Minister did. We were both in Rotherham with the National Crime Agency, to learn more about how it was investigating past cases of child sexual exploitation. There was a throwaway line by the officer about how things had got a lot more complicated since pre-charge bail was brought in through the Police and Crime Act 2017, and I have to say that I did not know anything about it.

Pre-charge bail does exactly what it says. Before 2017, the police were able to put in place restrictions on a person before they were charged, such as “You cannot leave the country” or “You cannot go within 100 yards of the victim.” This is really important in a place such as Rotherham, because the victims—the survivors—and the perpetrators are sometimes both still living on the same street, or their children may still be going to the same school, but also because a number of the perpetrators are dual nationality and there is a flight risk. The problem the police had was that there was a window of 28 days during which they had to make the charge, and with child abuse cases, particularly past child abuse cases, it can take months if not years to gather all of the evidence they need to make that charge. We found in Rotherham that the police were having to sit on their hands and hope that the perpetrator did not either flee or—as unfortunately happened in a number of well-documented cases—engage in intimidation. There was a lot of intimidation of victims and witnesses because the police were not, for example, able to put distance restrictions on the then alleged perpetrators.

I really welcome that these restrictions are back. I do not want to reflect on the omission in the intervening years—the fact that they were not in place. I am grateful that the police were creative and used release under investigation, because that was really all that they had, but it was not good enough, and it is not good enough. I am proud to support my hon. Friend’s amendments on this topic, which I think strengthen the Bill and make it even more victim-centred. However, I thank the Minister for listening to the women of Rotherham, the National Crime Agency, and all the other forces up and down the country. These events demonstrate to me that we make legislation with the best of intentions, but sometimes the unintended consequences are severe, so I am grateful that the Government have recognised that mistake and redressed it through this Bill.

What I would say, though—I have to say something, Minister—is that child abuse cases and many sexual offence cases are, by necessity, resource-heavy. If she can do more to put resources within the reach of officers so that they can speed up these cases as much as possible in order to eliminate the ongoing trauma that survivors go through, that would be deeply appreciated.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Before I explain the clauses, we should remind ourselves why the 2017 Act was passed. Colleagues may remember that in the first half of the past decade, there were several very high-profile investigations into very serious allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation. There was an understanding that in some cases—not all—we had to look at bail conditions and so on to ensure that these complex investigations were carried out as efficiently and quickly as possible. That was the driving sentiment behind the 2017 legislation. We have listened to the police and to victims and survivors and charities that work with them. We want to improve the efficiency of the pre-charge bail system and encourage the use of bail where necessary and proportionate.

The hon. Member for Croydon Central explained the background to this clause and schedule and its reference to Kay Richardson, whose murder has already been described. When we scrutinised the Domestic Abuse Bill, I said that the experiences of individual victims and their families were behind many of the measures introduced to improve court processes, for example, and to help with services and refuges. This is such an example. Colleagues will understand that we wanted to take time to work through the measures in this Bill and this schedule in order to ensure they were as effective as possible in helping victims. It could not be included in the Domestic Abuse Bill, but I am pleased it is in this Bill.

The motivation behind Kay’s law is to provide better protection for victims through the anticipated increased use of pre-charge bail and to refocus the system, with victims at its heart. The hon. Lady’s amendments and new clause allow us to discuss two significant elements of this reform package: the duty to seek views from alleged victims on pre-charge bail conditions and the consequences for a suspect who breaches those conditions.

As with other measures in the Bill, our reforms to pre-charge bail put victims at the centre of the changes we are making, to help ensure that they are better protected and involved in decisions that affect them. The views of victims on bail conditions and how these can best safeguard them are vital to enable the police to build a full picture of all the relevant circumstances.

I hope we can all agree that this must be balanced against the need for operational flexibility within policing and the need to balance victims’ rights against those of the suspect. While I would expect officers to seek the views of victims in the vast majority of pre-charge bail cases, that may not always be practicable. For a variety of reasons, a victim may be uncontactable by the police. The duties imposed by the legislation must be proportionate within the investigation. It would not be right, and could be disproportionate, to require officers to hold a suspect in custody longer than appropriate until that contact is made. The current wording goes far enough to ensure that the duty is followed in all cases where it is practical to contact the victim.

We are not of the view that the Bill should be amended to require that officers discharge this duty in every case, unless there are exceptional circumstances. We need this change to work in practice for the benefit of victims and the wider public. I make it very clear that this is the expectation within this legislation, but we have to reflect operational practicalities and the balancing act of ensuring the rights of both victims and suspects.

Amendments 96 and 97 seek to provide that the personal circumstances of the victim are taken into account where bail conditions are varied. I agree with this view but believe that the drafting of the Bill as is, coupled with the current legislation in this area, already provides for this. When imposing or varying conditions, custody officers must take into account a number of considerations, including the need to ensure that the suspect does not interfere with witnesses or obstruct the course of justice, and that will include consideration of the victim’s circumstances and needs. The duty set out in the Bill also requires further consideration by the investigating officer to determine which of the bail conditions are relevant conditions—conditions that relate to safeguarding the victim. I anticipate that that will also require consideration of the victim’s personal circumstances and needs as part of this overall assessment.

Finally in this group, new clause 54 aims to create a criminal offence of breach of pre-charge bail conditions. I understand that there is a long-held concern about the sanctions available when a suspect on pre-charge bail breaches their bail conditions. We should remember that officers will, in the first instance, consider whether the behaviour or actions that breached the conditions amount to a separate offence, such as harassment or intimidation. Equally, there are civil orders that can be put in place, breaches of which constitute an offence. I am thinking of a sexual risk order, a stalking protection order and when in due course they are piloted, the new domestic abuse protection orders. I also have concerns around creating an offence without an understanding of the number of people that it would be likely to affect. I am pleased to say that data collection in this area is being improved, but we do not yet have a full picture of what the effects of such an offence are likely to be on suspects, victims and the wider criminal justice system.

To support the increased data collection around breaches, the Bill includes provision for a pause on the detention clock following arrest for breach of conditions to encourage the police to arrest in those instances. The issues raised by the amendments are all ones that we would expect the College of Policing to address in the statutory guidance provided for in the new section 50(b) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. In the longer term, across the board of Home Office policy, we will keep under review the case for any additional sanction where pre-charge bail conditions are breached as the reforms provided for in the Bill settle in and we have better data on which to make a decision. For now, however, I invite the hon. Member to withdraw her amendment.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 43, accordingly, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

On a point of order, Mr McCabe. The Opposition have an opportunity to respond to the Minister about whether to withdraw the new clause.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I think you are just one step ahead of me, Mr Cunningham. We now come to amendments 95 to 97 for schedule 4, which have already been debated. Do you wish to press the amendments?

Photo of Sarah Jones Sarah Jones Shadow Minister (Home Office)

I will not press the amendments on the basis of what the Minister said on those ones. I was also pleased to hear that there is going to be better data gathering—she might come to that in a minute, I am not sure—on whether it should be a separate offence. I understand the point that we need more data about what is happening before we take a view on that. I therefore ask that the Minister keep an eye on that situation as the data emerges and keep an eye on the fact that the police are concerned about that.

Schedule 4 agreed to.