I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the use of release under investigation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to all Members who have come along to this debate about a dangerous situation that has arisen in our justice system—a situation that poses a threat to both victims of crime and those who stand accused of committing them. I speak, of course, about the use of release under investigation.
It is ironic that a lot of attention has been paid recently to the dangers of early release; release under investigation poses at least as many questions, if not more, but it has received far less attention from the Government and the media. Unintended consequences and austerity have combined to create a dire situation. Rather than helping serve justice, RUI hinders justice and puts victims of crime in danger. It is creating a situation in which justice delayed is becoming justice denied. However, there are some straightforward solutions, and I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response and reaction to them. I will start by explaining the current use of release under investigation and outlining the problems surrounding it for victims and suspects. I will then outline suggestions by the Law Society and the Bar Council for improvements in the system.
The first important point to make is that being released under investigation is different from being released on police bail. When a person is released on bail, they are subject to certain conditions. For instance, they may be required to live at a particular address, not to contact certain people, to give in their passport so they cannot leave the UK, or to report to a police station at an agreed time—perhaps once a week. With release under investigation, the situation is dramatically different. The accused is released with no time limit—it could be for weeks, months or years—and is not subject to any conditions at all. That means the accused is free to contact anyone, including their alleged victim, and to go anywhere, including leaving the UK. It also means that those who are falsely accused can be left in a state of limbo for years, not knowing whether they will stand trial.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will come to that point later. The use of police bail has dropped dramatically, and the use of RUI has increased exponentially. That is partly because police bail is out of date, but I will come to that.
As I said, justice delayed becomes justice denied. Before we consider all the implications of those stark facts, let me draw attention to the huge increase in the use of release under investigation. All evidence suggests that the use of RUI has expanded massively since changes to bail introduced by the Policing and Crime Act 2017. In London, for instance, 67,838 people were released on bail in 2016-17. In 2017-18, that number fell to 9,881, yet the number of people released under investigation in the same period was 46,674. That indicates that RUI is being used to replace bail. The checks and balances of the bail system are being swept away by a system that has neither.
The picture is incomplete, because only 20 of the 44 police forces in England and Wales have released data on RUI. However, despite the patchy data, a clear pattern emerges. For instance, in Nottinghamshire, the Thames valley and Cheshire, as in London, the number of people on bail has plummeted, while the number released under investigation has skyrocketed. Worryingly, the Bar Council estimates that the number of offenders suspected of violence against people or of sex offences who are released under investigation has risen from 1,300 in 2016 to 27,000.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Is not the real rub that because of the exchange in effect of bail for RUI, two safeguards are lost? The first is the protection of the accused in relation to the review process and time limits that go with bail and the ability to argue a case, and the second is the protection for the victim, who cannot have, for example, non-contact or address conditions attached? There is also, in terms of general public protection, the risk of reoffending. Is that not what Assistant Commissioner Ephgrave meant when talking about the unintended consequences?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point. It is the loss of those safeguards after the Policing and Crime Act introduced RUI, in effect to replace bail, that I am highlighting in my speech. It is easy to understand why this has happened: huge reductions in police and Crown Prosecution Service resources under austerity make it extremely difficult for evidence to be collected within the timeframes imposed by bail conditions.
I am a former criminal legal aid defence solicitor, and in preparing for the debate I spoke to a number of colleagues still involved in the area. They say that people can be in the RUI process for more than 12 months, but from the start, when a statement is taken by the police, to the end, 12 months later, the statement and evidence are the same—nothing happens between the two dates. Therefore, a charging decision could have been made right at the start rather than after a prolonged wait. I would welcome the hon. Member’s comments on that.
I agree with the hon. Member, who is entirely right about the taking of the statement, which provides the potential for charging early on. However, there is an issue with collecting digital data held on phones and other devices, which may need investigation. I will come to that.
Decreasing police resources make it increasingly difficult to complete investigations within a 28-day period as required under bail. When introducing RUI at Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill, the then Home Secretary, Mrs May, said:
“In the case of pre-charge bail, it is apparent that a significant number of individuals have spent an inordinate amount of time on bail only to end up not being charged or, if charged, found not guilty. Of course, the police and prosecution need time to assemble and test the evidence, particularly in complex cases, before coming to a charging decision, but we need to recognise the stress caused when people are under investigation for prolonged periods, and the disruption to their lives where they are subject to onerous bail conditions.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 607, c. 45.]
However, the added time flexibility in the justice system given by release under investigation is coming at a dangerous cost. The available data indicates that tens of thousands of dangerous individuals are being investigated for a crime under no conditions and with no time limit. Victims can be targeted again by a perpetrator, and some case studies demonstrate that that is happening.
The super-complaint from the Centre for Women’s Justice detailed case studies of victims of domestic violence and rape. A woman in Yorkshire reported her ex-husband for repeatedly raping her during their 13-year marriage. He was released by the police after interview with no conditions. He forced his way into her house at 2 am, held her hostage for five hours, cut her with a broken glass and tied her to a table.
The Law Society has also uncovered examples. A solicitor’s client, who had been arrested for rape and bailed, was accused of a further sexual offence against the same complainant. They were placed under RUI for the original rape accusation due to bail not being extended. Let us consider that for a moment: an alleged rapist is left entirely free to contact, intimidate and even attack their victim again. That is an utter failure of the system. Here is another example: an individual in the west midlands was arrested for murder and then placed on bail, but after the bail expired they were placed under RUI. Again, a potentially extremely dangerous individual is left entirely free to commit a crime or intimidate witnesses.
How can that be acceptable? I argue that it is not. The bail system is not perfect by a long stretch, but allowing possibly tens of thousands of dangerous criminals to be entirely free to reoffend before a trial is dangerous—especially for the victims of domestic violence. It is a sad but known fact that virtually all domestic abuse-related crimes are of a repeat nature. It is therefore essential that bail conditions are used to safeguard victims while an investigation is ongoing, yet the big reduction in the use of bail and the huge increase in RUI means that highly dangerous offenders are released while investigations are ongoing. As Women’s Aid points out, there is absolutely nothing to stop highly dangerous domestic abusers contacting their victims or going to their homes.
Again, it is clear that part of the problem relates to a severe lack of resources and cuts. Because the initial bail period is only 28 days, an extension must be approved by a superintendent. That procedure imposes a big administrative burden on police forces, who, it seems, therefore avoid using bail altogether and instead release suspects under investigation. Unless the police are given sufficient resources to investigate crimes, the use of RUI will continue to spiral.
It is clear that RUI is creating a situation where vulnerable victims may be made more vulnerable and their lives placed in danger, but, looked at from the other side, its use is also grossly unfair to those accused of committing a crime and yet to be found guilty. They are essentially left in limbo for long periods—sometimes more than a year—with no updates or no indication from the police about if or when the case will progress.
I recently spoke to a barrister in my constituency who said she has a client who stands accused of serious sexual violence along with others. The allegation was made within 24 hours of the incident in 2017. All the suspects were arrested and interviewed within a matter of weeks, and they were all released on RUI. The investigation continued, but the defendants were not charged until the beginning of 2019. The trial has been fixed for a date in 2020, almost three years after the allegation was made. There can be little doubt that both the complainant and the defendants will be affected by that significant and serious delay.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing our attention to this matter. He is eloquently showing why RUI is almost totally failing to achieve anything. Has he worked out what it is intended to achieve? From what he has said so far, it appears simply to be a way to take pressure off the police as a consequence of their not having the resources to investigate crimes.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I think that was the intention. At the time, there were significant cases where bail was constantly extended, so it was designed to allow the police to investigate further, but it has had an adverse effect and needs to be reformed.
In another case study, my constituent said that she has a youth client who has been subject to RUI for more than 15 separate investigations. It has not been possible to find out the details of each RUI or the status of the investigations. Accordingly, her client could end up being charged after he turns 18 in relation to allegations that date back to when he was 16. If that happens and he pleads or is found guilty, the court will not be able to impose any youth sentences such as referral orders or youth rehabilitation orders. Under the law, we have an important principle of innocent until proven guilty. It is not reasonable for suspects or victims to have to put up with such delays. Again I repeat: justice delayed becomes justice denied.
Data from police forces that have provided it shows that the average time people are subject to RUI is shockingly long, ranging from 114 to 228 days. There are cases where RUI has gone on for years. Let us pause for a minute and consider the impact of that on suspects—let us remember, they remain innocent until proven guilty. They are left unaware of what is happening with their case, whether they remain a suspect or whether the police are even investigating their case. Such uncertainty creates enormous stress, which can impact on personal and family lives as well as employment.
The Law Society has unearthed case studies that illustrate that. In one case, an elderly man was interviewed about allegations of sexual abuse in a care home in 2015-16 and released under investigation. He received no updates on the case despite five letters from his solicitor to the CPS. The man, now aged 82, was finally told at the start of June 2019 that he would not be prosecuted. Unsurprisingly, the length of the process placed extreme strain on the man and his wife, who is seriously ill.
As I said at beginning of the debate, some straightforward changes to the system could be implemented. I am glad that the Government are embarking on a review, and I was heartened to hear that they today agreed to commence their consultation on pre-charge bail. It is pleasing to see that, in the consultation document, they recognise the impact of longer investigations, the need for better resourcing and the need for regular updates to victims and the accused on RUI. I would be interested to know more about their proposed new framework following the consultation, and I hope that my speech today is considered part of that consultation.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel there is any merit in going back to the system that I well remember—of giving the custody sergeant the right to charge for certain offences? The question, which the hon. Gentleman is eloquently putting across, is about the delay in investigations. In my experience, an investigation can be done in the first 24 hours in the vast majority of cases, as very little changes. X says Y has done it, and Y says, “I haven’t done it,” and that is it for the majority of cases. The idea that most cases are extremely complex and need weeks, or even months, to be reviewed is not correct. In my view, we should go back to the old system, where the custody sergeant was able to assess the evidence there and then. From my experience over many years, that did not do justice any harm whatever.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. We need to review the process that takes place before charging, but we now live in an age where more information has to be collected from phones and digitally, which takes up a fair amount of resources.
It is vital that the following issues are taken into account by the Government. First, it is essential that RUI incorporates time limits. It is understandable that the bail system needed reform. Time limits attached to bail have often been unrealistic in terms of dealing with huge amounts of digital and social media evidence, which is now often relevant to cases. It has been suggested to me by a senior police figure that a longer and staggered time period, with different levels of approval, might make bail work better. However, it is still essential that time limits of some kind are brought into the RUI system so that victims and suspects are no longer left in limbo. For these time limits to work, it is also vital that the police, the CPS and criminal lawyers are properly resourced.
Secondly, while the promised increase in police numbers by the Government is welcome, there must also be proper resourcing for the collection and sorting of evidence, especially where it is stored digitally or where forensic analysis is required. The Government must ensure that procedures and funding fit for the 21st century are in place.
Thirdly, it is imperative that certain categories of crime are excluded from the RUI system. It is entirely inappropriate for suspects accused of domestic violence, violent crime or sexual violence to be placed under RUI.
The hon. Gentleman is making an impressive speech. Could his last point be dealt with by reforms to the codes of practice set out by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to say that the use of RUI must be proportionate? If an offence were of the nature that it would attract unconditional bail, RUI might be a convenient way forward, but it is almost inconceivable that people charged with violent or sexual offences would be released on unconditional bail. In such cases, there would normally be a non-contact condition or a condition of residence—something of that kind. It would be simple to take those offences straight out of the system and go back to bail, to the benefit of everybody.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent suggestion. I hope the Minister takes note of that and that it is fed into the consultation.
Finally, it is vital that where RUI is used, some conditions can be imposed. There should be a mechanism for knowing where suspects are and for preventing them from being in contact with alleged victims and witnesses. All parties should kept updated at regular intervals.
To conclude, we must uphold the two vital principles of our justice system: justice delayed must not become justice denied, and everyone has a right to be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
The Minister will already have got the feeling from the debate that there is unanimity on both sides of the House on this issue. I will not diverge from that. I understand that the Government are undertaking a review of this area. We want the Minister to take up the issues we are raising today as part of that and to make sure that we are heard.
As my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill said, we need a system that is proportionate. Just from the figures for the Thames Valley, it is clear that the use of RUI is not proportionate. The number of people released on bail between 2016 and 2017 was 13,768. However, in 2017-18 that fell to 379 people, and the number released under investigation was 11,053. What is happening within the police service is completely disproportionate.
In case the Minister has the impression that we are alone in raising this issue, we are not. It has been put forward strongly by the Bar Council and the Law Society, and by the Association of Chief Police Officers in its guidelines on how RUI should be brought into operation. Bambos Charalambous has gone into great detail about it, so I will not do that.
While there is clearly an issue of justice denied, the major issue seems to be the victims being deprived of their rights. As we have heard, there is no ability to impose orders to keep people away from the houses of those they are accused of performing some disadvantage to. The imposition of those orders, alongside general conditions, is a major feature of the bail system that does not exist in RUI. There is no ability to place conditions on a suspect who has been released under investigation; it simply does not occur. That has an enormous impact on the lives of the victims. It is not just the people who have committed the crime who are left languishing for ages, wondering what on earth is going to happen. Victims are left not knowing what is going to happen with the person who has been accused of doing them harm. We need to make sure that proper conditions are imposed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned the need to make RUI proportionate, and that, above all, seems to me to be something that can help.
I finish with a quotation about the use of RUI:
“in reality, it has made the situation far worse”.
It goes on:
“Not only are people released under investigation for longer than they were kept on police bail, but the absence of proper scrutiny means police do not keep suspects updated as to the progress of an investigation.”
Everyone in the criminal justice system is a loser from that—from police officers to victims and the people alleged to have committed the crime. Defence lawyers are also victims of it, and my conclusion is that RUI has been a dismal failure.
There is another problem with the notification procedure. The single letter, which is sent under the current system, makes it difficult to keep tabs on people. Frequently a person has moved, making it difficult for their lawyers to keep in touch. That will then involve an application to the court for an arrest warrant, and there may be subsequent hearings and a bail application, if there is an explanation for why these things have happened. Any cost saving made by not having bail administered in the first instance is, perhaps, wiped out by the cost of extra court time for the issuing of the warrant and any proceedings thereafter. There must be a better way of dealing with that.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and there is another point to that: since we cannot take away people’s passports, they can go wherever they like and not be traceable. That makes a mockery of the system.
I understand why the police like RUI, since it allows them more time to gather evidence following the expiration of the timetable that they are under for pre-charge bail, but that is not a justification for continuing with a system that is now hopelessly discredited by all of us, the Law Society, the Bar Society and others. I urge the Minister to look thoroughly and carefully at this issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous on securing a debate on this very important subject. As he has set out very clearly the concerns on RUI, which I think are shared on both sides of the House, I will limit myself to asking the Minister three questions, if I may.
First, what is the purpose of RUI as far as the Government are concerned? My contention is that it is a pressure valve to allow the police to cope with the lack of resources that they have, but I am sure that is not the Government’s view, so I wonder what is. That is not a flippant point. RUI is relatively recent, having come in under the Policing and Crime Act 2017, I think, and therefore having taken effect less than three years ago. I was not on that Public Bill Committee, but I understand that RUI was not debated at any time during its considerations. Therefore, we cannot go to Hansard to look for any clues about what its clear purpose was. Perhaps the Minister could clarify that.
Secondly, was it the Government’s intention that RUI should grow so quickly and replace police bail in the way that it has? We have heard some figures quoted already, but the figures that I have been given are that, across England and Wales, the number released on police bail went from 216,178 cases in 2016-17 to 43,923 in 2017-18. That is a dramatic fall, but it is compensated by 193,073 releases on RUI in that same year, of which 93,000 were for people suspected of violent or sexual offences. Was it really the Government’s intention that this should be such a dramatic change in the way that people under investigation are dealt with?
Thirdly, what about legal aid? At the moment, legal aid will be paid for police station time and for trial, but for nothing in between. That means nothing for those important pre-charge stages—or at least, it will only be paid much later in the day. They are important stages of investigation, and the defence has a role here as well in querying whether evidence is being gathered, for example.
If there is to be a period of years, as we have heard in serious cases, where no progress is made in the case as far as the defendant is concerned, there is a risk of procedures perhaps not being followed as diligently as they might be. There is also a risk that defence solicitors, who are already under a lot of financial pressure, will not be able to take cases where they are acting speculatively and have no prospect of being paid, perhaps for several years. Effectively, they are subsidising the criminal justice process. Perhaps the Minister will respond by undertaking to look at that and, if RUI is to continue, at whether the payment for defence solicitors in relation to legal aid needs to be reconsidered.
I have the dubious extra background in this area of being one of the only people here, I imagine, who has been on RUI in recent years. I was on it for quite a significant period of time. I fully support Bambos Charalambous and pay tribute to him for bringing forward this important topic, which for too long has been ignored. As he made clear in his speech, it was not the intention of the Home Secretary at the time to have a situation in which these cases drag on and on.
I have two main points to make about RUI: it has no conditions and no limit. No conditions is harmful to victims, by allowing the guilty to prey on them consistently, and no limit is harmful to the innocent, by keeping them stuck in a process without end. The only people who benefit from the system as it stands are the guilty, because they are free to continue to offend, and those who make malicious complaints, as it allows the destruction that they have caused for the innocent to continue with no end in sight.
I will pick up on a couple of points that hon. Members have made. First of all, a very fair point was made on electronic evidence. That is something that has come in over the past few years, and police have to wade through very substantial amounts of it, so there is some truth in the suggestion that they might need more time for that. I welcome the review that the Government are undertaking to look at that. Secondly, I think there is an element of Parkinson’s law in this failure—maybe a bastardised version—in that, because there is a lack of urgency due to a lack of bail conditions, police can string out investigations, so that justice for victims and the innocent is also delayed.
I will also pick up on the point made by Andy Slaughter about legal aid. Having to find the money in advance if the person has a household income of more than £37,000 a year—basically, every household with two people working full-time on the minimum wage or more—and having to wait potentially years to get that money back if they are found innocent in court, is a huge financial pressure. People do not have tens of thousands of pounds of savings lying around, waiting for the justice system to slowly creak into action, so anything that can speed up the process is also important. That was a point very well made. I look forward to the Government’s review, which I will be contributing to. I will happily work cross party on this matter with any other interested hon. Members in future.
I apologise if my speech sounds rather like a ramble through my years as a criminal defence solicitor. It probably will be that, but I hope that I can bring a little bit of experience on a practical level about how I have experienced the criminal justice system as a legal aid lawyer. I left just before the RUI process came into being. I had the dubious pleasure of dealing with police bail, which essentially was the same situation, but with bail conditions and people being arrested on a regular basis for breaching them. The delays were there with police bail, as they are with RUI, so that situation has not changed massively, as far as I can see.
My research for this debate was to speak to colleagues who are still practising in large practices. A friend I spoke to over the past couple of days told me that 75% of the people his firm represents who are interviewed in police stations are released on the RUI procedure. How can that possibly be? The vast majority of those case are straightforward offences. That was the point I was trying to make in my earlier intervention.
Another colleague of mine said that the situation has got to the point where, if my friend came to me and punched me on the nose—although that would clearly never happen—and I made a complaint to the police and said, “I have seen my friend, Fred Bloggs, punch me in the nose, and there is no doubt about it as I have known him for 10 years,” he would be released on this procedure. He would not be charged. He would go through this process for the best part of a year, and in the end he would almost certainly be released without charge, either because people had forgotten what they had said or the circumstances of the case, or because something else had happened.
It is a very unsatisfactory process. I would like the Government to consider going back to the custody sergeant ways. I know it is probably very old-fashioned, but I saw justice being done when I was a young lawyer. What is important here is how quickly we, as Members of Parliament, should expect the police to carry out their investigation. If the vast majority of cases are straightforward and involve two or three statements, how can that take more than 24 or 48 hours? Obviously people might be on holiday or away, but the vast majority of times, in my experience, the process literally involves a police officer going out and taking the statements, and that is it.
It has been confirmed to me by colleagues over the past couple of days that if that process happens—in most cases over a 24 or 48-hour period—and somebody is then released under investigation, when they come back to the police station in a year’s time it will almost certainly be the same evidence. Nothing will have happened, so the decision made 12 months down the line could have been made within 24 hours.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that he has real coalface experience of this. What might change a year down the track is that memories have faded, so the evidence will be less potent, which may result in a miscarriage of justice either way. We have talked about delays between charge and hearing dates in Crown and magistrates courts. If a delay is added before charge because of this system, the delay will be doubled up, which leads to that risk.
For cases involving fraud or some technical matters, a process such as this should quite clearly be brought into play, because the technical examination of computers or whatever takes weeks or months. My comments are not in respect of those cases.
To follow on from a point that my colleague made, I have been told in the last 24 hours of rape and manslaughter cases following this process, which is quite incredible. It is suggested that one of those cases has direct evidence of involvement, but this process is happening. A suspect in a most horrendous rape case, similar to the one outlined, was released under this process for more than 12 months. I do not know how that can be.
We should look at the process within the police station. When a suspect goes into a police station, they will almost certainly be interviewed by an officer who does not take responsibility for the case later in proceedings. The officer who interviews does not have ownership of the case and gives it to the investigating officer, who is perhaps somewhere else in the police station or is not on shift at that moment in time, and the case gets lost within the system. My colleagues report back to me that, when this process happens, it is months down the line before the first conversation with the victim, or even the person who has been complained about. This system encourages delay and delayed justice, and that simply cannot be right.
When I first practised in court, I used to represent shoplifters or people who had committed the most straightforward offences. The court would be full of people committing that type of offence, but they are no longer within the court system; they have been taken out. We have a limited number of cases for which we have created a system in which we do not investigate these matters within an appropriate period of time. I believe that, sadly—I know that this was not the intention behind the process—this encourages tardiness and officers not prioritising these matters.
The only way of addressing this is to bring back a system in which charging has to be made within a set period of time, one way or the other, unless there is a good, proportionate and reasonable reason, or else we will continue to have these problems. We cannot have a system in which people accused of rape or manslaughter are in the community for more than 12 months, able to speak to their victim, to leave the country and to do other things. That is not the intention of the Government, the police or anybody involved in the process, but that is where we are.
I am interested to hear the Government’s view and to contribute to the review, but I say to the Minister that this comes down to who has the case initially and to carrying out the investigation at the earliest opportunity. It may be that we do not need a CPS lawyer to review all the evidence. There may be an experienced police officer who can do that, such as the custody sergeant, or there may be another way of dealing with matters that protects potential victims and the interests of those who have been involved in this process for a long time and that means that justice can be done.
At the start of my career, I believed that justice was done, but the custody sergeant did not always get it right, and there were lots of cases in which no further action happened as a result, so there is a strong argument against what I am saying. However, I can tell hon. Members, on behalf of my legal aid colleagues—I am proud to stand here as one of them, trying to represent some of the things that they believe in very passionately—that justice was done, the public were protected and the public interest was protected. I will obviously do anything I can to assist the Minister in the review.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to respond to the debate from the shadow Front Bench. This has been an excellent debate, with Members with vested experience in these issues, which makes it even more profound that there has been so much agreement on the challenges that these reforms to police bail have presented to the criminal justice system over the past three years.
I am delighted to see the Government acknowledge those challenges in the consultation announced today, which was clearly in direct response to the calling of the debate by my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous, making this one of the most successful Westminster Hall debates I have ever taken part in. Some important points have been made. My hon. Friend made the point that there has been a lot of focus recently on automatic early release, particularly relating to terrorism. It might shock hon. Members to know that, according to the latest RUI figures, between 2018 and 2019 there was a 540% increase in suspects of terrorism offences released under investigation or bailed without condition.
My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate made particular reference to domestic abuse victims, and there has been significant scrutiny of that precisely because of the vulnerability of the victims involved and the fact that the suspects in their cases are free to contact them without condition. Major concerns about investigative capacity were also raised. We can change RUI and we can put conditions on it all we like, but that will not address the real root causes of the issues at the heart of our criminal justice system—the crisis in detective numbers, the enormous boom in digital and forensic requirements attached to investigation, and the total lack of capacity in the police force and the Crown Prosecution Service alike.
The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Robert Neill, neatly summarised the loss of the three safeguards for the suspect, the victim and the public. All have been removed under the current system because of the explosion in RUI and the complete drop in police bail. He also made the sensible suggestion that RUI should apply only in cases where unconditional police bail would otherwise have been applied. The problem, as the Law Society points out, is that risk assessments are simply not being carried out across police forces and are certainly not applied consistently.
John Howell made similar points about the proportionality of the system, describing it as a dismal failure. I think it was well intentioned, but it has indeed been a dismal failure. My hon. Friend Andy Slaughter made important points about legal aid and the intention of the reforms, which I hope the Minister will respond to. I welcome the hon. Members for North West Durham (Mr Holden) and for Bury North (James Daly) to their places. Both spoke passionately from their opposite experiences of the issue, but with similar passion and on the similar challenges around particular types of offences. It is inconceivable that RUI should be applied to rape and violent offences, and there can be little justification for it.
The Government’s announcement of changes is welcome and requires careful consideration. We know of cases in which individuals arrested for serious crimes have been investigated for many months—if not years in some circumstances—with no conditions and no timeframe attached to those investigations. To my knowledge, this is the first time the reforms have been debated in this Chamber since they were introduced in 2017. It has been something of a silent crisis, but its cause is obvious: abandoning the time limits, monitoring and conditions that underpinned police bail inevitably led to a severely underfunded police force taking the much less cumbersome option of releasing under investigation.
That has been demonstrated in the figures. Not only have we seen a huge increase in the hard numbers, but the average length of time spent under investigation under this system has in some cases quadrupled in some forces, so a reform designed to reduce the amount of time individuals languish under police investigation has ended up extending it considerably.
This was both foreseeable and foreseen. The Government’s consultation on the reforms said:
“respondents expressed concern that enabling release under investigation would not solve the underlying issue of an extended period of uncertainty for suspects… Indeed, some respondents were concerned that, without even the minimal level of scrutiny brought by the current process of granting and extending bail, there would be the potential for non-bail cases to take even longer to resolve with priority given to cases where bail would need to be justified to the courts.”
The hon. Member for Bury North highlighted that this has not only led to but encouraged or incentivised delay.
What does the hon. Lady think about pre-charge advice? It is one of the reasons—it may be a good reason—for delays in the system. Does she feel that pre-charge advice plays a positive or negative role in this process?
It contributes to the delays in the system. Clearly it has had a role, alongside these reforms and issues around capacity and resources across the whole system.
It is shocking that 93,000 suspects of violence and sexual assault were released under investigation since 2017. The Secret Barrister tweeted this week:
“The primary driver behind the drop in prosecutions for sexual offences…is that lack of police resources means suspects are being released under investigation (RUI’d) for *years*.”
The Government’s reforms did nothing to address the reason people were languishing on police bail; they simply gave the old problem a new label, while investigations became more complex and time consuming due to digital explosion. We are now seeing cases in the Crown court for offences dating as far back as 2017. While suspects are left under the cloud of suspicion for years, victims of serious offences are denied closure and live in fear of being confronted by their accused.
I do not think the answers to this problem are complicated—some have been clearly expressed by hon. Members today—nor does it require an endless Home Office review. There is a place for release under investigation, but it must be used proportionately. The open-ended overuse of RUI has made a mockery of justice. Clearly, time limits must be introduced to prevent the perverse situation where victims and suspects are waiting too long.
The Government’s proposed mechanism to do this via codes of practice with no judicial oversight requires careful thought. The risk is that unless the codes of practice are strictly applied by officers, timescales will slip again. The police must be encouraged to use police bail where necessary to protect victims, particularly in cases of violent of sexual offences.
We look forward to engaging fully with the consultation in the coming weeks and months, but the elephant in the room is the crisis in the criminal justice system, and this consultation alone will not fix that. The problem is rooted in the utter mess the governing party has made of criminal justice, from the explosion in violent crime due to the reduction in police numbers, to the crisis in the probation system and our prisons, meaning that offenders are leaving prison even more likely to reoffend. All of that has meant detectives and investigators are dealing with an impossible caseload while facing a crisis in numbers.
The Minister knows that the recruitment pledge will only help marginally, because there is no commitment to replace the 16,000 police staff and investigators who have been lost. The party of law and order has veered so wildly on criminal justice that it is hard to believe that Ministers can maintain a straight face when they claim to be tough on crime. The cut of 20,000 police officers is now being reversed. Probation was privatised, but now it is nationalised. Bail reforms were introduced, but now they are reversed. On the central task of any Government—to keep the public safe—this Government have been shambolic. The silent crisis in bail reforms requires swift action, which we will support, as we will always support any proposals that help to correct some of the enormous damage that has been committed over the past 10 years.
It is a great pleasure to appear before you once again, Sir David. I thank Bambos Charalambous for securing this debate. This is an important issue.
I recognise the unanimity for change, as there was unanimity for the introduction of the reforms, as Louise Haigh said, nary three years ago. As Andy Slaughter said, the reforms pretty much sailed through the House and were welcomed by all Front Benchers. I think our friends the Liberal Democrats, who are not here, included the reforms in their manifesto in 2015. Nevertheless, we recognise the need for change. The Government are committed to ensuring that the police have the powers that they need to protect the public and that our criminal justice system has at its heart the welfare and best interests of victims.
The police often deal with complex and high-harm cases, with more digital evidence than ever before. As part of their investigations, the power to use pre-charge bail is an important tool. It allows the police to maintain contact with individuals under investigation and can support the timely progression of investigations; and conditions can be set to protect victims and witnesses. I should point out that a breach of bail conditions is not in itself a criminal offence. Although it means that people can be re-arrested at the time, they are then more than likely to be re-released on police bail. That might be one of the issues that we have to consider for the future. Whether incidents occur while people are on police bail or under investigation, offences are often committed, such as intimidation of witnesses, in some cases, or harassment. I would urge the police to pursue those as offences in themselves, never mind whether they breach conditions.
As my hon. Friends will be aware, in 2017 the Government reformed the rules on pre-charge bail to address legitimate concerns that suspects were spending too long under restrictive conditions with no oversight or redress. That included the ability to release individuals without bail conditions, or release under investigation, while inquiries continued. Reforms also introduced time limits, judicial oversight, and a presumption against the use of pre-charge bail. Importantly, those reforms maintained the police’s ability to use pre-charge bail when necessary and proportionate. It is important to stress that the police can still use pre-charge bail, and they should have our full support in doing so.
Since the reforms came into force, we have seen the use of pre-charge bail fall significantly, mirroring an increase in the number of individuals on RUI. Through conversations with partners across the criminal justice system, we have become aware of concerns that bail is not always being used when appropriate, including to prevent individuals from committing an offence while on bail or interfering with witnesses. There have also been concerns that individuals released under investigation are now under investigation for longer, with the negative impacts on victims, witnesses and those subject to police inquiries that many hon. Members have outlined.
We have listened to those concerns and decided to act. On
First, we would remove the presumption against the use of pre-charge bail. Secondly, we would ensure that bail was used when necessary and proportionate, including cases where there are risks to victims, witnesses and the public, as well as where the offences in question had significant real or intended impacts. Thirdly, we would extend the timescales for initial use of bail from 28 days to either 60 or 90 days, to more accurately reflect the timescales for complex cases. Fourthly, we would apply review periods to cases where individuals are not subject to bail, such as RUI, or where they are not arrested.
We believe those proposals will strengthen and encourage the proper use of pre-charge bail, help to prioritise the safeguarding of victims and witnesses, and support the police. Importantly, we hope that they will also support more effective investigations, regardless of whether bail is used. Our consultation will close on
However, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley said, addressing concerns about RUI and bail is only one part of the solution. We in Government have a duty to cut crime, bear down on the worst criminals and have a system that works for the law-abiding majority, which is why we have pledged to recruit 20,000 additional police officers and to increase funding for the Crown Prosecution Service.
The upcoming royal commission on criminal justice will undertake a comprehensive review of the system and deliver practical recommendations that can make a genuine impact. The domestic abuse Bill will return to Parliament before Easter and is set to transform the lives of survivors, and the ongoing rape review is looking at the criminal justice response to rape—from the police report to the outcome in court—to identify issues where they exist, so that we can improve our response.
I am very grateful to hon. Members for their contributions. I hope that they will make longer and more considered contributions to the consultation, because we are determined to get this right. Everybody who was in the House when the Policing and Crime Act 2017 was passed—the hon. Lady and I were new Members then—may now admit that, sadly, it has had unintended consequences. We are duty-bound to try to correct that, and we hope and believe that, following the consultation, we will be able to do so in the upcoming police powers and protections Bill, which we hope to introduce later this year.
It is pleasing to hear the comments from the Minister. Following the consultation, many of the issues will hopefully be addressed. He will have seen the cross-party consensus on the concerns about RUI. We will wait and see what comes forward from the consultation.
I still have some concerns, because some of the delays are not necessarily down to police resources, but resources elsewhere. For instance, the collection of data and forensic data may be handled elsewhere, so it could be that additional staff who are not necessarily frontline police officers need to deal with that. That issue needs to be looked at. The Minister mentioned the possible extension of timescales from 60 to 90 days. There is a police resourcing issue there in terms of whether that should be dealt with by a superintendent or by somebody at inspector level. That needs to be teased out as well. We need to put suspects and victims at the heart of this, as well as the general public. That needs to be front and centre of any reforms, but I welcome his comments, and I hope we see reform following the consultation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the use of release under investigation.