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Police Detention

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

I apologise, Mr Speaker.

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the recent High Court ruling on police bail. The Home Secretary is in Madrid at a G6 meeting.

Since the Police and Criminal Evidence Act came into effect in January 1986, the police, the Government and the courts have all agreed that the time suspects spend on bail does not count towards the maximum permitted period of detention without charge. For more than 25 years, this sensible and uncontested way of working has enabled the police to investigate crimes and keep the public safe.

On 5 April, a district judge refused a routine application from Greater Manchester police for a warrant for the further detention of a murder suspect, Paul Hookway. On 19 May, Mr Justice McCombe confirmed the district judge’s decision in a judicial review. Mr Justice McCombe’s written judgment was made available on 17 June. Since then, Home Office officials and lawyers have been working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and others to evaluate the scale of the problem that the judgment presents.

When the scale of the problem became clear, Ministers were alerted on 24 June. If any suspect is released on bail, the judgment means that they are, in effect, still in police detention. That means that time spent on bail should count towards any maximum period of pre-charge detention. The judgment goes against a quarter of a century of legal understanding and accepted police practice, and as the Home Secretary said yesterday, it causes us grave concern.

The police believe that the judgment will have a serious impact on their ability to investigate crime. In some cases, it will mean that suspects who would normally be released on bail are detained for longer. It is likely that there will not be enough capacity in most forces to detain everybody in police cells. In other cases, it risks impeding the police to such an extent that the investigation will have to be stopped because the detention time has run out. The judgment will also affect the ability of the police to enforce bail conditions.

We cannot, must not and will not ask the police to do their work with one hand tied behind their backs, so they have our full support in appealing the decision to the Supreme Court. With about 80,000 suspects on police bail around the country, however, we cannot afford to wait for a Supreme Court ruling. That is why the Association of Chief Police Officers has today advised the Home Secretary that new legislation is needed.

We agree with that assessment, so we will urgently bring forward emergency legislation to overturn the ruling. That emergency legislation will clarify the position and provide assurance that the police can continue to operate on the basis on which they have operated for many years. We are also seeking urgent further advice on how to mitigate the practical problems caused by the Court’s decision in this interim period. I welcome the support that the Opposition Front-Bench team have already promised for this action.

There must be proper rules governing the detention of suspects before charge, which was what Parliament intended more than 25 years ago. This judgment upsets a careful balance that has stood for a quarter of a century and impedes the police from doing their job. That is why it must be reversed, so I commend this statement to the House.

That was an astonishing statement from the Minister. I do not even have a copy of more than two pages of it, which I was given as he walked into the Chamber, and I believe that other Members do not have copies at all. I was advised by the Minister’s office that lawyers were still checking it. He was very lucky that an urgent question was asked this morning, because otherwise he would not have had a statement to give on what is a very serious issue, six weeks after the original judgment. What has the Home Office been doing in the meantime?

As the Minister said, this is a deeply serious situation for the police, prosecutions, and, ultimately, justice for victims. Twenty-five years of police practice and legal interpretation have been overturned. We understand that the ruling has immediate effect, and we agree with the Minister that the previous position must be restored at the earliest opportunity. The ruling affects 80,000 suspects who are currently on police bail, but prosecutions and trials could be put at risk if the police have not acted in line with the current law.

I have been advised that Home Office officials were informed of the judgment soon after it was made on 19 May. Can the Minister confirm that? He said that they had the written judgment on 17 June, 13 days ago. What have the Government been doing since then? Why is it still not clear what this means for the police? Some forces believe that it affects custody but not bail conditions, while others fear that it means that bail conditions no longer apply. That could include bail conditions affecting whether or not a suspect can interfere with witnesses. Has definitive guidance been circulated among the police? If not, why not?

During the 13-day period since the written judgment was made available, has the Home Secretary or the Attorney-General even looked at the legal position or sought legal advice, rather than simply leaving it to the police to take a view? The police need to know what to do 43 days after the original judgment was delivered. What has been done to get the judgment suspended in the meantime? I understand that this morning the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. Has it been able to introduce a stay of judgment? Did anyone apply to it for a stay of judgment? Was it asked to conduct an expedited hearing in order to introduce a stay of judgment? Was an appeal made to Mr Justice McCombe to stay his initial judgment pending further appeal from the Supreme Court? It is not good enough to say that this is a matter for the police, because it has implications for justice throughout the country.

Why did it take so long to conclude that emergency legislation was needed, and why has no work been done to sort that out? The Leader of the House has just stood up and given the House the business for the next two weeks. Will he have to stand up again and tell us what the business for the next few days will be so that the Government can get the emergency legislation through? We have had no discussions with business managers, and I have seen no draft emergency legislation. Why was legislation not drawn up 43 days ago as a contingency measure to deal with these extremely serious circumstances?

Will the emergency legislation be retrospective? How will it deal with the cases that are currently being handled in police custody centres and police stations across the country? What guidance are the police being given on whether they are jeopardising prosecutions through decisions that they are making in custody cells every day and every hour across the country? When will we see the legislation? I have already told the Home Secretary that we will support emergency legislation to restore the previous position, and we will seek to do that as soon as possible.

I know that the Home Secretary is in Spain today, but she was not there yesterday, and she should have made the decision at a time when she could come to the House and announce it. There has been considerable chaos in the Home Office, not just this week but for the past few weeks. The situation is ludicrous: someone whom the Home Office tried to ban from the country has sauntered in, while people whom it is trying to put in custody are sauntering out. There is a worrying level of carelessness, drift and incompetence. Justice for victims and protection of witnesses are too important to be handled in this way, and the Home Secretary should get a grip.

My understanding is that there is widespread agreement and concern about the impact of the decision, and that we should proceed on the basis of sensible discussion. We are grateful for the Opposition’s support in that regard.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Home Office’s role since the judgment. Mr Justice McCombe delivered his judgment in the divisional court in Manchester on 19 May, but it was an oral judgment. The Greater Manchester police forwarded a copy of it, but only when we received the written judgment, on 17 June, were we able to begin to ascertain the extent of its effect, and, in particular, only then did it begin to become clear that its implications went beyond the issue of warrants of further detention. Since then the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Office and officials of the Association of Chief Police Officers have been engaged in a constant dialogue in an attempt to understand the detailed implications, which are complex. On 24 June—-last Friday—the leaders of ACPO met senior Home Office officials, and at that point Ministers were informed. ACPO then commissioned advice from a leading QC. The right hon. Lady asked about the guidance issued to police officers; ACPO issued interim guidance to all chief constables at that point.

Last Wednesday ACPO commissioned additional advice from Steven Kovats QC, which it received this morning. I hope to explain some of the circumstances to which the right hon. Lady referred. It was this morning that ACPO presented its case for urgent legislation to Ministers, and it was therefore this morning that it was appropriate for us to come to the House to say what would be the right thing for us to do. We will seek to put the legislation before the House as soon as possible, following discussion through the usual channels. The matter is of concern to the police, but it is appropriate for us to continue to work carefully with them in relation to the guidance that will need to be given to forces following the further advice received from the QC.

There seems to be general agreement that this was an unusual judgment, which overturned 25 years of legal understanding. We cannot wait for a Supreme Court decision, and emergency legislation is therefore sensible and appropriate. I am glad that that is also the view of the official Opposition, and we are grateful for their support in expediting it.

There is a clear and urgent need for emergency legislation. Does the Minister expect permanent legislation to be included in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill? Pending the implementation of emergency legislation, what emergency measures are being considered, such as the creation of additional temporary cell capacity?

We expect the emergency legislation to be the last word on the subject. We do not believe that it will be complicated to return to the status quo ante, which, after all, was the basis of legal understanding for 25 years. We do not think that it would be possible to leave the matter to an amendment to one of the Bills that are already before the House, because we would not secure that legislation soon enough. It is therefore appropriate for us to consider introducing legislation much more swiftly.

As I said in my statement, we are urgently seeking further advice on how to mitigate the impact on the police. We will do everything that is lawfully possible to ensure that they can conduct their business and deal with the interviewing of suspects, and that is the subject of ongoing discussion with the Association of Chief Police Officers.

I thank the Minister for his statement. These must be busy times at the Home Office, but I am disappointed that there has not been a statement on the Sheikh Raed Salah case as the implications of that are equally important.

The Minister is absolutely right that there must be emergency legislation, and it would be useful if copies of the draft legislation were sent as soon as possible to the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), and the Home Affairs Committee, so that we can all help the Government to get this legislation through. There is one issue, however: what happens in the next eight or so days? Do we accept the ACPO guidance, or are we saying that individual forces might act differently—I understand that the Met and West Yorkshire police are proposing different responses to this situation—so may we have a clear and definitive statement on the steps the police should take? The Home Secretary will appear before the Committee on Tuesday, so perhaps we can explore these matters with her then.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support for introducing emergency legislation, and we will, of course, discuss that as fully as possible with him and with the shadow Secretary of State, as that is the right way to proceed. The Metropolitan police has issued interim guidance on the basis of the judgment, and that is available to other forces. However, we will have further discussions with ACPO about what the appropriate guidance should be for all forces in this interim period, so that it is consistent with our and their obligation to comply with the law as now stated by the High Court. We will do everything possible to mitigate the impact of the judgment, because we want to ensure that the police are not impeded in going about their business and in dealing with criminals.

Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the relative roles of himself, Home Office officials and ACPO in respect of the advice just given to the House, and will he agree to publish the legal advice that has been provided—through ACPO in this instance, it appears? Will he also reflect on the development in the use of police bail over the past 25 years? Clearly, it has been accepted practice, but is there any evidence of a trend of suspects being put on police bail often for many months, or even years, when the police might instead be taking a more expeditious approach to their cases?

I am not aware of any such trend, nor am I aware of any concern in this House, or more widely, that gave rise to the decision. The judge’s decision in this instance was based on the narrow case that was before the court. So far as I am aware, there has not been any wider debate suggesting concern about the way police bail has been operated over the past 25 years. That is why we feel that it is appropriate to introduce emergency legislation. I doubt that it would be proper for ACPO to publish its legal advice, which it has received from two Queen’s counsels, but I can confirm that ACPO has written to the Home Secretary to confirm its view that emergency legislation is required. It has given a summary of counsels’ advice, which was given to it since 23 June, and that summary was sufficient to persuade it and us that it is necessary to move forward in the way I have suggested.

First, why did it take six weeks for Home Office officials to make the Minister aware of the judgment? Secondly, will the legislation be retrospective? Thirdly, will he advise police authorities, including mine in north Wales, that are currently mothballing police cells—such as in Mold in my constituency—on what action to take in respect of maintaining operational police cells in case he does not provide the legislation or win any appeal?

I have answered questions about when it became clear that this case was of concern. There was undoubtedly increasing concern among ACPO representatives and, when they met Crown Prosecution Service and Home Office officials, the full implications of the judgment became clear. The right hon. Gentleman asked why we did not do more, but, as I have explained, Ministers were not alerted to this by officials until 24 June, which was last Friday, and that followed deliberations that officials had been having with ACPO after it, in turn, had received its written advice. I am confident that ACPO has been working properly both in talking with officials in order to understand the implications and also in taking formal legal advice not once, but twice, about what those implications were. I am also confident that it was right for us then to come to the House once we had established a course of action, so that we could inform the House of the right way to proceed.

The Minister’s comments have revealed an extraordinary degree of complacency in the Home Office about this very serious situation. Did Home Office officials know about this judgment in May? If so, why did they not alert Ministers, and when Ministers first found out about the judgment, why did they not immediately come to this House and make a statement and talk to the Opposition about how to get emergency legislation through to rectify the situation? Why has the Minister waited for so long?

I answered those points in terms in my previous answer, and I have nothing to add. It was important for us to establish what the implications of the judgment were first at official level, working with ACPO, and then on the basis of proper legal advice. It was only when officials received the written judgment of the High Court that it became clear that the original judgment might have an implication beyond that which was initially understood. There have been discussions during the course of the week about the appropriate way to proceed, and I have sought to update the House once we knew the course of action, so as to bring clarity. I repeat that I do not regard this as a matter for partisan difference. We are grateful to the Opposition for adopting a sensible approach to this matter and for supporting emergency legislation. We do not need to disagree on this.

I thank both my right hon. Friend for the statement and the Government for their prompt response in terms of the emergency legislation. Will he ensure that when this legislation is passed it will give a clear signal to judges such as the one who made the decision that we must be on the side of the victim, not the criminal?

I will not comment on the specific points in that question, for reasons I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, but, of course, in general it is important both that we have a criminal justice system that properly reflects the interests of victims and that justice is done. The police bail system had been operating for 25 years in a manner with which, as far as I am aware, everybody was content, and this judgment alone has, effectively, sought to undo that. That is why we think it right to bring forward this legislation.

Although the emergency legislation is welcome, police throughout the country are faced with the problem of administering the current law. What advice have the Minister or the Home Office given to police authorities about reviewing the availability of police cells and what estimate has been made of any additional costs? If there are additional costs, will the Home Office give additional grants to the police so that they can cope?

We are seeking to bring forward legislation to deal with the problem sufficiently swiftly to avoid any such impact that may be caused in the interim. We will also seek to mitigate the situation to the greatest possible extent, and I will discuss that with ACPO. Clearly there are implications in respect of resources and also for defendants, because as I said in my statement, it is possible that people will be detained in custody for longer, so the judgment’s practical effects will have implications for both civil liberties and the sensible operation of police bail.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that judgments such as this, which fly in the face of common sense, run the risk of bringing our justice system into disrepute? How can someone who is free possibly be judged to be inside? At this rate, all our prisons are going to be empty.

I think that the best way that I could respond would be by quoting the legal expert Professor Michael Zander QC, whom my hon. Friend may have heard on the “Today” programme this morning. He said:

“The only justification for the ruling is a literal interpretation of the Act which makes no sense”.

For the third time, I say to the hon. Gentleman that I have explained the timeline in detail. When he looks at the record, he will see that I said—I am happy to repeat this—that Greater Manchester police approached the Home Office in May, but we received the written judgment from the court only on 17 June. Therefore, action was taken as soon as possible to understand the effects and seek advice once that written judgment was taken.

This is an important point, and information from the House of Commons Library suggests that Home Office officials did know in May. Will the Minister give a clear answer to the House on whether that is the case, yes or no?

I do not understand why Labour Members are trying to pursue a point that I have already answered on a number of occasions. I am happy to repeat that officials were informed in May about the oral judgment, but it was only in June that we received the written judgment of the High Court judge. Officials then began to appreciate that the implications extended beyond that which was originally understood from the oral judgment. I am happy to go on repeating that timeline to hon. Members for as long as they seek to ask these questions.

I am sure that we all appreciate that these legal judgments can be complicated and that their full implications can take some time to work through, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a bit of concern about how long this took to reach Ministers? Is there perhaps scope for reviewing the interaction between his officials and ACPO to see whether a better process can be put in place to deal with the unlikely event that something as horrible as this ever happens again?

I note my hon. Friend’s point, but I think that officials wished to ascertain, with ACPO and in consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service, what the full implications of this judgment were before they came to Ministers with advice, because they needed to be able to advise Ministers properly on the extent of the implications. We will continue to work very closely with ACPO to do everything we can to support the police in doing the job that they have to do.

I think that what hon. Members are trying to get at is this: when the Home Office knew in May why could action not have been taken right away to set something in motion?

I say to hon. Members that it would be better if we dealt with the substantive issue, because I have repeated on a number of occasions the timeline and the reasons why. In particular, I have discussed the need to take legal advice to understand the implications of a complex judgment that was simply not expected. That is why ACPO has taken two sets of legal advice, and it was this morning that ACPO formally asked us for emergency legislation. I hope that that explains to the hon. Gentleman the sequence of events and why we have come to the House today to explain what we want to do.

Our criminal justice system costs about 10 times more than similar criminal justice systems in similarly sized countries, yet judgments such as the one yesterday, which are perverse and self-regarding, are causing this sort of reaction by Government. When are we going to consider more structural reform of a system that is barely fit for purpose?

Without commenting on the specific judgment, I agree with my hon. Friend to the extent that we do have one of the most expensive criminal justice systems in the world, and that is why we seek reform of the system across the piece. It also explains the important reforms that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has introduced in his Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the reforms that we seek on enhancing the accountability of the police. We will have more to say in due course about the efficiency of the criminal justice system and how we seek to drive forward on value for money and a more effective justice system.

The House of Commons Library advises that the Supreme Court has not stayed the judgment this morning and that nobody applied for a stay. Can the Minister confirm that that is correct?

I understand from the Solicitor-General that that was the case this morning, but I should say to the hon. Gentleman that every effort has been made by Greater Manchester police to appeal against this judgment—the force did this from the original court of first hearing to the High Court—and that the Government are now making every effort to overturn this judgment. That is precisely why we wish to introduce emergency legislation; we do not think that a recourse to further legal process will give sufficient certainty or will deal with the issue in the time that we think is necessary.

As the Minister has described, some 80,000 people are affected by this judgment. No doubt many of them will be consulting their Member of Parliament this weekend and in the future, so can we have some urgent clarification and guidance from the Home Office about what to say to these people?

As I said in my statement, we are urgently seeking advice so that we are able to update the police, through ACPO, on how we intend to mitigate the impact of this judgment. I am happy to ensure that the House is updated as well.