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Pre-charge Police Bail: Time Limit

Volume 802: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2020


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to extend the time limit on pre-charge police bail.

My Lords, at the request of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, and with his permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, on 5 February the Government launched a public consultation on proposals as part of our review of pre-charge bail. These proposals include extending the time limit on the initial pre-charge bail period from 28 days to either 60 or 90 days to more accurately reflect how long investigations take in complex cases.

My Lords, whether a person is released on pre-charge bail or is under investigation, the aim is to gather more evidence, often using forensics. This week, the Forensic Science Regulator issued the Government with a stark warning. She stated that failures in forensic science were putting justice at risk, that the service was on a “knife-edge” and that there was a

“a woeful level of compliance”

in digital forensics. So no matter what the Government decide to do after the consultation, which the noble Baroness referred to, closes, it is clear that reform of bail alone is not enough. Does the noble Baroness agree with the regulator’s assessment and what will the Government do about the severe lack of investment in forensics, especially digital forensics, which are needed to deliver swift and fair justice?

I completely agree with the noble Baroness that this is not just about bail versus release under investigation; there is far more to concluding and charging people than just those two things. She referred to forensics and she will know, I hope, that we have put £28 million into increasing forensic capacity. She will also know, I hope, that we fully intend to put the Forensic Science Regulator on to a statutory footing.

My Lords, I encourage my noble friend to be very cautious about this for two reasons. First, by definition, it is not under judicial supervision. Secondly, extending the time limits would encourage the police to be rather dilatory in their inquiries.

As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, we fully intend to put this on a statutory footing. RUI has increased following the legislation we passed some two or three years ago, sometimes to more than what bail would have been. We have to look at this area, but I take what my noble friend says.

My Lords, when this matter was debated before the Government placed restrictions on police bail, police chiefs, the Police Superintendents’ Association and we on these Benches told the Government that these limits and restrictions were unrealistic. As a result, in 2017-18, 46,674 people were released under investigation in London alone, which is the worst of both worlds: allegations hang over the accused indefinitely with no power for the police to impose conditions. When will the Government start to listen to those who know what they are talking about?

My Lords, I had a feeling that there might be an “I told you so” moment today. The noble Lord is absolutely right: he and others did question the length of time. However, I recall that I was quite clear at the time that we would review this and clearly it is time for review, hence the consultation and our intention to do something about it.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that this Question is very relevant to the subject of domestic abuse? She will know about the case of Kay Richardson, who was murdered by her estranged husband in Sunderland in 2018 after he had been released under investigation. He had a history of domestic abuse and she had reported him for rape. Under the previous provisions, he would have been bailed with conditions. The difficulty is that there are no conditions attached to releasing under investigation. There should be a power to release suspects under investigation where necessary with enforceable safe -guarding conditions. Does the Minister agree?

I totally recognise the point that the noble Lord makes about domestic abuse. Our proposals will ensure that bail is used in most domestic abuse and sexual offences where necessary and proportionate. The noble Lord makes a perfectly valid point.

My Lords, the House will soon have the opportunity to debate a report on forensic science provision and the criminal justice system that the Science and Technology Committee, which I have the privilege to chair, has produced. It strongly recommends that the regulator should be put on a statutory basis. I know that the noble Baroness has just said that this is the Government’s intention, but it was not in the Queen’s Speech. When will that legislation be brought forward? Furthermore, forensic science provision, as she knows, is in dire straits, with private providers going bust all the time.

My Lords, I pre-empted that the noble Lord might, rightly, bring this up. I know that it was not in the Queen’s Speech, but it is our intention to bring that legislation forward, and I shall keep him posted on its progress.