It is about time the Government unpicks the disastrous pre-charge bail reforms

Posted On: 
6th February 2020

Before pre-charge bail reforms came into effect in 2017, the Police Federation predicted that pre-charge bail would drop dramatically and that releasing suspected “under investigation” would become the norm – we didn’t really need a crystal ball, writes John Apter, National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales.

This is a real opportunity to shape practical, positive new policy which will enable officers to conduct comprehensive investigations and provide victims with the protection and support they need, writes John Apter, National Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales
Credit: 
PA Images

Today the Government has begun to unpick disastrous pre-charge bail reforms which have put the lives of victims at risk, with officers bound by so much red tape and time limits that releasing a suspect under investigation has become the default position – and it is about time.

Before these changes came into effect in 2017, we predicted that pre-charge bail would drop dramatically and that releasing suspected “under investigation” would become the norm – we didn’t really need a crystal ball!

We warned the 2017 changes would be restrictive, unrealistic and reckless. And they have been.

Police officers want to help people, solve crimes, lock up the bad guys. And as one very wise old copper once told me – good evidence takes time.

To build a strong case, to bottom our all lines of enquiry, to make sure you have the best chance of securing justice for your victim - all takes time.

Consider complex investigations which require officers to seize computers and carry out digital forensics, for example – 28 days to gather enough evidence to secure a charge is nowhere near enough time.

Think for a minute about a complex domestic abuse allegation where multiple strands of evidence need to be gathered before a case can be submitted for a charging decision.

And then think of the victims. Those brave enough to call the police, to make a statement, to support police action and then imagine having to tell them you can’t impose bail conditions which would help protect and reassure them.

All of this before you take into account the searing cuts to the service over the last 10 years, and the dwindling number of detectives. 

And while I accept that the cases which received so much media attention and led to Theresa May pushing the 2017 changes through saw people kept on bail for extraordinary periods of time, the changes meant police officers went from one extreme to the other overnight.

I know of detectives who have had to released potentially dangerous suspects with no means of monitoring them or way of giving their victims any additional protection. Terrifying.

The Chiefs said the changes created “unintended consequences” – unintended yes but not unforeseen. 

So it is good to see that the red tape may now be snipped and hopefully this consultation will lead to changes will make it easier for officers to use pre-charge bail more confidently to better protect victims.

It is vital the voices of officers at the frontline who have the greatest experience of how these laws work in practice are heard in the future. And I will be discussing how best we can do this when I next meet with the Home Secretary.

The damage cannot be undone. But this is a real opportunity to shape practical, positive new policy which will enable officers to conduct comprehensive investigations and provide victims with the protection and support they need.