The way complaints are made about the police and the disciplinary system associated with it are to be clarified under proposals announced in the Queen’s Speech under the Policing and Crime Bill. The Bill, which is continuing from the previous Parliamentary session, is also designed to bring the emergency services closer together under the control of police and crime commissioners to allow them to collaborate to provide a more efficient service to the public. In addition, the proposals contained in the Bill will see a ban on the use of police cells as places of safety when dealing with those people under 18 years’ old who are experiencing mental health issues. The Bill also provides for:
- the investigation of concerns about policing raised by whistle-blowers;
- the powers of police civilian staff and police volunteers;
- the replacement of the Association of Chief Police Officers with the National Police Chiefs’ Council; and
- the modernisation of technology in police stations.
Proposed legislation in the Bill will also make it a requirement that those arrested or who are defendants in criminal proceedings provide details of their nationality.
Sara Ogilvie, policy officer at Liberty, comments on the proposals in the Bill and considers the wider patterns emerging with regards to increases in police powers, border enforcement and criminal justice reforms.
Which proposals in the Policing and Crime Bill have proven most controversial?
The Policing and Crime Bill would allow police and immigration officers to ask anyone under arrest to state or prove their nationality, and require defendants in criminal courts to provide details of theirs. Those who fail to do so could be sentenced to a year in prison. This clearly discriminatory measure would be exercised when police have reasonable grounds to suspect an individual may not be a UK national. The fact that the grounds invoked will in all certainty be skin colour or accent, provoked some controversy when the measure was reported in The Guardian earlier this month, but the rest of the Bill has largely escaped the public’s attention—in spite of the radical changes it proposes.
These include powers for police to force ships to be taken to a port in England and Wales—or anywhere else in the world—and detained there. Officers could use these powers as long as they suspect a criminal offence has taken place on board, or that the ship is being used to commit an offence, such as trying to enter the UK without proper documentation. We are concerned this will be used to turn away ships of refugees.
The Bill proposes a number of changes to the police complaints system, including allowing elected police and crime commissioners to take on responsibility for some complaints and appeals, or to hand the whole process over to someone else.
The police bail system would be reformed, with an initial bail period of 28 days introduced—but the Bill allows this to be extended indefinitely and makes it easier for suspects to be re-arrested.
Chief officers would be able to hand civilian staff and volunteers any police powers other than ‘core’ arrest, stop-and-search and anti-terror powers. Community support officers and volunteers could also be given additional special powers.
How do these proposals build upon the powers that are already available?
There is currently no requirement for people to state or prove their nationality upon arrest or in court. In fact, recent decades have seen efforts to distance the police from divisive discriminatory procedures such as stop and search in order to improve police-community relations.
Similar powers for police to divert ships were included in the Immigration Bill. However, when concerns were raised that they could be used to return boats of refugees to where they came from, Immigration minister James Brokenshire said: ‘Vessels may be diverted only to a port in the UK.’ This new power has no such restrictions.
At the moment, certain complaints must be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which will decide how they are to be handled. All other complaints remain with local police forces, which can then choose to deal with a complaint outside the legal framework, undertake a local resolution or undertake an investigation. Under the Bill, these different avenues will be replaced with an overarching duty to take ‘reasonable and proportionate action’ to resolve complaints. Liberty is concerned this new approach does not go far enough to ensure that independence of investigation sits at the heart of the IPCC system.
The new police bail system introduced by the Bill would create a presumption that, where detention is not necessary but an investigation continues or charging decision is made, the suspect should be released without bail, and the definition of ‘new evidence’ for the purpose of re-arresting an individual would be extended. Such a scheme simply replaces one set of civil liberties concerns with another and, in cases where the custody clock is running out, the proposed changes could be seen as an encouragement to release with a view to re-arrest on the basis of a loose and flexible definition of ‘new evidence’. While those released on bail will have their bail subject to a review, this is in no way a real-time limit on the use of bail powers and the system will continue to deliver uncertainty for victims and suspects alike.
Allowing chief officers to decide what their volunteers can and cannot do will create a confusing patchwork of powers across the country and leave the door open to abuses. How are we supposed to know whether a volunteer in uniform is acting lawfully when their responsibilities vary from town to town?
What is the predicted timeline on the Bill?
The Bill partially went through report stage before the close of the 2015–16 Parliament and will finish its final stages in the House of Commons before summer recess. We expect it to continue in the House of Lords in the autumn.
What are the trends and your predictions for the future?
The Policing and Crime Bill’s most worrying proposals are part of a wider pattern that is seeing the government build anti-immigrant sentiment into every aspect of life. In the absence of strong opposition to these measures in Parliament, border controls appear to be creeping into public service provision, employment law and even the housing market. The result will be growing racial tensions across society and worsening relations between the police and ethnic minority communities.
This Bill also extends the role of police and crime commissioners, giving them more powers in spite of their patchy track record. This suggests we will see the politicisation of ever more aspects of policing, and even other public services such as education and parts of the criminal justice system.
This article has been repurposed from LexisPSL.
Interviewed by Robert Matthews.
The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.