Biggest shake-up in police bail in 32 years ‘just around the corner’

01 March 2017


The full impact of the new Policing and Crime Act is likely to be felt the most by custody sergeants and investigators when it comes into effect in a few weeks’ time (April).

Pre-charge bail will be capped at 28 days in the biggest overhaul of bail arrangements in the entire history of PACE.

The Federation and its advisors have been in dogged negotiations with the Home Office for more than 18 months over the bail reforms as well as the other changes enshrined in the new law. But although it has managed to influence some of the outcomes, arguments over the pre-charge bail reforms have largely fallen on deaf ears. Further discussions are still ongoing as other elements of the Bill won’t be introduced until later.

The reforms have been brought in after existing provisions were criticised for keeping suspects on bail indefinitely, waiting to hear whether or not they would be charged. The Home Office released documents showing that up to 4,000 people each year have to wait on bail for 12 months or more for a charging decision.                          

The authority of an inspector or above will now be required to grant pre-charge bail up to 28 days – with further extensions requiring higher levels of authority for exceptional circumstances.

But the measures have already been dubbed a ‘paper tiger’ by a leading law firm, which says that in reality an already overstretched police service will encounter additional administrative burdens and paperwork.

PFEW Custody Lead Andy Ward said: “Release without bail will be the default position – unless bail is necessary and proportionate. But one problem is that the Home Office does not spell out what is ‘proportionate’. It will be a massive change in custody culture and be a considerable challenge.”

The 28-day time limit is ‘unrealistic’ for complex investigations, added Mr Ward. “Cyber-crime, for example, requires computers to be seized and equipment to be interrogated to gain evidence. The results for detailed forensic tests also take some time to come back.”

The measures will come at a time when poor morale, staff shortages and high levels of stress and sickness absence have become an increasing problem for the custody world. Fluctuating shift patterns, lack of vital equipment and training gaps have also been identified by the PFEW’s Custody Forum. While three forces – Hampshire, Thames Valley and Staffordshire – recently announced they are rolling out spit guards to officers, several forces have yet to agree to the protective equipment.

The new Act – which received Royal Assent on 31 January – will start taking effect from April with different provisions being rolled out at intervals. The wide-ranging policing reforms include:

  • Placing a new duty on police, fire and rescue, and emergency ambulance services to collaborate (but only in England, not Wales)- also coming into force in April
  • Enabling PCCs to take on responsibility for fire and rescue services; potentially create a single employer so theoretically a fire chief could lead a police force
  • Giving more powers to police staff and volunteers
  • Allowing the Home Secretary to specify police ranks in in regulations, enabling the introduction of a flatter rank structure
  • Restricting the numbers of mentally ill in custody; banning under 18s suffering from mental health crises from being detained in police custody - this will cause its own pressures as police, local authorities and health professionals will need to be able to source alternative places of safety
  • Ensuring that 17-year-olds in custody are treated as children
  • Overhauling police disciplinary and complaints systems; introducing a new ‘struck off’ list; changing current rules preventing resignations and retirement – the Federation and its advisors are still currently working with the Home Office to achieve a satisfactory result in this area
  • Making the PFEW subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) rules