Danny Shaw, Senior Associate
Wednesday 11 May 2022
The Government has set out its legislative programme for the next 12 months in the Queen’s Speech. There are 38 bills or draft bills, eight of which directly affect policing and criminal justice. In the past few weeks, a series of other law and order measures have received Parliamentary approval, some of which have already come into effect. Crest Senior Associate Danny Shaw runs the rule over the main changes…
The Queen’s Speech - written by the Government - is always a mix of proposals from different departments. But this year’s version, delivered for the first time by Prince Charles, suggests that law enforcement and rights reform are the key priorities.
A new Bill of Rights will be introduced, to replace the 1998 Human Rights Act. The aim, according to Ministers, is to ensure there is a “proper balance” between the rights of individuals, national security and effective government. The legislation is likely to curb the right to respect for private and family life in certain cases, such as deportation decisions, and place a greater emphasis on freedom of speech. Passing the Bill will also be crucial for Justice Secretary Dominic Raab if he is to wrestle control from the Parole Board over the release of the most dangerous and high-profile prisoners. Under the current human rights framework his plans are likely to be blocked.
Proposed reform of the parole system is not referenced in the Queen’s Speech though it could well be added to the draft Victims’ Bill. The main purpose of the Bill is to enshrine the Victims’ Code in law. It would also ensure that police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Courts and Tribunal Service are held to account for the service they provide to victims, while Police and Crime Commissioners will have tougher oversight powers. Details of how it will all work are unclear, but our research assessing the needs of victims in London, on behalf of the Mayor’s office, has already demonstrated there are clear gaps in provision.
The protection of victims of human trafficking and exploitation is said to be at the heart of the Modern Slavery Bill. Businesses with a turnover of at least £36 million would be required to set out the steps they’ve taken to prevent modern slavery in their operations and supply chains; and civil orders, designed to prevent slavery and trafficking, would be strengthened and backed up by criminal sanctions. Last year, more than 2,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK who were referred for state support were believed to have been exploited by ‘county lines’ drug gangs, a problem which Crest has conducted ground-breaking research into and continues to investigate.
The Online Safety Bill, which has already been presented to MPs, is being ‘carried over’ into the new session of Parliament. The Government says it will make the UK the “safest place in the world to be online”. There would be a duty of care on Internet companies to tackle illegal content and stop harmful material being viewed by children, with “robust” enforcement powers for the regulator Ofcom.
Crest Head of Research and Policy Joe Caluori has been monitoring its progress. “The Online Safety Bill continues its glacial pace towards becoming law, but as a result of drift and delay it has become a ‘Christmas tree’ bill - with new amendments added to respond to the headline issues of the day,” he says.
“One issue that the Government will have to confront is which technologies are safe to use for children - end-to-end encrypted messaging is a good example,” adds Caluouri. “How will age restriction policies be enforced by tech companies and how will the Regulator hold them accountable?”
Crest has a great interest in this area and is currently working on several technology-related projects, in partnership with police forces, including an exploration of how crime gangs made use of new forms of personal communications to adapt their business models and respond to police tactics.
A National Security Bill, to modernise espionage laws and tackle state-backed sabotage; an Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, to bolster checks against money laundering and corruption; and a draft Protect Duty Bill, requiring certain locations and venues to put security measures in place, will no doubt command broad Parliamentary support. But the flagship Home Office proposed legislation, the Public Order Bill, is likely to prove far more controversial.
Ministers say the Bill - targeted at groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil - will prevent protestors from using “guerilla tactics that cause misery” to the public, “disrupt” businesses and “interfere” with emergency services. There would be a new criminal offence of “locking-on”, to stop demonstrators glueing or attaching themselves to roads or buildings; it would be illegal to obstruct major construction projects or interfere with the operation of airports, railways, power stations and energy plants; police would have new powers to stop and search people for items for protest-related offences; and the courts would be able to impose ASBO-style orders on protestors who repeatedly flout the laws.
The plans were defeated in the House of Lords earlier this year after they had been added to the mammoth Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC). The Government ditched them to help secure passage of the Bill, but there will be further fierce debate now the proposals are being reintroduced. Ministers will come under pressure to clarify how the stop-and-search measures and court orders will operate amid claims that they are too wide-ranging. There are also concerns that giving police extra powers will place them in more situations where they are likely to come into conflict with the public.
If the Public Order Bill goes through, it will mean that police in England and Wales will have a vast new suite of powers to deal with protests. Provisions that did survive in the PCSC Bill - which is now an Act - permit officers to place conditions on demonstrations to stop noise causing “serious disruption” to businesses or organisations nearby. It will also be a crime to “wilfully obstruct a highway”..
In fact, the PCSC Act is the most extensive piece of criminal justice legislation in 20 years. The significance of it is perhaps not fully understood, but should become clearer as the measures are implemented. For example, the Act imposes a legal duty on local authorities, police forces, criminal justice agencies, health organisations and fire and rescue services to work together to reduce serious violence. It’s an issue Crest has been exploring for the past four years.
“The government will be hoping that the new serious violence duty will galvanise agencies across the criminal justice system and beyond, most notably in health and education, to collaborate more effectively in preventing violence in the same way that Tony Blair's Crime and Disorder Act spurred greater partnership to reduce crime and anti-social behaviour,” says Crest Chief Executive Harvey Redgrave.
Other key measures in the PCSC Act include:
Serious Violence Reduction Orders - allowing police to stop and search people convicted of knife offences. Crest is currently conducting research into the use of existing stop-and-search powers, including a survey of public opinion.
New pre-charge bail rules, so suspects can be bailed by police for three months, with further extensions possible, limiting the need for ‘release under investigation’
Homicide reviews following deaths of adults where knives or other weapons have been used
A range of sentencing changes to ensure violent, sexual and dangerous offenders spend longer in prison
Increasing the maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial from three months to 10 years imprisonment
Relaxing the rules around criminal record disclosure to give offenders a better chance of finding employment
A simplified system of out-of-court disposals to ensure they are more effective. We examined this as part of a study into alternatives to prosecution published in January.
Our research into out-of-court disposals followed a study into backlogs in the criminal courts in England and Wales which called for urgent investment. One way the Ministry of Justice has decided to tackle the problem is to extend the sentencing powers of magistrates, so they can impose prison terms of up to 12 months for one offence. The department says it’ll free up to 1,700 days of Crown Court time each year.
Crest Head of Strategy and Insight Callyane Desroches says the change - which came into force this month - should reduce delays for the public and victims of crime: “This new measure is welcome and should be part of a broader approach to support the courts and the criminal justice system at large,” she says.
“In particular, given the rise in serious violence and sexual offence cases, more support should be given to Crown Courts dealing with the most complex crimes.”
Law and order is clearly at the top of the legislative agenda. As the proposals in the Queen’s Speech go through Parliament, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office will be expected to show that the raft of measures in the PCSC Act are making a difference to the beleaguered criminal justice system - delivering on the Government’s promise to “make the streets safer”.