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October 15, 2014

Theresa May promises action to curb RIPA spying on journalists and extended periods on police bail

By Press Gazette

Home Secretary Theresa May is expected to announce a review today of whether to introduce a statutory time limit on how long people can be kept on police bail as well as action to curb police spying on journalists' phone records.

In recent years at least 63 journalists have been arrested as a result of investigations stemming form the hacking scandal. Some have spent years with the careers in limbo whilst on police bail.

For some, the gap between arrest and trial is looking at being around three years.

May will talk about the matter in a speech at the College of Policing annual conference today, along with the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – which has been used by police to monitor the phone records of law-abiding journalists.

She is expected to say: "I am pleased that the college is developing evidence based guidance to bring consistency, transparency and rigour to the way in which pre-charge bail is used in criminal investigations.

"You have consulted on the operational guidance and will publish your findings shortly.

"But in parallel we must also look at statutory time limits on the use of pre-charge bail to prevent people spending months or even years on bail only for no charges to be brought."

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Human rights group Liberty has called for a six-month statutory limit on pre-charge bail, describing it as the "only effective way of ensuring diligent and efficient police investigations and justice for victims and suspects".

The Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign over police use of RIPA to spy on journalists and their sources has sparked widespread calls for urgent reform of the law, which dates back to 2000 and allows officers to request call data from phone companies without a judge's approval.

On the subject of RIPA, May is expected to say: "I am clear that where the police hold sensitive powers, they must be used appropriately.

"This also goes to the heart of my reforms to Stop and Search, and I am delighted that all 43 forces have signed up to the Best Use scheme which was launched in August. And it is why we are conducting a review of the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

"I am already aware that there have been concerns over the use of RIPA to access journalists' phone records and that is why we are revising the relevant code to make clear that specific consideration must be given to communications data requests involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists.

"This code will be published in draft this autumn and will be subject to a full public consultation so that anyone with concerns can feed in their views."

Home Office guidance currently states that the revised code could still allow police forces to sign off RIPA requests internally.

Press Gazette and others are pushing for all police requests for journalistic material to require the sign-off of a judge.

Vera Baird, Northumbria police and crime commissioner and former solicitor general, backed the idea of setting bail time limits.

"It just can go on endlessly," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Acpo tried to put guidelines on it, but those did not seem to work because there is a massive variation between police forces about how it is used.

"I would have thought that six months is a reasonable period. Usually forensics are supposed to be back within four weeks.

"Of course, lots of computers needing searching takes longer.

"There is nothing to stop the police releasing people without bail to come back in due course, or indeed to delay arresting in some cases so the whole time clock is not running."

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