Thank you for contacting me about the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
I understand you have concerns regarding my support for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. As you will be aware, the Bill contains a large number of measures with the central aim of cutting crime and building safe communities.
At the last election, I was elected on a manifesto to restore confidence in the criminal justice system and this Bill delivers that pledge made to my constituents.
This Bill seeks to equip the police with the powers and tools they need to protect themselves and the public, while overhauling sentencing laws to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer, and placing greater emphasis on rehabilitation to better help offenders to turn their lives around and prevent further crimes.
I welcome the fact that this legislation builds on the work already underway across Government to deliver a smarter, fairer justice system as the UK builds back safer from the Coronavirus pandemic. I am particularly encouraged by the hundreds of millions being invested in our court system to deliver speedier justice and reduce delays. It is also vital that victims receive the support they need and deserve, and Ministers are investing unprecedented funding for victims support services. The funding package for the police and the recruitment of 20,000 police officers alongside the £4 billion investment in extra prison places will ensure these reforms and successful.
Freedom of assembly and freedom of expression are vital rights that I wholeheartedly support, and I can reassure you that the Government is clear that the right of an individual to express their opinion and protest is a cornerstone to our democratic society.
The issue at hand relates to the balance between the rights of a protestor and the rights of individuals to go about their daily business. There have been examples where protests have caused unjustifiable disruption and distress to other citizens. For example, some of the scenes we saw from the Extinction Rebellion protests, where ambulances were stopped from reaching hospitals and efforts to prevent the printing of newspapers, were deeply troubling and concerning.
Therefore, the measures in the Bill are not about stopping or clamping down on right to protest but ensuring the police can better manage highly disruptive protests and maintain the balance I have outlined.
You are right to ask how protesters’ rights will be protected. It is the case that when using these powers, or existing public order powers, the police must act within the law. Importantly, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate. It is also clear that the police must act compatibly with human rights, in particular Article 10 (freedom of expression) and Article 11 (freedom of association).
I am aware that much has been said regarding the proposed public nuisance offence. As you may be aware, Clause 59 gives effect to recommendations made by the Law Commission in their July 2015 Report on 'Simplification of the Criminal Law: Public Nuisance and Outraging Public Decency'. The report stated that the common law offence of public nuisance should be replaced by a statutory offence covering any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public or obstructs them in the exercise of their rights. You can find the Law Commission report on this issue at the following link - https://s3-eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/lawcom-prod-storage-11jsxou24uy7q/up….
Importantly, the new statutory offence of public nuisance will cover the same conduct as the existing common law offence of public nuisance.
The setting up of illegal traveller sites can be a nuisance for local communities and an inappropriate development of open space. I know that many local residents across the country are concerned about anti-social behaviour, fly-tipping, and noise related to unauthorised sites.
After two consultations on this issue, I welcome the fact that as part of the landmark Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, new laws will be introduced to increase the powers available to the police in England and Wales. The Bill will introduce a new criminal offence where a person resides or intends to reside on any public or private land without permission and has caused, or is likely to cause, significant harm, obstruction, or harassment or distress. In addition, the Bill amends the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to broaden the list of harms that can be considered by the police when directing people away from land; and increase the period in which persons directed away from land must not return from three months to 12 months. Amendments to the 1994 Act will in addition allow police to direct trespassers away from land that forms part of a highway.
I can reassure you that the Government has taken steps to ensure that those exercising their rights to enjoy the countryside are not inadvertently impacted by these measures.
I believe these new measures are a proportionate and necessary increase in powers for the police. The Government has made it clear that only a minority of travellers are causing problems, such as through abusive behaviour and extensive litter and waste at illegal sites. The vast majority of the travelling community are decent law-abiding people and we must ensure that there are legal sites available for travellers. I welcome the fact that as of January 2020, the number of lawful traveller sites increased by 41 per cent from January 2010. The Government has also given £200,000 to support projects working with Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities to tackle discrimination, improve integration, healthcare and education.
I am confident that Government action will help to reduce the number of illegal caravan sites across the country, while respecting people’s right to a nomadic way of life.
Domestic Abuse (Time Limits)
I recognise the clear and terrible effects of Domestic Abuse and I welcome the fact that the Government has committed unprecedented amounts of funding to supporting victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence during the pandemic and beyond.
I should say straightaway that the Government has not ruled out an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and has emphasised the importance of looking into this issue.
Ministers have been very clear that all allegations must be investigated fully and pursued through the courts whenever possible.
On the specific point you raise regarding time limits for prosecution, in England and Wales there is no time limit for starting a prosecution for indictable offences, these are offences that can be tried in the Crown Court. However, a prosecution for a summary offence, those which can only be tried in a magistrates’ court, must begin within six months of the day when the offence was committed, unless there is specific statutory provision for a different time limit.
I understand there are two opposing considerations to balance, on the one hand the need for justice to be done; and on the other hand, the right of suspects to finality and certainty.
As you may be aware, in 2020 the Ministry of Justice considered whether the six-month time limit should be extended as regards summary offences related to domestic abuse. At the time, Ministers concluded that extending the limit, or removing it completely, would be limited in its benefit, as common assault, the least serious of a range of offences against the person, covering acts such as a push or shove that does not lead to injury, is the only offence likely to be relevant in this context that is affected by the limit.
It is worth noting that the other assault offences are not summary offences and there is no time limit for prosecuting them. It is also the case that there is not a time limit for prosecuting the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour, which the Domestic Abuse Act extends to post-separation abuse.
I hope this response reassures you that the Government is taking action to ensure justice is done in cases of Domestic Abuse.
On the Bill overall, I am confident that the measures it contains are necessary and proportionate. It is important to remember that the Bill is about tougher sentences for the most serious offenders, better protection for the police and a greater focus on ensuring offenders can turn their lives around and rehabilitate back into society.
I appreciate you may not agree with my views on this; however, I hope this response has outlined why I believe this a fair and balanced approach to the criminal justice system.
Thank you again for contacting me.
Craig Whittaker MP