14 August 2023
Detective Inspector Ben Hudson
On 30 August last year, the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW) launched an ambitious campaign – #SimplifyDG6 – to give voice to thousands of officers in England and Wales facing arduous workloads due to the unnecessary bureaucratic burden of redacting case files at the pre-charge stage. The campaign asks the Government for one innovative solution to a large-scale problem: Amend the Data Protection Act 2018 to enable police forces in England and Wales to safely share data with prosecutors at the pre-charge stage without excessive obligation to redact evidence.
Within 12 minutes of the campaign’s launch, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) reached out to PFEW’s National Detectives’ Forum (PFNDF) expressing support. Within a month, the NPCC had collaborated with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to issue amendments to the Joint Principles of Redaction and offered PFNDF a seat on the National Disclosure Improvement Board.
In a joint letter on 6 October 2022, Tim De Meyer, Assistant Chief Constable and NPCC Lead for Disclosure, and Greg McGill, Director of Legal Services of CPS urged all chief constables and chief crown prosecutors of England and Wales to apply the revised guidance and said: “We are confident that this guidance, applied correctly, will reduce the redaction burden whilst also complying with the legal framework”. The revised principles, supported by legal advice from a KC specialising in information law, are legally robust and endorsed by the co-chairs of the Joint Operational Improvement Board.
However, although the revised principles are a step in the right direction, as they offer nationally agreed guidance on disclosure procedure, they do not mitigate the impact of case file building on policing and justice delivery. Furthermore, they fail to address the very real and valid concerns of police officers regarding gratuitous obligations to review and redact material before submitting case files at the pre-charge stage to the CPS.
Sustained efforts by PFEW have found two strong allies in the Parliament, Jane Hunt, MP for Loughborough, and Peter Aldous, MP for Waveney, who aptly understand the hardships of thousands of police officers and their calling on the Government to amend the data protection law to strengthen and expedite justice delivery.
They have proactively corresponded with the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure and the Attorney General and submitted evidence in favour of the amendment to the data protection law.
Earlier in May this year, police officers saw a glimmer of hope when Jane Hunt MP tabled an amendment to the Data Protection and Data Information (No. 2) Bill with Peter Aldous MP as sponsor. The amendment to the Bill seeks to adjust provisions of the Data Protection Act 2018 to exempt the police service and CPS from certain data protection principles so that they can safely share unredacted data with one another when making charging decisions.
The amendment would result in cutting thousands of hours from police officer workloads and save valuable resources where we have officers spending incredulous amounts of time meticulously reviewing and redacting material, even before the CPS makes a charging decision, thereby allowing them to focus on other policing priorities and being visible within their communities. It remains before the Parliament and awaits the Government’s full support.
This is despite the ministers and the Leader of the House assuring the MPs on the floor of the Parliament that the Government is very much aware of the inordinate amount of time officers spend in redacting case files at the pre-charge stage taking them away from frontline policing.
Recently, in his first assessment of policing in England and Wales after being appointed as His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary on 1 April 2022, Andy Cooke QPM DL observed: “It has become significantly more time-consuming to prepare a case file for court. This is because the guidance places greater requirements on the police to produce material at an early stage, rather than when the case is already in the court system.” The State of Policing report noted that “one force told us that, on average, an additional seven hours are needed to build each case file. Based on their average CPS monthly submission rate of 180 case files, this equates to an additional 1,260 hours per month in that force alone.”
The Opposition has also called for addressing the crisis emanating from the shortage of detectives in police forces. However, this one amendment to the data protection law will lead to optimum utilisation of the current police workforce without the service having to resort to radical measures such as turning to the private sector to directly recruit detectives.
It is heartening to see lawmakers across party lines agree there is an urgent need to reform the data protection law to help police officers utilise their time and resources more efficiently and effectively.
The public expects the police to provide the professional world-class service they deserve and undoubtedly police officers go to great lengths, putting their lives on the line of duty, in protecting the communities they serve.
The Government tells us that it supports the amendment, but these words have been given in the absence of visible and timebound action. The principles of consensual policing on which our police service rests, demands a steadfast political will of the Government of the day in supporting and providing police officers with the right resources and environment to keep the public safe and uphold the law.
Unnecessary and problematic red tape must be cut when addressing matters of public safety, and both police officers and the public await the Government to exhibit its commitment by endorsing the amendment to the Bill and see it through the due legislative process when the Parliament resumes business on 4 September after the Summer Recess.
(The writer is the Chair of the Police Federation National Detectives’ Forum and Secretary of the Suffolk Police Federation.)