Sex offenders and other serious criminals could escape justice under new curbs on the use of bail, police leaders have warned.
From Monday police will be expected to release offenders from bail within 28 days unless there are serious concerns in a bid to stop them languishing in “legal limbo”.
Paul Gambaccini, the radio presenter and author who spent a year on bail before a case against him over historical sex allegations was dropped, yesterday said he “saluted” the courage of Theresa May in making the change.
But the College of Policing, a professional body that oversees standards, believes the plans are “dangerous” and cited the case of Ian Huntley, who murdered two schoolgirls in Soham after police forces failed to share intelligence on him.
It said: “Offenders could be arrested on multiple occasions across differing force areas and each force would be unaware of the others’ ongoing investigations.”
Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, is pushing ahead with the plans despite the warnings. She said that the changes are justified because it “cannot be right” that some people are left languishing for years on bail.
Ms Rudd said: “Pre-charge bail is a useful and necessary tool but in many cases it is being imposed on people for many months, or even years, without any judicial oversight – and that cannot be right.
“These important reforms will mean fewer people are placed on bail and for shorter periods. They will bring about much needed safeguards – public accountability and independent scrutiny – while ensuring the police can continue to do their vital work.”
Pre-charge bail allows those under investigation to be released from custody, usually under certain conditions, while police continue their inquiries. Estimates indicate that more than 400,000 people are placed on pre-charge bail every year.
However under measures which take effect today suspects will be released unless it is considered “necessary and proportionate” to put them on bail.
Police will only be able to bail suspects for 28 days, with the option of a three-month extension if authorised by the police superintendent. Further extensions have to be authorised by a magistrate.
The Home Office said that the Police National Computer is being updated to ensure that forces can see ongoing investigations, regardless of whether a suspect is bailed.
Andy Ward, deputy general secretary of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said it will mean a “massive change” in custody culture.
He warned that the 28-day limit is unrealistic for complex investigations: “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.”
As I said at the time that the reform was first proposed by Theresa May, I salute her courage and I do so again
The Crown Prosecution Service previously condemned the plans as “wholly inappropriate and unworkable” and warned that suspected offenders could intimidate their victims if released without bail. “As a result, culprits may evade justice,” it said.
However the move has been hailed by campaigners after a series of investigations in which police arrested high-profile figures on suspicion of historic offences only to drop charges months later.
The Metropolitan Police is facing legal action from three people who claim their reputations were tarnished by false sexual abuse allegations.
Mr Gambaccini said: “The knowledge that other people will not have to go through what I did will make my experience more bearable. As I said at the time that the reform was first proposed by Theresa May, I salute her courage and I do so again.
"As my husband Christopher said to me when this first came up, if we can get bail reform out of this it will mean it was worth it. There isn't much that would make this worth it, but bail reform would."
The former MP Harvey Proctor was arrested over allegations of child abuse and murder under Scotland Yard's £3million Operation Midland. He strenuously denied the accusations which were later dropped.
He said: "I welcome these curbs on police bail powers. The Government should now go further and look at anonymity before charge. Otherwise people end up living under the cloud of suspicion for a long, long time on the basis of unsubstantiated nonsense."
David Tucker, crime lead at the College of Policing, said: "The new legislation is a significant change for policing and has sought to strike a balance between the need for police to manage investigations and not leaving a person suspected of a crime on bail for an unacceptably long period."
A CPS spokesman said: "We are aware of the change to police bail and will continue to work with forces across the country to ensure its effective implementation."