The human rights group Liberty is calling for a six-month limit on the time people can be kept on police bail, as some suspects arrested in the Metropolitan police’s linked inquiries into alleged bribes and computer hacking approach the second anniversary of being kept under investigation with no charges laid.
The delays in the sprawling investigation have been so long that the Met has conceded that it is concerned about the time taken for a decision to be made on whether or not to charge. In a statement given to the Guardian, the force said it was regrettable that there had been “slow progress in some cases”.
James Welch, legal director of Liberty, said: “Bail is a crucial police tool, but, with no time limit, people’s lives are being put on hold and ruined by onerous bail conditions with no end in sight. A simple six-month statutory backstop would end the uncertainty and anxiety of having possible prosecution hanging over you indefinitely – and encourage prompt, efficient police investigations.”
Forty people, including journalists, public officials and private individuals, are still on police bail after being arrested over the past 24 months by detectives working on Operations Elveden and Tuleta, part of the Met’s £40m investigation into alleged criminality by journalists and others.
None of the 21 people arrested by officers under Operation Tuleta, the investigation into alleged computer hacking by media organisations and others, has been charged. Two individuals have been told no further action is to be taken against them, with 19 people remaining on police bail awaiting further questioning or a decision on whether they will be charged.
A 52-year-old man arrested in Milton Keynes in November 2011 was the first person to be detained by Tuleta detectives and, as he approaches the second anniversary of his arrest, there is no sign of a decision on whether he should be charged, or released without further action.
Sources familiar with the investigations talk of a backlog of information piling up as the individuals concerned return repeatedly to answer their police bail, only to be sent away to return at another date.
Although there is ordinarily a maximum of 24 hours that an arrested person can be questioned without charge, separate sessions of questioning not exceeding a total of 24 hours can be spread out over an unlimited period of time.
In a rare acknowledgement of the criticism levelled against it, a Metropolitan police spokeswoman said: “There is genuine concern on our part about the length of time that some of those arrested have been on bail. We are doing all we can to conclude matters as quickly as possible but it should be appreciated that the delays are the result of the complex nature of these inquiries. There have been millions of emails, documentation, complex comms data and trails of financial transactions that require painstaking analysis as evidence has gradually emerged. However, it is regrettable that there has been slow progress in some cases.”
Twenty-one journalists and public officials arrested by detectives under Operation Elveden, the Met’s inquiry into alleged bribes paid to public officials by journalists, also remain on police bail. Some were first arrested 16 months ago but have still not been charged or released from the ongoing inquiry.
However, some others facing the Elveden investigation have been charged. Last month, for example, nine individuals were charged in relation to alleged illegal payments to public officials.
The Tuleta and Elveden investigations are part of the linked £40m inquiries into phone hacking and other alleged criminality by journalists that developed from work begun in 2011 as the Operation Weeting investigation into alleged phone hacking by former employees of the News of the World. A trial of Rebekah Brooks, the former chief executive of News International and former editor of the Sun and the News of the World, is due to begin at the end of October. Other defendants in that case include her successor as News of the World editor, Andy Coulson.
Up to 185 detectives are working on the investigations and arrests are still being made. Detectives from Operation Elveden arrested their 74th individual last week.
• This article was amended on Monday 30 September 2013. The original headline referred to ‘hacking arrests’. This has been amended