Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance
The last two years has seen a major shift in the way public sector organisations deliver services. Forced upon them as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, changes to working arrangements were necessary if not always welcomed. Some services have found the change easy, have adapted and continued to improve and in most cases will maintain new working arrangements, regardless of the ongoing existence of Covid-19. However, this is not the case for all.
One key area for local government affected by new working arrangements involves investigations, whether for enforcement activity for trading standards or environmental concerns, or actively investigating criminal or civil allegations, how work was carried out was severely impacted. The immediate impact of the pandemic and accompanying restrictions put an end to visiting premises, be it commercial or residential, stalled evidence gathering activity and in particular, halted the process of carrying out interviews with suspects and witnesses. Staff began working remotely and had a period of uncertainty, would their technology work, will they have access to systems and files, how will they progress their cases, what would any time delays mean? These were all questions that arose and were discussed by the relevant networking groups and thought leaders.
IT moved at pace and digital transformation programmes planned for the long term were delivered swiftly, system access was no longer an issue, new working practices were devised and work arounds established for many activities, including the ability to meet with members of the public, albeit remotely in many instances. The boom in virtual meeting applications and software created opportunity to stay connected with our colleagues, but also created a conduit for delivering aspects of work we previously wouldn’t have considered possible. One of these being the facilitation of interviews under caution outside of the normal PACE compliant workspace.
These interviews are conducted under strict legislation to establish a balance between the powers of the police in England and Wales and the rights and freedoms of the public. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) is an Act of Parliament which instituted a legislative framework for the powers of police officers in England and Wales to combat crime, and provided codes of practice for the exercise of those powers. This has been adopted by local and central government in ensuring their own investigative work is to the same standards during the collection of evidence and carrying out of interviews under caution, and has even led to the creation of PACE compliant interview space within work premises other than Police stations.
To ensure the legislation and codes of practice were relevant for new working arrangements, organisations such as the National Police Chiefs Council, Crown Prosecution Service, Law Society, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association worked together on creating a Joint Interim Interview Protocol. The guidance was intended to assist investigators and prosecutors in deciding whether detainees should be interviewed as part of an investigation during the Covid-19 pandemic and provided a view that it was fair, reasonable and proportionate to make remote interviews available to those who have the benefit of legal advice and who, having been fully informed and advised, consented. This enabled the rights and interests of detained persons to be protected during the unprecedented circumstances of the Coronavirus crisis and for investigations to progress in a timely manner. Some local authorities have adopted this guidance and applied it to the delivery of interviews under caution for suspects, carrying out remote interviews wherever possible. However, the guidance was only ever intended for use during the period of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although not all would agree, most of us now experience a sense of normality when we are out in public. The wearing of masks, the limit to numbers of us allowed in shops, the keeping of a two metre gap when queuing, these are all things that have disappeared. Some of us have even started to shake hands again, to embrace, to socialise, but does this mean everything is back to normal? How many of us are still working from home? How many organisations have downsized or repurposed their work premises, maybe even selling it off. Are things really getting back to normal and will things ever be the same as they were in 2019? I don’t think so, but how do we plan for the future?
The Joint Interim Interview Protocol has always made it clear that changes to PACE compliant interviews were temporary, so it is expected that any organisation carrying out these interviews will one day return to doing so in PACE complaint premises, not remotely. So are you prepared? We cannot be certain when the next review is, or if it will expect the immediate cessation of remote interviews. Organisation will be expected to adopt the same approach as the Police as they have in the past, but some have queried whether or not the arrangements can continue, in fact, some are relying on it to do so as they no longer have alternative arrangements in place.
One thing we do know is that preparation is key to continuity.
There are questions that need answers and answers that need exploring. What will the future hold for remote working and interviews under caution?
Mark McAuley, CIPFA Senior Fraud Consultant