Lord Heseltine highlights plight of former Liverpool mayor left in limbo over criminal charges

Exclusive: Joe Anderson is still unsure of the outcome more than three years after his arrest – as The Independent reveals that tens of thousands of suspects are left waiting more than a year to find out if they will face court

Andy Gregory
Monday 15 April 2024 17:51 BST
Lord Heseltine defends former Liverpool mayor left in limbo over criminal charges

The extraordinary case of a former mayor left in limbo for more than three years to see if he will face criminal charges has been highlighted by Michael Heseltine after The Independent revealed that tens of thousands of people have been placed in similar circumstances.

The former deputy prime minister raised the plight of former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, who was arrested and released under investigation in December 2020 over bribery allegations. Three and a half years later, the inquiry is still ongoing – and he has no idea if he will ever face court to answer the claims.

Lord Heseltine’s intervention comes after The Independent reported that tens of thousands of other people had been left waiting more than a year to find out if they would face charges, with one woman forced to spend seven years in limbo before being able to clear her name.

Mr Anderson was suspended by the Labour Party – and later decided not to stand for re-election – after being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation linked to building deals in Liverpool, meaning he lost his job and his income as a result of the arrest.

Michael Heseltine’s question is the first he has asked in the Lords for over a year (PA)

Asking a question in the Lords for the first time in more than a year, Lord Heseltine said: “The mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, was arrested on various charges, including fraud and bribery.

“That was three years and four months ago. He lost his job, his reputation and his income. No charge has been placed since then.

“I would just like to ask the minister: does he think that’s justice?”

Home office minister Andrew Sharpe said he could not comment on the specifics of the case, but that police were committed to concluding their investigation “as expeditiously as possible”.

Labour peer Tony Woodley added that Mr Anderson’s life and reputation had been “completely and totally destroyed” by the arrest and subsequent investigation, which he called “a disgrace”.

The tool of “release under investigation”, also known as RUI, was introduced by the government in 2017 to allow police to release suspects after their post-arrest interview in a similar process to bail.

But under the controversial measure, no oversight or restrictions are in place to protect alleged victims, with police allowed to keep the investigation open indefinitely – unlike with bail, where extensions beyond nine months must be approved by a magistrate.

Recent figures analysed by The Independent show that, in the year to March 2023, more than 30,000 people were left waiting more than a year to discover whether they would be charged – while only a fifth of all RUIs ended in a criminal charge.

In some instances, suspects and victims have been left in this limbo for years on end. MPs and legal critics describe their uncertainty as “misery”, while those caught up in the system say they would rather be charged than not know what will happen to them.

Krista Brown had allegations hanging over her for seven years (Supplied)

Krista Brown was arrested in 2017 in relation to serious fraud allegations brought by HMRC. She was finally charged in 2020 – but it took another three years for her case to get to court. Although she was acquitted in September last year, she only received documents confirming her innocence this week, finally bringing her seven-year ordeal – during which she suffered a mini-stroke and became suicidal – to a close.

“It’s a big black hole, an abyss that they can just throw people into,” she told The Independent. “There’s no accountability, no audit, no reviews, no response on how long an investigation takes. It’s changed me for ever.”

Ms Brown described the RUI process as “the hardest part of the whole experience”.

“My professional reputation was everything to me. I’d worked so hard for it, and to lose that under a false accusation, it was immense,” said Ms Brown, who founded recruitment company Persona in 2008. “When you’re on RUI there’s absolutely nothing you can do; you’re literally at the mercy of the investigating team.”

She added: “Once my charges actually arrived in 2020, I found it weirdly easier to manage, because you had dates, everything was accountable.”

Branding RUI “fundamentally unjust”, the Tory chair of the justice committee, Sir Bob Neill, told The Independent: “It’s not fair on defendants, because these people are left hanging – you can think of public figures, [as well as] ordinary individuals, who find their life on hold.

“Suppose it’s an allegation of dishonesty, or a sexual allegation... that can affect their work and all manner of things. It’s also unjust to victims and complainants.”

“It’s just human misery,” criminal defence lawyer Stephen Davies added. “During this pre-charge arena, people were losing their jobs, university was on hold, mental health – you name it, I’ve seen every kind of suffering caused by RUI.

Former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson is still waiting to find out if he faces criminal charges after being arrested in December 2020 (Getty)

“The end date is the key bit, because [with bail] it focuses the minds of the police and they have to work towards that date. If you don’t have an end date, as human behaviour would dictate, you just have this limbo.”

RUI was introduced in 2017 as part of the Policing and Crime Bill, when “the pendulum was swinging too far towards draconian bail conditions”, said Mr Davies, who believes the procedure acted as a “pressure valve for austerity”, allowing police to drip-feed new cases into the creaking courts system.

Although the law was reformed in September 2022 to reduce the use of the procedure in favour of pre-charge bail, new Home Office figures show that RUI was still used tens of thousands of times last year.

Figures show that more than 30,000 people involved in the 140,000 cases closed over that period were left waiting more than a year to discover whether or not they would be charged with a crime. Over a quarter of police forces failed to provide data, meaning the true number was likely far higher.

“No further action” was taken against 93,226 people – equating to two-thirds of all cases closed during those 12 months.

Sir Bob added: “It’s very troubling that the police don’t seem to be responding to what was the clear wish of parliament that this should be reined back.”

Following the introduction of RUI, the use of bail quickly plummeted. In 2020, MPs were told that the number of bail cases had dropped from 216,178 in 2017 to 43,923 in the space of a year, contrasting with 193,073 RUI releases.

New reforms were introduced in November 2022 to revert the presumption towards bailing suspects rather than using RUI. But Home Office figures show no drop in the number of RUI cases concluded in the year to 31 March 2023, compared with the 12 months prior.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “It is a priority for this government to deliver justice for victims and to ensure a fast and effective criminal justice system.

“We recognise concerns around the use of Released Under Investigation (RUI) and have introduced reforms to the pre-charge bail system through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to better protect victims. This includes the removal of the presumption against pre-charge bail, which should encourage a move away from RUI.”

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