HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc777-80

`In the Criminal Justice Act 1967

  1. (a) in section 60 (release of persons serving determinate sentences)—
    1. (i) in subsection (1), for the words "twelve months thereof' there shall be substituted the words "the specified period"; and
    2. (ii) the following subsections shall be inserted after that subsection—
      1. "(1A) In subsection (1) of this section "the specified period" means twelve months or such period, not more than twelve months, as the Secretary of State may by order provide.
      2. (1B) An order under subsection (1A) of this section may make such incidental or supplementary provision amending enactments) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate."; and
  2. (b) the following subsection shall be inserted after section 100(2)—
    1. "(2A) An order shall not be made under section 60(1A) of this Act unless a draft of the order has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.".'.—[Mr. Mayhew.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mayhew

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

In moving the new clause, I am giving effect to an undertaking that I gave in Committee as a result of which the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) was persuaded to withdraw a new clause of his own. That clause was aimed at reducing the minimum qualifying period for parole from one year, as at present, to six months.

The Government could not accept that proposal as it stood, but we are in sympathy with its objectives. The Government are not opposed to the idea of extending the benefits of parole to shorter-sentence prisoners by reducing the minimum period they have to serve before qualifying, but we must recognise that there are considerable practical difficulties in the way of doing so. Parole is a selection process—it is important to emphasise that—based on a careful assessment of the balance of benefit and risk—benefit to the prisoner and risk to the community. Therefore, selection takes time.

Successive Administrations, in considering this problem, have found themselves inhibited by the exigencies of the reporting and selection process from recommending to Parliament a reduction in the period that must be available for a proper assessment to be made of a prisoner's suitability for parole. We recognised in the "Review of Parole" published last year that the fact that parole was not available for prisoners serving shorter sentences created anomalies. There is an impressive body of opinion in favour of some reduction in the minimum qualifying period for parole.

We accept that it would be wrong to regard the 12-month minimum fixed in the 1967 Act as absolute. Any minimum is bound to be arbitrary. The lower it can be made the wider the benefits of parole can be made available. Therefore, we think it right that the legislation regulating the parole scheme should incorporate flexibility. The new clause will achieve that. It will enable the qualifying period to be reduced below—but not raised above—the present 12 month minimum. It would enable the benefits of parole to be extended to prisoners serving sentences of less than 18 months, because the 12-month minimum is the 12 months spent in custody.

I have to emphasise that we are proposing this power in advance of carrying out the study that will be necessary before any reduction in the minimum qualifying period can be introduced. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has decided to undertake a further detailed investigation to see whether this is feasible. It is important that the success of the parole scheme should not be put at risk by significantly reducing the characteristic of selectivity that is so central to the system. We shall have to consider carefully, therefore, the implications of reducing the minimum qualifying period for the principle of selectivity. The process of parole review naturally requires resources. In considering the minimum qualifying period we shall accordingly also have to consider carefully the resource implications.

I obviously cannot predict what conclusion our investigation will reach, but another opportunity to amend the 1967 Act to enable the minimum qualifying period to be reduced may not present itself for some time. As we believe that flexibility is desirable, we have accordingly decided to seek a power to reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole by statutory instrument, subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament. As I said in Committee we cannot enter into any commitment to exercise the proposed power. The power will make it possible, in advance of any opportunity that main legislation is likely to afford to reduce the minimum qualifying period if our investigation points to the conclusion that this is practicable. The proposed power will enable this to be done, with the approval of Parliament, without having to wait for another opportunity for primary legislation.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The new clause will enable the Government to reduce, by order, the minimum period that has to be served before an offender can qualify or be considered for parole. As the Minister pointed out, it is a fulfilment of an assurance that he gave me in Committee, when he was responding to clauses tabled on behalf of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group. The clauses that were then tabled by the group would have reduced the minimum period of parole eligibility from the present 12 months to six months and would, on our estimates, have reduced the prison population by about 2,000, not a negligible amount, given the chronic and persistent overcrowding in the prison system. It would be a significant reduction without threat to the safety and security of the public.

The Minister has fulfilled part of his assurance by tabling this clause. He also undertook to carry out a review to see whether some practicable way could be found of reducing the minimum threshold of eligibility for parole. I acknowledge that he gave no commitment in Committee to exercise the power to be conferred by the new clause, and he has reiterated that point today. The Minister has emphasised that although the power has now been taken by the Government he will not give any commitment as to when or how it will be implemented.

I hope that the review, which the hon. and learned Gentleman again referred to, will be carried out speedily. I am confident, particularly in view of the support for the proposal from the Parole Board and from the outgoing chairman, Lord Harris, that the result will be that a reduction in the threshold is found to be a reasonably practicable and sensible proposition.

For the moment, although I want the Minister to exercise the power, I wish the review to be conducted speedily and effectively and for it to come to the conclusion that we all hope and believe that it will. I welcome the new clause. It is a step in the right direction.

5.15 pm
Mr. Arthur Davidson

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk), I welcome the new clause. In Committee the Minister said that the Government would take powers to enable parole to be available for short-term prisoners. He has been as good as his word in that respect. However, he will not be surprised when I say that I hope that it will not be long before he can activate the powers that he has given the Government and the Home Secretary.

The case for making parole available for those serving sentences of only 18 months is strong and overwhelming. I hope that the House will forgive me if I quote the over-quoted remarks of Lord Justice Waller at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders annual general meeting in 1980: The injustice is best illustrated by this example. Two men are convicted of a serious crime. They are of previous good character. One is the ringleader who gets three years, the other taking a relatively minor part gets 18 months. The ringleader gets parole and they are both released on the same day. It must appear unjust to the minor party. There is no parole available for him though, of course, if there were he would be extremely eligible. The case for making parole available to those serving prison sentences shorter than 18 months is overwhelming on the ground of natural justice and the grounds put forward by my hon. Friend—that it would result in a considerable reduction in the prison population and therefore a considerable lessening of the overcrowding of the prison system. I am grateful to the Minister for going as far as he has. I hope that he will not reply by saying "Well, you didn't even go that far."

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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