HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc790-810

`In section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, after subsection (1) there shall be inserted the following subsection—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Dr. Summerskill

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

The reason for introducing this clause, tabled by myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), was that we felt that it was time for the House to discuss the giving of reasons for refusal of parole to prisoners. It is a current topic of discussion outside the House, but it is not often discussed in the Chamber. It was not discussed in Committee. We are led to believe that one of the main grievances among prisoners is that they have first to wait for the result of whether they have been granted parole, and, having been told the result, if it is negative they never know why. That is rightly felt by prisoners to be unjust.

The primary reason for secrecy surrounding the administrative decision about parole, as far as I can see, is that it would be difficult to formulate the reasons clearly and succinctly to the benefit of the prisoner. After all, it is his or her individual liberty and life that is at stake. Disquiet and resentment is caused among prisoners when they are not told. They even invent their own reasons, which can be even worse than being told the real reasons. The present system is open to accusations of favouritism, victimisation and corruption, all of which are created by the fact that prisoners are never told why decisions are made concerning their liberty or lack of it.

A positive reason for giving a prisoner reasons is that he and his family would then, we hope, try to put right what was wrong. It would also enable probation and prison officers, who are in contact with offenders, working both inside and outside prisons, to assist in this process. If none of them knows the reasons for refusal of parole, they cannot even start to put right what was wrong.

There are precedents for giving reasons in various parts of the criminal justice system. For instance, if bail is refused the court must give reasons. That may be difficult, but they must do it. Under clause 1(7) reasons must be given if a custodial sentence is imposed. However, the most persuasive precedent before us is the mental health review tribunals where a panel of about five people discuss the release of people from a different kind of custody. They normally give reasons and that must be extremely difficult—harder, I would have thought, than giving reasons for someone's release from prison.

I know that the Home Office and the Parole Board have been looking at this matter for some time. In an experiment, the Parole Board was asked to give reasons—I think, to prisoners. No doubt, the Minister will tell us of that in his reply. We are led to believe that the Parole Board found difficulties in putting succinctly the reasons for not giving parole. It implied that if the prisoner were told the reasons it could lead to court cases or allegations and to prisoners refuting what has been said in the report. However, I am not asking here for an appeal system for prisoners. I am not asking that prisoners should give evidence to the Parole Board.

6 pm

Mr. Rees-Davies

The hon. Lady must recognise that parole is discretionary. Once reasons are given, the prisoner is bound to try to challenge, with the assistance of his friends and relatives, those reasons. To challenge them, he will try to give evidence. If he can bring a court case, he will. If he goes to his Member of Parliament and says that what has been said is untrue, it could lead to immensely long inquiries. Surely the hon. Lady recognises that part of the reason for the discretion is that in very serious cases the length of sentence intended alone may count. Therefore, there are many reasons for the present position.

Dr. Summerskill

I cannot see much difference between the reasons given by a mental health tribunal and the facts revealed in the psychiatric and probation reports that are laid before the courts. Personal matters are revealed. There is not much difference between the type of information given by mental health review tribunals, which the person is allowed to know about, and the type of information produced by the Parole Board when considering a case.

I sat in on a Parole Board session. Some of the members consider an individual case. The members give their conclusions briefly to all the other members round the table. In the session that I attended, they summed up their reasons for refusal very comprehensively, without talking for hours and hours. They managed to do it in a few sentences. They had probably spent hours going through the reports on that case, but their final conclusions were summarised fairly briefly. Therefore, the practical difficulties that we are told exist could be overcome. Some form of short summary could be given to the prisoner. The new clause does not ask that the prisoner should be able to give evidence to the Parole Board or that he should be able to take up all the points in the refusal and so on. It simply asks that the prisoner, his family and the probation and prison officers should be able to know the reasons so that they can try to put things right.

Mr. Lawrence

If a man was looking forward to his release on the understanding that he would return to live with his wife and family, how would the hon. Lady tell him that she knew more about the situation than he did, because he had been in custody? How could that man be told that his wife no longer wanted him back, whatever she may have pretended to him when she visited him? How could he be told that she was living with another man and that even if the prisoner returned, the household would be quite unsatisfactory and he would be so frustrated that he might well be driven into resuming his anti-social behaviour? How can that be explained to a man in such a situation?

Dr. Summerskill

That man will eventually have to face that disastrous set of circumstances when he is released. According to the hon. and learned Gentleman, we should keep him permanently imprisoned because his wife has gone to live with another man. According to him, we should not allow him to face that predicament. However, he will have to face it some time. A domestic situation alone is an insufficient reason for keeping someone in custody. Therefore, that is not a very good example and does not justify failing to give the reasons for refusal of parole.

Miss Jo Richardson (Barking)

Does not my hon. Friend agree that the wife will also have been living out a lie and that she must also face that? The sooner the husband and wife get together out of the confines of prison visiting, the sooner the situation can be resolved.

Dr. Summerskill

The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has certainly not given us a good reason for not telling someone why he was refused parole. I hope that the Minister wall produce a better example. I also hope that he will explain the problems apparently faced by the Parole Board when it tried, in the experiment, to explain to prisoners the reasons for refusal. Why did the Minister decide to retain the present system? I hope that he will not say—as he often does—that the Labour Government did not do anything. That is one of his usual arguments.

This difficult problem causes increasing concern and dissatisfaction not only to prisoners, but to prison officers. With the present overcrowding, our prisons have enough problems and it would help to consider how we might alleviate that additinal burden. After all, it involves everyone in the prison system. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will explain the position.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

I rise briefly to express my appreciation of the way in which the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) moved the clause. Regretfully, I am unable to support it. I say that, because I recognise the truth of what she said. The failure to give reasons may cause resentment to some prisoners. Of course we wish to avoid that. However, I am not sure that giving reasons would not occasion even more resentment.

The Parole Board must seek its information from all sorts of sources. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) said, information will be sought from the family, from the home and from those who have custody of the prisoner. However succinctly those reasons were put and even if the sources of information were concealed as far as possible, resentment would arise. As a result, we should institutionalise something that, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) said, is discretionary. Parole is discretionary and is not given as of right. There is a great distinction between giving parole and the cases with which the hon. Member for Halifax sought to draw an analogy. She drew an analogy with bail, but unless there is good reason for not giving bail, the House has rightly said that a man is entitled to the freedom that he enjoys as a citizen. She also drew an analogy with mental health review tribunals. Before entering the House, I had the honour to serve for a number of years on a mental health review tribunal in the Sheffield region. It was one of the duties that was incompatible with the list in the House of Commons Disqualification Act and so, on entering the House, I relinquished it. However, in that case, unless a person is mentally sick, he is entitled to his freedom. That is a different matter from parole. Those who are sent to prison are not entitled to their freedom. They have no entitlement until they have served their sentences.

If we were to institutionalise a privilege or a discretionary matter because the Parole Board thought that it was safe and reasonable to put someone at liberty long before the expiry of his sentence and his normal release date—having earned his one-third remission—the next demand would be for some sort of appellate process. The prisoner will say "I am not satisfied with this. I want to appeal." There will then be a demand for an appeal from the Parole Board. That would cut at the roots of the whole concept of parole, which is discretionary. It is to give men the chance of enjoying liberty and showing that they can be honest citizens, notwithstanding that the court which tried them determined the length of sentences commensurate with their records, backgrounds and the gravity of the offence.

Dr. Summerskill

I carefully stated that I am not asking for an appellate procedure. Would not the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that there could be a case for giving reasons for refusing parole and leaving it at that? By being given reasons the prisoner can try to right what is wrong.

Mr. Grieve

Perhaps I did not make myself clear as to the objections that I saw to the hon. Lady's new clause. The first clear objection is that I believe that the giving of reasons would in the end cause more resentment and ill-feeling than the failure to give reasons, and with the Parole Board saying, as it does now "We are very sorry, the time is not yet right."

The second point is that if we were to say that the Parole Board should give its reasons, having regard to the resentment to which I believe such reasons would give rise, I believe that in the majority of cases where parole was refused—because people would be very loth to accept and face up to the reasons—we would be faced with a demand for some sort of appellate procedure. If there was not that, there would be letters to Members of Parliament. The long-term effect would be a tendency to institutionalise something that ought not to be institutionalised. It is for those reasons that I could not support the hon. Lady's new clause, much though I respect the way in which she moved it.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I have never understood the real difficulty about giving reasons for the refusal of parole. I recollect that when Lord Harris, who is now chairman of the Parole Board, was a junior Minister at the Home Office, he was in favour of giving reasons. He changed his mind only when he became chairman. I recollect also that I once had to exercise the power of the Home Secretary in his discretion in relation to immigration cases. I handed that over for a week to Lord Harris and when I returned he said that it was like playing God. Indeed it is, because there is absolute discretion. The discretion is exercised by the Minister. At least the Minister has to write and explain why he has exercised the discretion. Being chairman of the Parole Board one plays God and does not explain to anybody.

One of the difficulties of the present system is that nobody outside the Parole Board knows why parole has been refused. I do not believe that it would be necessary to have an appeal system but it is a necessary check upon the exercise of the Parole Board's discretion that it should give reasons for its decision.

I do not accept the main argument that Lord Harris has put forward previously as to why the Parole Board cannot give reasons. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) suggested that there might be something in the prisoner's domestic circumstances which he would not like to be told. That should never be taken into account in deciding whether or not to give parole. The existence of domestic circumstances that the man would not like should not be a reason for keeping him in prison. He may well commit another offence if he returns home and finds that his wife is living with another man. He should be warned of the position before he returns and he should have the opportunity of talking to his wife about it before he is released. It should be explained to him that if he commits another offence he will be inside again. That is not a reason for refusing parole, and the fact that Lord Harris uses that argument so frequently suggests that it is used in refusing parole. It is a very significant factor in his approach to the problem.

6.15 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Is it not most disturbing that many prisoners begin to wonder whether something like that is happening to them when they are refused parole?

Mr. Lyon

I think that my hon. Friend is right. I have known prisoners who began to suspect that when they were refused parole. It is a wrong premise from which to argue the case, because it should never be taken into account as a reason for refusing parole. That goes to the root of why we need reasons. It is not only that the prisoner should have reasons. Society should know that the job is being done properly. There is no way we can know that because we do not know how the job is being done. The most we can do is say that we have appointed somebody great and good to the job and therefore we must trust them. It would be a great help to know what reasons there are for refusing parole.

Lord Harris also argued against giving reasons because, he said, it would involve a considerable amount of paperwork which would increase the cost of the system and require more staff. For the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) gave I cannot see why. I have never been in a Parole Board meeting, but I am certain from the nature of the proceedings that by the time the decision is made the reasons are clear and can be stated in a few sentences. Lord Harris said that on occasions different members of the board have different reasons. One could give two or three reasons which would only take three or four sentences. That is the most anyone asks. One does not ask for a six-page statement of the arguments, but simply brief reasons as to why it is not possible to release the prisoner on that occasion.

Another argument that is sometimes used is that the reason he has not been released has nothing to do with his conduct in prison. It concerns the gravity of the offence and the extent to which it excited public emotion when he was convicted, leading the Parole Board to the view that it might discredit the whole system if he were released. He will therefore be kept in custody. That is also an unacceptable reason for refusing parole. There might be a greater division of opinion among hon. Members on that point, but my feeling is strongly that public perception of the offence is not a ground for refusing parole to a man who on every other consideration has proved that he is capable of returning and not being a danger to society. If that is not the case, he should not be given parole. If it is the case, the fact that his offence excited a good deal of public emotion, which has not been forgotten, should not be a reason for refusing parole. He should have lived down his conviction and he should be released.

For those reasons, therefore, I believe that the new clause is justified. I set in support of it the considerable anxiety that this issue has caused among prisoners throughout the country in many different circumstances. There is no doubt that when a prisoner who has worked hard in prison, has a clean sheet and believes that he is entitled to parole, is refused parole it is a very testing time both for him and for the prison authorities. A great strain is placed on the prison authorities in that he must then be nursed through the feeling of rejection when he and his family had built up hopes of parole.

It is not right that a prisoner should have to go through that without the reasons being explained to him. If the reasons are explained, he can decide that if he did not do things properly on the last occasion he can work towards eliminating the problems on the next occasion. Alternatively, if the reason given seems to him unjustified by the facts, he can put the matter to the Parole Board. If the Parole Board has got it wrong, which I doubt very much on a question of fact, he is entitled to put his case to it for consideration in due course.

That seems a perfectly sensible system. I strongly suspect that if the amendment were passed tonight because the Government supporters did not arrive in time for the Division, within two or three years we should wonder why we never gave reasons from the beginning. Indeed, I greatly regret that when I was on the Committee when parole was introduced in 1967 we did not apply our minds to this aspect then, as it would have been highly desirable and would have considerably improved the working of the system.

Mr. Lawrence

I oppose the new clause, although I understand that it has been tabled for the best possible reasons. If hon. Members had bothered to read my speeches, they would know that I do not like the parole system at all. I should much prefer a points system whereby people could work their way out of prison and none of these problems would arise.

Given the existing system, however, I shall explain my reasons for opposing the new clause. I shall not repeat the intervention that the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) was courteous enough to allow me—I did not thank her sufficiently at the time, but I think that her response to it was thoroughly unrealistic. As I recall it, she said, in effect, that the domestic problems must be faced sooner or later in any event.

That is surely a misunderstanding of what parole is. It is not a device whereby a person is entitled actually to suffer only one-third of the sentence that the judge considered appropriate, so that we must look for any means of allowing him out early and it would be a terrible shame if he were refused parole without reasons being given. That is not the purpose of parole. As I understand it, the purpose of parole is this. If it is possible, as a matter of humanity, and if the domestic and other circumstances of the person's life allow it to happen as a matter of humanity, it would be justifiable to let him out early. If the effect of giving reasons would be inhumane and thus conter-productive to the cause of humanity that I understand to be the basis of parole, clearly it would be wrong to do so. That is why I believe that in many situations to give reasons would be inhumane.

Worse than that, what would inevitably happen is that the authorities would be unable to put into words the precise distressing circumstances that caused them to reach their conclusion, and it would not be long before the prison service was accused of suppressing the truth, misleading by half-truth and perhaps even by falsehood in the sense that it was not conveying the true situation. That would undermine and not strengthen the respect that it is so necessary for the penal system to retain in order to be effective.

Parole is not like bail. With bail, there is a presumption of freedom. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) has said, one presumes that a person should not be in custody and one therefore bends every possible resource to give him his freedom. When a sentence of imprisonment is being served, however, one presumes that the person should be serving it. One may then bend as much humanity as one can to make that service as short as possible.

I agree with the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) that if cost were a factor it should not be taken seriously into account because this is far more a matter of humanity, but I do not agree with him that it is wrong to repose in the good and the true whom we select to serve on the Parole Board an element of trust and discretion. In the end, that element can be supervised by a Minister who has some responsibility to the House and can answer to an individual Member of Parliament. As Members of Parliament, we all know that when we raise constituency problems with local authorities and with the Home Office, we sometimes receive both the reply that the authorities would like the constituent to receive and a private, confidential reply to the effect that a certain factor has affected the authorities' thinking but that they think that it would be harmful if it were passed on. The Minister or the executive of the district council therefore trusts the Member of Parliament not to pass on that hurtful detail, but the information is given to him so that he may test the Home Office or the authority on it.

I do not know whether reasons for Parole Board refusals can be passed on in detail to Members of Parliament, but it might not be a bad idea if the Member of Parliament were accorded the same trust in similar circumstances so that he may satisfy himself that the Minister has used his judgment correctly and that the Minister is satisfied that the discretion exercised by the Parole Board has been correctly and properly used.

If Lord Harris changed his mind since ceasing to be a Minister and becoming chairman of the Parole Board, it can only have been because he became aware of the reality of decision-making and the discretionary process. It is that reality that we must continue to repose as a matter of trust in the people involved, knowing that in the end the Minister can test that trust and perhaps, if this does not already happen, Members of Parliament may also test the Minister on that trust.

Those are my reasons for opposing the new clause. Principally, I believe that the stand taken by the Opposition is utterly unrealistic, bearing in mind the fact that the purpose of parole is not as a matter of policy to reduce the sentence to one-third of that which the judge thought appropriate in all the circumstances.

Mr. Ronald W. Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

It is that very trust that is now prejudiced. Over the years I have had many problems with the Home Office. Indeed, when the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) made her speech, I thought that she was reading the submissions that I made to her on at least two cases when she was a Minister, when I argued that my constituents should not have been refused parole. At that time, before Lord Harris came into the picture, the hon. Lady's view was quite clear. She argued that it would be quite wrong to allow any parole examination to be made public.

The hon. Lady will recall the classic case of Thomas Unstead who, together with six other people, was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. When I examined the papers relative to the trial on his behalf, I was satisfied that there was something terribly wrong in the whole case. The case did not appear to be right. It appeared to be fraudulent and my constituent had been put upon. I did much work on that case, as the hon. Lady will remember because we talked about it on many occasions. Each time she had a different argument as to why she could not be helpful.

6.30 pm
Dr. Summerskill

May I reply to my erstwhile hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) and to the Minister, who made the same accusations about my change of attitude on the imprisonment of maintenance defaulters? If one is a thinking person one might change one's mind occasionally. It is to the credit of politicians that occasionally they might change their minds. I learnt a great deal at the Home Office about how the Parole Board works. If one has had that experience, one's mind should be open and not shut to possible changes. I agree that I have changed my mind, although I was never completely satisfied with the arrangement when I was at the Home Office. Today's debate is to find out the result of the experiment that has taken place since I left the Home Office, but I shall not justify myself any longer.

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. My heart is also bleeding. I am delighted that her mind is now open. I regret only that it was not so open in those days, because I put to her then the arguments that she put today, using my words. If her mind was closed then, it was closed only to the words that she now tries to use in the House.

I have used the hon. Lady's words simply to try to understand the problem. The Minister talked about trust. I went through Mr. Unstead's story with her and she, among others, repeated that there was no evidence or proof and that my case was all hypothesis. I saw the Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor. Finally, through an informant in the underworld, I was given a piece of information which led me to examine the Hampshire constabulary. There was clear evidence of collusion between the Hampshire constabulary and an informer who had never been brought to court. I gave evidence to the hon. Lady, which ended with two informers to the Hampshire constabulary being charged. It is true that my constituent received a sentence of 14 years whereas the informers received only seven years some time later. There was very clear evidence of collusion and if I had not taken up the case and pursued it in the way that I did the collusion would have escaped detection.

As a result of that, the Home Office was very angry with me, as was the Hampshire constabulary, because I had blown their informers' cover. When Mr. Unstead came up for parole, it was refused out of hand. We began to examine the reasons for that because everyone in the prison—the governor, the assistant governor and "screws" on the landings—argued that he was a model prisoner. His home affairs were also considered and a good report was given of them. One could not see why he had been refused. The governor told me that he did not understand why parole had been refused. I visited the hon. Lady again, who told me that she could do nothing about it because the Parole Board was a separate entity. Sir Louis Petch was then the chairman of the Parole Board.

Eventually Mr. Unstead came before the Parole Board again and was refused for the second time. I visited the hon. Lady but she said that she could not add much more. When I visited her on the third occasion that parole was refused I asked her why I could not discuss the matter with Sir Louis Petch in her office. She agreed to that but she would not let me see Sir Louis. She saw him, interpreted my question and then gave me his answer to the question that I would have put to him had I not needed to go through the hon. Lady. I then asked the hon. Lady why I could not go before the Parole Board. She said that she would attend a Parole Board meeting to see how it worked. I asked her whether she could ask Sir Louis again to allow me to attend the Parole Board meeting when Mr. Unstead's case came up.

The House will be interested to know that, under that system, Thomas Unstead had to serve the whole of his time and the Parole Board did not grant him parole. Yet that man's prison work was of the highest order and he had behaved himself in every conceivable way. I have never had a satisfactory answer why Thomas Unstead was not allowed out. I believe that it was because I took up his case in the House and debated it with the hon. Lady, as a result of which sanctions were taken against him.

Mr. Lawrence

Did Mr. Unstead receive a remission of one-third of his sentence for good conduct?

Mr. Brown

Yes, of course, but he had to go the whole course for his remission. The object of parole is to encourage prisoners to behave themselves, to be peaceful and law-abiding in prison and to help the prison authorities. As a commendation for their good behaviour, they are allowed out.

My second case is about Mr. Danny Allpress. I now address myself to the Minister instead of the hon. Lady. Danny Allpress has served his time in prison peacefully and has done his work well. He has the approval of the governor, the assistant governor and the "screws" on the landing and his home affairs are in good order. There is no reason why he should not be allowed parole. I ask the Minister why I cannot go to the Parole Board, see Lord Harris and ask him the same thing? I cannot get through to anyone because no one is listening. As the hon. Lady's mind is now open, Lord Harris' mind is closed and we cannot get the two things working together.

I am seeing Lord Elton tomorrow about another constituent, Mr. Peter Colson, who has been refused parole twice, for no reason. No one understands it. The prison governor, the assistant governor and the "screws" on the landing say that he is a good prisoner. His home report is good. The question must be asked—what is the Parole Board doing? Who is providing the secret information?

In the case of Danny Allpress I have found one reason that has not been mentioned tonight. A new procedure was introduced when he was sentenced and, because money was involved in the crime, a bankruptcy order was brought against him. Now he is coming up for parole and there is another joker in the pack. The Official Receiver is now involved. When a bankruptcy court official visited my constituent in prison, Mr. Allpress was unwise enough to believe that he had the right to speak to whom he wished and he did not wish to speak to the official. The official said "That finishes it. You will never get out of here."

When that was reported to me, I did not believe it to be the sort of jargon used by bureaucrats, but he was right. Apparently, the bankruptcy official's report is now preventing Danny Allpress from receiving parole because it has been taken into consideration by the Parole Board. I have just discovered that my other constituent, Mr. Colson, had a bankruptcy order made against him. So now, although we know that everyone in the prison has given a good report of Mr. Colson, the one man who apparently has not done so is the Official Receiver, the bankruptcy official.

Mr. Grieve

Was he made bankrupt as a result of an order made by the court which tried him?

Mr. Brown

Yes, and as I say, that started in about 1978. I did not know—the hon. and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) may have known—that this was a joker in the pack for parole. If the bankruptcy official, whom one does not even know, gives an adverse report—he can do so for all kinds of petulant reasons—that will affect the man's application for parole. In the case of Peter Colson, there was no reason whatsoever for him not to receive parole, yet it was refused.

It is interesting that every time that Peter Colson comes up for parole, he is moved about three days before his parole is considered. The person on the Parole Board looking at his papers sees that he has been moved from one prison to another prison within two or three days, and the implication is that it is because of Colson's bad behaviour. After his parole has been considered and refused, he is moved back to the former prison. I keep asking the Home Office why he was moved two years running at exactly the same time, 4 May, when his parole was due to be considered on 12 May. I want to know why he was moved back immediately after his parole was considered and refused. It seems extraordinary that just before a man is considered for parole he is shifted from place to place the implication being that he is an unsatisfactory prisoner.

New clause 2 goes a long way towards achieving what I want—an explanation. It is no good trying to get people to behave themselves in prison, serve their time, and contribute to the peace and harmony of the prison service, if their parole application is refused for no just reason. Of course we must trust, but we must see that that trust is well founded. I selected three cases where that did not happen. There are many other cases that I could have chosen, as the hon. Lady well knows. I could quote quite a few from her time at the Home Office, and some in the time of her successors. As the Minister knows, I am always in touch with him about cases. Indeed, I could mention the case of Mr. Sharp. So there are many cases where it is distressing not to be able to understand why parole is refused. If new clause 2 goes some way to opening this Pandora's box, this cosy position of the Parole Board, tonight's work will have been well worth while.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I am sorry to disagree with almost every word that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has said. I do so for a few short and simple reasons.

First, parole is entirely discretionary. Once a person is convicted and goes to prison, whether he ever comes up and has parole is a matter entirely of discretion. In the ordinary way, if his sentence is for seven or eight years, subject to remission for good conduct to which he is absolutely entitled if his conduct is good, he must serve that period.

The second point on which the hon. Member is wrong is this. The Parole Board is not just concerned with whether a prisoner behaves well in prison. He gets his remission for good conduct for that purpose. It is concerned with whether he has shown that he will be a good and honest character after he leaves prison. Unfortunately, a number of cases that are turned down, without any reason being assigned, are turned down because it is well known that the people are members of a permanent gang of robbers or housebreakers, or are associated with such a community. It is therefore extremely unlikely that, if they are ever released short of the period for which they have been sentenced, they w ill be of good behaviour. There are some who can change, but there are many who cannot convince a Parole Board of that. That is the background to parole.

6.45 pm

Those of us who have looked at many of these cases from the other side of the fence accept that usually people who have been convicted, after a couple of years, when they come up for consideration for parole, try to reopen the facts of their case. If reasons were given that related to the seriousness of the case, and therefore to the facts of the case—the facts not only of that case, but of their association with other criminal enterprises at that time—they might wish to have a further trial after the trial. So the post-trial syndrome, if I may call it that—the possibility of regurgitating all the facts and going over them again—would arise.

That would be highly undesirable for Members of Parliament. Their postbags would be full of letters from criminals who had been convicted and who wanted to try to reopen their cases on the ground that, even if they were not wrongly convicted, there were many matters of mitigation that were never put properly at the proper time to the court. Furthermore, all those facts could be brought forward with a view to seeing whether they could get the case before the Home Secretary. If all the facts were elucidated, the Home Secretary could advise on the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which he is always entitled to do.

If what the hon. Member argued is true, it is one way in which one could open up the class of case in which there has been either corruption or perjury. That is certainly true. In such circumstances it may be possible to go back to the facts of the case, elucidate them, and find that there has been some perjury or corruption. To that extent the hon. Gentleman is right, but in my view that is not the right way to do it. I believe, for the reasons that I have given, that it is entirely discretionary, and that it would open up the whole question of a post-trial trial within a trial, and that it is wrong.

A directly analogous example involved the grant of a gaming licence and the Gaming Board for Great Britain. It will be remembered that, with some reluctance, the House of Commons took the view that the decision whether to grant a gaining licence should be entirely autocratic, and that no reasons of any kind would be given by the gaming board for the grant or the refusal. Many people have objected to that autocratic power. Nevertheless, in my view, it was right. There is no way to prove that there was a possible mafioso element behind the application. If one did, one would be liable to a libel action. Therefore, it was decided to place implicit trust in the gaming board. I do not believe that the gaming board has let us down in that trust, much as I disliked the board. However, we should not forget that not only the present Lord Chancellor, but none other than Lord Gardiner agreed with that autocracy. The same is true here, although here it involves not autocracy, but absolute discretion. In my view, it is far better to leave this board to continue with its good work in its own way, and trust it to carry out its work properly.

Miss Richardson

I support new clause 2.

Parole, particularly as it affects families, is a source of great mystery. Members get letters not only from prisoners, but from prisoners' families. I often get letters from young wives whose husbands are in prison, perhaps for a short time, and who cannot understand why their husbands are being kept in when in their view, they should have been paroled. The matter has caused tremendous distress and, the break-up of many marriages. In some cases a wife feels that if her husband's parole has been turned down he is perhaps a worse character than she thought he was. The whole system has to be properly overhauled. This new clause would at least open one chink and throw a little light on something which is shrouded in mystery.

Three or four years ago I went on a deputation to meet Lord Harris and to discuss with him, as chairman of the Parole Board, how it worked. I came away none the wiser. I could not get from him any reason why some indication should not be given to a prisoner why his parole was refused.

Following what the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) has been saying, I have been in correspondence not with a constituent but with one of the Richardson brothers, Charles, whose case is fairly well known to most people. A younger brother is now out of prison. Charles Richardson has been in prison for 16 years. He has applied for parole seven or eight times, on each occasion going through the routine, which the hon. Gentleman so graphically described, of getting reports from various people—from people on his landing, the governor, the prison doctor, the priest and so on. He was always assured that he would be paroled and then he was not paroled. Indeed, he tells me that he believes that the main Parole Board, as distinct from the local parole board, has on three occasions recommended his parole. He can only come to the conclusion—this brings me back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon)—that there is ministerial interference in the decision whether to parole.

As hon. Members probably recall, Charles Richardson escaped from prison some time ago to make two or three points which were detailed in an article in The Sunday Times while he was free. He went back to prison after the points had been made. One of the points was that 16 years in prison is enough, however violent the crime one has committed. He recounts it to me as two life sentences, not one, because often people on a life sentence get out after about eight years.

His parole application is coming up for the eighth or ninth time. He feels that if he is turned down on this occasion, again possibly by ministerial decision, he will simply collapse and become a cabbage. He says that his observation of people in prison over many years has led him to believe that after 10 years prisoners become cabbages. They give up and deteriorate mentally. He has managed to keep himself in a fairly alert mental state, and I am sure that there are many like him. He wants to be able to come out and start a new life, to make acquaintance with his grown-up children who were youngsters when he went into prison and to try in some way to make recompense to his mother who has looked after his children during the time he has been in gaol.

This seems to be the sort of case in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for York said, the Home Secretary may feel that, because a well-known name is involved, it is better to keep the person in prison rather than to risk the difficulties which might attend on him as Home Secretary if publicity were given to the prisoner's release. As has been said before, that is no reason to keep a man in prison longer than is warranted.

Those are the sort of considerations that we must face. In principle, we must try to work out a system for the future so that prisoners know what part of themselves is still lacking which prevents parole being granted. I am not now talking about spectacular cases like the Richardson case but the more common or garden, run-of-the-mill cases where people do not know, never have known and never will know what they lack which has caused the parole board, locally or centrally, to turn them down.

I hope that we pass this clause. I do not think that it will perfect the system, but it will go a long way towards it.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I support new clause 2 for two main reasons. The policy of not giving reasons for the refusal of parole has seriously eroded the confidence of prisoners in the parole system and it adds considerably to their sense of grievance on being turned down. To deny parole to a prisoner who has often been waiting anxiously for three months or more, and then to give no explanation why he has been denied parole, increases cynicism and bitterness within the prison service. The procedure of the parole system is brought into disrepute.

Any hon. Member who has visited a prison and spoken to prisoners who have been refused parole will know full well the great resentment, bitterness and distrust that they have towards the parole system and towards authority and the prison service. The Minister will acknowledge that many prisoners, certainly long-term prisoners, no longer make parole applications because they have no confidence in the system and think that it will not treat them fairly.

Mr. Rees-Davies

There is an important point which the hon. Gentleman might like to think about later, if not now. Does he think it would be better if we abolished the idea of application being made by any prisoner for parole and merely let the parole board move of its own accord without any such application so that it could consider the matter, so to speak, de novo itself without being approached?

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

I would, but would the hon. and learned Gentleman have voted for such a proposal? I would have preferred that. We had the option before us of automatic supervised release on parole. The Home Secretary himself canvassed it as recently as last July. The operation of such a system would have released 7,000 nonviolent prisoners on one-third sentence, one-third remission, and one-third parole.

A new clause was tabled on behalf of the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group and was debated in Committee. It has been tabled again but has not been selected for debate.

If prisoners are not given the reasons why they have been refused parole, naturally they invent their own reasons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said, often the reasons they invent are much worse than the actual reasons. Like my hon. Friends who have spoken on this point, I believe that it is far more important to the prisoner that he be given the truth, however unpalatable that truth may be, and that we have no right, simply because they are prisoners, to patronise them and assume that they cannot be given the full information about themselves which prejudiced their case and prevented their early release.

If a prisoner is not given the reasons, to which he has a right, for his failure to obtain parole, it is difficult if not impossible for him to work constructively to attempt to obtain his release on parole in the future. The report of the Parole Board for 1975 acknowledged that when it said: there will certainly be cases where a man can improve his future prospects of parole if he knows why he has failed in the past. Yet it is the Parole Board, backed by the Government, which refuses to give the man those reasons and therefore the ability to improve his future prospects of early realease on parole. Surely it is reasonable that a prisoner should be told clearly where he has been going wrong so as to give him an opportunity to put things right before his next parole review.

The combined effects of the two considerations that I have pointed to was vividly summarised by Peter Waugh, then chairman of the Prison Officers Association, when he gave evidence to the Expenditure Committee on 27 February 1978. He said: One of the problems of parole is not just the disappointment of not getting it; it is not knowing the reasons why they do not get parole. This is a question that people like me face every day. He is speaking as a prison officer. He states further: A man comes to me and says 'I did not get parole', and I say 'I know, I'm sorry lad'. Then he says "What did I do wrong?' and I say 'I do not know. We have submitted reports and everybody has submitted reports'. Then he says 'Can you tell me how to put myself right so that I will be more favourably considered?' and I say 'No, because I do not know either'. These are the factors which create the problems, not the fact that a man is disappointed. 7 pm

That is the evidence from a man who should know. He is chairman of the Prison Officers Association. He i3 in constant and intimate contact with long-term prisoners who have been disappointed not so much by not getting parole but more importantly by not being given the reasons why they have been refused parole. It may be that the reasons were not good or not true. If the reasons are not given, there is no way that they can be challenged. 'The prisoners cannot amend their behaviour so that they get a more favourable review in future.

The Home Office's document, entitled "Review of Parole in England and Wales", which was published in 1981, rejected the argument that reasons should be given for the refusal of parole. The document argued that giving reasons would lead to litigation in the courts which challenged the reasons that had been given for refusal. That point was made by the hon. and learned Members for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) and Solihull (Mr. Grieve). Both believed that if reasons were given, that would lead to an appellate system or litigation.

The document argues that giving reasons would lead to a movement towards a system in which parole was a right to be claimed rather than a privilege to be earned, reinforcing the point that was made by the hon. and learned Member for Solihull. However, if that is true, why do none of those consequences appear to flow from the similar circumstances of the provisions that have been made for the mental health review tribunals? Their reasons are given for turning down an application for release. The tribunals deal with cases that are just as sensitive—in many instances they are far more sensitive—as those dealt with by the Parole Board. That does not lead either to litigation in the courts, which has been suggested as a potential consequence, or to a notion that release is a right rather than a privilege.

The dangers of giving frank comments about a prisoner's circumstances are more grave for someone in a mental hospital. However, those reasons are given and are available to the patient. I suppose that hon. Members who practise in the courts will know that similar frank comments are made in social inquiry reports, psychiatric reports and probation officers' reports, all of which are laid before the courts and which defendants have a right to see. There is no reason why the same consideration that is applied in those circumstances cannot be applied to giving reasons for the refusal of parole.

Those considerations are not the powerful arguments against fulfilling this basic requirement of natural justice. The main obstacles to introducing the change that is proposed today are not objections in principle. That is the way in which the debate has been conducted. The obstacles are rather two important, purely practical, considerations. The first is resources. The Government do not wish to move to a system of giving reasons for parole because of the resource consequences. "Review of Parole in England and Wales" said in paragraph 74: To amalgamate each member's reasons into a single self-consistent explanation of their collective decision, requiring the agreement of every member who favoured release, would be a substantial addition to the labours of the Board and their staff, which, without the provision of significant extra resources, it would simply not be practicable to impose. The review was referring to giving reasonably full statements of reasons and not to the alternative proposal of ticking off items on a standard list of reasons. As the latter procedure would be unsatisfactory from the prisoners' point of view it is right that we should conduct the argument for giving reasons on the basis of fairly full reasons. I accept that that would have resource implications. However, if the suggestion made by the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West of automatic release on licence were introduced for a large number of short-term prisoners, that would relieve the parole system of the need to review the cases which would have automatic release. The resource implications of giving reasons in the remaining cases would be limited. The remaining cases that would need to be considered by the parole board would be more manageable than the present large number of cases.

The second practical problem is one that everyone involved in the system—the Minister, his officials and those in the parole board—knows well, but no one wishes to state in public. It is the fact that although the Home Secretary can have reasonable confidence in the reasons that are given by the Parole Board, he could not have the same confidence in the reasons given by the local review committees. Those committees do not meet so often. According to the Home Office's research evidence they vary considerably in the extent to which they recommend parole in almost identical and similar cases. The Home Secretary and the chairman of the Parole Board are saying that they are not prepared to stand up and publicly defend the publicly given reasons of the local review bodies in which they have no confidence.

In that case it would seem much easier to introduce this change, which many Opposition Members seem to favour. If, as the conference of chief probation officers and NACRO have proposed, we abolished the local review committees in favour of a smaller number of regional parole boards or a peripatetic parole board, that would make it easier to achieve more consistency between one prisoner and another than the present large number of local review committees have achieved in practice.

For that reason I am pleased to see that the Opposition are committed to introducing a system of giving reasons for the refusal of parole. I hope that when the next Labour Government are in office and they introduce this reform, they will be prepared to go further and make fundamental changes in the parole system, which will make it easier for a larger number of prisoners to get parole on automatic licence and for those not given parole to be given, in terms of natural justice, the reasons why they have been refused and therefore the opportunity to amend their character and behaviour in the hope that they will be successful in future. I support the new clause.

Mr. Parris

I had not intended to speak on the new clause, but I wish to make one observation. The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) made the strongest case that can be made for the new clause. Central to her argument was the point that all that the new clause asks for is disclosure, and that to ask for disclosure is by no means to ask for a system of appeal. However, a few minutes after the hon. Lady had finished speaking several hon. Members were asking, effectively, for a system of appeal. They asked for disclosure because they knew of cases where they thought that disclosure might have shown up wrongful decisions against which, naturally they would have wanted to appeal.

There is no point in disclosure unless there is a system of challenging disclosures which turn out to be wrong. If we had a system of disclosure, it would be only a matter of months before we were being asked for a system of appeal. It is a cruelty to the prisoner to disclose without giving him the right to challenge. As soon as we give the prisoner the right to challenge, there must be a procedure by which the challenge can be adjudicated. Before we know where we are we shall have a system of appeal. Therefore, the argument must be conducted in terms of an argument for an appeal system and not for disclosure. For that reason, I cannot support the new clause.

Mr. Pitt

Like the hon. Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris) I did not intend to speak but I rise briefly to support new clause 2 and take up the hon. Gentleman's point about disclosure. It is true that the new clause asks only for disclosure. The prisoner has the right to have the answers disclosed to him. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown) and others have shown that there are faults in the system and that the faults should be discovered and disclosed.

We should not shun the fact that over a period there might be action to give grounds for appeal. I do not see why prisoners should not have the right of appeal. A person may have been led to believe that there are reports favourable to him from all sectors of the prison—I will not even begin to use the graphic terminology of my hon. Friend. He may have the impression that everything that he has done during his prison sentence has led people to believe that he can make a proper go of it outside in the real world. His family circumstances may be highly favourable. If he applies for parole and it is refused not once or twice but in some cases three times, I believe that that person is entitled not only to disclosure—that is a fundamental right—but to a right of appeal. I would support not only disclosure to a prisoner of the reasons why he cannot get parole but any recommendation to give a prisoner the right of appeal so that he can find out the grounds on which he was refused and make claim and counter-claim.

Mr. Mayhew

This has been an interesting debate on an important matter. It is an issue that gives rise to a great deal of feeling among prisoners who have been denied parole on application or who fear that in future they will again be denied. Therefore, it is right that we should have taken time to consider this matter. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) for introducing the new clause.

7.15 pm

Central to this issue is the nature of the parole system. Parole was intended by Parliament to be a privilege and not a right. That is the basis on which it is operated. Proposals on the lines set out in new clause 2 have been considered and rejected by successive Administrations ever since the parole scheme was introduced. The problems are not new. As hon. Members have said, they were considered most recently in "Review of Parole in England and Wales", published in May last year.

It never has been the practice to give reasons to prisoners who are not selected for parole. During the passage of the original legislation, parole was clearly seen as a privilege rather than a right. It is significant to remind the House that a prisoner serving a life sentence is not entitled to parole, but there is a system whereby he may be licensed by the Home Secretary.

The statute that set up the parole system requires reasons to be given to those who have been paroled, whose licences have been revoked and who have been recalled to prison. Those people will have been given their liberty on conditions. If they are deprived of it by a revocation of their licence, it must be right that they should be told the reason. They must have an opportunity of answering the allegations made against them that led to their recall to prison because the presumption is that they are entitled to retain the liberty that has been conferred on them.

Similarly, in the case of the mental health review tribunal, which has been much cited, although I believe misleadingly in this context, there is a difference in kind between the role of the tribunals and that of the Secretary of State in deciding whether to release on parole.

In the case of the mental health review tribunals, there is an obligation, in essence, to justify continuing detention because the tribunal is dealing with a patient and not with someone who has been convicted of an offence and sentenced to custody, or, at any rate, not having been sentenced to custody without there having been an element of mental disorder. In the second case, of an applicant for parole, the decision formally resting with the Secretary of State, which is a matter of privilege and not of right, is whether the prisoner should complete a sentence that has already been imposed by a court in the community. The presumption is quite different.

To listen to the debate and to many of the contributions from Opposition Members has been almost to listen to a condemnation of something that is unjust and which in no circumstances can confer benefit on those who have been sentenced to prison. Essentially we are dealing with cases of those who have committed criminal offences and have been found guilty by the legal system. They have been cast on the criminal justice system, which has prescribed that they shall serve a sentence of imprisonment. That sentence is not indeterminate. The only indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for an adult is life imprisonment, to which parole does not apply.

A determinate sentence of imprisonment has been passed by the judge. Therefore, the presumption is, and should be, that the sentence will be served, subject to remission for good conduct, which is conferred under the prison rules, which themselves have been approved by Parliament. The presumption is that prisoners remain in custody until their sentence is served, subject to remission for good conduct.

Anything that is to intervene in that process can only be of the nature of a privilege. It cannot be a right. That is crucial. The two cases that I have described—the case of the ordinary applicant for parole who is not entitled to reasons for refusal, and the case of someone who has been licensed as a parolee and then is called back to prison because his licence has been revoked—are different.

Parliament intended that they should be treated differently for that reason. A prison inmate, when applying for parole, is without liberty. It has been taken away by order of the court. But, in the case of someone who has been licensed and has had his liberty restored, albeit on conditions, and Parliament having shown its intention in the statute, reasons for his recall should be given. That is crucial to this matter.

I turn to the practical consequences of what is urged in new clause 2. There are great practical problems in the way of giving reasons for the refusal of parole. The financial cost, although I do not neglect it, is not what I put first. The Parole Board and the local review committees meet in panels of four or five members. The system was fully described in "Review of Parole in England and Wales" to which reference has been made. The Parole Board and the local review committees consider all the circumstances of the case.

The hon. Member for Halifax will recall—she asked what the outcome of it was—that in 1978 an experiment was tried in producing a standardised list of 16 factors that might commonly cause the Parole Board or the local review committee to refuse parole. The idea was that the board or the local review committee could indicate from the list the points that had particularly troubled it f t an individual case.

The results of this experiment were a disappointment and the idea had to be abandoned. Even after a year had passed, the local review committees that took part in the experiment were finding it difficult to agree upon appropriate reasons from the lists, and where the review committee and the Parole Board had both considered a case, and both were agreed that it was appropriate to refuse parole, they identified differing grounds for refusal in about 25 per cent. of the cases.

I noted with interest that the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) said that a system of ticking off lists from a kind of pro-forma was not satisfactory, and he did not recommend it. That was the view of the parole board as a result of its experiment. It must follow that one must recognise that the reasons are not only far more various than can be contained in a list of 16 to be ticked, but that individual members of a review committee or the Parole Board may conscientiously and perfectly properly differ as to what reason justifies refusal. That does not mean to say that the corporate decision to refuse is any the less valid or reliable because individual members have selected different reasons.

If there had to be a statutory right to be told what the reasons were, I have only to mention that circumstance to demonstrate how impractical it would be.

Another reason of extreme importance is that to adopt such a proposal would induce a situation in which the giving of reasons for refusal to the applicant would involve procedures that simply could not be contained within the framework of the present parole system. To adopt it would be likely to change its whole character and to diminish its value. As I have said, the present system makes parole a privilege to be acquired, and the procedures are flexible and sensitive. If reasons had to be given I can readily foresee that refusal would become subject to judicial review, and parole would take on the character of a right to be claimed.

Those who compile the reports upon which the decision is in part made, and perhaps also those who serve on the board and give the reasons, would feel an inhibition in their respective functions that would certainly not work to the benefit of the prisoners or their families. In fact, I think that it would work in the contrary direction, because I believe that the reports would be much more cautious and less forthcoming, as a result of which fewer people would be paroled.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

How can the judges have judicial review unless we allow them to have it? If we pass legislation that says they do not have judicial review, they do not get it.

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the courts are diligent in finding ways of reviewing the exercise of any discretion. If Parliament passed a statute that conferred a discretion and said that reasons shall be given, it would be easy for the courts to find a means of reviewing the process by which those reasons were acted upon. In my opinion, that is the whole character of the development of the jurisdiction of the civil courts against decisions of the Executive over the past 20 or 25 years.

That is not a development that I would resent or regret——

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

We should put a stop to it.

Mr. Mayhew

No doubt that was a feeling widely shared in the last Government, but it is not a development that I regret, still less resent. If we obliged the board to give reasons, with the consequence that I foresee, and which I have endeavoured to describe, of those reasons being subject to review by the courts and the exercise of discretion being subject to judicial review, we must ask whether that is appropriate to what Parliament has always intended to be a scheme conferring a privilege.

Mr. Lawrence

Perhaps my hon. and learned Friend will allow me to add another more likely counterproductive result. If instead of being a privilege it became a right that a prisoner could serve only one-third of his sentence, is it not at any rate likely that judges might take that into consideration when imposing the original sentence?

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. The judges would do their best to apply loyally what Parliament appeared to have intended. However, I foresee circumstances in which the court, having regard to its duty to protect the public from the criminal activities of someone before it, might well feel that if parole developed along these lines it would have to impose a longer nominal sentence.

Mr. S. C. Silkin

Perhaps the Minister will clarify something that I have not quite followed. He seemed to be saying that he welcomes the system of judicial review but that he would not welcome reasons being given because they would be subject to judicial review. I do not follow that argument.

Mr. Mayhew

Where reasons must be expressed, that lets in the judicial testing of the process by which those reasons and explanations have been given. Where that happens, it is but a short step to the process of discovery of the reports and dossiers upon which the conclusions have arisen. All that is opened up, with the inhibiting effects that I have endeavoured to describe on those who make the reports.

Parliament faced all this in much the same way in the case of the gaming board, which has been described by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies). It faced the need in this particular and special jurisdiction to repose absolute confidence in the Parole Board, just as it did in the gaming board for the very reasons that we have been exploring.

As, in my view, the new clause would act against the interests of those whom the Parole Board system is designed to serve, and would lead to fewer rather than more people being paroled, I must advise the House to reject it.

Question put and negatived.

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