HC Deb 06 July 1992 vol 211 cc145-54 11.56 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I beg to move,

That the draft Parole Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 23rd June, be approved.

The order transfers responsibility for the release and recall of long-term prisoners sentenced to less than seven years under the new Criminal Justice Act 1991 from the Secretary of State to the Parole Board.

Before describing the new arrangements, I think that it is worth spending just a few moments on the existing parole scheme. At present, prisoners serving more than a year must serve one third of their sentence, or six months if that is greater, before becoming eligible for parole.

Every case is considered by a local review committee and the more serious cases—those serving four years or more—are also seen by the Parole Board. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but there is the usual buzz of conversation which occurs at this time. If hon. Members want to chat, will they go outside and do it?

Mr. Lloyd

Over the years, the scheme has become somewhat repetitive and lost some of its coherence; it can heavily erode the sentence passed by a court. Those who do not get parole but who are in most need of supervision are released "cold" into the community, and the system has been criticised for its secrecy.

Because of those shortcomings, the Carlisle committee was asked to look at the scheme. It reported in 1988. The new arrangements very largely follow its recommendations, but there was one aspect where the Government did not agree with the committee. The committee had proposed that Ministers should withdraw from the decision-making process entirely and give the Parole Board the final say on release and recall of all long-term prisoners.

We believe that Ministers should keep the responsibility for the realease of those who have committed very serious offences. Therefore, in the White Paper, published in 1990, the Government proposed that the Parole Board should have sole responsibility for deciding the release or those serving between four and less than seven years' imprisonment.

The order is made under the new Criminal Justice Act, which comes into force in October. That Act introduces three early release schemes. Although two of them are outside the scope of the order, the House may find it helpful if I explain them as a unity.

First, those serving sentences of less than 12 months will be released automatically at the halfway point of sentence, subject to good prison behaviour. Their release will be delayed by any additional days awarded—if "awarded" is the right word—for misbehaviour. They will not be supervised on release, but, like all prisoners released under the Act, they will be under liability until the end of sentence. That means that the outstanding portion of the sentence will no longer simply be remitted. If they commit a further imprisonable offence before the end of sentence, that unserved period of the original may be added to any new sentence, thus restoring meaning to the entire sentence passed by the court.

Secondly, those serving 12 months to less than four years will also be released automatically at the halfway point —subject to good prison behaviour. But, by contrast, they will be under compulsory supervision by the probation service while they are back in the community. That supervision on licence will extend to the three-quarters point of sentence or to the very end for some sex offenders.

The licence will make real demands on the individual. A condition may be added —for instance, requiring attendance on a course to address an alcohol problem or prohibiting contact with a named victim—and the licensee may, on the decision of a magistrates court, he returned to prison if the licence conditions are breached or may be subjected to a lesser penalty, such as a fine, if the court so decides.

Thirdly, there is the new parole scheme itself which also represents a tougher package. It will apply to those prisoners sentenced to four years or more on or after 1 October this year. They will have to serve at least half their sentence in custody—instead of the current one third —before becoming eligible for discretionary release. If they do not receive parole, release at the two-thirds point is still automatic. But release in either case will be on a licence which will extend to the three-quarters point, or again to the very end of the sentence for some sex offenders.

Contrary to current practice, prisoners will see the reports that constitute the parole dossier and the Parole Board will give reasons for its decisions, which it does not do now. I believe that that represents a significant step towards a more open and fair scheme.

As I have already said, Ministers have decided to retain the final say on the early release of those serving sentences of seven years or more. This seven-year threshold was fully debated during the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. We believe that it is the right one for the start of the new scheme. But the Act also provides for Parliament to be asked to approve a higher, or indeed a lower threshold, if in the light of experience that seems desirable.

When the Criminal Justice Act comes into force, the Parole Board will apply specific directions given to it by the Home Secretary on release. Those directions will come in on 1 October and will be announced very shortly and made available in the Libraries of both Houses. The directions set out three conditions which have to be satisfied before the Parole Board can recommend parole. They relate to the risk of further offences being committed; the prisoner's willingness to tackle offending behaviour; and the resettlement plan and rehabilitation.

The order also extends the board's existing recall powers. Those powers require the Secretary of State to act on the board's recommendation to revoke a prisoner's licence and recall him. However, the Home Secretary, will also set out the criteria for recall in new policy directions to the Parole Board. These will be published together with the release directions to which I have just referred. Very importantly, the directions will require the board to assess the risk to the public if an offender is allowed to remain on licence as well as the extent of compliance with the conditions of the licence.

Finally, the order will also provide that the Parole Board, in the light of its expert assessment of any case, may recommend conditions to the licence for released prisoners. This will allow the Parole Board to fit the detailed licence conditions to the circumstances of each offender and take into account the level of risk involved in release in every case.

These may include conditions which prohibit contact with named individuals, or require attendance on courses designed to tackle alcohol or substance abuse. This will be done in close consultation with supervising officers to ensure the correct level of supervision, such as prohibiting contact with a young victim in a sexual abuse case. This will ensure that licence conditions are consistent and demanding.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My hon. Friend touches on an important point. Although it may not fall within the ambit of the order, will he assure the House that he has every intention of following through the recommendation in the victims charter that the victims of sex crimes should be informed when their assailant is released on parole under the terms that he set out to the House tonight?

Mr. Lloyd

That is right. My hon. Friend raises an important point. The fact that the Parole Board can make conditions about release in such cases is an added protection for the victim after the perpetrator has come back into the community.

The arrangements introduced by the order represent, I believe, a significant improvement in the way in which parole decisions are administered, both in the interests of offenders and even more importantly in ensuring the protection of the public. I commend it to the House.

12.5 am

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

In contrast to what we felt about the former order that we debated, the Opposition broadly welcome this order. It is a step in the right direction to allow the Parole Board to make the decision in parole cases rather than giving discretion to the Home Secretary to overrule the decisions, made after lengthy consideration. However, we should like to know why the order is restricted to those serving less than seven years. The Carlisle committee on the parole sytem in England and Wales, in its 1988 report, argued cogently for the Parole Board to assume executive powers for all cases, as the Minister said. He explained well and clearly the terms of the order and how it would operate, but he did not say why the Carlisle recommendations had not been accepted in their entirety.

Carlisle examined the present system and found it wanting. The report notes that the present sytem, in which the Home Secretary has the final decision, is cumbersome and conducive to delay. It tends to blur the responsibility for decisions, and Carlisle felt the arrangements worked in a particularly unfortunate manner when a case went wrong. The report said: The present fragmentation of responsibilities prevents the parole system from giving a robust account of itself when storms arise … We were particularly struck by the contrast with the Canadian system. There the Parole Board is executive rather than advisory, and is willing not only to step into the firing line when there is a furore over a case but also to seek positive ways of enhancing the image of parole through the media. Carlisle was emphatic about the need for this change. He said: The present structure … is not the right one for the new scheme which we propose … We believe that the only answer to these problems is for the Home Secretary to seek to be responsible for individual parole decisions. We still agree with that thrust of the Carlisle recommendations. We think that it is wrong for the Home Secretary to get involved in parole decisions. We know that it is not always he who makes the decision—often, the junior Minister has that onerous responsibility.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

Very sound.

Mr. Sheerman

It may be sound, but it is wrong that the decision should be taken by the Executive, by a politician. Parole is a complex matter that depends on a great deal of sifting of behaviour, of the record in prison and reports. Harking back to our earlier debate, I should point out the people who work in prisons—not just probation officers or the Parole Board members, but those who deal with prisoners day after day—make reports and look at the general way in which the prisoner has behaved, and give an estimate of how he is fitting in and abiding by the rules. It makes an important difference—without wishing to be contentious—whether that person comes from the state system or a private security company.

We think that it would be a happy release for the Home Secretary if he were not involved. We are all familiar with cases—I shall not give the tabloid press the benefit of mentioning some of the notorious cases—that become, for some reason or another, famous. Sometimes, for some inexplicable reason, the most ghastly cases do not hit the tabloid headlines while others do. Where they do, when it is the decision of the politician—the Home Secretary is, after all, a politician—it puts him under enormous pressure from people like the tabloid press.

The tabloid press may create an enormous furore about a particular person who has served a prison sentence, has perhaps been a model prisoner and has been recommended for parole. The Home Secretary may then say that the case is politically sensitive and that this notorious person cannot possibly be allowed out. In other words, he bows to the pressure of the tabloid press rather than takes the advice of the Parole Board. It would let the Home Secretary off the hook to have those decisions made by the Parole Board. It is unwise to have a cut-off point at seven years.

The report goes on to explain that the new parole system that is enacted in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, from which some of us bear the scars, removes much of the scope for public policy considerations which provide the rationale for the Home Secretary's responsibilities. The Act changes the ground on which the decision should be made. Prisoners will now be required to serve at least half of their sentence before they can be released on parole. Most parole decisions will be about whether a particular prisoner should be released at his eligibility date or at his mandatory release date a year or so thence. The number of cases where there will be more than two years at stake will be small as only those serving more than 12 years will be eligible for more than two years' parole.

We will not divide the House on the order, but we seek clarification. Why have the Government decided to limit the order to seven years? Why not follow the Carlisle proposals? Carlisle has tremendous support and is respected in the House in this area. He was a former Conservative Secretary of State for Education when I first came to the House. Why not choose 10 or 12 years? Will the Home Secretary be prepared to raise the limit above seven years when he has had an opportunity to judge how the new system works? We have had some assurances tonight, but I should like to have them copper bottomed. We believe that Carlisle was right. This sort of decision should be left to the Parole Board after detailed consideration. The Executive should not be involved in these matters.

I do not want to detain the House any longer, but I have a quick last point. Does the Home Secretary in tend to retain the power to give general policy guidelines to the Parole Board about the sort of cases that he deems inappropriate for parole? Will the board be free from Home Office oversight of that kind? We shall be grateful for the Minister's views on that issue. We believe that it would not be appropriate for the Home Secretary to be able to fetter the Parole Board in this way. It would undermine the effect of the order in relation to those serving under seven years.

The Opposition support the order, but would have liked the Government to have accepted Carlisle's recommendations in their entirety. We agree with the Minister. We want an open and fair system. The Carlisle recommendations seemed to give us the opportunity to step dramatically away from any political involvement. One of the moves that we hope to see over the next few years is the political input in this and a whole range of issues stepping back and the professionals—the justiciary or the Parole Board—making those decisions. During proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill, we on this side of the House argued strongly that Ministers should not get involved in matters that are on the one hand judicial and on the other hand for the professionals who serve on the Parole Board.

We will not oppose the order, but we should like answers to those questions.

12.14 am
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

I am less than enthusiastic about the Government's actions on parole. I am not against the transfer of decision making to the Parole Board for sentences of from four to seven years because the Home Secretary hardly ever goes against the board's wishes. However, there are one or two worrying aspects of the whole business. First, I do not think that the public realise that there is automatic release after serving 50 per cent. of a sentence. That will happen more frequently and will make judges consider, perhaps for the first time, the consequences of the length of sentence.

If judges are told that there is no question of parole, and that a person sentenced to up to four years will be released after two years or less, they will be tempted to impose a sentence of more than four years. That will lead to the imposition of longer prison sentences, and to more rather than less clutter in our prisons. There will be no way of stopping judges from reflecting what they see as the wish of the people—that the full sentence passed by a judge should be served, and not half that sentence.

The matter was raised at a recent judicial seminar at which judges openly expressed their concern about the Government's tendency to reduce the effectiveness of sentences. Not only judges but the public would be worried about that if they understood precisely what was happening.

Secondly, I am worried about the proposed abolition of the restrictive policy under which a person sentenced to more than five years loses parole if the offence relates to drugs, violence, sex or arson. The sentence imposed in such cases was served, and that was popular with the public.

Mr. Peter Lloyd

Even in those cases the whole sentence was not served because normally people were released after serving two thirds of the sentence.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

When he was Home Secretary, Sir Leon Brittan said that some offences were so serious that the public had to be protected and that he would effectively remove parole. Those offences related to sex, drugs, arson, and violence for which the sentence was above five years. The Government propose to abolish that restrictive policy so that parole is not removed from such people. They will be subject to the parole system. People from whom the public were protected will in future spend less time in prison.

There have been several recent examples of people out on bail or on parole seriously attacking members of the public. Some such people have committed murder when they were released rather earlier than the public would have expected. I understand the pressure on the Government about the prison population and I shall do all that I can to help them come to grips with the problem. I spoke for a few minutes on the previous order on the privatisation of prisons, which will help substantially.

But we must not be tempted to weaken our defences against criminals merely because we are having trouble in building enough prisons or improving existing ones quickly enough to keep prisoners in them. The public will not accept or like that. I have a slight feeling that the measure would not have been proposed before the last general election as the Government would not have wanted to go into the election giving the appearnace that they were weakening their defences against crime, not strengthening them.

I understand the Government's problem, and am not unsympathetic to it, but I warn them that the measure may be counterproductive if the judges pass longer sentences. And, on the more serious offences, I do not like the idea of releasing serious offenders much earlier than they would have been under the proposals implemented by the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, for good reason. I am not sure that they are being removed for anything like as good a reason. Therefore, I warn my hon. Friend the Minister that I shall watch the issue closely. Regardless of whether I am or am not a Conservative, I shall not hesitate to speak out against the Government if I think that their policy is misguided.

12.22 am>

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). I think that the Government are right to proceed as they are with the order. If judges consider the law as it stands—the order will become part of the law —they will consider issues such as parole and the dates of eligibility for release when they make their determinations. They are bound to bear in mind parole eligibility when they make their decisions on sentencing.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Hitherto, judges were specifically banned from taking into account the consequences of sentencing a person, other than the direct effects. They were not allowed to consider how soon the date of release would be. Now, the Government have made it impossible, under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and other such measures, for judges to rule that out, and they are bound to take those matters into consideration. That is the way in which the judicial system operated.

Mr. Maclennan

Judges are bound to have that issue in mind; it is part of the law of the land. Whatever may have been the case, I believe that in reality such matters were in judges' minds. The law has simply regularised the position, and the Government's decision to do so is satisfactory.

The hon. and learned Member for Burton speaks of what the public would expect. That is a piece of naked populism. The reality is that the public have no expectation about the suitability of someone for release some years after the event in a case where there has been a sentence of between four and seven years. It is difficult enough for the Parole Board to know whether it is appropriate to recommend release on licence; it is impossible for the public who are not apprised of the details of the case.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that his constituents and mine expect sentences to mean what they say? If a man is sentenced to six years' imprisonment, our constituents expect him to be behind bars for six years, not to be let out after three. To let a prisoner out after three years is to defraud the public.

Mr. Maclennan

Happily, I think that my constituents are better informed and more intelligent than the hon. Gentleman's. I do not believe that any of my constituents would take such a simple-minded view of the facts. Most members of the public would be astonished at the idea that it was impossible for a prisoner to be released before the end of his or her term of sentence. The hon. Gentleman is not living in the real world.

The Minister cannot sensibly move much farther in the direction that he has taken, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) invited him to do.

Mr. Sheerman

Why not?

Mr. Maclennan

I will explain why. The order will take some time to come into effect. It will apply only to convictions from October this year. The Parole Board's first reviews of the shorter sentences will not, therefore, be made for another 18 or 21 months. If we are to learn anything about how the scheme is working, we will need a little more time.

The exercise of ministerial discretion should be reserved for exceptional circumstances. I hope that view is shared by Home Office Ministers. Nevertheless, such discretion provides a fallback that may be of some residual importance. Certainly, I do not object to the direction in which the Government are moving, and I strongly support the order as a step in a sensible direction.

12.26 am
Mr. Peter Lloyd

I will answer briefly the points that were put to me.

Mr. Maclennan


Mr. Lloyd

Does the hon. Gentleman want to make another point?

Mr. Maclennan

One so rarely has the opportunity to raise parole matters in the House that I want to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to say something in his reply about the comment about the Parole Board's resources in the letter to the Home Secretary from its chairman to the effect that they gave him cause for anxiety.

Mr. Lloyd

I will answer the points as they were put to me in turn.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) asked why the Government are not adopting Carlisle's entire recommendations. We are adopting almost all of them. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has a much-reduced role. I believe that aspect was the subject of considerable debate during the progress of the Criminal Justice Bill in 1991, so the hon. Member for Huddersfield has seen the mind of the Government exposed over a longer period than I have.

The seven-year period chosen was a matter of judgment, but it encompasses longer sentences and offenders who perpetrate more serious crimes. It is right that the Secretary of State, with his wider responsibilities to the community, should continue—at least for the present and the foreseeable future—to take responsibility for the comparatively small number of longer sentences and for serious criminals who are to be released earlier than the court's sentence prescribed.

The hon. Member for Huddersfield asked what scope exists for re-evaluating the period in question. The measure has been so designed that, by an order, we can extend or reduce its length. We are very open to learning from future experience, but it will be more than a couple of years before cases come before the Parole Board in any number. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, though a very hard worker, would prefer not to do work unnecessarily that can properly be delegated to the board.

The hon. Gentleman asked also whether the directions will relate to special types of offences. They will not. When the directions that are to come into effect in October are published it will become clear that they relate not to particular offences but to general considerations of public safety. Obviously the Parole Board will take that into account when considering the nature of the crime and progress made in gaol, but no specific direction will be imposed in regard to particular types of offence—although the type of consideration that the board should apply to the whole range of offences will be very clear.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) was unhappy about at least part of what we are doing. He thought that the position would be confusing, but in fact it will be much clearer. Some prisoners will be released automatically halfway through their sentences; currently a prisoner could be released as early as a third of the way through his sentence, or as late as two thirds of the way through it. The judges will be much clearer on the matter: they will know that at least half a sentence will always be served, and will pass sentence accordingly, with the law in mind. The law is now rather more straightforward than it has been in the past.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

My hon. Friend misunderstood me. I was not talking about any confusion. At present, a judge has no way of knowing that a person will be released after serving a third of his sentence, because that person's release may be subject to consideration of parole. But a judge will now know that there is automatic release for anyone in the case of a sentence of up to four years. Judges will be tempted to take that into consideration when sentencing, and will therefore be likely to increase the sentence.

Mr. Lloyd

Of course judges will have that in mind when sentencing, and it is quite right that they should. At present, however, anything between a third and two thirds of the sentence could apply. What judges will now bear in mind is much clearer that what they were able to bear in mind before: there will be less confusion and more clarity in the judicial mind.

My hon. arid learned Friend the Member for Burton referred to the restricted policy. At the time of its introduction—although not nowadays the logic of that policy lay in the more detailed general criteria that the board was to take into account. The emphasis was on the need to take into account safety in the community. The board will not release prisoners whose release would be too dangerous, but it will be proper to give parole to some drug offenders.

The most important difference—I think that my hon. and learned Friend Missed it—lies in the fact that, in one respect, the policy that we propose is tougher. When, under the restricted policy, a prisoner was finally released, he was released "cold", whether he was a reformed character or as sinful as he had been before. Under this policy, prisoners will not go into the community "cold"; there must be some supervision. I consider that a real safeguard for the community. The policy is tougher but more flexible, and I think that that entirely justifies the removal of the restricted policy.

I was grateful for the approval of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) intervened to ask whether six years meant six years. His constituents, and those of other Conservative Members, think that six years has always meant six years, but it has not. Under the present rules it has sometimes meant two years, but in future we shall know that it wll mean at least three years.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about the chairman of the Parole Board. He was concerned about staff numbers. He will be getting more staff than he thought when he expressed his concerns. The Parole Board is taking on a new set of duties. We shall have to watch carefully the weight of work and see that he has sufficient resources to discharge his duties effectively. I commend the order to the House.

12.34 am
Mr. Sheerman

It was fascinating to hear, after our deliberations in Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill, the debate between the Minister and his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). He mentioned sentencing councils. I remember the lengthy argument we had in Committee about sentencing councils. It would be pertinent to think about sentencing councils if judges reacted in the way that the hon. and learned Member for Burton suggested. Common sense suggests that judges have always taken into consideration the length of sentence that prisoners serve.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) referred to resources for the Parole Board. It is easy to underestimate the increase in the amount of its work. Proper resources must be provided to take account of that increase. It is also important to ensure that adequate resources are provided for the probation service. Proper supervision of prisoners when they are released does not come cheap. If the public are to respect that supervision, it must be done well. It must not be the laying on of hands once a year, or even once every six months. As we argued in Committee, the probation service must be provided with additonal resources to provide proper supervision.

We urge the Minister to provide the resources that are required for adequate supervision. I have high hopes of the working of the Criminal Justice Act. Therefore, supervision must be quality supervision rather than nominal supervision.

12.36 am
Mr. Lloyd

The hon. Gentleman is right. The necessary resources must be provided, both for the Parole Board and for the probation service. Additional staff have been provided for the Parole Board. Additional provision is being made for the probation service.

On put and agreed to.


That the draft Parole Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 1992, which was laid before this House on 23 June, be approved.

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