HL Deb 22 March 1979 vol 399 cc1352-99

7.16 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will institute an independent inquiry into the whole parole system as recommended in the 15th Report of the House of Commons Expenditure Committee, Session 1977–78 (H.C. 662—I). The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I should like to begin by reading a few lines from the Fifteenth Report of the House of Commons Expenditure Committee: The Sub-Committee feel that the whole subject of parole and the criticisms which have been made of it, and the possible alternative models which might be adopted, are too complicated and specialised for them to embark on in the available time. But we regard the internal inquiry by officials as too limited in response to the criticisms of parole, and the great importance of the system to the smooth working of the penal system. We recommend"— and their recommendation was endorsed by the full Expenditure Committee— that an independent inquiry should be instituted into the whole parole system …". It is following that recommendation that I venture tonight to bring this matter before your Lordships.

I shall not spend time discussing whether parole in the abstract is a good idea. I am still—as I was when I opened a debate on parole in your Lordships' House in 1975—a strong and unrepentant believer in the parole system, or in the principle of parole. I still believe that it offers a measure of hope and encouragement and moral incentive to prisoners, and in that way offers genuine help to them in improving their conduct. I still believe, moreover, that any adequate parole system is bound to reduce considerably the number of men and women in prison, which today most of us regard as an urgent objective, even allowing for the great increase in crime in recent years. Many of us are aware—and no doubt the Minister is the most aware of all—of the serious situation, for example, in Walton Prison, Liverpool, where it is perhaps no coincidence that there are 1,600 prisoners in a prison intended for 850. I need not drive in the moral.

Again I shall not spend time asking whether the authorities operating the system are entitled to say that parole has been a success in this country. Certainly I would not say that it had been a failure. I have a vested interest, if you like, in applauding parole, since I was chairman of the Labour Party Committee—which included the present Lord Chancellor and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, who regrets that he is unable to be with us tonight—which came out with the first considered proposals for parole in 1964. I readily acknowledge, therefore, that the parole system has done and is doing much more good than harm, which is far from saying that it is beyond serious criticism.

I cannot fail to refer to the retirement of Sir Louis Petch as chairman of the Parole Board and to the appointment of Lord Harris of Greenwich as his successor, to whom, once again, I wish everything good in his new role. I hope that he will treat it, if not as quite a full-time job, which is how I think the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, treated it, then, at least very nearly so. Once again I wish everything good to Lord Harris of Greenwich in his new life. I have frequently differed from Sir Louis Petch about matters affecting parole, but I can never forget the unfailing courtesy with which he has always treated me, even at times under considerable provocation, and the gallantry with which he faced his recent severe illness, from which I am glad to think that he has now recovered. I wish Sir Louis a long and happy retirement after many years of dedicated service to the State.

What then of the future? To quote an important document which is shortly to be published by NACRO: There is widespread agreement that the present system is in need of revision, although feelings differ as to what form this revision should take". There are two points there and I think each is put rather mildly in that sensible statement by NACRO. In this situation when you get the need for change generally admitted but a widespread difference of opinion, what usually happens is precisely nothing. The critics are played off against each other, unless one of two things emerges: either a Minister who has time and energy and imagination enough to produce his own solution, accepted ultimately, of course, by the Government, or a committee under a chairman of the type of Lord Beveridge, or Lord Robbins or Lord Wolfenden—to mention the first three noble Lords who come into my mind—produces a report of social dynamism.

I certainly will not rule out the first alternative of the inspired Minister. It might be the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham: it might be, under certain unmentionable circumstances, the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, or even the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Why not? I believe that everything in this world happens eventually. Those are all possibilities, but under the present political circumstances we cannot expect the latter alternative to be hastily realised. So the inquiry is the only possible and urgent answer. I may be told that an internal review has been proceeding within the Home Office. The Parliamentary Sub-Committee, as I said earlier, considered that that was quite insufficient, and I personally agree with them strongly. I would concede, however, that if a Green Paper—about which we may or may not hear something from the Minister—is coming out shortly it might be commonsense to wait for its appearance. But I am sure that Green Paper or no Green Paper an independent inquiry as recommended by the Parliamentary Sub-Committee is indispensable.

In the debate which I opened in this House in 1975 I rehearsed most of the leading criticisms of the present parole system. Broadly speaking, all those criticisms apply today, but I will not take the House through most of them now. When we were discussing the Home Office on 31st January the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to what he called the anxiety-making slowness of decision-making. believe the time has come"— said the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, at the end of January— after 11 years of operation to dispense with much of the elaborate and time-consuming processing of cases which is carried out in the Home Office parole unit". That is what Lord Hunt said then, and no doubt he believes it still.

Of course, I could give many examples because so many come my way. I will give one illustration which reached me yesterday and which I have not had time to pass on to the noble Lord, but I presume he may have had a chance to look into it. A noble Lord wrote to me as follows: The case arises in connection with my agricultural mechanic"— and he gives the name— who has now been in prison 9½ years for the murder of his wife, of which I am convinced he is innocent"— that is not really the point, one way or the other. But be that as it may, he"— that is his agricultural mechanic, now serving a life sentence— was told last October that he was being reviewed for parole, since when he has heard nothing, despite the fact that I believe he has excellent reports from all the prisons. I cannot believe that it has taken six months for the powers that be to make up their minds and the delay seems to me to be a quite unnecessary refinement of torture. Would it not be possible to be kinder in cases of this sort? I appreciate that in a life sentence there are one or two complications which do not arise habitually, but I quote that one example out of many of how the system involves very disquieting delays. However, I shall leave that topic to others this evening, except to say that I am sure there must be much more devolution. I could name at least three ways in which this could be done, but I am ready to accept the great advantage of this issue being tackled afresh by the independent inquiry.

The other and more fundamental weakness of the present system which I shall go into more carefully is the failure to give reasons, in however general a form, for negative decisions. This failure to give reasons has, of course, been criticised many times here and in many other places and with most authority recently, perhaps, by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, as the former chairman of the Parole Board in the speech on 31st January, from which I have quoted. I would myself also insist at this point on the need for a prisoner to be given a chance to be heard before the local review board, but again I must leave that point at the moment.

Mr. Paul Cavadino, of NACRO, a genuine expert, has summed up the defect of the present system as well as anyone—and now I am quoting this representative of NACRO: To deny parole to a prisoner who has been waiting anxiously for three or four months for a decision, and to give no formal explanation, is likely to induce cynicism and bitterness about the whole procedure. It is bound to give rise to the suspicion in an inmate's mind that the decision in his case has not been considered carefully hut has been arrived at arbitrarily". He continues: Moreover without being given reasons for his failure, it is difficult for a prisoner to work constructively for his release". I think we would all agree that the last point cannot be rubbed in too often.

We must remember that it is not only the prisoner but usually, in my experience, the local prison authority who are trying to help the prisoner, who are themselves given no clue as to the reasons for the negative decision. Why are the Parole Board so obdurate in this negative attitude? If I provide an explanation which they would regard as unfair they must realise that they deliberately refrain from giving us material for an adequate judgment. I myself cannot resist the conclusion that a crucial reason why the Board will not give reasons is that in many cases their actual reasons are not such as they would wish to avow publicly.

Take a case that I raised in the 1975 debate, that of Mr.John Poulson, for example. I mention that because I mentioned it before. If the board had had to give reasons for not letting Mr. Poulson have parole the first time round, when he was already a sick man, they would have had to explain why he was refused parole on the first occasion. I am glad to say he was granted it later. They would have found it most difficult to provide a reasonable explanation why it was impossible to grant him parole the first time and why. a little later on, they decided that it was in order. I do not think anybody would say that, somehow or other, he had become a more reliable citizen.

A week or two ago I was visiting a prisoner who has served many years of a long and determinate sentence and who has been refused parole several times. The prisoner in question is supported in his parole application by the governor, who is frankly bewildered by this refusal. The governor asked me recently: "What has the Parole Board got against Andy?". The man's name is not "Andy", but I will give him that pseudonym. I know his name, but whatever he may or may not be called he is a very well known prisoner. I said I supposed that the Parole Board thought there would be an outcry if he were released, though personally I am sure there would not be. I can only think of one other explanation, which I will come to in a moment.

When I say that fear of public opinion is the only, or at any rate the predominant, reason why certain persons are not released, the authorities become rather hot under the collar as far as their officialese permits them. I know that the noble Lord would always exercise perfect charity towards anybody's criticism, even if he thought it was not quite fair. The Parole Board say that when a prisoner, admittedly not dangerous, is not allowed parole there can be many other factors in addition to public opinion. I am quoting from official communications which are not marked "confidential".

Let us focus on that for a moment. What are these many other factors? In such communications, letters written to me about prisoners every now and then, the authorities, which is usually a Home Office Minister, mention retribution and deterrence. Here we are reaching the heart of the question. Let us forget public opinion for the moment and concentrate on these factors, retribution and deterrence. I place this fairly and squarely before the House, and ultimately the Minister. Are these factors, or are they not, to be taken into account in the parole decision, whether by the Parole Board or the Home Secretary, and whether what is under discussion is, strictly speaking, parole or release on licence? Until we get a straight answer to that question, instead of a string of calculated evasions, which I am bound to say I have received for a good many years, we cannot even pretend that we know what goes on behind the scenes of parole, or how the parole system really works or what are the criteria actually relied on, whatever may be written down in the reports.

If we read through the report of the Parole Board for 1977, with an appendix discussing at great length what is meant by suitability for parole, we will not find retribution and deterrence treated there as the factors which determine the decision. Reference is made briefly in the report to the need for retaining the confidence of the public; but that is a different question, as I have tried to indicate. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Boston, would be the last to accuse me of only taking up the cases of well-known prisoners. Like his predecessors, he is constantly assailed by myself on behalf of prisoners of whom the public has never heard, and I am afraid that is part of his cross. May I say, since I am not always as kind as I might be about Home Office officials, that the answers I have received from Ministers, assisted by their excellent advisers, always indicate that a great deal of trouble has been taken to look into the case and perhaps almost as much trouble to present it in the most favourable light; at any rate, a lot of trouble one way and another has been taken over these answers over the years.

The Parole Board point out in their last report that what they call the overall Parolingrate—that is, the percentage of determinate sentence prisoners eligible who receive parole at some stage—has now risen to 62 per cent. But this figure is not as impressive as it sounds. In a great many cases in my experience the prisoner is not released on parole until very near the end of his sentence. But that does not affect this figure of 62 per cent. If you released everybody a month before the end of his sentence you could call it 100 per cent. So the figure of 62 per cent., has to be looked at with caution. In the great majority of cases, the effect on public opinion would not usually be important. So I am afraid the Parole Board decide in many cases that a certain crime deserves a certain sentence quite irrespective of the progress made by the prisoner. One is forced to that conclusion. In other words, they see themselves as a sort of judicial longstop, a longstop for the judiciary, which is surely not their intended function.

My Lords, let me leave no doubt as to what I am saying. I am making two points. First, I am saying that to allow public opinion, disgracefully inflamed in some cases by the popular Press, to decide the fate of a particular prisoner is a ludicrous caricature of democracy. One national daily, for example, has recently conducted a very biased poll in regard to the parole or release on licence of a particular prisoner. Surely no one is going to say that the Parole Board or the Home Secretary ought to be influenced by a poll of that kind, even if it were conducted, as this certainly was not, with scrupulous objectivity. Whatever may be said about the need for the general operation of parole to comply with public sentiment, surely it is absolutely contrary to natural justice and is introducing a principle of mob rule or lynch law if a particular prisoner is dealt with according to public opinion stirred up in that particular way and interpreted by these very hostile elements.

Secondly, I am submitting that to allow retribution and deterrence to play their part, and maybe a dominant part, in the decisions is to introduce a crucial element of resentencing. Those conceptions may well be necessary elements in the original sentence, but if the Parole Board relies on them it is doing the work of the judge over again, without legal safeguards and with no protection for the prisoner. If the crime and its circumstances are to be studied— and in the Parole Board appendix it is suggested that attention should be paid to the crime—it should, and this is apparently what the Parole Board has in mind on paper, only be studied as to the light it throws on the future conduct of the prisoner; it should not go towards a verdict as to how long the prisoner ought to stay in prison irrespective of his conduct. Otherwise, the whole process of collecting elaborate dossiers about a prisoner's progress turns into a cynical humbug.

My Lords, before I close I must say a few words about life sentence prisoners. I do not want to make too much of life sentence prisoners because the problems are different here, though very acute in their own way. The problems are admittedly special, if only because there is no such thing as a third of a life sentence. If a train robber is given 30 years—an appallingly long sentence—you can say that after 10 years he comes up for parole; yet if someone who has committed a grave crime is given a life sentence, you cannot say that after a certain number of years he is entitled to be considered. But even in the life sentence cases the voice of natural justice and human decency must surely be attended to.

Nearly two years ago Lord Gardiner, Lord Carr, Lord Hunt and myself waited on the Home Secretary and urged that any prisoner who had served 10 years at the outside should be at least considered for parole: not given parole but considered for parole; allowed on to the course as you might say, or, taking an analogy from croquet, be allowed to have a shot at the first hoop. That is what we four submitted, without reference to any particular individual, and that would have been at least a beginning which would hold out a little hope.

The Home Secretary turned down that request, and I am afraid his hardness of heart has not stopped there. Recently a life prisoner who has served over 13 years in prison, has not been in category A during the last six years, and has been described by Sir Louis Petch as not dangerous any longer, has been informed that consideration for parole cannot be entertained for at least another three years, with no assurance whatever that it will be entertained at that time. In other words, in the case of this prisoner—and no doubt we shall be told that this person is treated as others are treated—there will be no assurance, after 16 years in prison, of consideration for parole. If we heard of someone being treated like that in the Soviet Union or Chile, we might call it mental torture. There is no need to change the label because it is occurring in our own country, where our responsibility is infinitely greater.

I must return, more coolly, to the general question of what reforms in our parole system are just and practicable bearing in mind the immense complexity of the subject to which the Parliamentary Committee has borne witness. My own point of view is largely summed up by something the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said to the Annual Conference of the National Association of Probation Officers in 1976, and I assume that it is still his point of view. He said: I would like to see parole denied only in exceptional cases and to see reasons for such exceptional refusals explained to prisoners. There is still an element of re-sentencing in the process of assessing people serving determinate sentences which in my view should not be there". That I believe, sums up the matter.

There is plenty of room for argument as to whether these changes can be effected under a system such as the present one, which is still administrative in principle, or whether we must turn, as Dr. Roger Hood and others have suggested, to a system which was in some sense judicial. I can see advantages in either course. I would not be dogmatic about their respective merits. I would be perfectly happy with either outcome. The great thing is that we should get on with the job, more concerned with the human beings than the system, and yet aware that unless we get the system right we are doing a grave injustice to human beings. For that purpose I am sure that an independent review as recommended by the Parliamentary Sub-Committee is the all-important prerequisite.

7.43 p.m.


My Lords, no one who has ever had dealings with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, or who has heard him speak, doubts that his prime concern is with human beings and such, I would suggest, should be the concern of all those who attempt to say anything upon this subject. However, I remind him that a parole system which does not command public credibility and public acceptability will not prevail or last. In saying that, I am not talking about the more flagrant and extravagant things that are said in the Press: I am talking about something which relates much more to a ground swell of opinion, very often in a particular locality. I respectfully suggest to the noble Earl that if he disregards that in his reforming zeal, he does so at his peril.

It is some time since I had anything personally to do with the parole system, but, as I read the submissions on this subject which were made from various sources to the Sub-Committee which has made this recommendation, I recognised, that perhaps not surprisingly, after 10 or 11 years, there are now a number of new ideas and radical approaches which have been put forward and which must obviously command attention—especially as they come from sources such as the Probation Officers' Working Party, NACRO and people of that sort. They are criticisms and suggestions from informed and sensible people, and we must look at them carefully. For myself, they seem to vary so much from the extreme of wanting automatic parole after perhaps a third of the sentence, to the ideas of those who now think that, having tried the experiment, there should be no parole at all, with roughly every station in between, that I am bound to say I feel the internal review that is going on—I know not how far it has got—cannot possibly be the end of the matter.

If there is a Green Paper on the horizon, it will lead, I hope, to further informed public criticism and no doubt to discussion in Parliament. But, we must, if we are contemplating changes, have the widest possible public discussion of what we are doing and, if we are to decide in the end that we shall not have any changes or none but fairly marginal ones, the reasons must be such as to convince those who are now, and who for some time have been, saying that there is a decisive need to bring about a revision of the system.

Therefore, I hope that one way or another the Government are in train of producing a type of reappraisal—I am not necessarily saying that it should be an independent inquiry—which will really give the opportunity to look at all these suggestions and open them to public discussion. Thus, if people—and this is inevitable—have their ideas turned down, they will at least know that their ideas have been treated with justice and with due consideration and that there are good reasons why they have been dismissed. I say this because it seems to me that we are getting to the stage of a very severe dispute about the whole system, at least as to its administration. I should think that nobody would for one moment really expect the parole system to be abolished. We are trying to talk about improvements and changes to it.

The noble Earl has touched upon two issues, one of which is speed of decision. There cannot be many people who would wish to deny that that is a desirable aim. But there are, as always in this area, other sides to the argument which I do not say are in any way conclusive but which we must bear in mind. The inevitable first port of call of those who wish to have speed is that there should be delegation. I do not think that it very much matters whether there is more delegation to local review committees or to regional, district or area committees or whatever they may be. However, that is what is being suggested, and of course it is right that that should be done.

However, the moment one starts introducing that type of solution, one runs into the sister problem which is equally important and equally liable to cause grievance—namely, lack of consistency between the decisions on what would at least appear to be parallel cases. I shall simply illustrate that in theory, because I am not suggesting that this is necessarily an issue where there is consistency: I just do not know. However, I would guess that in cases relating to offences of possession of drugs, particularly soft drugs, with only the slightest suspicion of pushing them, different boards, different review committees, different officials, and different Ministers are all capable quite honestly, genuinely and sincerely of holding very different views about what should be done. Of course, the result of that can, if one is not careful, be gravely inconsistent decisions on individual cases. I only put forward that example because I myself happen to find this a particularly hard subject and I know that I benefited very greatly from discussing it with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and his colleagues on the board. I think all of us learned a good deal about the subject there and perhaps it aided us to be consistent.

In the evidence given by the Probation Officers' Working Party to the Select Committee the view was expressed that there is a marked degree—I should almost think that they meant an alarming degree—of inconsistency among the local review committees at the different establishments. I think that NACRO said the same in its evidence. Therefore, I would need convincing that a new district or regional organisation, with comparatively slender central co-ordinating powers, would have the effect that we all desire. I am very much afraid that there would be a premium on being in the South-Western area, because the Bristol district committee was particularly lenient with non-violent burglars, or those who committed some such offence. The danger here is that, although the moment it came to light one would try very hard to retrieve such a situation, it is not easy to do so in fact and it is almost impossible to do so in reputation. Therefore inconsistencies are a real difficulty which one must face and seek to resolve.

The noble Earl related a good deal of his speech to reasons. I hope that I know the prison system well enough to understand very fully what it is that this cry for help is about. I think that I also know the prison system sufficiently well to know that the giving of reasons could, in its turn, create almost as large a problem as the refusal to do so. That one must take into account and bear in mind. I do not know what stage the Parole Board's reasons experiment has reached and I certainly do not know what conclusions Ministers will draw from it. What I say now really derives from my own thoughts on this matter, aided by the evidence given to the Select Committee by the chairman and secretary of the Parole Board, which is printed in the book of evidence which the Select Committee published.

First, there is the question of the practicability of producing reasons which would do the job that the noble Earl wishes. I wonder what, in fact, the noble Earl expects by way of reasons. I do not think that he will get a carefully detailed reason, specifically tailored to the facts relating to an individual prisoner, which will be considered at some length by the Board. It is inconceivable that that sort of reason should be able to be given or that it would be right to do so. At the most I would anticipate a fairly stereotyped set of reasons, one or more of which would be produced. I wonder how much that would help.

Of course, the reason for my recollection is that when one is deciding an individual case, one does not necessarily do so for any one reason or, indeed, any two reasons. It is a matter of an overall impression. I also believe that when there is not one Minister but a panel of several people trying to decide, they may all come to the same conclusion but for totally different reasons. Therefore, the job of providing something satisfactory is increasingly hard.

There are also, of course, cases where we cannot tell the true reason. We cannot say to a prisoner, "In every other respect you are wholly fit to go out on parole, but the home circumstances report has just disclosed that your wife is living with a lover, and we think that if you go out and find this, you will run amok." We cannot give that sort of reason. That is, of course, an extreme case and I hope that it will never happen, but there are plenty of reasons which one simply cannot give to a prisoner without doing him and his family enormous harm, and retarding his progress.

Then it occurred to me to think that on the, I hope, very few occasions when I recommended that the Secretary of State should disagree with the Parole Board I, too, would have had to suggest a reason. Some of the decisions contained at any rate an element of an attempt to take account of what I said at the beginning of my speech—namely, the effect on public opinion as to the credibility and acceptability of parole. I do not know how that can be put into a reason, at least a reason that would ever satisfy a prisoner.

Finally, Sir Louis Petch in his evidence gave some examples of reasons that might be given. He said: Let us think of four typical causes for concern. The nature of the offence is such that we will not let him out yet—in other words, the retribution, deterrent purpose; about which the noble Earl spoke. Sir Louis continues: the mental state of the prisoner is such that it is not safe to let him out; the home circumstances to which he will be returning look so disastrous that we will not let him out, or, his behaviour in prison has been awful and we are not letting him out yet". The last chairman of the Parole Board said: Of those four things only one is something which he can do anything about, and that is his behaviour in prison". Certainly a good deal of the burden of the request for reasons has been that the prisoner would like to know what he can do about it so that he gets a favourable response next time. However, that illustration surely shows that three out of the four are completely out of his control. It must be realised that this should be taken seriously into account.

It seems to me that the matter goes a little further; and this is perhaps where I look at the matter rather more through a lawyer's eyes, but also with the background of my own experience in the Home Office. When one discusses the nature of the parole system at present, one must appreciate that it is surely executive. In many ways it is very similar to the release of persons who are detained in special hospitals under the Mental Health Acts. Of course, the considerations are quite different, but it is a similar type of executive action. There is good cause for this. The prisoner has committed an offence for which he has been tried and found guilty, and has been sentenced to a determinate term by a judge. By no means infrequently the judge has sentenced him, at least in part, for the protection of the public.

Again let me take an extreme case, because it illustrates what I wish to say. Let us assume that he was a rapist. He is released on parole and does it again. The newspapers say, "Who released this rapist?" At the moment it is the Minister who has to say, "I did; I overruled what the judge passed by way of sentence. I thought that it was right to do so". What do we say to the victim of the second offence or to the girl's parents? It is no use saying "Well, of course, he would have been out in three months anyway". The girl's parents, her friends and the girl herself would say, "Maybe he would, but he would not have done it to me". If one makes that sort of mistake, it is right that one should take the responsibility. I suppose that in the end if you make a bad enough mistake or do it often enough, you must face the possibility of resigning. That is what an executive decision means and that is where the responsibility lies. Personally, I would not shrink from it when I am attempting to administer this sort of system.

There are other executive decisions and NACRO has drawn a parallel, for instance, with the immigration appeals system. I find a marked distinction between that and the question of parole. It is perfectly true that there is a public interest in preventing people entering this country when they should not, but in those cases there is no question of the protection of the person and of the property of members of the public from attack, violation and injury by the person who has actually been committed to prison for a similar or another offence. I do not think that it follows at all on the analogy that there should be an appeal in this sort of case.

On the subject of appeals, to whom then does one appeal? Incidentally, if there is to be an appeal by a prisoner who has been refused parole, would you have an appeal against the grant of parole by his former victim? I think it bears consideration, although I am sure in the end the answer would be, No. If you are talking about appeals, then reasons of course are the way in. In any executive decision, particularly if it can be said to be quasi-judicial, the moment reasons are given there is a handhold for the courts. I would not, as a lawyer, for a minute wish to deny that that is correct.

If on a parole decision, or on any other decision, an executive act or quasi-judicial act is carried out and reasons are given for it which clearly disclose on their face that quite the wrong considerations were taken into account, or something material was completely left out of account, then I think it is right that the decision should be capable of being overruled by the courts. This is what is likely to happen if you have reasons.

It probably would not happen very often but, if it did happen, let us consider further what would then be the result. Of course, to start with it would take a good deal of time, so that it would not get the person out of prison quickly because the process of judicial review does not usually take less than quite a few weeks, and quite likely months. But what if the refusal to let him out were to be quashed by the High Court? It is sent back then to the Secretary of State. What then? Is he to consider the same old material as he had before him on the previous occasion? If so, is he going to come to a different conclusion from his previous one? Or is he going to start again with new material, in which case it certainly is not going to result in the man being let out any more quickly.

I noticed that as you come towards a more judicial system—and this is certainly on the way to it—Sir Louis told the Select Committee that, in his view, a judicial system could very well result in fewer people being let out on parole than the executive system that we have now. I do not want to go on about this because I know that there is a full consideration going on at the moment. But I am bound to say that I would think that if you wished to talk about appeals, if you wished to talk about appearances before the board or panel which hears the case, if you wished to talk about reasons which bring in justiciability before the courts, you are moving away from the system that was laid down by the Criminal Justice Act 1967 not just in detail but in substance and in principle. You are moving away from the executive decision of the Minister. You are moving over to a partly, or completely, judicial system. Maybe that is what Dr. Hood wants, but let us recognise that it is something very different indeed.

This is no conclusive survey at all. They are some thoughts that I had when I was considering it, but I believe they underline the profundity of what we are talking about. It is not a simple little matter of speeding it up; a simple matter of communicating the reasons for the prisoner. The implications are far-reaching, profound, and difficult. If we can solve them, and improve the system, let us do so; but let us not pretend that it is going to be easy.

8.4 p.m.


My Lords, we are all indebted once again to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing a debate on this important aspect of our penal system. I am sure we would all agree that the introduction of parole in the Criminal Justice Act 1967 was a dramatic step forward in our treatment of prisoners. The way in which the Parole Board has operated, to begin with under the extremely wise leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has led to that system developing and being very largely accepted; accepted, indeed, to the extent that it causes no surprise today to the general public to learn that over half of those prisoners who are eligible for parole do receive it at some stage during the term of their period of imprisonment.

The beneficial effects of parole are of course self-evident. It means first that over 50 per cent. of the prison population are able to integrate themselves in the community at an earlier date than would otherwise have been possible. It means secondly that it has been possible substantially to reduce the still appallingly overcrowded conditions in our prisons. It means thirdly—and this is not in itself a reason for any particular reform—that a substantial amount of public funds have been saved by the granting of early release to prisoners in this way.

However, so great and so dramatic has been the progress of the parole system that I believe it can now be accepted as being a success, to the extent that we can afford to look squarely at the disadvantages which, at the same time, have arisen and see to what extent they can be resolved in the future. The first problem that has arisen, and I regard it in some ways as the most important one, is that, every year until he receives parole a prisoner's hopes are built up over the months; his spirits rise. He, and often his wife, are told by various social workers, for example, that it is quite obvious that parole is going to be obtained this year; the reports are all favourable. Then suddenly, and crushingly, parole is refused. The effect on the morale of a prisoner and his family can be extraordinarily damaging. I have seen myself how depressed and morose for substantial periods after refusal of parole a prisoner and his family can be. That is so, and it is a situation that is bound to be so so long as parole remains, as it is at the moment, discretionary. It is bound to be so whether or not reasons are given. Even if reasons could be given, this would not reduce the feeling of disappointment and bitter anti-climax that is so often occasioned.

I entirely agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, that although in theory it is desirable to give reasons, in practice if reasons are to be given, to be of any use they have to be detailed and they have to be scrupulously honest. I find it difficult to see how that could be done in every case. If it could not be done, then it seems to me to be impossible to embark on doing it in a limited number of cases. The third area in which difficulty arises at the moment is a feeling among prisoners that the local review committees are inconsistent as between themselves, and that decisions sometimes arise favouring one prisoner whereas someone in exactly the same position in a different area finds his application refused.

The fourth difficulty that the parole system has now come to face is the fact that there must quite inevitably be the occasional error of judgment, the occasional miscalculation. Perhaps even without there being an error of judgment or a miscalculation there must inevitably be the occasional instance in which some prisoner commits a notorious crime while on parole. When that is done, it is quite inevitable that the media will represent it as a breakdown of the whole parole system.

It is perhaps worth commenting, because it sheds a little light on what I am going to suggest is the way forward, that I have never known the Press to comment when a prisoner commits some notorious crime after being released on remission. Remission is taken for granted, and is accepted by the community. If a prisoner who has behaved himself comes out after serving two-thirds of his sentence, it never occurs to anyone to point out that the system is failing if that person then commits a further offence.

I mention that because we are reaching a situation when the large majority of prisoners who are eligible for parole are obtaining it, and the more prisoners who obtain parole the less there becomes any realistic distinction between parole and remission. If the great majority of prisoners are being released before their time in any event, there is very little distinction, except a terminological one, between the two concepts, and I suggest that, on reflecting on this, perhaps we can see an indication of a way forward.

For example, it may be that we could amend the rule whereby a prisoner is entitled to a third remission, if he is of good conduct, and say he is entitled to a half remission on his sentence in the event of his behaving himself during his sentence. If that were so, it would be possible largely, though not entirely, to do away with the whole concept of parole; it would be possible to say that as of right—as a general, though not an invariable, rule (I shall come to that shortly)—prisoners could be released after serving half their sentences.

It would of course be necessary, certainly highly desirable, to retain the great advantages of the parole system in giving support to prisoners when they are released in such circumstances, and clearly they would have to be regarded as being on licence for some period after their release and be entitled to the proper support of the probation service. If we could move forward in that way, it would relieve enormously the pressure on our greatly overcrowded prisons; it would mean that prisoners as a matter of general course were released earlier than they are now under the present remission rules, and I believe the community would accept that rather more readily than it is prepared at the moment to accept a further extension of the parole system, with what the public see as the dangers involved.

I accept at once that if we are to move in this direction there is one worry—namely, that if the courts assume that whatever sentence they pass will in effect be halved, there is bound to be a temptation for the courts to increase the length of sentences. That consideration applies particularly where courts are sending people to prison for long periods for the specific reason that it is necessary that the community should be protected against a particular prisoner for a substantial time.

It was for that reason that I said one might consider as a general, though not an invariable, rule that prisoners might be entitled to remission half way through their sentences. I would certainly accept that there should be power in a judge, if he is imposing a sentence specifically to protect the community against a prisoner for a period of time, to be able to say so in terms and that, if he says so in terms, the rule as to an automatic right to release half way through the sentence should not apply.

Although the rule as to an automatic right of release would not apply, I suggest that it might still be possible to say that, where a recommendation of that sort is made, such a prisoner should have the right to apply for consideration of his case. The Parole Board might then be able to consider such cases after the prisoners had served half their sentences, to see if and when it might be possible to release them. That would leave an important function for the Parole Board. It would at the same time mean that the board itself could deal with the applications, because they would be a comparatively small number, and it would not be necessary for the local review committees to be involved.

I put those thoughts forward with some hesitation because I perhaps see this problem from a rather different aspect from that in which it is sometimes seen by the noble Earl or Lord Hunt. On occasion I have the task of sending people to prison and I frequently have the task of seeing my clients after they have been sent to prison, sometimes while serving their sentences and sometimes when released from prison. I put those forward not as a criminologist and entirely accepting that there is scope for a great deal of research before we decide on the best way to proceed. But I believe it should be possible for us to make progress; it should be possible for us to reach a system by which, effectively, the great majority of prisoners are released at an earlier stage than they are at present, with safety to the community. I support the noble Earl in his suggestion that there are ample grounds here for scope for an independent inquiry and review of the whole system.

8.17 p.m.


My Lords, parole is a subject which all those concerned with the criminal process should consider and discuss. It has certainly become one of the vital steps in that process. I was a little depressed as I listened to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. It seemed to me the sort of speech one expects from the representative of the Home Office. His last words—that much needs to be done but we must all realise it will be very difficult to do it—were,I am afraid, the approach that all through one's professional life one has found so often when problems arise in that Department.

I suppose the most daunting and responsible decision which has to be made during the criminal process is the moment when one deprives another human being of his liberty and then, of course, the treatment one meets out to that person once he is put in prison, hidden from the public gaze. I submit that that treatment is one of the key tests of the degree of civilisation of any society. It is parole which says yea or nay to the prolongation of the process of incarceration, and so one's attitude is affected, indeed conditioned to the process in relation to parole by one's view of the circumstances in which persons serve their imprisonment. If the prisoner is leading a constructive life in conditions, though unpleasant and punitive, which enable him to regain some self-respect, the problems of parole assume no great urgency and one can feel one's way towards a sensible and acceptable procedure where individual prisoners are given an appropriate release. But that is not the case in this country.

During the 30 years of a working life in the criminal law, I have, like the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, visited clients in custody before, during and, where they have pleaded guilty, after trial, and even sometimes, on rare occasions—when juries have disagreed with my submission—when they have pleaded not guilty. On such occasions one visits them in a professional capacity, not as an official, and not as a "do-gooder" (if I may use that phrase), although that is a cap that I should be quite prepared to wear on other occasions. One visits them as a person with a job to do. Thus one has perhaps a direct, detached, and yet intimate, relationship with the persons whom one is representing, and that gives one a particular privileged insight into the effect upon them of both imprisonment and parole.

I can only say that the conditions at the moment below the courts and in the prisons of this country are a disgrace; they are one of the few disgraces left in the social aspect of life in this country. One might go to the London magistrates' courts and see how persons are held—persons who at the time of being held are innocent of any offence. One might go, as so few judges do, to the squalor of the cells and to the passages of the Central Criminal Court, where men are banged up below the fur and ermine of the City aldermen and the judges who are pacing above them on their Wilton carpet.

One might go to Wandsworth, to Pentonville, to the Scrubs, to Brixton, to Walton, to Strangeways, to Horton Prison in Bristol, or to Birmingham. The conditions in those places can only he described as degrading. They are degrading to those fine prison officers—and I emphasise the word "fine"—as most of them are in this country, and who are dedicated to their job; and of course they are degrading to the prisoners who are serving their sentences there.

A Home Secretary must stop fiddling about with Criminal Justice Bills, Criminal Law Bills, and criminal procedure, and instead plan a crash programme to destroy these Dickensian blocks of degradation, and thereafter rebuild prisons, so that officers can use their skills and dedication to work with prisoners. Prisoners can then work in order to earn and so compensate their victims and keep their own families while they are serving their sentences, and at the same time restore their self-respect. If this is not done, there will be in the Prison Service an explosion which so many of us have prophesied for so long, and which each day we see drawing nearer and nearer. Indeed, I submit that already the conditions in prison have almost reached that stage. I say this because now among the experts "rehabilitation" is a dirty word.

So parole is now looked upon, is it not?, by the officials and by many others simply as a safety valve, or a wastepipe down which sufficient inmates of the prisons can respectably be drained in order to make room for those who are to follow. That is not the kind of approach that there should be to this vital question of parole. As the new chairman of the Parole Board will well remember, in 1975 Mr. Roy Jenkins urged—almost directed—the Parole Board to loosen its criteria, not because the prisoners were not getting their desserts, but simply because the situation in the prisons was so grave that somehow the prisoners had to be got out so as to make room for the others who were entering those dreadful 120-year-old buildings with cells each of which was built for one man but now having to hold three.

I am largely uncritical of the way the parole system works because only numbers matter, and the run-of-the-mill sentences in this country at present are totally negative. It is only when he is released on parole that any constructive work is done with the ordinary prisoner; and of course I do not include in that observation the open prisons, some of which are absolutely first class.

I wish to pay tribute to the increasing army of people who make up the local review committees and the Parole Board. I believe that now the Parole Board consists of about 50 members. Unlike some Members of the Front Bench opposite, I do not decry and denigrate QUANGOS. The disinterested layman's contribution to these areas of officialdom is, in my view, a precious manifestation of British democracy in action, and it is a vital contribution in the criminal process. It is vital in the jury. It is vital in the lay magistracy. It is vital in the parole system.

I believe that all those people do a magnificent job. I know some of them; they work enormously hard, and they do the work for nothing. But they are overworked, and they are in danger of being drowned in a sea of paper, as is anyone who works on a QUANGO these days. A report on only one person who is coming up for review as to parole may extend to 50 foolscap pages. I understand that over 10,000 prisoners are coming up for review—I am sure that the Minister will let us have the actual figures—and so one can imagine the oceans of paper flowing around the country from one person to another in the great endeavour to ensure that justice is done.

I wish to go along with previous speakers and concentrate upon the two matters which I submit must, and can, be rectified. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, I have repeatedly witnessed the disrupting and distressing effect on families, particularly the families of people with whom one has kept in touch as clients, when the question of parole looms on the horizon. I have seen, too, the hopes that are raised, so that for the man concerned in prison the whole matter becomes an obsession. Again as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, said, one is aghast at the effect upon this man when he is turned down. First, there is an explosion of anger, followed by a long period of depression. The procedure is inscrutable. It is paternalistic. It is long, drawn out; and it ends with no reasons being given for the decision.

Indeed, the result of parole, which I support 100 per cent. as an idea, is that all the sentences in this country over 18 months have now become indeterminate sentences; and they are ended administratively, not judicially. The result is that all the drawbacks of the indeterminate sentence are now applicable to all these sentences over 18 months; and, speaking for myself, I am not happy that these sentences should be decided as to their length by what one can only call, but not offensively, faceless officials. I think that, at the moment, that is one of the greatest problems of parole, and, therefore, we must have a system which is open and which gives reasons, so that people know why they are turned down. Here, I would take issue with the noble Viscount about the problem. It is not so insufferably difficult to give reasons. Anyone can stand up and give examples of how difficult it is; but, as I understand it, there is this experiment which is being carried out at the moment, of seeing whether the LRCs and the Parole Board can in fact set down reasons, and perhaps the Minister will tell us something about it.

As I am sure any lawyer will agree, to give reasons is the absolutely vital matter in the criminal process. To give reasons, whether by the magistrate or the judge, concentrates the mind and makes quite sure that you feel something is this or that, and that it is not that you do not like the face of the person you are dealing with, or whatever. To give reasons, to spell them out, you have got to concentrate; you have got to make sure that the person whose future you are dealing with has the reasons and can criticise them; and you must have the courage to give them.

I see no reason at all why reasons should not be given, except this. Of course, the reasons which, more than any other, sway the members of these boards, I imagine, and indeed understand, are the reasons which come from the prisons, which come from the prison officers who look after the particular prisoner. It is felt that you cannot let a man go on serving a sentence of imprisonment when he knows that the officer on the landing gave him an adverse report, because then he will feel that it is that officer who has kept him in prison, and this would undermine the discipline in the prison.

But the point about it is this—and I would ask the Minister to tell us about it. The hospital unit now at Wormwood Scrubs operates a different régime, a relaxed régime, where warders (or prison officers, as I must call them) are not just turnkeys. They are prison officers who are operating within an area which outside is secure, but which inside gives you no view of security; who are mixing with the prisoners, talking with the prisoners and so on; and who are operating in an area where the atmosphere is a totally different atmosphere. In that unit you discuss parole in a perfectly straightforward way. Probation officers come in from outside, join in and discuss together the prisoner's view and so on. Long before parole comes up, discussions about the parole and the chances a prisoner has got, the obvious drawbacks and so on—your offence was a very serious one; it is very unlikely you will get it the first time round—are held and the whole matter is talked about. Why it cannot be talked about otherwise is because of the dreadful conditions in prisons where prison officers have not got these relations with prisoners and are just turnkeys, where people are locked up for 20 hours out of 24, where there is no communication and where, therefore, all these things have to be kept secret and cannot he talked about.

I hope the Minister will be able to give an assurance that there is no truth in the rumour which I hear, that this particular unit at Wormwood Scrubs is going to he wound up because they happen to have a new principal medical officer, or some such reason—because the matter is awkward, the matter is new, it does not fit in. I sincerely hope that one of the most vital experiments being carried on in the Prison Service at the moment is not going to be snuffed out, because it is an example and it shows how we could, if the matter was organised differently, give prisoners reasons for their refusal of parole.

As to the other matter of the time element, on which I would also agree with previous speakers, this can surely be dealt with. We need not be defeatist about this. We must lighten the load of these people who are being drowned under paper. Would it not be possible, in the case of all sentences of, say, five years and under, for the presumption of parole to be made; that is, that prisoners would get parole unless there were reasons against it? That would mean that all the cases in which there was no good reason would simply have no paper attached to them at all, and the only ones where the paper flow would appear would be those in which there was a good reason. Those cases would be discussed, read and considered: but with all the others it would be presumed that people would get parole unless there was a good reason, and that good reason would be conveyed to the person concerned.

As to the matter that was raised about consistency, I would suggest that these decisions could be made locally, by the local reviewing committees, and that there is no need to go centrally. The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, said that consistency was vital. You cannot get consistency in the criminal process. This cry for consistency is ridiculous. Every judge in the country has a different view about offences. It is inevitable, where human beings have to sentence people and deal with matters, that they will have different views. We all have a different view about which offences are the most serious. You cannot have consistency. Of course you can try not to be too inconsistent, but there must be inconsistency. Secondly, each case is different from every other one. There are no parallel cases. There are always elements in every offence which arc different from the elements in other offences. This cry for consistency, I would suggest, is really an impossible one; it is a theoretical cry. There is no reason why these matters should not be dealt with locally, and if there are inconsistencies that is just too bad. There are inconsistencies in sentencing, and there always will be, because every case and every individual is different, and cannot expect to have the same approach made when the only equality between the offences is, say, the quantity of the drug, or some such element as that.

The only other two matters I should like to raise with the Minister are these. In the case of these long sentences which go to the Parole Board. it would. I appreciate, be ridiculous to apply the percentage of 50 per cent., as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, was suggesting. You cannot apply, can you, percentages across the board? If someone is sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for a very serious offence, it would be ridiculous that he would automatically get parole at 7½ years or, if sentenced to 10 years. at five; whereas if he is sentenced to three years and it is one-and-a-half it is a completely different matter. I should not have thought that percentages are really sensible in this matter.

What I wanted to ask the Minister was this. In the long-sentence reviews, is it necessary to have the family visited automatically at the first review?—because of the pain and suffering brought by these visits, these long inquiries by probation officers (with perhaps the best will in the world) when it is perfectly obvious that he is not going to get parole on the first time round and probably the second time round. Is it necessary to have these family visits and these long reports, having regard to the pain that they cause?

The other question is this: In those sentences where there is a recommendation by the judge that someone should not be released for so many years, is the Parole Board governed by that recommendation?— because in my experience, from clients I have had, it would seem impossible for the parole board to advise parole or achieve parole where a recommendation has been made by a judge:"… until he has served the full period recommended". I would hope there is no such direction. I would have thought that any judge worth his salt would understand and agree that during a long sentence nobody can look into a crystal ball and say, "This man must inevitably serve the period which I am advising"—because so many things can happen in a period of 15 to 20 years. I am afraid that I am not enthusiastic for the noble Earl's suggestion that there should be yet another inquiry in a world in which we seem to have inquiries into everything every five minutes. I think the inquiry which is going on in the Home Office at the moment is sufficient and, in my opinion, what is wrong with parole is the administration of the prisons.

8.44 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking my noble friend Lord Longford for raising this question with the Government I must confess (and he is aware of it) that I had reservations about the timing of this discussion this evening, coming as it does before the report from the Home Office on its internal inquiry. I also think (and he is aware of this also) that the sensible way to proceed is to await that report before demanding another—and following the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson—yet another independent inquiry into the parole system.

Having said that, I acknowledge that our discussions this evening, having listened to them—and I found them interesting and constructive—may not be too late to be helpful to those who are still engaged in the Home Office study and to an eventual independent inquiry if that seems to be called for. So far as my contribution is concerned, my noble friend Lord Longford has quoted me so generously that your Lordships may share my doubts as to whether it is necessary for me to make a contribution at all. But I have a few points to make; and all the more so because of the interest with which I followed the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, just now.

Any discussion about the parole system must begin with the original purpose in the 1967 Act. It seems to me that there has been a change in its purpose since the idea was adumbrated in the 1965 White Paper. I quote from that White Paper words which are familiar to the noble Viscount and others: Prisoners in some cases are likely to be made into good citizens if—before completing the whole of their sentence—they are released under supervision with a liability to recall if they do not behave". That purpose, according to the statistics, has not been fulfilled. There is little evidence to show that by parolling recidivists any impact is made on their propensity to continue to commit offences, albeit in many cases comparatively minor offences.

So far as parole is concerned—and here I listened with interest to the noble Lord—its official value now seems to be to reduce the overcrowded prison population. That purpose, it is interesting to recall, was strongly denied in 1967when we first went into business. Speaking at a NACRO Conference in 1975, Mr. Roy Jenkins the then-Home Secretary said: There is scope for making parole progressively more acceptable so that the system can make a greater contribution to reducing the prison population". Those words were a preamble (as many will know) to the new guidelines that Mr. Jenkins gave to the Parole Board, upon which greater numbers of prisoners are now, and have been since, paroled.

Sir Louis Petch, to whom I, too, take this opportunity to pay a warm tribute on his impending retirement from a job which from personal experience I can say is extremely responsible and most exacting and demanding, is quoted as pointing out that the paroles announced in his 1977 Annual Report amounted to the population of six major prisons. My guess, looking at the later figures (which I have had unofficially) is that that figure has increased to a saving of prison space to the tune of about eight prisons. Is this now the purpose of parole? I hope the Minister will enlighten us when he comes to reply. If so, in conjunction with a recall rate of around 10 per cent., it should also be perceived not so much as justifying parole but rather as a devastating commentary on the length of prison sentences in general which accounts for so much of the problems and the over crowding in our prisons.

Seen in this perspective, parole could be dubbed a mere palliative for an expensive, largely negative penal policy in regard to the use of imprisonment, the length of prison sentences in our criminal law. But to say this would be to do less than justice to parole. It has achieved a great deal else; for instance, in bringing about a better degree of co-operation within our penal system as a whole; in improving prison documentation and, therefore, creating a better knowledge and understanding of individual prisoners by prison officers in prison. And, not least, in helping many prisoners to gain a measure of self-respect and self-confidence in settling back into the community. And, lastly but not least, in bringing public opinion to accepting treatment in the community for the more serious offenders. Even should there be—and let us hope there will be at some time—a scaling-down significantly of the length of sentences, I believe that there would remain a place for the parole system.

On this premise, I think the time has come to modify certain principles and procedures. Parole is neither a wholly executive nor totally a non-judicial process. It is a hybrid. The board and the Home Office, on behalf of the Home Secretary, as has been mentioned critically this evening, take into account the gravity of the offence. That is a factor that has already been fully weighed, as I understand it, in pronouncing the original sentence. In this respect, I go with other noble Lords in saying that the board is exercising a judicial function and, in effect, is retrying a case. I must accept and admit that, while I was chairman of the Parole Board, I found that acceptable. But my noble friend Lord Longford has quoted me as saying that I did not. But since, and for quite a long time now, I have been convinced, so far as the board are concerned, that it is wrong. It should be axiomatic that gravity is a matter for the courts and very exceptionally—in the case of determinate sentences—for the Home Secretary.

My other point of principle is that prisoners should have two rights in addition to the purely negative one of refusing to be considered for parole. These have been rehearsed this evening and I am not going to join the debate by arguing the pros and cons. They come out extremely well, if I may say so. The first right is that prisoners should have a right to a hearing before a review committee, if they wish. The second one—all too often mentioned this evening—is that they should be given reasons if, exceptionally, they are turned down. On both these points, and particularly the latter one, there has been prolonged discussion, not only this evening but over the years, outside this House. There has been a good deal of experimentation but there has been a failure to fulfil a matter of natural justice for too long.

It is now six years since, when I was chairman of the Parole Board, we started experiments in the formulation of reasons. As long ago as 13th July 1977, in answer to a Written Question put down by the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, revealed that experiments were shortly to be made in giving reasons by the local review committees. The great majority of refusals of parole are made by local review committees—over 3,000 a year.

Will the Minister, when he replies, tell us what is the position now? What has been the purpose of all this experimentation, if it is to come to nothing? Why is it that offenders who are detained under the Mental Health Act—and this was mentioned by the noble Viscount—are, as I understand it, furnished by the mental health tribunals with reasons for not being released while supposedly sane prisoners cannot be told?

Speaking of prisoners' rights, I do not see parole as a right. I differ from other people here; I believe the early release from prison should remain a privilege. I do not favour an automatic, built-in parole period in a sentence. I would go no further than saying that parole of one third of the sentence should be a normal expectation—the noble Lord will agree with me there—by prisoners, and that that expectation should exceptionally be qualified by a recommendation by the court that it should not be granted at the earliest eligible date. Here I find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. It should also be qualified by serious misconduct during the course of the sentence, and reviews would have to take both these considerations into account.

Given that parole should be discretionary, who should take the decision? The present system is hybrid in this respect also. The Home Secretary holds formal responsibility. But in practice it amounts only very exceptionally to his personal scrutiny and decision and also exception- ally to the decision of a Minister on his behalf. What is more, the board, despite its formal position as an advisory body, exercises absolute power in refusing parole. It is worth remembering that the Secretary of State has no power to release prisoners who are turned down by the Board. Seen in the perspective of 11 years' of experience, I believe that this untidy situation should be straightened out. The board, which is already semi-executive, by exercising discretionary powers in a negative sense should now—with certain exceptions—exercise them in a positive sense, too, by granting parole as well as refusing it. This does not mean that the Home Secretary would cease to be accountable to Parliament for the operations of the board. It is he who appoints the chairman and its members, and of course they are responsible to him. He can sack them if necessary. It is worth remembering that, in the course of every year over the many years that the scheme has been in existence and with the many thousands of prisoners who are paroled every year, the Home Secretary's disagreements with his Board can be counted on the lingers of one hand. Surely the Parole Board has shown its wisdom and good sense and can be trusted to take decisions.

The Home Secretary would of course continue to be responsible for taking decisions on the conditional release of life sentence prisoners and would make decisions about paroling offenders guilty of very serious offences for which an exceptionally long prison sentence has been awarded. So I should like to see a more independent system which would be more dynamic and less bureaucratic. As to the structure of the system, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has quoted from my speech of 31st January. I merely say that I stand by what I said then. It is now, after all the case knowledge which has been gained, needlessly complex. I would simplify and speed up the whole cumbersome machine. I would regionalise the system, making regional boards responsible for a wide range of cases. Such boards might well dispense with the need for local review committees. They could be peripatetic, visiting prisons and thus reducing the element of inconsistency to which the noble Viscount referred and to which I also attach importance, but only as much importance as I would to the inconsistency or otherwise of courts of law.

The regional committees would then be in a position to interview prisoners who wished to be interviewed and to give reasons—probably personally—to the prisoner at the time of the review. I see the board exercising more of a policy-making role, advising and supervising the work of the regional boards, being a watchdog for consistency, much less burdened than at present to the tune of over 5.000 cases a year.

There remains the need to have a new look at the rules and procedures in regard to the supervision of paroled offenders. I wanted to say something about this but the hour is late and I have spoken rather long. I shall say this about the probation service, which has that heavy responsibility to the general public for that part of the system. Putting aside the size of the current salaries claim which has been advanced by the National Association of Probation Officers, I believe that the case for increases to officers of that service has to be taken seriously. I should like to make this point personally to the Minister who is going to reply. They are under-rewarded in comparison with other skilled professional workers in key areas. Feelings in the service are running pretty strongly—as I happen to know from personal experience—about this inequity and, dedicated though they are to their professional work, morale could be badly affected. Anything which is detrimental to the high quality of our penal system cannot be regarded with equanimity by Parliament or by the general public.

8.58 p.m.


My Lords, I notice that in the sequence of speeches, I seem to make up a kind of ecclesiastical rear. I have no objection to that whatever in the light of the fine, cogent speeches to which I have already listened; but I confess a certain unease if it he assumed that the Christian aspect of this case is a kind of backing up of something that already exists in the enlightened minds of the politicians or social reformers. Though the hour is late, I venture to introduce what to me is the convincing argument for the prosecution even to better results of the general system of parole. It springs in my estimation from the conception of what the Christian attitude to the prison system should be. Dogmatically, I believe the prison system, as it exists, is incompatible with the Christian faith. I wish that the Church had been more ardent in the prosecution of those ideas which could have taken root and fertilised into better ways of dealing with the problem of corporate sin, as in so many cases the Church has been expert in dealing with the problems of individual sin. Be that as it may, I am satisfied that the present system is irredeemable and sooner or later must give place to something which represents an attitude to human beings which can he reconciled with the Christian faith.

Your Lordships will permit a personal experience which confirmed after a very short time most of the things that my noble friend Lord Hutchinson has already said about prisons. After 30 years as a prison chaplain in Pentonville Prison, I am utterly convinced that it is a degrading and destructive influence and that the occasional benefits which accrue to those who have been subjected to this kind of enormity only emphasise the overall capacity of the prison system to represent that which an enlightened and civilised community would want to see even its worst citizens attain so that even those who seem beyond reparation at least should be treated in a civilised way.

Of course, the alternatives to the prison system do not immediately flow from a condemnation of it and I am not simplistic enough to think that we should therefore let all the prisoners out. Nor do I think there is anything to be said for the idea that most of them are victims of circumstance. What therefore has to be done, it seems to me, until we can provide a better system is to do our best to improve the one we have got.

There is in the New Testament a cautionary tale about an evil spirit which was turned out, but there was no substitution of tenancy and the last situation was a lot worse than the first. It would be ridiculous to presume to think that the Christian answer to the problem of prisons would be to knock them all down. Parole, as I see it, is one way in which you ameliorate a system until you are ready to find a substitute for it. Therefore I heartily agree with that which lies behind the concept of parole, because prison life is destructive and it is my conviction after a good deal of experience that if you put a man into prison for more than five years uninterruptedly you tend to destroy him. You may well create a situation that is irredeemable. I have seen it happen and 1 do not want to see it happen in the future; and if parole can help to reduce the amount of time that people spend in that kind of environment, then it has my hearty support.

Secondly, I am equally satisfied that there is an immediate reason for a diminution in the numbers of those who are incarcerated. I wonder whether psycho-locally the House fully appreciates—and I hope your Lordships will forgive this if it sounds impudent—what it means to live three in a cell which once upon a time had been created to accommodate one person. I think I know a bit about it, from sitting and talking to prisoners and from listening to what they say to one another. It is an abomination. Those overcrowded prisons are already unsuited in every respect, as the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, said, but particularly unsuitable for the accommodation of three prisoners to a cell; obviously you cannot put two in a cell. Anything that can be done to reduce the number of prisoners in our prisons today should be acceptable to all who are looking to the future with any kind of hope.

There is another reason which impresses me more and more as I think about it; that is, that there is very little chance of the primary purpose of Christian punishment—which is reformation—taking place in an environment which is specifically artificial. The artificiality of the life of a prisoner is such as to render him less capable than ever he had been of taking his place again in the kind of world in which by some means or other he ought to be enabled to redeem himself and make some kind of restitution to the society which he has wronged.

It is therefore on the negative ground in the first place that I believe the whole system of parole is to be commended as one stage at which you reduce the number of those who suffer from a condition which the Church should have repudiated long ago and which is incompatible with a civilised society. But the moment we enter the field of the parole system we are hedged about with all kinds of difficulties, and they have been amply and cogently ventilated tonight. I believe there is every room for improvement in the light of the experience of many of your Lordships, which you have so explicitly set forth, and I hope that your words will be ardently read by those whose responsibility it is to look to the future.

I agree so heartily with those who claim that a prisoner is entitled to have a hearing. I do not subscribe to the idea that it is impossible to tell the truth. I think it is always safer to tell the truth if you can than to presume that you know better as to the psychological reactions of the person to whom you tell a lie. I am not sure that is true: in fact my own experience would contradict it; but I am sure that it is unfair and irrational for a man to be exposed to the pros and cons of a parole system when he is necessarily identified not with any of the propositions which take place in the consultation, but is dependent entirely on hearsay and dependent entirely upon his interior thoughts. Many a prisoner has a good deal of time to conduct those thoughts and the more he conducts them under those circumstances the more incomplete and imperfect they become.

Psychologically, I think it is very much better, for all the difficulties and dangers that may arise and all the particular circumstances which may make it more difficult than in normal circumstances, to give the prisoner the opportunity of being present. It is not good enough to tell him he can write about it. I suppose there are a great many very clever people whose writing is superior to their talking. My experience is that there is a great deal of horse sense and capability for sensible talking among prisoners who certainly could not write cogently, intelligibly or comprehensibly. It is a trust in the prisoner's capacity to respond to commonsense which I think is more to be valued than the presupposition of some prospective prognosis of danger and difficulty from which he will suffer if you try to tell him why he is refused, at one particular point, the kind of parole which is so ardently desired.

There is another aspect which impresses me considerably. It is highly likely that, if the parole system is increased and more and more are enabled to profit by it, there will be one quite substantial effect; that is, that more and more prisoners will come out of gaol and find themselves counselled and helped by probation officers. This is an expensive business, but, over and over again, it is the immediate release of a prisoner and the invitation by his pals to go to the pub and to soak himself immediately, which is one of the outstanding reasons for the return of that prisoner to the ways which had brought him disaster previously. If he knows that there is somebody who will be caring for him and will be advising him, there is a much better prospect that he will overcome the inevitable dangers and disasters of prison life, and have some reasonable chance of rehabilitation.

It is for that reason that I heartily commend the parole system. I commend it negatively—if you can have something which is negative in the right direction—and I commend it positively, because it opens up the prospect of increasing the possibilities of extra-custodial treatment; the recovery of the prisoner within the real world and not the world which is artificially constructed by a prison cell; the possibility of that prisoner, when he comes out, having the care and support of a system which still seeks to care for him and to help him. It is for those reasons that I believe that the parole system is to be cherished.

By whatever means it has to be improved, I shall not go into now, but it seems quite sensible that there should be an independent inquiry—I am not at all satisfied that an internal inquiry would do the trick—which will learn the value of that system which has already been tried and not found wanting, but which has been found difficult and therefore needs a greater application, if in future it is to redeem some, at least, of the evils of the prison system and provide some kind of doorway into that treatment of the antisocial members of our society, within Christian bounds, and with a greater hope of reformation as the ultimate purpose and, indeed, the ultimate goal.

9.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Longford for giving us this opportunity to debate parole tonight. I should also like to thank him for giving me notice, with his customary courtesy, of points that he was proposing to raise. In addition, I should like to thank him for his kind remarks.

It is a fact of life that parole normally receives only bad publicity; publicity which can be misleading to the public. One failure can be headline news—and I do not for a moment complain about this: mistakes should not be concealed. But little or nothing is heard about the thousands of prisoners who receive parole and keep out of trouble during their licence period; the thousands who have justified the hopes originally expressed for the parole scheme—that is something which has come out tonight—and who have made it a success story. I would go so far as to say that parole has been and is a success story; and this also merits publicity although, understandably, it may not be headline material.

I should also like, on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, to take this opportunity to thank the Parole Board and to thank Sir Louis Petch for all the work he did while he was chairman of the board. All the members of the board, and indeed the members of the local review committees and those who help those bodies, do a tremendous amount of hard work. I should like to join with those other noble Lords who have thanked the first chairman of the original Parole Board, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who paved the way in such large measure for the success that we have seen.

When the parole scheme was introduced in 1968, both the Home Secretary and the Parole Board approached their duties with a very proper caution. In 1969, the first full year of parole, only 1,800 prisoners—just over a quarter of those eligible—were granted a period of parole. After five years, the figure had risen to 3,500—just over a third of those eligible—and as it became clear that there was little justification for the fears expressed at its introduction, new and more liberal criteria—something which has been referred tonight—for the granting of parole were introduced in 1975 by Mr. Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, after consultation with the Parole Board.

As a result, releases continued to rise gradually but significantly until, in 1977, over 5,000 prisoners—slightly more than half of those eligible—were released on parole. By the end of that year, it was possible to say that nearly two-thirds of eligible determinate sentence prisoners—62 per cent. as quoted by my noble friend—were receiving a period of parole at some point in their sentences; that 3,500 prisoners were out on parole at any one time; and that, despite the scepticism of my noble friend, the average length of parole licences had risen from 8½ months in 1969 to 13½ months in 1977.

But parole cannot be adjudged a success merely by the number of prisoners released from prison, even though releases are a reflection of confidence in the scheme. A prisoner on licence is still a prisoner serving the sentence passed upon him by the court, but he is serving part of his sentence outside prison, under supervision in the community and on certain clear conditions. If the conditions are not observed by prisoners on parole, they are liable to be recalled to prison, as we know. Throughout the history of the parole scheme, it has only once been found necessary—and I think that this is a significant point—to revoke the licences of more than 10 per cent. of those released during a year. Although the figure rose to 10.3 per cent. in 1977, provisional figures suggest that it will have fallen below 10 per cent. again in 1978. It must be remembered in this context that less than half of those recalled are recalled for having committed further offences. Many are recalled merely for being out of touch with their supervising probation officers or for other breaches of conditions which, although regarded seriously, are not a repetition of their previous criminal behaviour.

I hope that your Lordships will agree that parole has been, and is, a success. I hope, too, that it is clear from what I have said that the Government certainly welcome both this debate and public interest in parole and full debate upon it. The Expenditure Committee—which has been mentioned tonight by, I think, more than one noble Lord—did not express concern about the way in which the parole scheme itself is administered. Their point, as I understand it, was that because of the complexity of the scheme, and of alternatives which have been proposed to it, they did not have the opportunity to consider it in depth; but because of its important role in the penal system they thought that an independent inquiry should be held.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I wonder whether I may venture to repeat what I said at the beginning of my speech? I quoted from a paragraph in the report of the Expenditure Committee where they referred to the criticisms which had been made of the parole scheme. In that short paragraph they referred twice to the criticisms which had been made. It was not only the complexity of the scheme to which the Expenditure Committee referred; they referred twice to the criticisms which had been made of it.


My Lords, I take my noble friend's point. Nevertheless, the point which I was making in this context is valid: that the Expenditure Committee did not have an opportunity to examine the scheme in depth, and this was a central reason why they felt that it ought to be subjected to an independent inquiry. But I wonder whether a public inquiry is the most effective way of unravelling a complex subject like this.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary certainly recognises that after a period of 10 years the time is perhaps right for there to be a major public debate on parole: both on the way in which the scheme has developed during the last decade, together with an examination of ideas about how it might develop in the future. But whether the best method of stimulating a debate like this is by means of a public inquiry or by means of, say, a consultative document—and my noble friend referred to the possibility of a Green Paper explaining the complexities—is a matter which my right honourable friend is still considering.

It is not for me today to anticipate the outcome of those considerations but, in debating this question tonight, your Lordships will, I am sure, have in mind that an independent inquiry into the Prison Service is already in progress and that this inquiry may result in recommendations which could have significance for the working of any parole scheme. Your Lordships may feel that to mount a further inquiry into parole, even before the recommendations of Mr. Justice May's committee have been received, would he premature, to say the least.

Several noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, my noble friend Lord Longford, the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested that prisoners should be given reasons for the refusal of parole. This has played a big part in our debate tonight. The Government have some sympathy with this view. A significant difficulty is explaining the weight given to the many factors which affect the decisions, and it may not always be easy for the panel of five people who consider the cases to agree about specific reasons, although there may be no doubt about the recommendation which they are to make. To give full reasons would require a carefully drafted essay, I think, embracing the various opinions in each case. However, as there are some 5,000 parole refusals each year, this would clearly be a formidable task, and one wonders whether it would be practicable.

Ways of overcoming this problem have been considered, and some suggestions have been put forward in your Lordships' House tonight. In 1976, the Parole Board conducted a limited experiment to assess the feasibility of selecting reasons for refusal of parole from a list of standardised causes for concern which indicate the main elements influencing the decision. This, too, has been referred to tonight. But as a large number of parole refusals are determined on the recommendation of the local review committee alone, it has been necessary to repeat the same experiment with five of these committees representing different types of prison. The results are now being collated and analysed. Before a decision is reached, we shall have to assess with staff in prisons the implications of giving reasons to prisoners, bearing in mind that they would have to be given in all cases once one embarked on a scheme of this kind.

We also need to consider the longer term implications and that need too was mentioned by the noble Viscount in the course of his speech tonight. For instance, can reasons be given without providing a quasi-judicial appeal procedure—or even a judicial appeal procedure? And if not, how will this affect the concept of parole as a privilege, as it now is? Would the present procedure have to be changed as a result? The aspect of appeal proceedings is only one mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, and it was also a matter about which the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, was concerned.

These are clearly questions that merit wide and deep discussion. I think some alternatives proposed to the present scheme have been put forward primarily to overcome the difficulty of giving reasons. These are not without their drawbacks, though; and also themselves need careful debate. Other general suggestions for parole have been put forward both here and elsewhere and these need fuller discussion in detail than I am afraid time allows today. My point is that the Government do not dissent from the desire of my noble friend to open up the whole question of parole for public debate on these and other matters. If there is a difference between us—and there may not be—it is a difference as to the most appropriate method of doing this.

Perhaps I may now briefly take up some more specific points which have been raised. My noble friend expressed concern about the relevance of public opinion and also mentioned retribution and deterrence, but I think we must be clear whether this is with reference to release on parole or release on life licence, because there is a significant difference, as we know. Dealing first with public opinion, I am afraid I cannot agree with him that fear of public opinion influences decisions, if, as I think, that is what he is suggesting, but regard and respect for public opinion and public concern, which at times are very real, are important factors and, in my opinion, rightly so. It would be to fail in one's duty not to take these factors into account.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene on that point? Would he go so far as to say in the case of a particular prisoner that the board should take a kind of hypothetical public attitude in deciding whether or not that prisoner should stay in prison? I am not talking of general principles but a particular prisoner.


My Lords, my noble friend has asked a difficult question because he has asked me to comment on a particular prisoner, and has—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I am sorry but I was not referring to one particular prisoner, I was asking my noble friend to imagine a hypothetical particular prisoner, whether a life prisoner or anything else, and asking whether he would say that the public attitude to that person should be decisive?


My Lords, what I am saying and what I hope I said—and I am sorry if I was not sufficiently clear—is this: when a parole board, when my right honourable friend, when local review committees are considering these matters, in my view they are bound to take into account the question of public concern. That is what I am saying and that is one of the central points to which I would adhere, for the reason that, were the public to lose confidence in any system of early release it would not be possible to sustain present procedures, let alone move towards the more liberal ones which some noble Lords want to do. I think we must not forget, also, the safety of a prisoner himself on release.

So far as retribution and deterrence are concerned, this brings to the fore the question of whether early release is a form of re-sentencing. Parole is not a re-sentencing process. Clearly, it is important that parole should not undermine the intention of the courts so far as retribition and deterrence are concerned, but one has only to examine the figures to see that many long sentence prisoners are given substantial periods on licence because it is thought that it is in the best interests of society and the prisoner that he serves part of his sentence under licence in the community.

With life sentence prisoners there is no question of the Parole Board "re-sentencing". Their role is, in effect, more akin to a sentencing one, for it is only on the board's recommendation that any indeterminate period of detention can become determinate. Where a person has been sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment the maximum period of detention appropriate to the offence—subejct to the usual remission for good conduct—is determined by the court, and the function of the Parole Board is to consider whether the prisoner should be released earlier than in the normal course, and, if so, when. As I shall explain in a few moments, a life sentence prisoner can only be released by the Home Secretary, and whatever his own views on the appropriate period of detention may be, he cannot order this unless the Parole Board so recommends. I think other noble Lords have touched on this point.

My noble friend made some reference to the release of prisoners serving sentences of life imprisonment. I do not propose to take up all the points tonight, if he will forgive me, because although the Parole Board are involved in this aspect of their work is not part of the parole system itself. But I will comment on one or two of them in order to remove what I believe to be some prevalent misunderstandings.

It is misleading—and I am not accusing anyone of doing this tonight—and it is something which has been the subject of misleading comment, elsewhere certainly, to refer to a life sentence prisoner being granted parole or even being considered for parole. This is not so. These prisoners are not eligible for parole itself. The Parole Board are involved because the law provides that the Home Secretary cannot order their release unless he is recommended by the board to do so—as he is also required by law to consult the Lord Chief Justice and, if he is available, the trial judge. But the final decision rests squarely with the Home Secretary. He is not obliged to accept a recommendation by the board that a particular prisoner should be released; nor are the views of the judiciary binding upon him. I think this may go some way to meet the point which my noble friend Lord Hutchinson was mentioning, but if not I will return to it in a few moments.

There are important differences between the review by the Parole Board in the case of a life sentence prisoner and their review of a case of a prisoner serving a determinate sentence. One is that a life sentence prisoner has no statutory right to have his case reviewed after a specified time or at specified intervals thereafter. The times at which this is done are entirely at the discretion of the Home Secretary, though because it is clearly sensible to fix these in consultation with the Parole Board the timing of the first review is fixed following a recommendation from a joint committee of senior representatives of the board and of the Home Office; and the timing of subsequent reviews, if these are necessary, is on the recommendation of the board itself. But these again are only recommendations, which the Home Secretary need not accept if he thinks otherwise.

As my noble friend has said, in 1977 he led a deputation of noble Lords to urge on the Home Secretary that the case of every life sentence prisoner should be formally reviewed after he has been detained for not more than 10 years. My right honourable friend did not feel able to accept that. In fact it was for several years the practice for all such cases to be reviewed after seven years, but this proved to be unsatisfactory because it often raised prisoners' hopes falsely, another point which some noble Lords have touched on tonight, or caused unnecessary public concern. Consequently, on the suggestion of the Parole Board, when the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Carr, introduced the present procedure. This works very well, I think, and provides the maximum flexibility; and since the considerations that led to the change are just as valid today, I would submit, as they were, then my right honourable friend has no plans to change that.

Perhaps I may just deal now with some of the other individual points which noble Lords have raised. Concerning the points mentioned by the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, I think I have probably touched upon those as I have gone along, particularly in dealing with questions of reasons and other matters. My noble friend Lord Longford raised several points. As regards his first reference to a particular prisoner, I hope that he will forgive me if I resist being drawn into discussing individual cases tonight. I appreciate what he has said but I shall leave it at that.

Similarly, my noble friend mentioned another individual case without, of course, mentioning the name. He was good enough to send me a copy of the letter to which he referred and from which I think he quoted. I had a chance to read that letter today. Again, I hope he will forgive me if I say that I do not want to go into the details of that case either. I have read the letter and I am looking at its implications. However, I can say quite firmly that there has, as regards that case, been no undue delay. That much I have been able to establish already. My noble friend has consistantly and very thoroughly looked into the question of parole. This was a life sentence prisoner case so it was not a parole case as such. He is familiar with the procedures, which are rather detailed, and I shall not go into them tonight. However, perhaps I can take that particular matter up by writing to him.

My noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington raised several points, one of which concerned the hospital unit at Wormwood Scrubbs. I have had a chance to visit that myself and was much impressed by it. I am sorry to say that I do not tonight have the information to hand which he particularly requested, but I understand his concern and if I may I shall make further inquiries and write to him about it. He also mentioned minimum recommendations by judges. That was not quite the point that I was discussing earlier in my speech. Those can be made only when a life sentence is imposed on conviction for murder and they are made only in a minority of cases. They must clearly be given considerable weight by the Parole Board and by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. However, I can assure my noble friend that they are not binding.

My noble friend Lord Hutchinson also asked whether it was necessary for prisoners' families to be visited automatically in long sentence cases where parole is unlikely. The position is that every prisoner is entitled to be considered for parole on his parole eligibility date. Not to review the case properly by obtaining a home circumstances report would, we feel, be to prejudge the issue and the prisoner would be entitled to complain if one did not do that. Therefore, I appreciate the concern which my noble friend has expressed, but I suggest that this is an important part of the procedure.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned that he was in favour of waiting for the outcome of the internal review before considering the need for an independent inquiry into parole. He went on to suggest a number of improvements to the present system. I can certainly confirm that those are matters which will be taken into account at this time while the whole matter is being considered. I take the point which he suggested, that he wants some more independent element brought into the system if it is possible to do that. I also take his point about morale throughout the penal system. Of course, there is the inquiry taking place at present which I have already mentioned to your Lordships and we hope that the outcome of that will enable us to go forward.

I do not think that there is any specific point to which I am required to reply as regards the speech of my noble friend Lord Soper. I do not see my noble friend in his place at present, but we heard a most moving speech from him.

I hope, albeit very rapidly and not too sketchily, that I have dealt with some of the points of concern which noble Lords have raised in this debate. As I said earlier, I am grateful to my noble friend for allowing us this opportunity to debate this subject, although I am unable today to give the response he seeks to the suggestion that there should be an independent inquiry into the parole system. I hope that I have convinced him and your Lordships that the Government are very concerned about these matters.

As I have said, we welcome debate on parole both here and, perhaps even more importantly, more widely in the public forum. We have confidence in the present system, although we are not complacent about it. Our reservation is solely whether a public inquiry is the most appropriate method of inviting interest and informed debate on this topic. It is to that that my right honourable friend is addressing his attention.