HL Deb 24 July 1980 vol 412 cc626-53

8.56 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they propose to take to deal with the grave defects of the present parole system.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I feel I must begin on behalf of all noble Lords who are still in the Chamber by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for doing duty so nobly after his prolonged ordeal on another subject. Many years ago, when I was a young and, in my own eyes, promising Minister, I remember replying to three debates on one day. When dealing with the third subject I was accused of gross frivolity; I was, admittedly, getting rather tired by then—the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, would say "bored"—but I am sure that such a fate will not befall Lord Belstead, and I am thankful to him for stepping into the breach once again.

We last debated the question of parole in March last year. Since then the number of those in prison and the extent of the overcrowding have set new records. One report after another, meanwhile, has emphasised the need for shorter sentences. When we debated these matters last year, there had already been the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee, and since then there has been the report of the all-party Penal Affairs Group, with which the noble Lords, Lord Donaldson and Lord Hunt, among those speaking tonight, are particularly associated. There has also been the report of the May Committee, which was set up by the former Home Secretary, Mr. Merlyn Rees, endorsing earlier reports of the Home Office Advisory Council in regard to prison sentences.

There is general informed agreement that the sentences passed by judges in this country are too long, alike by absolute standards and by comparison with other countries. The present Government's White Paper entitled The Reduction of Pressure on the Prison System states: The case for shorter custodial sentences has been increasingly widely canvassed and accepted during the past few years. The Government supports this case, both as a valuable means of bringing demand for prison places closer to the supply of places and, more importantly, on general penalogical grounds".

The Home Secretary, Mr. Whitelaw, has more than once indicated that he accepts those conclusions, and I will quote only one extract from his speech on 15th July to a NACRO conference. He said: There must be some change in sentencing policy so that no one is kept in prison, whether on remand or under sentence, for a day longer than is absolutely essential".

The objective indicated may sound platitudinous, but let me underline the first words that I quoted: There must be some change in sentencing policy".

Reasonably interpreted, that can mean that in the view of our Home Secretary prisoners must spend less time in prison.

The three most obvious ways of achieving shorter sentences are as follows. The first is to restrict the length of the sentences passed by the courts, whether this be done by legislation or indirectly by influence. The second way is to increase the normal remission of prisoners from a third to, say, a half, as in Northern Ireland, where admittedly a parole scheme does not operate. Thirdly, the parole system itself could be operated more liberally, as some of us have often enough in the past recommended in this House.

I wholeheartedly support the endeavours being made under the first two headings, but it is the third—the liberalisation of the parole system—that concerns us directly this evening. The news from the Parole Board is not at first sight encouraging. Its last report achieved a new level of self-satisfaction; that was saying quite something. On 29th April the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, chairman of the Parole Board—who I appreciate under our rules is unable to address us this evening, and who is well respected in this House—told the Parliamentary all-party Penal Affairs Group that the paroling rate had now reached something of a plateau, with just under 50 per cent. of those considered each year being granted parole. He told the group that there was no indication of the proportion rising further.

On the face of it that gives a firm negative to those who should like to see the parole system play its part in reducing the prison population. But I do not quite despair. I remember a reference to a plateau a few years ago when the propor- tion of those paroled was much lower than now. To his credit the then Home Secretary, Mr. Roy Jenkins, stepped in and issued new guidelines.

My first submission is that it is clear that intervention by the present Home Secretary will be necessary if there is to be any significant increase in the granting of parole. I earnestly beg the Home Secretary to adopt such a course, if he is really genuine—as I am sure he is—in seeking to bring about shorter custodial sentences. But a reduction in total numbers in prison is not by any means the only argument for extending parole, though at the moment it is perhaps the most relevant one.

In 1964 I was chairman of a Labour Party committee which was the first body in this country to report in favour of a parole system, and I am still glad that our report in that respect was adopted. What weighed with me most at that time, and has continued to do so ever since—and this would apply whether or not the prisons were overcrowded—was the view of parole as holding out hope and encouragement to prisoners which would not otherwise exist, and in that sense greatly enhance the prospect of moral reform. Along with that would go the function of a parole system in enabling prisoners to gain some insight into their own characters, into the defects which had led them into prison, and into the best way of overcoming those defects.

Those healthy processes that I have just touched upon would depend on the parole system maintaining a reasonable amount of credibility and reputation for fairness in the eyes of prisoners and on the prisoners being given some idea when they are refused parole how they can do better next time. Well, I hope that not even the members of the parole board themselves—not even in their most complacent moments—would claim that at present they have much credibility in prisoners' eyes. Of course they might argue, with some show of plausibility, that prisoners are suspicious people and that it is almost impossible for parole decisons to be widely applauded in prisons. However, I have no doubt that the credibility of the Parole Board and the reformative benefits of the system would be vastly increased if reasons for refusing parole were given. We have raised this matter before, and we shall do so again until the system is altered, and no doubt other speakers this evening will turn to it.

I must now move on to deal with the practical consequences that would be involved if our parole system ceased to be a paper, bureaucratic exercise, with certain undertones of Kafka, utterly remote from the prisoners whose lives it determines. I would deal with the way that it would have to be organised if it were to become humanised and personal.

A number of authorities have proposed the establishment of regional parole boards. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has done so, and may do so again this evening; I have not had any advance knowledge of the contents of his speech. I believe that this is the view of NACRO, which has done such splendid work in this field, and later in the debate we shall be hearing from its president, the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge. If regional boards were established, the prisoners should be given the right to appear before them, with legal representation, including legal aid, if necesary, and should be given reasons if they were refused parole. I f local review committees were abolished and the regional boards made recommendations direct to the Home Secretary, this would also reduce the appalling length of time that at present it takes to make a decision.

Steps to ensure consistency would need to be incorporated into the system. A national Parole Board might well be retained to act in an advisory and training capacity, with a view to reducing inconsistencies, and some form of appeal system might be introduced—an appeal either to the national board or to another authority.

In some excellent notes supplied to me by NACRO—and no doubt Lord Donaldson may develop some of their ideas more effectively—it is suggested that such reforms would result in a more satisfactory procedure, and with that I entirely agree; but they suggest to me that they would not in themselves ensure that more people would be granted parole. There, I am more optimistic than some of those in NACRO. I have no doubt in my mind that one of the difficulties about the Parole Board giving reasons is that their reasons, if given, would in many cases appear most unconvincing. Without going into details, I return to a case I mentioned in an earlier debate, that of Mr. Poulson. I can only ask, as I did once before: Why was he not given parole the first time? He was given parole later. We do not quite know why he got parole later, but one is bound to ask why he did not get it the first time.

Many of us, including Lord Hunt on an earlier occasion, have expressed the opinion that the Parole Board's decisions contain a large element of re-sentencing, and this they would hardly be able to stand over if the reasons were dragged into the daylight. I conclude, therefore, that if reasons were given a good many more people would in fact get parole, if only because the Parole Board would not be able to defend the sort of reasons which are tending to weigh with them all too often now.

That, however, is a somewhat speculative judgment. I entirely agree with a suggestion which reaches me from NACRO, that there should be a statutory presumption in favour of parole, similar to the presemption in favour of bail under the Bail Act 1976. If parole was not granted, the regional board would have to give its reasons for overriding the presumption. As I say, I will leave the development of some of these ideas to other speakers.

I must turn aside for a moment to say a word about parole in regard to life prisoners. I said a good deal about this when I opened a debate on life prisoners in March of this year, and I will keep my remarks down to a minimum. It is certainly in regard to life prisoners that the parole system is seen at its most inhumane, and if any Minister doubts that I can only ask him to go and talk to a few life prisoners to see whether or not he agrees with me. We are told that parole is a privilege, and not a right—certainly a meaningless remark if we are dealing in moral terms. But in practice a prisoner has a right to be considered after serving a third of a determinate sentence.

In the case of a life prisoner, there cannot, of course, be any such thing as a third of a sentence. A life prisoner, then, is at the mercy of the executive, which may well mean that he is at the mercy of the Parole Board—a Parole Board anxious to stand in well with the Home Office, and the Home Office anxious to cause its Minister as little embarrassment as possible. It is now three years since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, Lord Hunt, Lord Carr and I called on the Home Secretary and begged him to accept the modest plea that after 10 years, at the outside, a life prisoner should at least be considered for parole. That modest plea has not yet been granted.

I wish that I could persuade the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—so sympathetic a figure—that it is possible for a more or less rational person like myself to find something positively wicked—I repeat, wicked—in the attitude of the authorities towards parole for life prisoners. The Minister may brush that aside, because he knows that he is not wicked. We know he is not wicked. He may be too modest to say so, but he knows that he is a good man, and we know that he is a good man. We know that the Home Secretary is a good man; but good men can be involved in wicked systems. If we doubt that, we have only to remind ourselves of a million Russian prisoners sent back after the war to the cruel destiny awaiting them; and those concerned were good and honest men.

Turning back to parole more generally, my objection to the present system is twofold. I am horrified by its callousness and also by its ignorance. Also, I wanted to bring in a third point, the sluggishness with which it is conducted; but I shall leave that to other speakers. Before I conclude, I must take an illustration of the case of Mr. Charles Richardson of whom the general public has become aware of late, although, from an over-ripe experience, I could have produced many other cases. Charles Richardson, as most noble Lords will remember, walked out of an open prison at the beginning of June. He announced that he would be giving himself up in due course, and when last heard of was likely to give himself up in the next few days.

I do not need to tell the House that I do not justify his action and from the beginning I have expressed the hope publicly that he would return to prison as soon as possible. But his story and the long, arresting letter to The Times raised, as that paper said in a leading article, important issues for anyone interested in parole; and, indeed, there were leading articles in a whole number of newspapers at that time.

Charles Richardson was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes that shocked all who read of them. He has been in prison for 14 years and, to my certain, first-hand knowledge, has made a strong and positive contribution to the life of Maidstone Prison where I visited him quite often. I visited him later in the open prison from which he moved out. The Maidstone Prison newspaper, which he helped to edit, impressed everyone. The rector of Mary-le-Bow in a letter to The Times said that he had had a long talk with him last year. The rector described him as "considerate, thoughtful and gentle". Certainly, the prison authorities could not understand why he did not receive parole. He was, in fact, refused parole seven times.

The question that I want to ask is this. I do not know whether the Minister will feel that he can dispose of it this evening, but this is not a question in the end, I am afraid, which any ministerial reply, however effective, can dispose of finally. Why should we suppose that the Parole Board would be able to make a wiser assessment of Richardson than the prison authorities on the spot who knew him well and who were entirely in favour, to the best of my knowledge, of his getting parole? They used to ask me in the prison what the Home Office have got against him. They seemed surprised to know—they not having attended many of these debates—that I am not in the Home Office's confidence.

We are bound to ask: what, indeed, have the Home Office got against him? Are we to conclude that somewhere in those vast piles of what I may be forgiven for calling "bumph" concerning him, the Parole Board discovered secrets unknown to those from whom most of the "bumph" must have emanated; or are we to conclude that they were falling into the dangerous habit of re-sentencing, which I touched on earlier; or are we to conclude that they were saying to themselves, "Richardson did terrible things. He must serve at least two-thirds of his sentence. Parole as normally understood does not apply to him, whatever he is like now and whatever service he would render to the community if he came out"? Or are we to conclude that the Parole Board, or the Home Office, or the Home Secretary, said to themselves, still more crudely, "The public would not like it if Richardson got parole"? There to judge from the press reactions, they may be right or they may be wrong; but, right or wrong, if that was their motivation, I would regard that as discreditable.

We can discuss parole either in administrative or in human terms. The trouble in the latter case is that one is bound to take one or more particular instances; but I have tried, taking my speech as a whole, to link up administration and human decency. On the last occasion I called for the kind of independent inquiry which had been recommended by the parliamentary committee and others. I repeat this evening that call for an independent inquiry. I am afraid that I have no confidence whatever in the capacity of the authorities to judge themselves in this matter. They are bound to be as fallible as I should be, as we all should be, in their situation. I do not trust them to reach a fair-minded judgment, and I am sure that they certainly would not trust me if the roles were reversed. Strictly speaking, I consider that the Home Secretary is capable of putting matters right himself, but that would involve a degree of concentration on his part on one of many of his responsibilities, a degree of concentration which we perhaps can hardly expect of him. Therefore, I return once more to the call for an independent—I repeat "independent"—inquiry, and I very much hope that this plea will be echoed by other speakers.

9.20 p.m.


My Lords, at this late hour I shall resist the temptation to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in some of the points he has made. I am sure he will forgive me if I say with respect that I think he generalises a bit too much. In fact, it is so easy to generalise on these things and, having spent a lifetime in practice in the law, I would not like to think of the number of murder cases, for example, in which I have prosecuted or defended. The essence of the parole system is that you deal with each case in particular. This means that, if you are looking at it in human terms, it is necessary to look at what the person did as well as the very general considerations which the noble Earl rightly put forward. At the conclusion of some cases at times I have felt deeply sorry for the person involved, whether I had prosecuted or defended. In other cases I have been absolutely horrified at the sustained cruelty of what I have heard related in court.

I think one of the criticisms of the parole system is that it is too generalised at present, and it is too much of a mystery. I am going to resist the temptation to talk about the general defects of the parole system, to which the noble Earl has rightly called attention, and instead dwell upon the one particular defect which I think can be remedied very shortly, and which I think—I am sure that the noble Earl will agree—should be remedied as soon as possible. This is that the whole process of parole is far too much of a mystery. The prisoners do not know exactly what is taken into consideration. You have the result, which is testified to by so many prison officers, of the unhappiness caused because of the uncertainty of the whole procedure.

In the very valuable booklet produced recently by NACRO there is a passage which I should like to quote because it is shortly set out there—the epitome of the views expressed by the Prison Officers Associations in the words of Mr. Peter Waugh, who was speaking on behalf of the association. I should like to quote from the evidence given to the House of Commons Expenditure Committee on the reduction of pressure on the prison system. It reads as follows: One of the problems of parole is not just the disappointment at not getting it; it is not knowing the reasons why they do not get parole. This is a question that people like me face every day. A man comes to me and says 'I did not get parole', and I say 'I know, I am sorry, lad'. Then he says What did I do wrong?' and I say I do not know … We have submitted reports and everybody has submitted reports'. So then he says Can you tell me how to put myself right so that I will be more favourably considered?' and I say, 'No, because I do not know either'. These are the factors which create the problems, not the fact that a man is disappointed". I entirely agree with that. Over the years one can understand that there have been reasons, as the parole system has developed, for not giving reasons. They become less and less sustainable as the years go on. I think we have now reached the stage when reasons, broadly, should be given. I can think of cases in which I have been involved where one might say that the particular nature of the offence, without going into details of it, would be sufficient to dictate that there should be no parole. In other cases, it may be that there has been certain behaviour within a prison or indeed the medical reports may indicate that parole should not be granted because it may be dangerous to grant it. All these things are very important but, broadly speaking, I think it is important that a prisoner should know and I see no reason why we should keep up this mystery any longer. I think the time has surely been reached when the Home Office could give broad reasons and that would be the greatest single reform that could take place in the parole system at the present time.

I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has been right to raise this matter again at the present time and I am sure also that he will forgive me if I have criticised him sometimes on particular matters; but I do appreciate the great service which he has rendered to the community generally by raising a matter which otherwise might not be raised in this way, because there is a change of climate at the present time, as he so rightly said. Lord Lane, our new Lord Chief Justice, has twice in recent weeks drawn attention to the fact not that, if the noble Earl, Lord Longford, will forgive me, prison sentences are too long, but that some prison sentences are too long and that there are many sentences which are unnecessarily long, everything considered at the present time. So I think the time is right, for a variety of reasons, for us to consider ways of reducing the prison population, and one of the most effective means of doing so is a well-oiled, efficiently working and properly reasoned parole system.

9.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, in thanking the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for putting down this Unstarred Question and, almost in the same breath—and I hope he will understand me—to reveal the fact that I rise with very little enthusiasm to contribute to this debate on the Unstarred Question. I probably share this lack of enthusiasm with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, but for different reasons. His reason. I feel sure, is that he has endured a very long session this evening. He has increased the enormous admiration that I have for him, and he has my sympathy. I sent him a note saying that he could absent himself from the Chamber and go for a drink while I was speaking, but he has been good enough to stay.

My lack of enthusiasm is because I find it very disappointing—if I may say this to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—that we should once again be discussing the subject of parole in the absence of the Home Office internal review which was expected, as I recall, shortly after we last discussed this subject 15 months ago. I undestood that it was shortly going to be ready and that it had already been in progress for quite a number of months, stretching back into 1978. My first question, therefore, to the Minister is: what is the position regarding this review? Is it shortly going to appear? Is it the Government's intention to publish it?

We now have the Parole Board's report for 1979, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford, made what seemed to me to be some somewhat derogatory remarks about that report. I should like to differ from him in saying that I think it is an excellent report. In fact, I hope it will not be held against me that I am, in any way, trying to blow my own trumpet, when I say that it is in a long tradition of excellent reports by the Parole Board, stretching back to 1968. I intend no reflection on its present chairman, or the immediate past chairman, Sir Louis Petch, when I point out, as indeed has the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that it is the "mixture as before".

The statistics, the paroles granted annually in that year, the time spent on parole on average by the aggregate of prisoners, the so-called recall or failure rate—they are all very much the same as they have been for four years past. The explanations and the arguments in justification of the system as it stands—indeed, as it has existed, with some modifications under the 1972 Criminal Justice Act, since its inception in 1967—are advanced with the clarity and cogency of a detectably legal pen. As the chairman said—and I am so glad that he has remained here this evening to listen to this debate—it has rested on a plateau for several years. I admit that it rested on a lower plateau during my time, from 1970 to 1973. The signatories to the report would appear to believe, as perceived by the board, that there is no case for change and no prospect of advance. Would the Minister say, when he comes to reply, whether, in essence, this view will accord with the findings of the Home Office inquiry? I think it is true to say that, for some time past, it is no longer a view shared by many people who are involved in the operation of the scheme from the outside.

I am a firm believer in the parole system. What I have to say in the following few words will sound very critical, but in no sense are they critical of those who operate the scheme—the board, the committees, the prisons, the probation service or the Home Office—and who try to make the present system work. But there is a considerable amount of concern and criticism. There have been a number of unofficial inquiries, and research has been done. The Howard League is currently conducting an inquiry. The Conference of Chief Probation Officers and the National Association of Probation Officers have already written reports. There have also been a number of academic studies in which distinguished criminologists, most of whom have actually served on the board, have taken part. I could name half a dozen highly respected academics who have all recommended fairly radical reforms.

The House of Commons Expenditure Committee which has been mentioned already more than once this evening, was sufficiently impressed, even in 1978, to call for an independent official inquiry into the scheme. Last year I thought that it would be more sensible to wait for the publication of the Home Office's internal inquiry before a decision was taken on an independent inquiry, but now, 15 months on since we last discussed the subject, I no longer think so. There is no doubt that none of the various inquiries to which I have referred can carry as much weight as an independent, official inquiry, and I believe that such an inquiry is now needed.

During the nearly seven years that I was chairman I, too, had an "inside" view of it. I am quite prepared to admit that from the inside at that time I was a trifle smug. It seemed to me that the system was essentially sound. I had no doubt that all those involved on the board and in the committees were caring, skilful, highly responsible people who were very thorough and concerned about the public interest as well as that of prisoners. We thought that its admitted shortcomings were inevitable and that there was little to be done. For some time past I have had another view, and that is as an informed outsider. I believe that the scheme does need radical change.

I touched last year on the main lines which I thought would be right. This is not the occasion for blueprints for this or any other scheme, but I hope it will be acceptable—we have heard this evening about giving reasons—if I give reasons why I still believe that these changes are needed. Always within the context of a discretionary scheme—I do not believe that it should ever become a legal right for prisoners to have parole—what I think is now needed is to devolve, to simplify and to speed up the procedure. With important qualifications—I shall come back to that in a moment—it could, and should, be made more independent of the Home Office. The massive documentation, even for the run-of-the-mill, low risk and nonviolent category of case, is like using a sledgehammer to crack a great many small nuts. The average size of a dossier would not mean very much, but the smallest one is between 20 and 30 foolscap pages. A large dossier for a prisoner who is serving a long sentence and who may have come up more than once for parole is anything up to 150 pages of foolscap.

The structure is top heavy, with a parole unit at the Home Office of some 60 civil servants who in fact make nearly all the decisions, both for or against parole, on behalf of Ministers. The National Board for England and Wales has grown from 17, when we started the scheme in 1967, to just about 50 today. Notwithstanding the greater discretion now granted to the Home Secretary under the 1972 Act to accept recommendations directly from the LRCs, all the 10,000 odd cases—I am subtracting the cases of those who refuse parole and who "opt out", as the expression goes—still have to be processed by the Home Office. The scheme has become too cumbersome, too slow and too institutionalised.

My case for change is quite pragmatic, and I am not one little bit sentimental about this. It is based on two main factors, one positive and the other negative. The positive factor is the consistently low incidence of re-offending while on parole by the great majority of men and women, notwithstanding the fact that the percentage of paroles granted over the years has increased very considerably. A decade and more of experience has produced the positive evidence that the Home Secretary's advisory board, in combination with the committees, are amply competent to keep the granting of parole within limits acceptable to the public. The number of cases actually referred to Ministers, on which the Home Secretary or Ministers on his behalf disagree, has been in single figures for a number of years. Last year I noted the astronomic figure of disagreements as actually 13 cases! This is surely proof that the advisory system can become a decision-making system.

The acceptable limits, of course, have still to be tested. In Canada and the United States, for a number of years, 20 per cent. of failures or recalls have become tolerable, and I see no reason why they should not be equally acceptable here. After all, it is not the number of prisoners granted parole and it is not the number recalled to prison for infringements of their licence which is likely to give rise to public anxiety and objection; it is the occasional serious crime committed while on parole; it is the exceptional notorious offender who is granted parole, whether or not he or she represents a serious risk to the public. Such cases as those, in my strong opinion, would continue to be seen and considered by Ministers, as they are at present.

My second reason—the negative one—is the apparently negative fact, supported by Home Office research and by evidence supplied by the Scottish board, that the parole scheme has paid only marginal dividends in reducing the incidence of re-offending after the end of the parole period, notwithstanding supervision and support. Within a two-year period of release from prison, there is apparently little difference in the longer term in the re-offending rate of those who have had the benefit of parole and a comparable sample of those who have not. From these facts I think it reasonable to make two deductions. The first is that decision-making, in the great majority of cases, can be entrusted to those who presently advise the Home Secretary, without arousing public opposition and within acceptable parameters of public safety. This would greatly simplify and speed up the procedure and obviate the need for a good deal of the present centralised machinery.

The second deduction I draw is that a policy of significantly shorter custodial sentencing would be no less effective, far less costly and much more humane. But in the absence of any assurance so far from the judiciary that there will be such a change in practice, and without legislation to enforce it, it is essential for that reason alone to retain a paroling system. Under such a revamped system as I have tried to justify and explain the Home Secretary, of course, would remain answerable to Parliament for its operation. He would still appoint, and he could, if necessary, sack the chairman of the national board and of any subsidiary boards. He would appoint the members of the board and of any subsidiary boards and he, or Ministers on his behalf, would personally make decisions about certain defined categories of case and in respect of certain particular offenders. In both cases there would be established criteria for those who should be reserved for consideration by Ministers.

But for the remainder—and this is the main point—the majority of the 11,000 prisoners who annually become eligible for consideration, whose performance and whose risk potential have become highly predictable in the light of a decade of experience of the scheme, there would be simpler criteria, much less documentation and a strong presumption in favour of parole. Here I totally agree with the point the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has made on behalf of NACRO. This would produce a more devolved and speedier system of decision-making.

As regards the local committees, which of course at present are formed and work in relation to each prison which holds prisoners eligible for parole, I support—as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, predicted that I would—those who advocate a much smaller number of rather larger regional boards in place of the 70 underemployed local review committees whose aggregate membership is no less than a thousand people. I intend no adverse reflection on the LRCs in making the point that regional boards would be able to draw on a wider range of qualified membership and would benefit from having a wider perspective over all the prisons in their region. There would be less inconsistency than there undoubtedly is at present.

At the same time—and here I come back to another point made by the noble Earl, Lord Longford—I envisage those boards holding their meetings at each of the various prisons in their catchment areas, and prisoners would have the opportunity, if they so wished, to appear before those boards to have the system explained to them (as the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, has pleaded that they should) and could be interviewed if they preferred to be seen personally. A lot of the mystery of the scheme and its working I think would be resolved in that way.

My Lords, nothing that I have said should be construed as negating the great contribution which the present system and those involved in it, on the boards and on the committees, in the prisons, in the probation service and the Home Office, have made towards a more enlightened penal system than we had before 1967. Thanks to this system—and it is well worth remembering this for those who knock the parole system—some 45,000 prisoners have been released earlier, and some of them much earlier, than was prescribed by the courts, without serious detriment to public safety. Thanks to parole and thanks to the help of the probation service, a large number of offenders have been helped to keep within the law and within the norms of society. I believe at any time there are some 3,500 men and women who would otherwise be in prison but, thanks to parole, they are not. That number would require accommodation, in terms of prisons, of something like five medium-sized prisons. I think one can say that, thanks to parole, we have a closer knit and more humane penal system. That this is so is due in no small measure to the experience, the skill, the caring, the sense of responsibility and the public interest of everyone involved in the process.

Finally, my Lords, may I remind your Lordships that in 1967 parole was seen as a great leap forward in penal reform; but, like everything else, the parole and the penal system as a whole must be inherently dynamic, and I contend that it is now in danger of having become too static and even, as I used to be myself, a little complacent. At the risk of sounding pessimistic and even a trifle cynical, I beg leave to doubt whether, despite the many reports to which I have referred, which have called for changes, the major changes which I now believe to be overdue will be made until or unless there is an officially appointed independent inquiry. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I believe that this debate this evening will have served a useful purpose if the Minister will give some assurance that an independent inquiry will follow the Home Office report. So will he give that assurance?

9.44 p.m.


My Lords, I feel highly honoured to be able to speak in a debate in which noble Lords such as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, have taken part. Possibly the only criterion I have for saying anything in a debate like this is that I have always been interested in the subject and also that as a priest one does have ex-prisoners appearing on one's doorstep or even those who have absconded either from prison or from borstal. The impression which is left on one, so far as I am concerned, is this; how can we help these people to find a place, a meaning in life?—that is, the great majority who, one feels sure, would want to deep down. Therefore, I would agree with other speakers who have said that no time and no energy would be wasted, or could be wasted, in finding out the most effective and best parole system, a system which would really help the man or woman to "re-find" life again, especially those who are not so strong-minded as others, those who are easily led astray, to re-find what perhaps they had earlier in their lives, a meaning, a hope, and also moral and spiritual purpose.

So I would say to the Government: Use all the energy, all the thought you have to help in the most positive and practical way in the parole system. We are not saying, of course, that there is no crime which can be committed; I would say that probably most prisoners realise they have committed a crime. But the purpose of those of us who have been able to keep straight is to try to help others to do the same. If those who come out on parole are given all the help and means to say to themselves, "I wish to get away from a life of crime and use whatever abilities or gifts I have to lead a life of positive creation", the more we can have the ex-prisoners doing that, the more they can perhaps influence other prisoners, the more likely it is that we will be able to lessen the prison population. Presumably, ex-prisoners being able to give a lead and example to other prisoners is the most likely way to make them feel that they want to change. So for the not so strong-minded let us put all our energy and thought into seeing how we can help them, and perhaps help their families to help them. For those who are more strong-minded, let us use all our power of reasoning to persuade them to see, through their power of reasoning, that they could change to a better way.

In that very small way, that is my contribution. As I say, my only qualification to say anything on this subject is my little experience of coming across prisoners as a priest, and my concern for men and women who, I hope because of my faith, I believe one should not just dismiss because they have been unable to keep straight. As I said, I am sure the majority of them realise they have committed a crime, and in trying to bring them to better ways one is not dismissing the fact of crime. So let the Government not be afraid to use all the energy, thought, knowledge and wisdom that they can get from any quarter to ensure that we have a parole system which is positive and creative—let them use all the knowledge they can to improve our parole system.

9.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Longford for raising this matter. I did not like the way in which he raised it because I do not believe that criticism of the Parole Board of the kind he made is at all justified. However, I agree with pretty well all of his conclusions, so we shall probably get on all right.

The Parole Board is doing what it was set up to do. In my opinion the time has come to look again at what it was set up to do and to alter it. I, too, have obviously looked at the NACRO paper on parole. However, I shall choose one particular solution which is rather a radical one which will not be put into practice tomorrow, but in my opinion it is the only one which really makes sense.

The success of the Parole Board has been phenomenal. Last year, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred, almost one in two people out of 10,000—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said 11,000 and he may be right, but the figure I was given was 10,000—eligible for parole got it, and 8.8 per cent., of whom half had committed no crime, were recalled for one reason or another. In other words, in that time one in two of all these men was released and society was no worse off, and what is even more important it did not think it was any worse off.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was absolutely right in saying that in the early days of the Parole Board every action taken by the board ran the risk of putting up the back of society. That situation has changed. Society accepts—it probably does not study the figures very carefully—one in two out of 10,000 being released considerably before the time for which they were sentenced.

My philosophy—and I have said it often enough in this House—is that prison does more harm than good, so any scheme which gets 5,000 people in a year released before their time is good. That is absolutely fundamental. But, of course, there are real difficulties to which all noble Lords who have spoken this evening, have referred. The main one to my mind is not the lack of reasons—that is a symptom rather than a cause—but the arbitrary nature of the decision. The real point is that parole is given on the personal judgment of two or three people who, admittedly, have to agree, but it is not given on a series of hard reasons. The only bodies in British justice who really are entitled to give arbitrary decisions on personal grounds are the courts—that is what they are for. The courts who decide to give a man 10 years rather than five years, are making an arbitrary decision based on their personal judgment.

I should like to rake two matters before I come to the main case that I wish to make. First, I gave evidence on behalf of NACRO to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in 1864, or rather, it was 1964—although it feels like 1864!—and one of the matters in his report, in which we were most interested was the parole scheme. I think that it was an absolutely major step forward and I am very proud that my party, with incidentally a great deal of help from the party opposite, brought it in as the law of the land in 1968.

Then about six or seven years ago Dr. Roger Hood came to a party—he is an Oxford don and criminologist—which I gave downstairs in the Cholmondeley Room on behalf of NACRO and made a most impressive speech attacking the very principles of parole. I was taken aback at first, but have gradually come round to his way of thinking. He has now formulated an alternative scheme, which I believe is the best solution before us, and I shall give a very brief and crude outline of it.

His scheme is that for all prisoners eligible for parole now, with sentences of three years and under, the whole parole system should be scrapped and they should get automatic release after a certain period. In Northern Ireland we did it after 50 per cent.; I should rather like to see it done after 33⅓ per cent. but that may be asking too much. Over three years sentences are, in his view, divided into two classes, one of which is the very serious class where the judge decides that the man's offence is too bad for him to have the automatic release after a certain period. What happens is that he is then considered for parole by the Parole Board, with an interview and at the right time when he would normally be allowed the automatic discharge. There would not be very many of them compared with the number considered now, so this could be done extremely thoroughly.

Then the other class of sentence over three years would be the sort of man of whom we all know instances; the sort of man who has committed a white collar crime of a fairly serious sort and gets a long sentence, but who is in no sense a danger to society and could perfectly well be let out at the end of half or a third of his sentence, whatever the rule was. So this plan has automatic release for all but those people whose crimes the courts think are too serious to give it to them. I believe that this could work. I think that it needs to be thought out very much more carefully than I am explaining now, but the figures are rather interesting. Roughly speaking, between 10 per cent. and 15 per cent.—I do not have the exact figure—of the receptions to prison each year are in the 18 month to three-year category. So 10 per cent. would come out straight away. I, personally, would apply this not only to 18 months, but I would put it right down to a month, so that you would reduce the sentences of your short-sentence people at the same time. These are the sort of matters that could be discussed.

It is very interesting that at the moment one in two people out of 10,000 are released every year. I am saying that we should release the other one as well. The position is that, if this were done, one in two of all offenders would offend again within two years, so that you would certainly get a certain number of offences, but you will get them anyway when they are let out. Therefore, the danger to society is absolutely minimal.

This sort of thing is radical in the same way as the Parole Board plan was radical. This will not be done without a great deal of discussion and a great deal of thought. So it is absolutely essential to have the Committee which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, have demanded. It must be an independent committee, for the very simple reason that the job of a good civil servant is to stop his Minister making rash acts. What we want here is precisely a rash act. If we do not get a rash act, we shall not get any change.

I should like to say a few words about the lifer. I agree with my noble friend that it is intolerable that there should not be a specific period within which a lifer must be interviewed for parole. I would say seven years is the longest anyone should be kept without being interviewed. I do not of course agree that there is anything wrong in Richardson, or anybody else, being turned down six or seven times because this is what the Parole Board is for. I do not know their reasons, and I have no doubt they are perfectly good ones.

But you have to decide whether you would rather have the embitterment that Richardson got through being turned down, or the embitterment that Lavaglio got for not being interviewed at all for 13 years. I believe it is better to interview a man, review a man's case, but turn him down, than not to review it at all to his knowledge. Therefore, I am in favour—and this is a thing which could be done not by legislation but by the Home Secretary tomorrow if he wanted to—of saying that every lifer has the right to an interview with a parole board (it depends whether we make the changes we are talking about whether he would go to the local board or what) within seven years.

The only thing I want to say further is that if you put this scheme back to one month you would get between 85 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the entire prison receptions of the year getting shorter sentences through this method. I believe it could be done without any risk to society at all, and I believe it would go a long way to removing the really bad thing in parole, which is the misery which lack of information and lack of reason, and with lifers lack of an interview at all, causes. I believe this misery to be very great, very bad, and I believe it could quite easily be avoided. I know that this is a very radical scheme and I do not expect everybody to jump up and say, "Oh, my goodness, obviously that is right". But as a matter of fact I believe it is, and I shall go on with it when we have our regular meetings on these subjects, to which we are very glad to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, as a new member.

10.3 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for giving us the opportunity this evening to debate parole, because I take to heart the expression of opinion which has come from several noble Lords that it is possible to fall into a belief that a system is right in every respect, and it needs people, such as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who was the first chairman of the Parole Board, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who has just spoken and who has had a deep and long interest in these and other penal matters, and Lord Hooson, who is at the Bar, my noble friend Lord Milverton speaking from his own particular point of view as a member of the Church, and also we have with us the chairman of the Parole Board, to give us their views. In those circumstances, it is not a mere politeness to say that we therefore have had expressions of opinion this evening which are bound to make the Government think.

None the less, I could have wished that the noble Earl's Question was a little less heavily loaded. I am sure your Lordships would not wish me tonight to anticipate all the points at issue which will be set out in the review of the first 10 years of the scheme. My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is that the Home Secretary has said in another place that this report will be available in the autumn.

I should like first to look at principles. There are those who would wish to see parole replaced by an increase in remissions. There are others who consider that parole should be determined by the courts at the time of sentencing. There are yet others who would like selection for parole to be more like a trial in open court with all the documents available to both sides and with legal representation readily to hand.

These proposals arise, I think it is fair to claim, from criticism that parole is re-sentencing or because selection for parole is simply an administrative process. I wish to make it clear that parole is not re-sentencing. A prisoner on licence is still serving the sentence passed on him by the court; he has simply exchanged the constraints of prison and supervision by prison officers for the constraints of his licence conditions and supervision by probation officers. We do well to recall the statement in the 1965 White Paper entitled The Adult Offender, which stated: Prisoners who do not of necessity have to be detained for the protection of the public are in some cases more likely to be made into decent citizens if, before completing the whole of their sentence, they are released under supervision with a liability to recall if they do not behave". Perhaps the words used in that White Paper are rather redolent of another age, but none the less they state succinctly what parole is all about.

I know I say this to noble Lords who know much about the subject, but I say for the record that the essence of parole is that it is selective, conditional and rehabilitative in its intention, and in considering a prisoner for parole the local review committees, the Parole Board and the Home Secretary each in turn tries to strike a balance between two principal factors; on the one hand, the likely benefit to the prisoner and society in rehabilitative terms of release in order to serve the balance of the sentence under supervision in the community and, on the other, the likely risk to the community of someone being at large while still serving a sentence.

The noble Earl expressed appreciation of the Secretary of State's declared hope that shorter custodial sentences in suitable cases should be more frequently given. But there is world of difference between expressing and sincerely meaning that hope, and impinging directly on sentencing practice against which those who are giving sentences might react simply by giving longer sentences in order to negate it. That is a particularly important point in view of the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, which I know my right honourable friend will want to look at carefully.

I say it is an important point because at present one of the advantages of parole is that evidence does not suggest that sentences are in any way being adjusted by the courts to take account of parole. One could of course invest power to grant parole in the courts at the time of sentencing. While the arguments for that may have some validity in the case of short sentences, I do not think the same can be said of those given longer sentences, whose reaction to the sentence is an important element in deciding on parole. Those objections would to a large extent be overcome by proposals to change the administrative nature of the parole selection process to a quasi-judicial process; but apart from the resources required to administer a quasi-judicial system for some 10,000 cases a year, I wonder whether there is any reason to suppose that such a process would give different or better results.

That leads on to the noble Earl's criticism that the present process anyway is unfair because prisoners do not know why they are not being granted parole. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, spoke about that, and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked whether, broadly, reasons could be given for parole decisions. Well, my Lords, in recent years a good deal of sympathetic consideration has been given by the Parole Board and by successive Governments to the possibility of giving reasons for the refusal of parole. However, the practical difficulties have been considerable. Local review committees and Parole Board panels usually consist of four or five members who may be unanimous in their recommendation against parole, but who may differ slightly on the reasons.

It would take a skilled draftsman considerable time (in consultation of course with the panel members) to produce an agreed full statement of the various reasons for the outcome, and this would have to be done in 5,000 cases a year. Because of this, following the line favoured by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, experiments have been conducted by the Parole Board and local review committees to see whether, in each case, reasons might be selected from a stereotyped list. There is no doubt that some such procedure could be adopted, but the experience of those overseas parole schemes which have gone down this road has, I understand, indicated quite clearly that stereotyped reasons give prisoners little satisfaction and give rise, inevitably, to demands for further elaboration; in other words, reasons for the reasons.

I suggest that that in turn would lead, inevitably, to the involvement of the courts or some other form of appellate procedure and to the disclosure of the confidential reports made on the prisoners as part of the parole system. Such a course would represent a significant shift in the concept of parole from being a privilege to being a right and would not be practicable under the present scheme. We would be dealing with an entirely new type of parole scheme in which it would certainly be open to question whether the reports that would be produced, if confidentiality no longer applied, would be sufficiently frank to allow the present confidence in release decisions to be maintained. In case your Lordships feel that I am simply being resistant to what has been said this evening, I should say that in thinking about the case for the giving of reasons one must very carefully take into account that at the end of the day it could well lead to an overall reduction in the number of people who actually receive parole.

Rather than anticipate further the outcome of the review by attempting to deal in the short space of time available with the many other different and often contradictory proposals which are put forward for changing the present arrangements, may I mention, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, very fairly did, the successes achieved by the present scheme.

In respect of some 10,000 prisoners who qualify for consideration for parole each year, each case is carefully considered in the light of the full and frank reports made by prison and probation staff intimately concerned with all aspects of the prisoners circumstances, bearing in mind the legitimate interests of society as a whole; and with the opportunity in each case for interview by a member of the local review committee. Fewer than 10 per cent of the number released each year have their licences revoked, and of these fewer than half are recalled for conviction for a further offence. I hope that at least we can agree that this achievement cannot lightly be dismissed. These results have been obtained by the careful application of those principles of selection to which T referred earlier and the cautious extension—I know that it has been cautious—of them to more and more prisoners during the 12 years since the inception of the scheme. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, recognised in his speech, this shows that the system is working without having counter-productive effects upon the rest of the criminal justice system.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, have mentioned life-sentence prisoners, but since in March of this year we had a very full debate, and part of it at any rate concentrated on the arrangements for the release of life sentence prisoners, if your Lordships will forgive me, I shall not reply to this matter this evening, unless the noble Earl particularly wishes me to do so. However, in conclusion may f say that I—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I do not mean this in any offensive way, but would it not be possible for the noble Lord to go and talk to some of these life sentence prisoners? Could he not have a real conversation with a few life prisoners, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, did repeatedly when he was chairman of the Parole Board?


My Lords, there is an indication always, if I may say so, in what the noble Earl says when he speaks on the subject of life sentence prisoners, that in some way they are dealt with at official level only, and Ministers really have no idea what is going on at all. I must just say before this debate ends that this simply is not so. Quite apart from instances in which particular cases are brought to their notice by Members of this House or another place, Home Office Ministers are probably more closely involved with life sentence cases than with any other aspect of the work of the Home Office. Almost all proposals relating to the release or continued detention of such prisoners are submitted for approval either to my honourable friend the Minister of State (or, under other Administrations, it may be, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, who currently is concerned with that field of work) or to the Home Secretary personally.

In his speech, the noble Earl specifically asked that parole should be considered always, as of right, after 10 years. This is a matter to which I referred at great length when we had our previous debate in March, but may I just say that, in particular, any proposal which, if adopted, would lead to the detention of a life sentence prisoner for more than 12 years is always submitted—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I do not want to interrupt but—


No; let me finish this, and then I will give way to the noble Earl. Such a proposal is always submitted to a Minister, as also is any proposal that he or she should be released. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will accept from me that the suggestion that in some way—it has been suggested by the noble Earl again in the debate this evening —Ministers really have no idea what is going on in the life sentence field, is quite unfounded.

My Lords, if I may conclude, as I said earlier I am grateful to the noble Earl for initiating this debate, because I realise that, quite apart from his interest and his compassion in this subject, the noble Earl has a very long experience of it—and I repeat that I take to heart the fact that expressions of concern have been made in the debate this evening. They are expression of concern, may I say, which have no reflection on the way that the parole unit is worked in the Home Office, where people work devotedly, I think, for very long hours on the scheme; and no reflection on, I was going to say, the devoted work of the Parole Board and the local review committees, to whom I should like to pay tribute.

My Lords, I should like, finally, to make just two points. First—and I just put my view, which is the view of the Government the critics of parole are divided, it seems to me, as to the changes they would like and the means of achieving them. This suggests that any proposed reforms do not need to be swept aside but need to be very carefully examined, and, as I suggested earlier in the context of the parole scheme —indeed, in the context of the criminal justice system—one has to look at matters as a whole.

Secondly, I really think very strongly that we must be careful not to seek change for change's sake. By this, I am not suggesting that the parole scheme is perfect, but I do believe that by and large it fulfils its purpose well, and is worked, as I have just said, by people to whom we have a great deal to be thankful. To that extent, although I certainly take away with me and will report to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary the views that have been expressed this evening, I think the parole system still meets the needs of society and of prisoners, and gets them, as far as it can, fairly balanced.