HL Deb 01 July 1982 vol 432 cc342-84

4.8 p.m.

House again in Committee on Amendment No. 62.

Lord Avebury

The noble Earl had just said that the cases of life sentence prisoners are different in their nature from the cases of persons serving indeterminate sentences, in that they do not even come to the local review committee until a committee of the Parole Board and Home Office have decided to refer them. This may happen at any stage in a man's sentence before or after 10 years. The noble Earl's proposal is a rather modest one, in that a good many cases come before the local review committee as early as six years into a life prisoner's sentence; so I feel that he is being wise in pitching the level of the first mandatory review as high as 10 years, because there therefore is less likelihood that there will be any opposition to the proposal.

If we are to have parole at all, then everybody should have a chance of being reviewed, because after 10 years there could have been many changes—changes in a man's character, in his personal circumstances and in the attitude of society to his offence—which will warrant the first stages of consideration. The noble Earl is only asking for that. He is not requesting the Committee to provide that everybody who serves for 10 years will automatically be released but only that he shall have the chance of being considered by the parole system.

I would ask the Minister in replying to consider a preliminary factor which is of importance in this regard—that Category A prisoners have no chance whatsoever of being favourably reviewed. Their chances of getting parole, as was shown in an article which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, gave me—or it may have been his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—are virtually nil, because the last occasion on which a Category A life sentence prisoner—or any Category A prisoner for that matter—was released on parole or licence was September 1980. The system of classifying prisoners in that way is a kind of preliminary test which does not form any part of the parole system but which obviously has a crucial bearing on the question whether or not a person gets released.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, proposes that reviews should take place at intervals of not less than 10 months and not more than 14. In the 12 months to the end of May this year, 31 prisoners were told, according to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when replying to me, that 18 months would have to elapse before their next consideration. I suggest that we need to know rather more about it than the Committee knows at present. We need to know, for example, what was the period between successive reviews prior to that consideration and whether we can see a pattern of a decreasing period between reviews so that all those to whom the noble Lord referred in his Answer to my parliamentary Question had been reviewed at 18-month intervals prior to that occasion. Or whether, as in a case which the Minister knows I have in mind, a prisoner who had previously been reviewed at 12-month intervals was suddenly told that he would not be reviewed until 18 months after he had agreed to move from one prison to another. I am pleased that the Minister agreed, on reflection, that that was unjust and that the period of review should be 12 months.

I am wondering whether the noble Earl, Lord Longford, would not agree that one could be rather more precise in the matter and say that review should automatically take place at 12-month intervals so that a prisoner would know exactly where he stood. I cannot see any reason why there should not be a fixed interval of 12 months between reviews, instead of leaving it to the discretion of the parole system. And, just as there is no explanation of why you do not get paroled, similarly there is no explanation given to a prisoner as to why his period of review should be 12 or 18 months or in some cases, I believe, even longer than that.

Most of your Lordships may be surprised to learn that no fewer than 264 prisoners had been in prison for more than 10 years on 30th April, and apparently that figure has been increasing quite steadily. I say that because, in the report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System entitled Sentences of Imprisonment, figures are given which show that, as at the time of that report, there were only 65 prisoners who had served 10 years or more of a life sentence. Thus, over a period of four or five years, the number of long-serving life sentence prisoners quadrupled, and one would like to know a little more about the reasons for that. Is it because the criteria for granting release on licence to such prisoners have been tightened up, or are there some other factors in the consideration about which the Minister can tell us?

One realises that the Home Office and the Parole Board have the difficult responsibility of trying not to release on to the public prisoners who will be a risk and who might commit acts of violence which would cause everybody to criticise the parole system as well as the Home Office. But one can never have certainty in these matters, unless we keep all violent and potentially violent people in custody for their natural lives, and that would, I suppose, mean a prison population of perhaps half a million, if we were to eliminate all risk from the system. We accept, therefore, that there must be some element of risk which the public will tolerate—the risk that an offender will repeat crime which may even result in the death or serious injury of fellow human beings—just as we accept other and far worse risks. For example, we accept the prospects of being killed on the roads, which are far higher than the chance of being murdered by someone who has, as it turns out with the benefit of hindsight, been prematurely released from prison. Yet it is considered by those who formulate policy— maybe because too much notice is taken of the individual case where something goes wrong—that the public is highly sensitive to the risk of letting anybody free who has committed murder or certain other kinds of serious offence which are liable to indeterminate sentences.

It must be accepted that some men with serious personality disorders will have to remain in custody for a good many years, in some cases for the rest of their natural lives. I believe, however, that, where a man is serving an indeterminate sentence, he is not only entitled to periodic reviews at reasonable intervals in an attempt to decide how safe it would be to let him out, however difficult that might be, but that it should not be simply the private concern of officials, as it is at present. It should be a process similar to that of the mental health review tribunals which are provided for those detained in special hospitals. I was interested to hear the noble Earl, Lord Longford, draw attention to that aspect, although it is not a subject for debate on this amendment.

We have the position now where those detained in special hospitals have enhanced rights, since the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill left your Lordships' House, to go to a tribunal and present a case as to why they should be released. But, in respect of the parole system, as the noble Earl explained, the review is conducted by officials behind closed doors and the prisoner does not have the faintest idea who is involved in it. If a member of the Parole Board comes round the prison—as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, says they do, and I am sure they are conscientious in their jobs—he has no idea whether that particular member of the board has any part to play in the process of releasing him on licence.

Although this is a modest proposal, I hope it can be the first step in reforming the procedures for release on licence of very long-term life sentence prisoners, of whom there are more and more in the system and who, I believe, we are in danger of neglecting in the concentration which has rightly been focussed on short-term prisoners and the prospect of releasing them. In our correct attitude to the short-sentence prisoner and our attempts to try to secure a reduction in those who are not a threat to the general public, we should not ignore, as we have been, those who have been spending an extremely long time in prison, upwards of 20 years in some cases, and we should move towards a system of ameliorating their rights in the way the noble Earl described.

Baroness Madeod of Borve

We have been asked to speak as briefly as possible today, otherwise we can be sure of a late sitting tomorrow as well as tonight. I agree of course with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, who has the interests of the inmates in our prisons very much at heart, as we all have. I have served for the last four years as a member of the Parole Board, and I wish to correct one point made by the noble Earl in regard to the composition of life panels. They are invariably presided over by a High Court judge. There are three other membres of the Parole Board sitting on those panels, with many members of the Home Office. I hope I have put that one right.

The Earl of Longford

It is simply a question of fact. My understanding—and I have pursued this matter for a good many years—is that there are five people; three members of the Parole Board and two Home Office officials. I believe that to be the position.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Having sat on life panels many times, I must correct the noble Earl, and I assure him that what I say is correct. I query his premise of putting time limits on anything because, as he knows, prisoners vary and their sentences vary, and even life sentences vary. I remember the four years during which I was a member of a panel that was instrumental in letting out within five years somebody who had been sentenced to life. With the greatest respect, I consider that if we stipulate 10 years, or even within a period of 10 years, that would not be a good thing to do. I would have nothing to do with putting any period of time on anything, including the 10 months or the 14 months. I say that because to do so would, perhaps wrongly, make the inmate aware that his case might be reviewed at either 10 months or 14 months. That would not give enough time for him to improve, or for his rehabilitation to be effective. Also—

Lord Avebury

If he has not improved during that time, then when the local review committee considers the case after the period has elapsed, it will not recommend him.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I was moving on to a further point, which is as follows. Each time a prisoner's case is reviewed the whole processs has to be gone through again. There have to be all the probation officers' reports, the Home Office reports, the prisoner's personal reports, and the reports from the prison staff. If that is done every 10 months or 14 months, I do not think that any member of a panel, be it a LRC or the Parole Board, would glean much information. I would go along with what in my view is the very well-drafted clause in the Bill, and for the reasons that I hope I have adequately explained, I would not support the amendment.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

I should like to support this very simple amendment—-because of its simplicity. What it really says is that 10 years without hope is enough; and this is the point. Anybody who has met men sentenced to 10 years or even 15 years, and who has compared their state of mind with that of "lifers", will know the difference. The 10-year man knows that there is a moment to which he can look forward; the "lifer" knows that there is not, even though "lifers" are often let out after not only five years, as the noble Baroness said, but after several months in some cases. The point is that there must be a date to look forward to. We all had to cross off dates when we are waiting for term to end at school; we have all been through that.

It seems to me that if the period is indefinite and indeterminate, it presents an unnecessary cruelty. I believe that it is a real psychological cruelty. It helps nobody. Ten years is a very long time. I should say that half of the people in this Chamber will not be alive in 10 years' time; I certainly shall not. I am speaking absolutely seriously. I cannot remember what happened 10 years ago, in 1972. I think that I was here, but I might have been somewhere else. It is a very long time; let there be absolutely no doubt about it. There should be a period which the prisoner can look towards at the end of a very long time. He might then be refused—OK; there is no damage done to anybody.

The only thing that I would question is the period regarding renewed application. There is evidence that too many applications, made too frequently, do more harm than good, and I should like to consider not whether the period should be shorter, but whether it should be longer. But I do not want to stress that. I want to say simply that I support the amendment very warmly on the grounds of the psychological tension imposed by the prisoner having no date to look forward to.

Baroness Trumpington

Following what my noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve said, and indeed what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, has just said, I believe that there are involved not only the personalities of the prisoners, but also the categories of the crimes. One should speak up for the families of victims, in particular victims of bestial murders. In the eyes of families who have suffered the loss of loved ones—for example, there is the case of the man who recently killed 16 women—life should mean life. I do not see that it is simply a question of the rehabilitation of the person who has been found guilty. There should be a question of retribution as well. This is a factor which to many people has made palatable, or more palatable, the loss of the death penalty. I believe that life should mean a very long period, such as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, has just spoken about.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

Before the noble Baroness sits down, I should like to point out that under the present amendment it can mean that. Nobody would suggest that a person who commits the more savage kind of crime should automatically be given parole after 10 years. There is no suggestion of that at all. The only suggestion is that he should have the right for his case to be looked at.

4.26 p.m.

Baroness Birk

I wish to speak in support of the amendment of my noble friend Lord Longford. I also wish to follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, when he spoke about the lack of hope and the deterioration experienced by the prisoner after a period of 10 years. Some years ago when I was visiting Wormwood Scrubs a very tough (as he described himself) senior prison officer there told me, "After 10 years any human being starts to deteriorate". He said, "Look, don't think that I'm one of your' softies' or liberals. I'm speaking from my own personal experience as a prison officer— and from that moment the person starts to go downhill".

Therefore it seems to me absolutely essential that as a civilised society we should at least provide for a review of the cases, and give the prisoners the opportunity to make an application after 10 years; otherwise they are being sentenced to something much more horrific than was ever intended.

The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, made the point that life should be life. If I understood her correctly, she said that life imprisonment should be for life—

Baroness Trumpington

For certain categories.

Baroness Birk

For certain categories. As I am sure she is aware, as indeed we are all aware, in this country it is in fact very unusual for a life sentence to mean life. When the Minister replies it would be interesting to hear the figures for people who are serving life other than for murder or manslaughter. Very often life sentences are given for example, in severe cases of arson, where even the judge implies that it is necessary for the prisoner's case to be kept under review because it is difficult to ascertain in advance whether he will be fit for release at any particular time. Therefore the importance of a review is very great.

It might be said by the Minister in reply, or by another noble Lord, that a judge often makes a recommendation that a person when convicted should serve not less than a certain term specified by the judge. That is of course only a recommendation. There have been cases where the Parole Board has decided that certain prisoners should be released even before the time that the judge had originally recommended, simply because in the first place it was only a recommendation and much had happened since then. I believe it essential that this not very draconian, nor at all extremely radical, amendment moved by my noble friend should be accepted.

There are two sets of figures that I find difficult to understand, and I wonder whether the Minister can enlighten us on them. They are rather shocking. In 1978, 65 "lifers" had served more than 10 years, but by 1982 the number had risen to 264. That, it seems, ties up with the increased overcrowding in prisons and the number of people who in this country are serving longer sentences than they were before; and, altogether, it seems to me to add up to the need for the amendment moved by my noble friend to be included in this Bill.

It is reasonable, it is merciful and it is quite realistic, because it is taking into account what happens to people, and it is also giving people at least some form of hope, which at the present moment so many of them have not got. It does not go any further than that. There is no compulsion on the Parole Board to release people; and it does not say that it is right that at the end of any particular time a prisoner must be released. In my view it is an extremely mild amendment, which I hope will be supported.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Before the noble Baroness sits down, may I say that the Parole Board do not release people; they make recommendations to the Home Secretary.

Baroness Birk

I beg the noble Baroness's pardon. They recommend release, yes.

The Earl of Onslow

There has been a lot of criticism in the newspapers that "lifers" get out after nine years, and I believe that the average time before the release of life sentence prisoners is nine years. If that is the case, this seems an unnecessary amendment.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

Speaking, as has been pointed out already, on the first day for some little time that I have not been chairman of the Parole Board, perhaps I can say a few words about this amendment and explain why I propose to vote against it. I am sorry to find myself in disagreement with my noble friend Lord Donaldson and with my absent noble friend Lord Hunt. But, nevertheless, I am firmly opposed to this amendment, and I will try to explain to the Committee why that is so.

First of all, I speak as an abolitionist. I speak as a firm opponent of capital punishment. I think it is necessary, as the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, reminded us, to realise that on this extremely difficult issue we have had many debates over many years in both Houses of Parliament. There is not the slightest doubt that the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens are in favour of a restoration of capital punishment. It is also, in my view, absolutely right that Members of both Houses should vote on this matter according to their consciences, and they have done so. There is, I believe, a situation which has now arisen whereby for some time at least this issue has been put on one side, because even in a Parliament with a very substantial Conservative majority it is quite clear that by an overwhelming majority the present House of Commons is opposed to a restoration of capital punishment. They have taken that position notwithstanding very strong constituency and other pressures, which many Members of Parliament have stood out against with some considerable courage.

I think we have to bear that in mind when we direct our attention to the range of issues which are covered in this amendment. What the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said a few moments ago is of course entirely true. What is being suggested in this amendment is not that people should be let out after 10 years when they have been sentenced to life imprisonment— not at all. What the noble Earl and his friends are suggesting to the Committee is that there should be an automatic injection of their case into the life review system.

It is said by my noble friend, with his very substantial personal experience as chairman of the board of visitors for many years at Grendon Underwood and with a lifetime's interest and involvement in the criminal justice system, that it is only humane to inject those cases into the life review system after 10 years. With great respect, I take exactly the contrary view. I do not believe there is anything humane about putting a case to a local review committee when it is manifestly clear that there is not the remotest prospect of release of that individual. There is nothing humane about that.

In my view, there is something very cruel about that; and, if I may say so, that is a view which not only I, and undoubtedly some of my former colleagues on the Parole Board, have, but when the then vice-chairman of the Parole Board and I went to a meeting and discussed this matter with governors of prisons within whose walls there were significant numbers of life sentence prisoners, it was the overwhelming view of the governers of those establishments that this was so. They welcomed the existence of this organisation referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as (a phrase which I am happy I had not heard before) an organisation wrapped in impenetrable mystery. That was an allusion, apparently, to some club—not, I am glad to say, my own, so far as I am aware. Let me just explain what this organisation which has been referred to today is all about.

Before doing that, perhaps I should just make this point. We are not here talking about parole; we are talking about life sentence licences. Of course, life sentence licences existed before there was a parole scheme. They were administered directly by officials at the Home Office, who reported directly to the Home Secretary. As a result of the introduction of the parole system, the Parole Board was asked to take on this responsibility and, of course, it has done so ever since.

The joint committee, as it is referred to, is in fact known. There is nothing mysterious about it at all. It is known that the chairman of the Parole Board is ex officio a member of that committee, so there is no

mystery about who is on it. Everybody knows that the chairman of the Parole Board is the chairman of the joint committee. It is also known that there are, of course, two Home Office officials; and it is also known that the vice-chairman of the Parole Board, who is always a High Court Judge, is also a member of the joint Committee. His name appears in the Parole Board annual report, and there is no mystery about it at all. There is a fifth member, a senior consultant psychiatrist, who is a member of the Parole Board.

What they do is this. Three or four years after a prisoner has been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, the joint committee reviews the case and decides upon what recommendation to make. Should it recommend that the case be referred to a local review committee after, say, another two or three years—if it is quite obvious that the person concerned is going to serve a sentence at the lower end of the range—or, as is often the case, if it is quite clear that there is not the remotest prospect of his early release, they may decide to refer the matter back to themselves in another three, four or five years.

I think that that system, which was introduced by either Mr. Maudling or Mr. Carr when they were Home Secretary, has in fact stood the test of time extremely well. I did not have a firm view about it when I was a Home Office Minister because I did not actually deal with life sentence cases; but having seen it operate (I know it always sounds desperately complacent in this country ever to say that anything works particularly well, but I think that basically it does work rather well) T think it is a fair and sensible system. The reason for it, the reason why it was introduced, is quite obvious. If you constantly suggest to a man serving a life sentence that there is an imminent likelihood of him being released, you are in fact damaging him grievously. That is the reason why the joint committee was established: because it was recognised that by raising a man's hopes it was an extremely cruel process; and it was as a result of that that the joint committee was established.

What the noble Earl is saying in this amendment is that automatically after 10 years these cases should go to the local review committee. In the majority of cases, of course, the case v/ill have gone to the local review committee at or before 10 years, but we are talking about a number of other cases where clearly, even at that stage, there is no chance at all of the person concerned coming out.

Let me remind the Committee of what is involved if cases are sent to the local review committee prematurely. The local review committee, which exist at every prison, have to work on the assumption that there is a reasonable possibility of that man being released on licence, and they are asked to study a series of reports from various members of the prison service in their particular establishment. These are reports from the medical staff, from the consultant psychiatrists, and from the prison probation officer, about where the man would live if he were to be released. It is also necessary in such cases for the home probation officer to interview the wife, or the common law wife or the girl friend or, in some cases, the parent, to see what sort of arrangements there should be if that man is to be released. Thereupon the local review committee make up their mind and make recommendations to the Home Office and to the Parole Board.

What happens if, as everybody recognises there is no chance at all of that man coming out in that particular period? The home probation officer calls on the relatives to discuss the possibility of the imminent return of that man. Is there anything more cruel in such cases than to raise expectations of that kind? There are at the moment a number of people who are serving life sentences with a minimum recommendation of 30 years' imprisonment. As a matter of fact, I personally do not like that provision in the 1965 Act which gives a trial judge the opportunity to make such a recommendation, particularly since it is non-appeal-able. The fact is that we work on the basis of the existing law. The minimum recommendation in a number of such cases is for 30 years and in some cases less than that. In such cases, if we pass this amendment, after 10 years, we are going to start seriously discussing the likelihood that the man is coming out.

Let us consider—and I do not want to discuss any particular case, for it would be inappropriate to do so —that a number of people serving such sentences have been responsible for the death of not one, two or three people but many people. I must say to the Committee that I would find it a difficult proposition to say that in such cases automatically we would work on the assumption that there was to be a serious suggestion that after 10 years, the whole parole process starts to operate on the basis of the likelihood of the return of that individual to the community.

Lord Avebury

The prisoner does not think there is an imminent likelihood of his being released if he is in Category "A". No Category "A" prisoner has been released on licence or given parole since September 1980. Therefore, the prisoner may be aware that reference to the local review committee will not lead to his release for a long time.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

The noble Lord is right in general, or partially right; for a very small number of cases Category "A" prisoners have been released. But there is a great deal of pressure on the prison administration to reduce the classification in such cases so that their cases can be looked at more advantageously as far as the individual inmate is concerned. The point is that you start looking after 10 years and getting the wheels turning. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, cannot have it both ways. If it is wrong to deny all hope (which I understand is the purpose behind this amendment) what the noble Lord is saying is that people in this category have no hope, have no expectation, that they will be released, then the point that I must put is this. The relatives of that man, the wife, and the other members of the family, will have their expectations raised and there is no point, I think, with the greatest of respect, in trying to pretend the reverse because one finds cases constantly, cases to which one's attention is drawn, where expectations have been raised and there is a deep anguish in the family when they discover that the man is not to be released and, in some cases, may not be released for many years. That is the problem.

I do not pretend that these are easy questions, to answer, but I believe that the present arrangements probably work as well as anything can. I think that on this point the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and I are in agreement. I think that we have to recogninse that as a result of the abolition of capital punishment and as a result of the acts which a number of people have committed and which lead to their receiving life sentences, many of them will serve very much longer sentences than people have normally experienced in our penal system. There is a price that we must pay as a result of the abolition of capital punishment. This is a painful and distressing one, and no doubt the process and the damage done by long-term imprisonment is considerable. But one also must bear in mind that our society expects to be protected by its parliamentary representatives and that we must take that responsibility equally seriously.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

May I ask the noble Lord to clarify a point? He referred to the joint committee, of which he was until yesterday, chairman. I was referring in my few words to the "lifer" panels. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, was referring also to the joint committee, but I presumed—-and perhaps I was wrong—that he was referring to the "lifer" panels which take the case further along the road. If I am wrong in thinking he was referring to the "lifer" panel, I apologise to the noble Earl.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

I must intervene having heard what my noble friend Lord Harris said about long-serving prisoners having their imprisonment reviewed. I am absolutely astonished that anybody could have held the office that he held and be completely blind to the psychology of these people who are locked up for 10, 20 or 30 years. One must ask oneself, with great respect, whether he has ever spoken either to these people or to their families. The whole of my experience, all those people that I have appeared for and who, unfortunately, on rare occasions, have been convicted and have served sentences of long periods of imprisonment, with whom I have kept in touch and visited on many occasions, shows that the one overwhelming thing to keep those people sane, whatever they have done, is, as has already been mentioned, some form of hope.

The fact that their parole will be turned down they know. Of course, they know in their hearts that it will be turned down. The same thing applies to prisoners who are sentenced to only 7, 8 or 9 years. The first time they will say, "My parole is coming up next year. What chance do you think there is?" You say, "Well, it was an incredibly serious offence and, really, there is no chance". "Well, I know there isn't, but, still, there might be". And the wife comes up and they talk about it. It is the constant hope inside that man's heart.

It is ludicrous to talk about this beautifully arranged system where all the right people look at the papers. And ludicrous to say, how cruel it would be to suggest to a man serving 30 years that he might get out in 20 years or in 16 years. How cruel, when all these experts'know perfectly well that he will not get out!

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My noble friend may recall that he rose to ask a question and I rose to answer the question. I have met dozens of life-sentence prisoners and have spoken to them often.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

I accept that. Perhaps then it is amazing that my noble friend does not appreciate that the knowledge that their sentence will be reviewed, come what may, come what the governor may think of it, come what the professional experts may think, come what the judges may think gives them the hope that, possibly, as a result of their behaviour, their example or what they have done, a change will be made.

That is what makes their lives possible over a long-term sentence, As one noble Lord said, after 7, 8 or 9 years, it is accepted that anybody who is incarcerated in the circumstances of our prisons at this time deteriorates in an alarming way. If you lock up a man without sight of daylight, he deteriorates. If you give him daylight, he has hope that one day he will get out. Without daylight, there is no hope. That is why you give him a window to see the daylight. He knows he will not get out next year, but it gives him hope. I hope that your Lordships will dismiss from your minds the expert view so succinctly and clearly given by my noble friend and go back to your own feelings of humanity and your own understanding of the circum stances in our prisons of today.

Baroness Phillips

I should like to intervene. I had intended to keep silent until the last noble Lord had spoken. He has made the plea that he has interviewed the prisoner, the wife of the prisoner. He has certainly not had the opportunity of interviewing the victim. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, made the point that 264 people were serving life sentences.

Lord Avebury

No. I said that 264 people had served 10 years or more of life sentences.

Baroness Phillips

That is already a long sentence. Over 10 years is a long sentence, particularly nowadays. This week, three horrific murders have been perpetrated. There are 52 weeks in a year, so that 156 murders could be perpetrated in any one year. I think it is difficult to sit and listen to the constant reiteration of the words "the prisoners". The prisoners are in prison because they have committed offences. Presumably these are very serious offences or they would not receive that kind of sentence. I feel that, while we are appealing so sentimentally for kindness and humanity—and I hate to disagree with my noble friend Lord Longford, for I know, that like me, he cares for the victims— we should remember that they are there for a reason. If they have not got any hope, I am afraid that, in many cases, neither have the victims.

When you think of that poor old lady who died as a result of torture by three boys, what do we feel about those three? They did not receive that length of sentence. I feel that this clause is really a very vast step forward. Surely, there is no need to go to such lengths when, outside, the general public will feel once again that there is a necessity to have capital punishment. We have to exercise some kind of justice for other ordinary people. I know this Bill has been rightly called criminal justice—it is certainly justice for criminals we are considering. Let us also consider that the ordinary citizen who never commits a crime is entitled to consideration by us. We will be interfering with a very serious matter. I certainly support the clause.

Viscount lngleby

Hope is a very precious thing, and I would only ask the Committee whether we are entitled in respect of any of our fellow human beings to take all hope away from them?

Lord Elton

The proposal which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, makes in this amendment is not a new one. He has brought it to the House before, as he said. I give great weight to his transparent compassion and the forthrightness with which he addresses himself to this clause, and to the support of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who regrettably is not here to speak for himself. I must also weigh very carefully the enormously authoritative opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who has said more ably than I could, and with more direct experience than I have, a great deal that I had intended to say. May I take this opportunity of thanking him not for that contribution, though I would do so also, but for his service as chairman of the Parole Board for the past several years for which the Government would like to give recognition. I must say what he said makes me think that they made a very wise choice.

Perhaps I may welcome the noble Lord's successor, Lord Windlesham, who is sitting in his place, perhaps muted by his newly-gained office to rather a greater extent than the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was muted earlier this week when he occupied it.

The circumstances in which life sentences are given to prisoners vary enormously. As well as being the sole penalty for murder, it is the maximum penalty for a number of other serious offences—for example, manslaughter, armed robbery, rape, violence and kidnapping. In those cases, judges often give life sentences in the expectation that the offender will be detained for a very long time, for the protection of the public, but very often they do so also because at the time it is not clear when he will be fit to return to society and the judge considers it more humane to impose an indeterminate sentence with the result that, if all goes well, the offender may be released sooner than he would have been had he been given the shortest safe determinate sentence for the offence. The life sentence population is therefore made up of very different sorts of people who have been given their sentences under very different circumstances.

That population has risen—and both the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referred to this—to a considerable increase in the number of that population, and particularly of those who have served over 10 years, partly because of the increase in crime generally but partly also because of the end of the death penalty. Before 1963, all those people who had committed capital murder would have been executed. They would not be in prison because they would be under the ground.

Baroness Birk

Would the noble Lord give way for a moment? The figures I quoted were between 1978 and 1982. The abolition of the death penalty could play no part in those years.

Lord Elton

The effect of this is cumulative—is it not? —and it will go on increasing until the natural life span of those who are kept in prison for the term of their natural life expires. Ten per cent, of "lifers" are not in prison for murder or manslaughter. The noble Baroness also inquired about that.

Lord Avebury

I am so sorry to interrupt the noble Lord so soon. Recently I asked him how many of the life sentence prisoners at present in our prisons were serving sentences for which capital punishment was provided under the old legislation and he said that he could not tell me. That rather destroys the argument that he has put that many of the people now serving long sentences in prison would have been executed. He cannot tell me what the figure is.

Lord Elton

I cannot give the noble Lord an objective answer; but the subjective answer, I would have thought, was sufficiently obvious to be convincing.

If the Home Secretary is to be able to treat each case suitably, the arrangements for considering the cases of individual prisoners must also be as adaptable as possible. That is what the present procedure achieves. It has evolved in the light of experience. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who has contributed in absentia, as it were, to this debate, has had a hand in this. He was chairman of the board when it requested a change of the system as the system was in 1973 and which also rejected the Home Office proposals for that change. What resulted, and what I think then had his agreement, was the system we now have. Under that system, the first review is carried out by a joint committee of which the chairman of the Parole Board is the presiding member on which senior Parole Board members, including a psychiatrist and a High Court judge, are in a majority, and to which two officials of the Home Office also belong. We are not talking about a faceless bureaucracy. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, these are known people.

The first review of a life sentence prisoner is given by this Committee not within 10 years, as proposed in the amendment, but within three or four; and if the interval before the first review is to be the measure of the civilisation of our society, it follows that society is now marginally more civilised than the amendment would have it be.

That committee then either recommend a date for the case to be referred to the local review committee to begin with or, in cases where it is clear the prisoner could not be released for several years, where it is not clear when he may be released, they ask for the case to be referred back to them after a specified interval. I shall not expatiate on this because the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has been through the procedure.

This makes it possible to identify cases in which unusually early reviews are justified and it also avoids abortive reviews where there are no realistic prospects of release. The committee will have to take a view on whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is right in saying that hope deferred is immensely destructive of the morale not merely of prisoners but of their families, or whether the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, who holds exactly the contrary view, is right. 1 think that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has the closer personal experience of these cases and is in a critical position to review them. His view coincides with that of those whom I have consulted.

What I have said shows that it is not the case, as the noble Earl has argued in the past, that life-sentence prisoners are left in a kind of limbo for many years without their cases ever being considered. Under the present procedure, all life-sentence prisoners are considered by a body on which senior representatives of the Parole Board are in a majority, after they have been detained for only 3–4 years, and in some cases earlier, and without the paraphernalia of anxiety which results from the full procedure. At all stages in the procedure which between us we have described, if reports suggest that there might be grounds for advancing the date fixed for the next stage when a review is to be given, that evidence is considered. The prisoner and all those interested in him can make representations at any time, and these are also considered.

Rather than detain your Lordships longer, I will say that I regard the factor of "hope deferred" as being of very great importance. I regard the factor of nugatory work by a great many people within the prison system and without it as being of less importance but not worth not considering. I also think that the factor which has been raised by one or two noble Lords about public confidence is of the greatest importance. We are looking at these provisions at a point in history when Parliament has made it unreservedly clear to the country that they are not reverting to capital punishment. That support was given by many people to the idea of removing capital punishment—and, I may add, by myself—on the understanding that the public would be protected from the inevitable consequence of not disposing of people who are lethal to society, by keeping society protected from them by their confinement in prison.

If this amendment went through—and, as I say, we already have reviews in the first 3 to 4 years in any case by a committee—what would happen would be that a judge would sentence a notorious and dreadful villain to a life sentence which society would expect to be served. The judge may have said for 30 years, but in not more than 10 years—and the amendment permits it to be less, because the noble Earl asks for "not more than 10 years"—at some point the whole case is reviewed. It hits the press again, the name of the person in question comes into the newspapers and —it is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Avebury to sit down and say "nonsense". If he wants to interrupt me, he must stand up, but before he does so I would like to conclude my remarks.

What I am saying is that the effect of this amendment will be to do precisely the opposite—I beg the the noble Earl to realise that—of what he wants, by making the climate of public opinion hostile to the release of these people. It will make release more difficult, more infrequent and more often deferred. I ask your Lordships not to support the amendment.

Lord Avebury

Before the noble Lord sits down, he knows perfectly well that cases fererred to the local review committee do not hit the press, as he put it. Also, before the noble Lord sits down, would he care to deal with the point about the successive interval between reviews? It is, after all, an integral part of the amendment and one which I spent a few minutes talking about—particularly the lengthening of intervals from 12 months to 18 months between successive reviews.

Lord Elton

The intervals—and I regret if I appeared discourteous to the noble Lord, but it is very frustrating to be interrupted in a peroration, but it is possible that my perorations cannot be detected as such until they finish—between reviews are not set to a pattern. They are set to the nature of the individual case; and the noble Lord was good enough to bring a particular case to my attention and I felt that the pattern was wrong. If there is a change in the pattern overall, it is coincidental; it is made up of individual cases and not of policy.

The Earl of Longford

I sympathise with the noble Lord who did not wish to be interrupted in his peroration. He slapped me down the other day on the same ground, so I think your Lordships will probably agree that the introduction of "Elton's Law"—that no Minister should ever be interrupted in a peroration— is one that will be widely acceptable.

I feel I should rest my case particularly on something that was said at the beginning by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. This is a moderate amendment. There is no doubt that, on something like this, very strong emotions are aroused. Some people including a dear friend of mine, if I am allowed to call her that without embarrassment, the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, would like to keep these people in prison in certain circumstances for ever. I regard that as utterly wicked—not that she is wicked, but it is a wicked idea. That is how I feel about it and the noble Baroness feels the opposite.

A lot of people will agree with me on this matter and a lot of people, I dare say, agree with her. So, really, I am coming before your Lordships today in a spirit explained by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, although we have not been in collusion. I hope I did not say anything which upset the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on his first day of liberation. However, he will have plenty of opportunities later for speaking about me in whatever fashion appeals to him. Earlier this afternoon, as a matter of fact, I was going to have paid a tribute to him for his great abilities, even though he and I seldom agree on penal matters. He made that impossible at the time by interrupting me, but I pay him that qualified tribute now.

There is just one thing that I feel may have created a little bit of misunderstanding, though it was perfectly legitimate, on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Elton. He talked of review after three or four years, and your Lordships may wonder what sort of review that is. As I understand it, the file is brought out and some officials sit round and decide not to look at that particular file again for quite some time. That is not what we are talking about when it is said that someone should go before the local review committee. If this proposal were defeated, which I certainly hope it will not be, I should be very much inclined to put down a still more qualified amendment saying that the committee in question—this mysterious committee—should make sure that at least one of their members saw one of the persons concerned in the last parole report. He explained that the Parole Board last year actually saw two prisoners, and that is not their usual practice. My argument would not fall to the ground, but, on another occasion, if this procedure were to continue, I would certainly suggest that this committee ought at least to make sure that one of its members saw the prisoner they were discussing.

This is a moderate amendment. I know there are a lot of people in the general public who hate prisoners and I understand their feelings, particularly if their relatives have been robbed. 1 can honestly say that there have been only four debates started in this Chamber about victims in the last twenty years—all started by me, as my noble friend Lady Phillips said, so I cannot be accused of neglecting victims. However, let us leave out personalities. I very much hope this amendment will be carried.

5.9 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 62) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 60; Not-Con-tents, 107.

Airedale, L. John-Mackie, L.
Ardwick, L. Kagan L.
Avebury, L. Kaldor, L.
Balogh, L. Kilbracken, L.
Banks, L. Listowel, E.
Bernstein, L. Longford, E.
Beswick, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Birk, B. Mais, L.
Bishopston, L. [Teller.] Mayhew, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Melchett, L.
Briginshaw, L. Milford, L.
Byers, L. Mischon, L.
Collison, L. Ogmore, L.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Oram, L.
Crowther-Hunt, L. Peart, L.
David, B. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridpe, L Roberthall, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Rochester, L.
Elystan-Morgan, L. Ross of Marnock, L..
Ewart-Biggs, B. Shinwell, L.
Gardiner, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
George-Brown, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Gregson, L. Tordoff, L.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Underhill, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Wallace of Coslany, L. [Teller.]
Hutchinson of Lullington, L.
Ingleby, V. Wells-Pestell, L.
Jacobson, L. Wigoder, L.
Jacques, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.
Jeger, B. Wynne-Jones, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L.
Ailesbury, M. Chelwood, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Coleraine, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Cork and Orrery, E.
Allen of Abbeydale, L. Craigavon, V.
Alport, L. Crathorne, V.
Ampthill, L. Dacre of Glanton, L.
Auckland, L. Daventry, V.
Avon, E. Davidson, V.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. De Freyne, L.
Bellwin, L. De L'Isle, V.
Beloff, L. Denham, L.[Teller.]
Belstead, L. Derwent, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Diamond, L.
Caithness, E. Dilhorne, V.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Duncan-Sandys, L.
Cathcart, E. Eccles, V.
Ellenborough, L. Phillips, B.
Elton, L. Platt of Writtle, B.
Ferrers, E. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L.
Gainford, L. Porritt, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Portland, D.
Glanusk, L. Rankeillour, L.
Glenarthur, L. Reay, L.
Gormanston, V. Redcliffe-Maud, L.
Hailsham of Sint Marylebone, L. Reigate, L.
Renton, L.
Harmer-Nicholls, L. Renwick, L.
Harris of Greenwhich, L. Robbins, L.
Harvington, L. Rochdale, V.
Hawke, L. Romney, E.
Hornsby-Smith, B. Rugby, L.
Hylton-Foster, B. Sainsbury, L.
Ironside, L. St. John of Bletso, L.
Kilearn, L. Sandys, L. [Teller.]
Kinnaird, L. Sempill, Ly.
Kintore, E. Skelmersdale, L.
Lane-Fox, B. Soames, L.
Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Spens, L.
Long, V. Stamp, L.
Lucas of Chilworth, L. Stanley of Alderley, L.
McAlpine of Moffat, L. Strathcarron, L.
Macleod of Borve, B. Terrington, L.
Mancroft, L. Teviot, L.
Marley, L. Thornevcroft, L.
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Tranmire, L.
Mersey, V. Trefgarne, L.
Monk Bretton, L. Trenchard, V.
Mottistone, L. Trumpington, B.
Newall, L. Vaizey, L.
Northchurch, B. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Onslow, E. Vivian, L.
Orkney, E. Ward of Witley, V.
Orr-Ewing, L. Young, B.
Pender, L.

5.16 p.m.

The Earl of Longford moved Amendment No. 63:

After Clause 28, insert the following new clause:

("Reasons to be given for refusal of parole by Parole Board.

. After paragraph (b) of subsection (4) of section 59 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 there shall be inserted— (c) if in any particular case the Board refuses parole the reasons for this shall be communicated to the person to whom the case relates;".").

The noble Earl said: This amendment would compel the parole authorities to give reasons when they feel it impossible to grant parole. It has been pointed out to me, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the drafting of my amendment is technically not quite correct, because, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, said earlier, it is the Home Secretary who grants parole. But that is a verbal technicality which can easily be put right if the amendment is carried.

Noble Lords of much wisdom and experience have supported a proposal of this kind in various previous debates, and I understand that my own party, and maybe others, supported it in another place. I suppose that most people coming fresh to this subject would consider it inherently right and proper that reasons were given. Certainly, it would be compatible with any suggestion that the Parole Board is some kind of judicial body; but, of course, it does not claim to be that.

The Parole Board is, in fact, a curious kind of quango. It belongs neither to the judiciary nor to the Executive, and it makes up its own rules, subject to legislation and any guidance that Ministers may give it. The Parole Board is quite remarkably non-accountable; that is so, whether it be under the auspices of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, before him or the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, to whom I wish everything good in his new role. The board is much less accountable than the judges, who operate in the full light of day, and much less accountable than the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers, like the noble Lord opposite. The Parole Board does its work behind locked doors. It is totally inaccessible to prisoners and their representatives, though I note in its last report that the board saw two prisoners in exceptional circumstances. The Parole Board reaches its conclusions on the strength of vast accumulations of paper. All I can say about it is that, in many ways, it is a law unto itself.

It would be natural justice that it should give reasons for these otherwise inscrutable decisions. It would certainly be of much benefit to prisoners if it gave reasons. The prisoners would, indubitably, be assisted in improving their conduct if they were given some guidance. Here, I am speaking from first-hand contact with many prisoners. We all claim to have met more prisoners than anyone else, but I have met a great many in the last 40 years, and it would be of great value to prisoners, if they were told why they had failed and how they could improve themselves on future occasions. That happens in other walks of life, including school. The case for giving reasons is so obvious, in a way, that one has to look for an explanation as to why the reasons are not conceded. The Home Office—for reasons again known to them— will always be very reluctant to be forthcoming.

What do the arguments against giving reasons amount to? For the most part—there may be one or two more subtle versions—they amount to saying that in quite a number of cases it would discourage prisoners if reasons were given. It was argued that circumstances would have to be pointed to—home circumstances or other circumstances which the prisoner could not change—or that something in his character would have to be pointed to, which again he could not change. Those points must be clearly considered by anybody like myself who puts forward a case for giving reasons, but in my opinion they amount to nothing whatsoever. To take home circumstances, I do not think, for example, that the fact that a man's wife would not welcome him home is a reason for not giving him parole. But if it is considered, under our existing arrangements, that that is so, then he should be told the reason, which would be a much more honest way than concealing it from him. It is very unlikely that he would be unaware of the situation.

Where a prisoner has a personality problem, I concede that people will say there is not much that the poor chap can do about it. If it is a medical matter, he ought not to be in prison but in a special hospital. If, however, because of the shortage of special hospitals he has to remain in prison, I think he should be given a general indication that medical grounds are standing in his way. To take so-called personality disorders, the prisoner should be told what the trouble is. The problem should be gone into with him. One should discuss with him, informally at least, what are the manifestations of those personality disorders—which, in nine cases out of ten, one can almost certainly improve.

In my experience, the refusal to grant reasons is due, as often as not, to the fact that the authorities are not ready to give the reasons. The argument that they are thinking just of the prisoner is not the whole truth. It may be part of the truth, sometimes, but it is not the whole truth. The main part of the truth, very often, is that the reasons which the authorities wish to give are not reasons of the kind which they feel would make a very good impression, or which they would wish to stand over either in public or in Parliament. It may be that the prisoner is notorious or is connected with an organisation such as the IRA. Or it may be that in some other way it is considered that it is inimical to the public interest. If that is the reason, it should be told. It is thoroughly dishonest to hide behind the smoke-screen of the procedure of not giving reasons. I beg to move.

5.24 p.m.

Baroness Birk

I rise to support my noble friend. My name is attached to the amendment. May I first refer to the report of the Parole Board for 1973 which acknowledged that: The policy of not giving reasons for refusing parole has added to a sense of grievance on being turned down". As my noble friend has said, many reasons are adduced for not giving reasons and, no doubt, further reasons will be put before us: that it is more unfair to the prisoner to know than not to know the reasons. To that I would reply that one of the most cruel things which one can inflict on anybody is a complete lack of knowledge—not knowing why—because the imagination can range far beyond the practical reasons upon which his refusal is based. To deny the reasons to a prisoner who has been waiting anxiously for three months for a decision—which is on top of the time he has already been waiting to see whether he is going to be reviewed for parole—and then to give no formal explanation is likely to induce cynicism and bitterness about the whole procedure. Somebody who might have started out with some confidence in the justice which he might get from this procedure will feel completely bitter about it and without any further hope. It is bound to give rise to the suspicion in a prisoner's mind that in his case the decision has been arbitrarily arrived at. If reasons are not given he will invent his own reasons. One can argue quite clearly and quite rightly that the consequences of such speculation may be far more damaging than the truth. It is difficult for a prisoner to be helped to work constructively for his own release if he does not know why he is being turned down. The report of the Parole Board for 1975 accepted that There will certainly be cases where a man can improve his future prospects of parole if he knows why he has failed in the past". In 1978, Mr. Peter Warr, who was then chairman of the Prison Officers' Association, said in evidence to the House of Commons Expenditure Committee: 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'm sorry, lad'. Then he says, 'What did I do wrong?' and I say,' I do not know. We have submitted reports and everybody has submitted reports'. 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". This applies as much to a man's own actions as to whether there are domestic or family reasons. I agree with my noble friend that matrimonial or other problems awaiting him at home should not be a reason for keeping a man in prison.

It is clear that the giving of reasons for refusal of parole would be feasible. The board's report for 1977 stated that steps had been taken within the board to assess the feasibility of selecting reasons for parole refusal by the use of standardised causes for concern and that the members of the board had satisfied themselves that it would be possible for the board to do this. This was one step forward. However, I would argue that this is far too wide and too vague a reason to give to an individual. He has got to be faced with the truth. It is significant that mental health review tribunals, which often deal with cases at least as sensitive as those dealt with by the Parole Board—although they are not criminal cases—make provision for the giving of reasons if a case is turned down as well as for allowing a patient to appear before them and to be represented. None of the consequences has resulted which are feared from giving reasons for the turning down of parole. Moreover, it is not noticeable that punches are pulled in probation officers' reports and psychiatric reports which are before the court. I have personal experience of this. Defendants are shown these reports, and often they are very tough. They explain quite clearly why, in the probation officer's view, probation is not suitable for a person. They contain phrases like, "This is an inadequate personality" or "It has been impossible to deal with 'X' by other non-custodial means". The defendant himself, or herself, sees these reports. Again I stress that it is at least arguable that greater ill-feeling results from the present position, which generates suspicions and fantasies in a prisoner's mind about the reasons.

I should like to make a final point, which I do not think was touched on by my noble friend. I believe there is no doubt that one of the reasons in many cases is the effect on public opinion. I believe this is one of the reasons why Myra Hindley's case will not come forward for consideration for parole. If it is felt, rightly or wrongly, that public opinion would be so appalled in any particular case that parole should not be considered, then it seems to me right that the person should know. Public opinion is a factor in very exceptional circumstances, but that is not a reason for keeping the person in ignorance.

I believe the person should be told if in his case it is thought the crime was so heinous that the public just will not accept a release in those circumstances. One would hope that such occasions were kept to the minimum. But as the effect on public opinion is one of the reasons underlining the argument for not giving reasons, I think it is something that should be aired and about which we should express a view. There is nothing wrong in giving this explanation to a prisoner whose application has been turned down. Nothing I have read by way of a reply in either House, or in any of the discussions which have gone on over the years, has ever convinced me that it is not better to take the frank, honest and straightforward line and tell a person the reasons why he or she is not being given liberty and will continue to be confined to prison.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords —

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I would like to support this amendment, and first pay tribute—

Lord Sandys

I think we should hear Lord Ingleby.

Viscount Ingleby

I would like to support this amendment, having put my name to it. After a prisoner has been inside for several years it will not do him any good to keep him inside longer, although it may be necessary for the protection of the public. I suggest the onus ought to be on the Parole Board to show why the prisoner should not be released and that the prisoner ought to have a right to see a member of the local committee. I therefore hope that the Committee will accept this amendment.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I must apologise to the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby. Before saying my very few words, I would like to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who has led what I am quite certain he does not think of as a quango.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

Quite right.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

If only a quango had worked as hard as we have worked and as hard as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich has worked for the past four years. The noble Lord worked considerably longer hours than I did. Each panel, before I sat on it, worked for at least 36 hours. That is not a quango. I doubt also whether the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, would agree that we sat behind locked doors.

The Earl of Longford

I have nothing against quangos. Some of them work harder than others, and that of the noble Baroness may be the most hardworking of all.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

In theory but only in theory this amendment might be a good idea; to give prisoners reasons for the decisions of the Parole Board. But I doubt whether in practice it would help the inmates concerned, because the inmates would be able to query the decisions.

Viscount Ingleby

Quite right.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

Once that is allowed then one has to set up an appeal procedure. Under an appeal procedure, it is quite possible that the appeal would not be heard until after the next possible release date of the inmate concerned. When querying the reasons on appealing, information about that inmate might be given which could be prejudicial to him. If reasons were given, either by the LRCs or by the Parole Board, the effect might be to lengthen the inmate's term in prison rather than shorten it, and could quite likely militate against him. For those reasons I must oppose this amendment.

Lord Avebury

Of course the Parole Board is a quango and of course it is very hardworking, as any body which contains the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, would be. I, too, would like to pay tribute to the enormous amount of hard work the noble Lord has done as chairman of that body over the years and also to the noble Baroness. I am quite certain that they do work long hours and that they consider these cases extremely carefully. Nevertheless, and I am sorry to have to say this to the noble Baroness, it is true that they work behind locked doors; no member of the Press or public can hear the deliberations of the Parole Board or indeed of the local review committee.

When I asked to sit in on the deliberations of locally-based review committees on the basis of total confidentiality the noble Lord, Lord Belstead—who then occupied the position at the Home Office of the noble Lord, Lord Elton—refused to permit this. I was not allowed to view the operations of the local review committees in order to get some idea of how they work. The noble Baroness says that they are all open; but how is it then that neither a Member of your Lordships' House nor of the other place can sit in as an observer on the proceedings of local review committees or of the Parole Board? If there is nothing to hide, I cannot understand why there should be this resistance and why they do meet behind locked doors, contrary to the assertion made by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I was not a member of a local review committee, but practically every time I sat on a panel, a member of the local review committee, at his behest, was invited to sit in on a parole panel.

Lord Avebury

That only reinforces the point I was making; that the whole system is a closed shop. Members of local review committees can sit in on the proceedings of the Parole Board but no outsider can. Somebody who wants to understand the system— such as a journalist or a Member of your Lordships' House, seeking probably to support the work of the Parole Board and of local review committees and to explain them to the public who probably do find them to be cloaked in an unintelligible mystery, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, put it—are disbarred from being able to do this and from interpreting the work which the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, do. That is one of the reasons why one gets these criticisms and why there is the demand, reiterated by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for some explanation to be given for the decisions of the Parole Board and the local review committees.

This matter has come before the courts in the case of Payne v. Lord Harris of Greenwich and Others, which was reported in The Weekly Law Reports of 29th May, 1981. I believe that was the first occasion when the sort of reasons which the noble Baroness outlined were adumbrated, as to why it is so difficult for reasons to be given. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, said in that case, if the reasons …were full and informative, they would give the prisoner an opening with which he could challenge the refusal. He could lodge an application for judicial review complaining that the board took things into account which they should not have done—or that their decision was unreasonable. The noble Baroness and the Home Office itself in the review of parole in England and Wales published in May 1981 gave this as one of the main reasons why we cannot have the proposal which has been advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I believe that this is the reason; that they do not want judicial review of the decisions of local review committees or of the Parole Board. As has been said, if the Mental Health Review Tribunal—which deals with similar matters and can continue detention of a person in one of these special hospitals under the Mental Health Act—can be subject to judicial review then why should not the decisions of the Parole Board be similarly liable to judicial review?

If one takes the case of Mr. Payne—which the noble Lord, Lord Elton, knows I am particularly interested in—he was convicted of murder in 1968 and sentenced to life imprisonment. The introduction in The Weekly Law Reports goes on: He was well-behaved in prison, being described as a 'model prisoner,' and was in the lowest security category. For years, Mr. Payne sought, by petition and by bringing this action, to discover the reasons why he had been unsuccessful in his applications for release on licence.

Only the other day, the noble Lord, Lord Elton, was good enough to explain to me why this man has been detained for 14 years. We discover that the reason is a totally spurious one, as the noble Lord is aware; we are in correspondence about this. The man contests it, and I believe quite rightly so, and when the noble Lord with his usual fairness comes to consider the arguments I am sure he will direct that the case should be reconsidered by the Parole Board, and I hope very much that Mr. Payne will be released forthwith. That illustrates the difficulty we have. As long as Mr. Payne was totally unaware of the reasons why he kept being turned down, he was unable to contest it. But, as soon as he found out, through the good offices of the noble Lord, Lord Elton—and I shall always be extremely grateful to him—what the reason was, and there was only one given in his letter, for the continued unsuccessful application of Mr. Payne, he was able to point out certain facts which completely destroy the case for keeping him in prison as long as this.

If we discover in one instance that the Home Office has been working on a completely false assumption over many years, cannot there be other similar instances where injustice is done to prisoners through not being allowed to contest false allegations registered against them on their records? For that reason alone, I believe it is essential that we pass this amendment, and I think it would be an excellent thing if, contrary to the noble Baroness's opinion, we had judicial review as a result.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

If I may begin by making two observations, first on my rather well publicised departure as chairman of the Parole Board, I would like to thank those noble Lords who made observations on this, and my old parliamentary colleague Lord Longford; he and I have periodically had slight differences of opinion; we always do the best we can to be as amiable as possible in our day-to-day relations and normally succeed. But there are, of course, risks in ceasing to be chairman of the Parole Board, one of which has become obvious this afternoon, when even such splendid men as members of the Social Democratic Party do not necessarily form the same view on propositions of the kind we are discussing. We did not on the last occasion and I have a nasty suspicion that we are not going to agree on this one either.

The second thing I would like to say is to make something of an apology, because I want to deal with this matter in some detail. I hope the House will bear with me, because in my view, this amendment lies right at the heart of the argument about parole and I think it is necessary to deal with it with care, to deal with, in my view, some very powerful arguments, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in particular. Perhaps I can just say this to the noble Lord. He and I have corresponded regularly, and I suspect my noble friend Lord Windlesham—if I may so describe him, although he sits opposite—will have an equally valuable correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He is, if I may say so—and I say this in no patronising sense—a most admirable advocate for anyone who is in one of Her Majesty's prisons. He does deploy powerful arguments, and in my view he is a most admirable Member of your Lordship's House for the care and attention that he devotes to friendless men who are in custody.

I begin by saying this. When I first became involved in this issue I was a Minister at the Home Office and I did favour in principle the giving of reasons. I should say why I did so and what I meant by giving reasons, and explain why I have now come to precisely the opposite conclusion. At that time I believed, and to some extent I think I still believe, that there is indeed something paternalistic in not giving reasons. I think that is a powerful argument and I concede it at once. What I favoured, however, and I must make this clear, was giving what the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, referred to as the standardised causes of concern, the phrase used in a past annual report of the Parole Board as part of an experiment carried out by the board in order to test out the feasibility of moving in the direction of giving reasons.

They were basically pro forma reasons, 18, 19, 20 of them, dealing with such issues as that the panel at the end of their review of the case would decide which of the standardised causes of concern was the reason why they turned somebody down. It might be that they came to the conclusion that the person concerned would not respond to supervision in the community, or that he had some very serious psychiatric problem which meant that he was a very substantial danger to the community. They were the standardised causes of concern, touched on by the noble Baroness, and indeed what I meant by giving reasons.

However, shortly after becoming chairman of the Parole Board, I had the opportunity of visiting Australia and spending some time with the Parole Board for New South Wales. The Parole Board for New South Wales is much smaller than the board in this country—I think, seven or eight members—and presided over by a judge of the New South Wales State Bench. They did indeed do just this; they gave inmates the standardised causes of concern, the things referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and what I meant by giving reasons. I discussed the matter with them and I was told, at a full meeting of the Parole Board for New South Wales, that far from ending the argument about reasons, it had in fact had exactly the reverse effect. It had, if anything, made inmates less satisfied, because they were not interested in a standardised reason for concern; what they wanted was a full and detailed explanation as to why they had not got parole. That is what they meant by it. Therefore, in my view, I do not believe any form of half-way house is a feasible possibility.

If anything, my view on that was strengthened when I was in the United States and had the opportunity of meeting the panel of the Parole Board for the state of Wisconsin, where again precisely the same thing was done, except that the standardised cause of concern was given to the inmate after he had been interviewed. I came away a fairly strong opponent of interviews with inmates, for reasons which we may be able to discuss at some time in the future. But certainly I saw nothing in New South Wales, and I saw nothing in Wisconsin, which led me to believe that the half-way house approach, the standardised cause of concern, was a feasible possibility.

Therefore, one was driven to this conclusion, that if we were going to give reasons, it would have to be done on the basis of a case stated, a substantial document summing up a panel's view. That I did not support at any stage when I was a Minister, and I do not do so now. I believe that is the only real issue worth discussing. What would this involve? It would involve giving a carefully argued case, in around 5,000 cases a year of people who get turned down, either by the Parole Board, or by the individual local review committee. I think there are arguments, both practical and in principle, why that is not acceptable.

First, I use an argument which I know will be regarded by some as, I hope, not offensive, but not, in their view, using the most neutral language possible, particularly persuasive. But I think if we are talking about serious issues, and this is a very serious issue, it deserves to be recognised. What in fact this would involve would be expensive and it would be labour-intensive. High quality staff would have to be employed to deal with the processing of the work, coming of course, both from the local review committee and from the Parole Board itself. In view of the fact that many of these decisions might be challenged in the courts, the work would have to be supervised by civil servants of considerable ability. The costs would be substantial, and resources would have to be found from elsewhere in the Home Office Vote.

There is another difficulty. I am well aware of course that giving reasons may sound easy when involved in a debate of this kind. But, when a panel of the Parole Board decides against parole, the members often do so for a variety of entirely different reasons In an individual case, I may well agree with a colleague's conclusion but not necessarily accept all the arguments that led him to that conclusion. Therefore, the "reason-giving" discussion following a decision to reject a parole application, would be in some cases prolonged and in some cases quite difficult.

Secondly, it is an illusion to imagine that this process would necessarily lead to more prisoners getting parole or a greater degree of satisfaction among inmates about the parole system. We have to recognise the rather fundamental point that what the individual inmate wants is a favourable parole decision. That is what he really cares about, and perfectly naturally. It is self-deception to imagine that an inmate, handed an impeccably argued statement explaining why he is not going to be given parole, will have his attitude about the fairness of the parole system transformed overnight.

The third argument is in some respects the most vital argument of all. It is something which the noble Earl touched upon and which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, dealt with at greater length, quoting, if I may say so, from a statement by the Master of the Rolls which is entirely in accordance with what I now propose to say. It is that what is, in fact, being asked for in this amendment is a totally different parole system. I do not believe that what is being suggested in the amendment can simply be grafted on to the existing parole system. That, indeed, was the view of my colleagues when on, curiously enough, the day before I became a member of the board —28th February, 1979—the Parole Board almost unanimously (I would not suggest that there is total unanimity in a board of nearly 50 members) supported this statement which appears as an appendix to the annual report explaining why they did not on that occasion support the giving of reasons. The reason that they did so can be stated, I hope, fairly simply.

Our present system is based on the board advising the executive whether an inmate should or should not be granted parole. In a handful of cases every year the Secretary of State does not accept the board's recommendation and his decision is of course final. But what would be the position if the noble Earl's amendment were to be accepted? By giving reasons— and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has of course, by his quotation from the judgment of the Master of the Rolls, confirmed it—the board becomes vulnerable to challenges in the courts. So we could have a situation where we were moving from an executive system of parole to something on the judicial model. I must say at once that there is no evidence that the moving to a system of this character will be extraordinarily popular with inmates denied parole. They have just such a system within the federal system in the United States. There is a great deal more argument about parole in the United States than there is in the United Kingdom and we must recognise that.

Quite apart from that argument, let me tell the Committee of some of the other formidable difficulties that would arise were this amendment to be carried. An inmate who challenged the board in the courts would, in the course of the proceedings, be able to secure copies of the reports that go to make up his parole dossier: the initial police report; the comments by members of the prison staff on his progress or lack of it; the reports of the prison and home probation officers on his release plan; possibly some comments by the prison medical officer; and possibly some by a consultant psychiatrist. Of course, if those preparing reports discover that these documents may find their way into the hands of the inmate in the course of legal proceedings, they may be infinitely less prepared to give a frank opinion in their reports.

Let me give examples of what I mean, and these are not highly imaginary. What I propose to do is to deal with the type of cases on which one has adjudicated oneself. The case being considered is that of a man with a long record of violence: grievous bodily harm, sometimes several convictions of grievous bodily harm, and possibly one or two previous convictions of assult occasioning actually bodily harm and unlawful wounding. His problem, as unhappily is often the case, is drink. Sober, he can be a reasonable man; drunk, he is viciously violent.

In such a case—I repeat that there are many of them —the board obviously pays close attention to his drinking habits, but as of course he is in prison, one hopes that he is not getting access to a great deal of alcohol and so he cannot be tested so far as that is concerned within the normal regime of the prison.

Therefore, we clearly have to look particularly carefully at the home circumstances. Will his wife have him home? What are her true feelings and the true feelings of the children in that home to having him back? The woman when interviewed by the home probation officer is inevitably often ambivalent. She has an affection for her husband. The marriage may have lasted a substantial period of time, but she fears a renewal of his drunken violence which has often in the past been used against both her and her children. The probation officer calling on that woman—if that probation officer is doing his or her job well—tries to clarify her attitude. Is there a chance that, despite the husband's violence in the past, she will have him home and provide that degree of stability that the Parole Board may regard as absolutely vital if they are going to recommend to the Secretary of State that he should be released on licence?

If the probation officer is a person of quality and sensitivity, the woman may confide to that probation officer all her fears and uncertainties. Sometimes she may say quite bluntly that she is undecided as to whether or not she really wants the husband to return, and indicate that she remains fearful that he will resort again to drunken violence. Later, a panel of the Parole Board will meet and consider that man's dossier including the home circumstances report from the probation officer. They may come down against parole and not necessarily by any means exclusively because of the wife's disclosures to the home probation officer. The man may then—as provided, of course, in this amendment—get his statement of reasons from the Parole Board as to why they did not recommend his release. The man decides to challenge the matter in the court and he goes there.

His solicitors, as part of those proceedings, obtain the various reports that went to making up that dossier including the report from the home probation officer disclosing that his wife is at best uncertain as to whether or not she wants him home. She may, of course, have said exactly the reverse to him when she visited him in prison. The man concerned is furious. He believes that he has been betrayed, and this episode may lead to the final breakdown of that relationship and, worse, it may endanger the very safety of that woman when he is eventually released from custody. There is no point in trying to dodge the issue. The Parole Board deal with dozens of cases of this kind every month.

6 p.m.

Lord Avebury

I am very interested in this point because I think that the effect of alcohol on crime has not been properly examined, although I pay tribute to the work of the Parole Board in this regard. In the report of the Parole Board for 1980, one of the factors mentioned in offences of violence which have to be looked at is the degree of addiction to drink, which the noble Lord has said was a factor in this particular case. But surely you would not ask the wife for a professional opinion on whether or not the offender was likely to turn back to alcohol after his release. This is a matter on which you would get the opinion of a trained psychiatrist.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I take the noble Lord's point, of course, but that is not the issue. The issue is whether or not she wants him home and whether or not she is prepared to have him home. The real difficulty in cases this sort—and I must repeat it because it lies at the centre of this argument—is that it is often the case that there is a long history of battery by the husband against that woman and often against the children in the house as well. The central issue facing us is whether or not he has a stable home to go to and, if not, whether there are any alternative arrangements that can be made for him.

I am saying that, if the law is changed in the manner provided in this amendment, the home probation officer will, in cases of this kind, be presented with a painful choice when he produces a report which is to go to the Parole Board. Does he give a frank assessment of the attitude of that wife—or, of course, in some cases, the parents—of the man in custody even if by doing so he or she may be endangering the very safety of the person concerned, or does he refuse to take the risk and, in fact, give an inadequate or, in some respects, incomplete report? I believe that in many such cases the probation officer would be tempted to take the second course of action. There would, therefore, be a real deterioration in the standard of the reports which are made available to the Parole Board.

I think that that is a very serious matter and a serious risk, which I do not think can be minimised. We must remember that we are dealing with people who have long records of violence—just the kind of people whose release causes the gravest public concern. I also think that, if the quality of the reports deteriorates in the way that I fear in some cases it might, a panel of the board might well decide that the risk of releasing that man might be too great. So, far from increasing the prospects of parole, this amendment could— although, of course, it is not its intention in any way at all—have precisely the reverse effect. Of course, one could go on and develop the argument that there would be similar problems in relation to reports of consultant psychiatrists, and so on.

I would make this final point. I know that those who favour this change in the law believe that, if a man is given the reasons for not being given parole he will be able to apply himself to the task of removing that area of anxiety from the minds of the members of the Parole Board before his next review. Of course, in the case of the man who persistently infringes the rules of the prison, that may well be so. If he is constantly sloshing members of the prison staff, I suspect that he does not have to be given very detailed explanations as to why he will not get parole; the reasons are self-evident: if he wants to get parole, he should stop hitting prison officers.

But there are other cases which raise much greater difficulties as regards a prisoner changing his lifestyle within the prison environment. Let us consider another case; for instance, the case of a life-sentence prisoner. Of course, if we do this for determinate cases, clearly, we shall have to do it for life-sentence prisoners as well. Let us suppose that the man concerned is serving a life sentence for a series of sexual assaults on children, culminating in the murder of a child. Unhappily, there is a significant minority of people whose cases—tragic cases of this kind—are regularly reviewed both by the joint committee and by panels of the Parole Board itself. The prognosis in a case of this kind may be truly appalling. Even after 15 or 16 years in custody the board may consider that he is so grossly unstable that it will be impossible to contemplate his release for many years or, indeed, in the case of a man of some substantial age, that he may never leave prison custody at all.

In such a case, a statement from the board as to the reasons for denying him a life licence cannot possibly help him. He cannot change his conduct in some way so as to change the attitude of the board when it next reviews his case. In such cases, his mental condition is often wholly outside his own control. All that is done by giving him a statement of reasons— and this was touched on in the last amendment—will be to expunge the last flicker of hope from that man. I certainly see the force of that argument; you have to be remarkably insensitive not to do so. But that is the risk in a case of this kind—that you will remove from that man any prospect within his own mind that he will ever come out of prison.

I think that in cases of this kind there is a real risk not only to the man himself—and that is important enough—but also, when you have men in this category and there are disturbances in prisons (as there have been in a number of dispersal prisons), to the safety of members of the staff, which is a factor which should not be wholly absent from our minds.

I concede, of course, that those who favour this change in the law believe that by doing so it will create a fairer and a far more humane parole system. For the reasons that I have stated, I disagree with them. I have given my reasons for believing that the reverse could well be true. A new system of the kind set out in this amendment I believe would be a great deal more costly and, in many cases, cases of a high degree of sensitivity—the board would receive reports from reporting officers a great deal less frank, open and honest than they are at the moment. I am by no means convinced that the new system would carry greater public confidence. Indeed, there is some risk that that could be diminished. For these reasons, I hope that this amendment will not be added to the Bill.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

Not long ago, I received a letter from the parents of a prisoner who had been turned down by the Parole Board. They did want their son home; they, as parents, believed that their son was reformed. Being elderly, they had great problems in visiting the prison. They felt very strongly that they should know why parole had been turned down. I sent a copy of the letter to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich; I shall send the Hansard of this debate to this couple, who seem to have a very good case for knowing why their son was turned down. I support the amendment.

I do not think that the argument advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, that there should be an appeal straight away is valid. It could be made known; the Parole Board's decision would still be final. The prisoners and their relatives should still have the right to know the reason why they have been turned down. If they have a mental problem, they should be in a special hospital being treated, not getting worse in a prison. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that there are difficult problems, but there must still be ways of overcoming them.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

Quite shortly, I should like to support this amendment. Having listened again to my noble friend Lord Harris, he may have divested himself of his office, but he is still, if I may say so with the greatest respect, wrapped in the stifling cotton wool of the Home Office official brief. It is remarkable that I am entitled to say that, if my noble friend Lord Hunt was here, he would be supporting this amendment.

So one has the situation, which was the whole of the argument of my noble friend Lord Harris, of the impeccably argued case, of the careful and highly qualified staff, the cost of writing out these reasons, the vast number of the civil servants who would be required. It is—is it not?—what has been heard by all those of us who for years have been dealing with people who suffer in prison from never knowing why they are refused parole. Those are the arguments which have issued from the Home Office day after day and month after month, and that is what we all have to deal with.

The truth of the matter is, as all your Lordships will know, that it is perfectly simple to look at the reasons and then to make a short precis of them. The reasons have to be negative reasons. They have to be written down in a file for the purposes of administration and for the purposes of those who come after, who have to see what happened before. The reasons are written down and any ordinary intelligent person who deals with prisoners can take from those reasons the essence of what they amount to. It is absolute rubbish, and it is civil servants' talk, to go on about how frightfully complicated it all is and how these experts, these wonderful people, will have to use computers to do this kind of thing. It is a perfectly simple proposition and in my submission it would be perfectly easy to write down the essence.

Over and over again I have asked persons I have known on the parole boards to try to explain to me any reason which could not in honesty be given to a person. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, gave an example of the life sentence prisoner who had interfered with children on numerous occasions and the view taken was the view he expressed. Why on earth cannot that man be seen and have explained to him the extreme seriousness of this kind of offence; that there are, alas!, people in society who have this proclivity and that it is extremely difficult to deal with; that for people who have it, in the considered view at the moment of those who deal with it, including doctors, there is no real cure, no real guarantee that such a person will not do the same thing again?

We can explain this to somebody and give him hope by saying that there are treatments and by asking whether he is prepared to undergo those treatments. We all know that with the years passing and age coming on, people are not going to be locked up for ever. They are going to be let out. Why not talk to that person in a civilised way and give him the reasons in that typical case, where that man's life is a misery, having no idea why he is never given parole? That could be explained to him. I know that the noble Minister will have been to Wormwood Scrubs, or, if he has not yet, will do so, to see the special unit there which we have discussed in this House. One of the things that happens in that special unit is that these discussions go on experimentally with those persons. The result is that the people there are perfectly able to talk about the reasons for refusal of their parole. They are far more relaxed than the other inhabitants of Wormwood Scrubs, for more relaxed than those who are shut up in the wing where the lifers are held.

In the special unit there is a totally different atmosphere. Why?—because these things are being talked about in a perfectly normal, straightforward way. I really would urge upon your Lordships that there is no reason in the world, if it can be done with the mental health tribunal, why it should not be done with prsioners serving in prison. It would make a profound difference to these people. I would submit to your Lordships that truth is always better than having endless fantasies, endless suspicions entering into people's minds, appreciating what that means. People have only one thing to think about in prison—" When am I going to get out?" If they are told the truth they can take it and understand it. If they are not told the truth, they have fantasies, dreams and obsessions and their life becomes equally miserable. I strongly support the amendment.


Lord Elton

If I may start at the end of these exchanges, I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, that I have not found the cotton-wool of Home Office briefs at all stifling. I find it translucent. One can see through it and, having done so and discovered what it is all about, one finds that the briefs are extremely helpful; and I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is any less perceptive than I am. I would not say that what he has said was absolute rubbish at all, but, then, that is because I do not think that that is a phrase that one should address to one's noble friend in the same party in the course of debate; but it is interesting to hear the different points of view of the noble Lord's party expressed in this way.

In his contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, picked up what I regard as the least important of the whole range of very important points which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, of his own party, brought forward and put before your Lordships. That was the question of the complications of administration and the expense of doing so. That is an important, but perhaps not the most important, point. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, will forgive me if I concentrate my critique upon him, but he rather usefully focussed for me the points that preceded him. He said that this difficulty could be overcome by using a formalised system of answers which would be quite simple and drawn from files. He probably knows—or, if he does not, I will tell him—that in 1978 there was an experiment done on exactly these lines for exactly that reason; because the last Administration, to which some Members of his party were themselves contributors—and I hope the noble Lord will forgive me if I got the dates wrong— regarded the question of reasons being given as a sensible one.

After all, if somebody asks: "Can I go home now, please"? It is very unpleasant to be told, "No', even if it is at the end of a children's party. If it is at the end of 5, 7 or 15 years of imprisonment it seems a not unreasonable question to ask: why this is being done? The experiment was run and one of the hopes was that it would enable prisoners to recognise those areas of their conditions for which they were responsible, which made them unsuitable for release, and to amend them. But the experience, which was testified to by the prison governors themselves, was that it was not useful for that purpose in this form, and the experiment was abandoned.

I do not want to delay your Lordships longer because you have heard a great panoply of expertise on this. I want only to say that it seems to me that the crux of the matter is that parole is not a right, it is a privilege. Prisoners are not unjustly imprisoned. To say that is to decry the whole of our judicial system. It is right that they should be in prison; they are put there after trial. They may, as a privilege, be released, and early release is something which they have to earn. If the reasons are exposed for discussion they will be challenged. Noble Lords have said that that is a healthy and democratic thing, but we would get an absolute torrent of litigation. We would get the review commissions. I must give way to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, on this occasion.

Lord Avebury

I do not know why the noble Lord says that we would get a torrent of litigation because there is nowhere in the world where, as has been said in the debate, comprehensive reasons for refusal are given. We only have the menus, such as they have in New South Wales. If we had comprehensive reasons, how does the noble Lord know, since there is no comparable experience, that that would result in a torrent of litigation?

Lord Elton

T believe there would be comprehensive litigation because there would be more things to challenge in every report, and they would be challenged. I cannot conceive that any of your Lordships who were in prison and had been for some time who went up for parole and got comprehensive reasons for not being released, would be so resigned to their fate as not to challenge them. The effect of that is to expose the people who have given the reasons, whether they are those on the board or the social worker of whom Lord Harris spoke. Nobody has mentioned what is to happen to the unfortunate wife who said:" Of course I would not trust him, but I am not going to tell him so". She would never sleep throughout another night of her life. The public are to be protected, and this, I think, would militate against that, and, if it did not, would militate against the earlier release of prisoners. The answers would either be stereotyped and rarely favourable or they would be complex and frequently challenged. It would impose an unnecessary burden on the administration, anyway, and it would do so to no good end whatever for the prisoners. I regret to have to return the same dusty answer to this proposal as has been given in the past, and I hope that your Lordships will not support it.

The Earl of Longford

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, was brief and the least I can do is be brief also. The noble Baroness set the matter out strongly at the beginning, backed up by the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Hutchinson, who should always be lined up to speak immediately following the noble Lord, Lord Harris, as an antidote to the official line. That is an admirable feature of the new party, and I think we in the Labour Party would agree with that.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

We in the Labour Party are always agreed.

The Earl of Longford

The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, dealt with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, and there is no doubt that the last point made by the Minister was not the strongest he has been making in the last few hours, when he said that the amendment would not lead to more releases. The truth is that either one wants to see more people released on parole or one does not. The Minister is trying to have it both ways; while he wants to see more people released, I gather, he is arguing that, in some mysterious way, giving reasons would mean fewer being released. That was a very feeble point he was making.

Lord Elton

Would the noble Earl give way?

The Earl of Longford

Certainly, but I was in the midst of my peroration.

Lord Elton

The noble Earl is more than courteous. I rise simply to point out that the whole purpose of the Bill is to have fewer people going into prison and, wherever possible, more coming out sooner. But in order to do that, we must preserve the confidence of the public, and it would not be preserved if people were improperly let out. On the other hand, if the effect were as I have described it, and as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, also described it—namely, to fossilise the process so as to protect people from litigation—that would mean fewer people coming out, so in neither way would we win.

The Earl of Longford

I must not use the word "nonsense" because I should be reprimanded for doing so, but if it were not forbidden, that is the word I would apply to that comment. I suggest we now put the matter to the vote.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

May I, before that is done, put one point to the noble Earl? Let me reassure him about the unity of the Labour Party on this issue. The last three Labour Home Secretaries have always resisted precisely the amendment he has tabled this evening.

6.23 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 63) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 28; Not-Contents, 81.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.31 p.m.

[Amendment No. 64 not moved.]

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Clause 29 [Power to alter minimum period for eligibility for release on licence]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Wootton of Abinger)

Amendment No. 65. I have to point out that, if Amendment No. 65 is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 66.

Lord Harris of Greenwich moved Amendment No. 65: Page 32, line 31, leave out from ("words") to end of line 6 on page 33 and insert (""six months thereof"").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move the amendment. This is an amendment that is so moderate and so reasonable that my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington and I are both in favour of it. It aims at reducing the parole threshold. What is meant by the proposition I shall describe briefly because I do not in any way want to limit the length of the Ministers speech, since a number of us are extremely concerned about this matter and we should like to hear a fairly detailed explanation of the Government's position, for the following reason.

At the moment an inmate has to serve 12 months in prison before he can be considered for release. As a result of that the parole system begins to operate with sentences of around 20 months and more. With sentences shorter than that, prisoners do not obtain parole. For some time it has been the view of a number of us that the threshold should be lowered, and the amendment lowers the threshold from 12 months to six months, so that a person would have to serve at least six months before he became eligible for parole. Broadly speaking, that means that the parole system would start at about 11 months.

It is the view of many of us that the result of such an amendment would be that the numbers on parole could be increased by as many as 2,000, or more. At the moment the parole population (as it were) is running at just over 3,000. If the amendment were accepted, the number of people on parole would rise to rather more than 5,000. The effect on the prison population would be considerable and, even more important, the places within the prison system that at the moment are experiencing the most serious over-crowding—the local prisons—would be significantly affected, were the amendment to be accepted.

If I may say so, the Government have moved half way towards meeting us. When this matter was raised in another place, I think in Standing Committee, this particular proposal was put forward. The Government came forward with the clause that I am now seeking to amend. That provides that the Secretary of State would have an order-making power to reduce the threshold from the present period of 12 months to a shorter period at his discretion.

As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is aware, this is by way of being a probing amendment, and today we want to hear what are the Government's intentions on the matter. Bluntly speaking, we want urgent action to deal with an increasingly grave situation in our prisons. If the Minister can give an indication that the Govern- ment are proposing to take some form of early action under this provision, many of us would be content. I do not wish to speak any more on the matter today, save to repeat what a number of us argued on Monday; namely, that, unless some action is taken soon to deal with the grossly overcrowded conditions in our prisons, the situation will get wholly out of hand. It is for the Government now to come forward with proposals.

I believe that this is a sensible and moderate amendment, which would have the effect of extending the parole system to people who are serving shorter sentences. These are precisely the category of offenders about whose early release from prison there would be the least public anxiety about, all the more so as they would be supervised by the probation and after-care service.

In brief, I believe that by extending the system in the way set out in the amendment we could significantly lower the size of the prison population and give a number of people now serving sentences of imprisonment below 20 months or so the opportunity of having the parole scheme extended to them, so that they could continue to serve their sentences in the community. I beg to move.

Lord Elystan-Morgan

We on these Benches support the amendment, since we believe that, if it is carried, it will at any rate achieve one of the main purposes of this piece of legislation. I quote the words of the noble Lord the Minister uttered but a quarter of an hour ago. He said that the whole purpose of the Bill is to see to it that fewer people go into prison and to guarantee that more people will come out of prison sooner. That second limb of the Government's laudable purpose will be achieved if the amendment is carried. But it is our submission that, if the amendment is not carried, nothing else either already dealt with in the Bill or yet to come can possibly achieve the purpose. That being so, the Bill would contain a massive vacuum in regard to the central purpose of reducing the menacing level at which the prison population now stands.

Your Lordships have considered in very great detail, and most urgently, the alternative proposals. Already there is the Government's proposition that, by implementing Section 47 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, the prison population might be reduced. That matter was dealt with in very great detail by your Lordships' Committee three days ago. I believe that the most fervent supporter of Section 47—and we all wish it well—would accept that at best it is a gamble, at worst it could be a very considerable disaster.

Then Amendment No. 59 was dealt with in very great detail. That concerned the whole question of supervised release after serving one-third of the sentence. By a firm majority the Committee rejected that amendment, as indeed it rejected Amendment No. 61, which proposed that remission should run at not one-third, but one-half. So this is the last chance that the Committee has to put forward a plan that has the certainty of reducing the prison population. To put it another way, if the amendment is not passed, there will be in the Bill no provision which could be said to contain a plan that has a real, ascertained prospect of achieving the purpose of reducing the prison population.

I am sure that noble Lords will forgive me if I remind them yet again—indeed, the Committee has heard a very great deal of this over the last few months, and I apprehend will hear much more over the next few months—of the acuteness of the problem we now face. Rather than use my own words, I would respectfully quote the words of Mr. John McCarthy, the governor of Wormwood Scrubs Prison, in that memorable and historic letter that he wrote to The Times on 19th November 1981. May I quote two extracts from that. The first is where he says: From my personal point of view I did not join the Prison Service to manage overcrowded cattle pens, nor did I join to run a prison where the interests of the individuals have to be sacrificed continually to the interests of the institution, nor did I join to be a member of a service where staff that I admire are forced to run a society that debases". The second quotation from the same letter is: As it is evident that the present uncivilised conditions in prison seem likely to continue and as I find this incompatible with any moral ethic, I wish to give notice that I, as the governor of the major prison in the United Kingdom, cannot for much longer tolerate, either as a professional or as an individual, the inhumanity of the system within which I work". It is against that background canvas that we have to consider this last chance of changing the situation before it is too late. In my submission, this is the most practical of all the alternatives that the Government have. It has, as I say, the virtue of certainty. With the threshold of parole at 12 months, as it is at the moment, there were last year over 10,000 people who were eligible. By moving that down to six months, it would mean that over 19,000 persons would be eligible.

Again, there is the element of safety to be considered. The Parole Board, in its operation over the last 15 or 16 years under the leadership of many distinguished persons, and with the services of people representing a vast range of experiences and skills, has built up very considerable trust. It has, in my submission, achieved a splendid balance between, on the one hand, catering for the needs of the individual and giving that individual the best possible chance of rehabilitation when he eventually returns to society, and, on the other, protecting society from possible mistakes if that person is released too early. The mistakes are very few. About 5 per cent, of persons released, and no more, commit criminal offences during the currency of their parole.

Lastly, there is again a very strong case in equity. Examples have already been given in another place in relation to this, but may I give this very simple example. Take two men, one of whom is the ringleader and is sentenced to three years' imprisonment. The other, who is a person on the periphery of that offence, is given a term of 21 months' imprisonment. The first will be eligible for parole after 12 months, and that person will be released very soon thereafter. The person given 21 months would in fact, in all probability, serve 14 monthss—two months longer than the ringleader. Men have a deep sense of injustice in relation to such a situation, and even if there were no massive problem, as there is, of prison overcrowding there would still be a very strong and in my submission overwhelming case for the acceptance of this amendment. This is a course that can save at least 2,000 prison places—very probably more. They will come from the ranks of people who are serving shorter terms than those who are now given parole; in other words, they will be safer prospects so far as society is concerned. It is on that basis that I commend this amendment to the Committee.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

Perhaps I should say that we all of us on this Bench support the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in this amendment.

Lord Elton

That is a refreshing revelation, but the views of the—

Several noble Lords

Order, order!

Lord Elton

I am very sorry.

Lord Gardiner

I venture to say a word on this amendment because, first, while I have attended all the hearings at Committee stage I think I have spoken only once, and that for about two minutes on one amendment; and, secondly, because this is the last amendment which proposes something effective to reduce the size of the prison population. We have had the Wormwood Scrubs riot, and we know the numbers of prisoners and officers injured; we have had riots on prison roofs, and we have had cell fires. We may have a long hot summer; and I am sorry to have to say this, but I do not think it unlikely that before that summer is out, if the present size of our prison population in relation to resources is maintained, some will be burned to death in the prisons.

Perhaps I may briefly remind your Lordships what the inspector said about this in his recent report on those prisons which he had visited during the year. He said: At 14 of the 17 establishments we felt it necessary to include one or more formal recommendations on this topic. We are concerned about fire precautions because of the particularly grave consequences of a fire in a prison. If a fire does break out, there is a chance that considerable numbers of inmates may be trapped either in their cells, or on the wrong side of locked security gates, and may be unable to escape from the fire itself or from the fumes from burning material. In prisons that are overcrowded, the potential loss of life among inmates is that much greater. There is, of course, a duty upon staff to do all they can to ensure that prisoners reach safety, and it is pleasing to be able to record the high reputation of prison officers in these circumstances. As to the possibility of fire, there are the normal household risks from accidental fires caused by cooking equipment, from electrical faults, or from inmates smoking in their cells. In addition, however, fires may be started deliberately, either by a prisoner who is mentally disturbed or who wishes to make a protest or, occasionally, by a prisoner seeking to commit suicide by inhaling the toxic fumes from his burning mattress. The significant risk of fire, combined with the tragic consequences, lays a heavy burden upon the department to protect its employees and the inmates in its custody. … In practice, it seemed that each of the key aspects of sound fire precautions were missing at one establishment or another. In one prison the alarm bell system did not function properly; in a second the fire and evacuation orders were inadequate. Here, the fire fighting equipment was poorly mounted and maintained; there, the appointed fire officer was allocated no time in which to carry out his duties. In several prisons, few staff had been trained in the immediate action to take in the event of a fire. In several more, the evacuation instructions were not posted and fire drills had not been practised, so that if fire occurred an orderly response could not be guaranteed. On the whole, we felt that the standard of fire precautions was extremely disappointing and left inmates and staff at unnecessary risk". We know that since then three prisoners have been burned to death in Strangeways Prison, Manchester— a prison with which the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I know, is very familiar, and which she thinks is unsuitable for 15-year-old boys on remand. I am sure that it has never occurred to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, or to any justice, that if you refuse somebody bail it may end in his being burned to death. This is a very real risk that we really must face, and I am very disappointed indeed that every single proposal that has been made which could make any substantial reduction in the numbers—and this, after all, is the key to the whole problem—has throughout been opposed by the Government.

Lord Elton

The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, have between them demonstrated the very cogent reasons that there are behind the wish of everybody on all sides of your Lordships' Committee to reduce the prison population. Your Lordships will also be aware from the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that the clause which this amendment seeks to alter is itself an earnest of the Government's intentions, and was put down in response to similar pressure in another place in order to give the Secretary of State the power to do what he is not yet able to do because the machinery does not exist. I think that the assurance that your Lordships wish to hear is that this is our intention and that we have set our hands to the plough in order to get it done.

We recognised in the review of parole published last year that the fact that parole was not available for prisoners serving shorter sentences created obvious anomalies—and they have been attested to by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan—and there is an impressive body of opinion in favour of some reduction. We would wish to bring about that reduction and have already put it in hand the detailed investigatory work on the issues necessary to be resolved. These issues are connected with the need to secure that parole is not an automatic process but is selective. Obviously, there must be some minimum time during which prisoners can be observed and assessed, and the question of how long it should be is one which must be carefully gone into.

We are doing that work with the intention that the noble Lord seeks with this amendment. He will realise that when it is complete it will be necessary also to consult the prison, the police and the probation service as well as the Parole Board and our own officials to see how this can best be done. I cannot therefore tell the noble Lord what the outcome would be, but I can say what are our intentions. There was a question about numbers. If the parole threshold is reduced from 12 months to 6 months, up to 7,000 more prisoners will qualify for parole review each year and a fairly high proportion may be released on licence. The detailed investigations to which I referred are aimed at quantifying the resource implications for the prison service and the probation service of such an increase in the case load and work load. The principal objective will be to find out whether it is possible to construct adequate procedures for selecting from those prisoners in the shorter period of time available, those who may be suitable for parole. When those investigations are complete and the questions answered, we shall be able to take the matter further; but we shall do so in whatever way the results may show to be appropriate.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I concede at once that the Government have moved to some extent as a result of the amendment put down in another place. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Government must consider the resource implications, which is a significant issue so far as the probation service is concerned, and I also recognise the fact that he must have his consultations. I have no disposition to introduce unfair arguments, but I think he will be aware of the sense of disappointment in the Committee that the Government have in this Bill so far taken no clear steps to reduce the appaling numbers in prison.

I propose with the leave of your Lordships to table precisely the same amendment, to ask leave to withdraw the amendment at this stage and to reintroduce the same amendment at a later stage in the Bill so that Lord Elton will be enabled to give us a report on what action the Government have taken between today and that date, recognising, as I am sure he does, that a large element of the Committee including many of his noble friends, will be expecting on that occasion a clearly defined statement of the progress that the Government have made. We cannot put off infinitely this problem otherwise the situation in the prisons will get out of hand. There are significant problems, and the noble Lord referred to them. I hope that these consultations, which can go on for many weary months, are going to be carried out speedily. With great respect, I cannot see why they are not already underway. Seeking the views of the police on this issue and of the probation service and so on is proper, but I cannot see why it has not been done already.

Lord Elton

Perhaps I fail to make myself clear on what I intend to do. What we wish to discuss with the services who will have to administer what emerges from this will be some quantified estimate of what would be the result of the legislation he proposes, or the implementation of the order now in the Bill. I have told your Lordships that that investigation has already begun and on this day fortnight, or whenever we discuss it again, I shall be able to tell the noble Lord that we have done another 10 or 12 days' work on that. As soon as that is available, we shall be able to discuss the matter with those who will have to administer it, and I think the noble Lord will accept that you cannot launch the product of 7,000 extra parole reviews onto the parole services of the country without discussing it with them and with the police. I can say that we shall be finding out as soon as possible what are the implications, and then we shall discuss this as swiftly as we can. I do not want to give the noble Lord an exaggerated expectation of what I shall be able to say next week or the next fortnight. It may take the matter a little further but not necessarily much further.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I take note of what the noble Lord has said, and I am sure that he will take note of what I have said and what others have said. I do not propose to put down this amendment at the Report stage but at the Third Reading, so that he will have more opportunity of considering this matter. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Earl of Onslow

May I ask my noble friend Lord Elton when he does the resource implication— and it is important—to consider that presumably, if 4,000 or 5,000 people are let out earlier, this will, in food alone, cost the prison service less. Could what you are saving on the one hand, not be pushed over to the probation service, on the other hand, which would have a more healthy effect? What people say about overcrowding is in the prisons is obvious.

Lord Melchett

Before the noble Lord sits down, I would say that I should have thought that, if the Home Office showed more sense of urgency than the noble Lord seemed to display, it would be possible to come to the House at the Report stage, let alone at Third Reading, with a great deal more information than the noble Lord gave us today. The Home Office has many resources. They must have been thinking about this in detail for some time. I suspect that they have a great deal of this information already and, if the noble Lord were so minded as to instruct his officials to have an urgent meeting with the police and the probation service, then the Government, if they set their mind to it, would be able to come back at the next stage with a definitive answer. To suggest that that is not possible is to exaggerate the difficulty.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I invite the Minister to bear in mind that, whatever burden of strain will be imposed on the probation services by what is proposed, it is far less significant than that the dangerous situation which my noble and learned friend Lord Gardiner indicated about the present conditions in prison be allowed to continue.

Lord Elton

My noble friend, the noble and learned Lord and other noble Lords are all seeking to persuade me of something of which I am already persuaded: the desirability of doing this if it is possible. I have also said that we are discovering this with the greatest expedition possible. Maybe the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, can find more rhetorical ways of expressing that sense of urgency which would convince him more rapidly than I can that we are doing what we can as quickly as we can. I am not going to come with a cut-and-dried solution, dates and numbers, at Report stage or Third Reading. It will not be possible. If I can find anything else which convinces the Committee of the real sense of urgency which we give to this matter, I shall do so. What I said to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, stands. I am grateful to him for giving me to Third Reading at least to be able to report that much more work.

Lord Wigoder

Is there any difficulty in the Government accepting this amendment in principle and then simply fixing a suitable commencement date?

Lord Elton

My Lords, that idea had been hovering at the back of my mind, but I had not taken advice on it; and, as this issue is going to be raised again at a later stage, perhaps we may address ourselves to it then.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

I am attracted by the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. Speaking for myself, I want to consult a number of my noble friends. That is the approach which we may actually consider adopting if we decided to put down an amendment on Third Reading. I repeat to the Minister —and I do not think it has to be said again, but let it be done for the record—that he is aware of the sense of urgency regarding this matter in the Committee. He has communicated his own concern. What we shall definitely want on Third Reading is some clear indication of substantial progress in this matter.

Having already offered to withdraw this amendment about seven or eight minutes ago, I now do so for the second time. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Denham

This is probably an appropriate moment to have the dinner adjournment, I shall be moving that the House do resume; but before I do so, for the convenience of your Lordships who are interested in this Bill, I say can that the House will not resume this particular Committee stage before a quarter to eight. I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.