§ 8.2 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they agree that the operation of the parole system and the system for the release of life prisoners on licence needs to be much improved. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name. The House may recall with, or without, pleasure that I have opened more than one debate on parole and spoken on the subject many times here. The last debate I initiated in this House was in July 1980. I used on that occasion some fairly sharp language about the working of the parole system, under which I always included, though I shall be told that I must be careful in my language, the licensing system, and I insisted then, as always, that I remained an unrepentant believer in the principle of parole.
I said that my objection then, in 1980, to the present system was twofold. I said:
I am horrified by its callousness and also by its ignorance." [Official Report, 24/7/1980, col. 631]
I said that if,
I wanted to bring in a third point, [it would be] the sluggishness with which [this scheme] is conducted;". [col. 631]
I have no reason to revise the opinions I expressed at that time.
§ The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is sitting there and I gather cannot take part in this debate, and I should perhaps say that I have special confidence in him. If I say that, I hope that I shall not seem to be reflecting on the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who I am glad is going to follow me. He made a magnificent speech in the Archbishop's debate. I hope the House will forgive me if I leave over what one might call the general situation in the area of parole to another occasion, and concentrate on the recent pronouncements of the Home Secretary. I think that that would be the general wish. When I express criticisms of these pronouncements I hope that I shall be speaking on behalf of a high proportion of penal reformers, though some of them might not agree with my other thoughts about parole. They may think that I am far too radical or offensive, or something unsatisfactory; but so far as the recent pronouncements of the Home Secretary are concerned I should hope, and believe, that a large number of people will agree with me.
§ As the years have passed, our parole system has become more liberal and humane, though by no means as liberal or humane as some of us could wish. Now the Home Secretary is seeking to put the clock back with a vengeance. That is what, in a sense, my speech amounts to saying: that the Home Secretary is putting the clock back. It is the first really backward step in the area of penal matters that I can recall since I became involved with these things. He is making a new approach to the subject—that is hardly a matter of dispute. It is an approach quite different from that of the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, who I am sorry cannot be with us tonight. One can, of course, sympathise with the present Home Secretary. He was confronted soon after his appointment by a visit to the Conservative Party Conference. That same party conference two years earlier had given the present 311 Leader of the House, the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, a proper roasting, so that it was asking too much of the new Home Secretary that he should follow the same lines as the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. But nothing, as I see it, can excuse his capitulation to the ignorant passions of that occasion.
§ I cannot see any of his great Conservative predecessors pandering in this way; certainly not Sir Winston Churchill (though he was a Liberal at the time of his great period as Home Secretary before the First World War) and not Sir Samuel Hoare (later Lord Templewood, whom many of us remember in this House at the time that he was president of the Howard League); not Lord Butler, who gave the whole penal reform movement a big push forward, as the noble Lord sitting on the Woolsack at the moment will remember well, and, for that matter, not the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, who had the best possible intentions.
§ I may say that I have never had the pleasure of meeting the Home Secretary, so this does not arise from some sort of unpleasant personal relationship —far from it. When the present Home Secretary took office I wrote to him about a prisoner, and I congratulated him on being the youngest Home Secretary since Winston Churchill before the First World War. He wrote me a very nice letter back. Therefore, while there is youth—and there is youth in this case—there is hope, and it would he premature to despair of him.
§ I must turn briefly to the main changes proposed by the Home Secretary in the system of releasing life sentence prisoners on licence, and releasing other long-term prisoners on parole. I am sure that those who have pressed such changes on him sincerely believe that they will do something to reduce violent crime. I am sure that the Conservative Party Conference expected some strong language and some appearance, at any rate, of strong action, not out of viciousness but because they really believe that that is how violent crime should be reduced. But the Home Secretary, who was a former Home Office Minister and has all the Home Office wisdom available to him, really ought to know better. It is hard to believe that this is his considered opinion. Certainly he ought to know better, after reading the debate on the Archbishop's Motion a month ago. All the evidence to date points in the opposite direction to that in which the Home Secretary is appearing to move.
§ The changes made by the Home Secretary in the system of releasing life sentence prisoners on licence, and releasing other long-term prisoners on parole, will do nothing to reduce violent crime. I cannot believe that anybody who has studied these matters for more than five minutes believes that they will in fact do anything to reduce violent crime. They are much more likely to produce violence in the prison system. The Home Secretary has put forward these changes as part of what he calls, I believe, a "balanced package". He has accompanied them with an extension of the parole system for less serious shorter-term prisoners who were not previously eligible for it. As I said a month ago when we discussed these matters on the Archbishop's Motion, I unreservedly welcome that part of the package. I do not want to seem ungenerous 312 in that regard. But I welcome these beneficial moves with caution.
§ It has been suggested—not by the Home Secretary, so far as I know, but by some people on his behalf —that these tougher policies towards serious offenders are part of the political price which must be paid by an enlightened Home Secretary in order to carry out liberal policies towards the petty criminals. I do not think the Home Secretary said that, so I do not want to imply that he has; but many people would see the matter in that light and I should think that that is anybody's point of view. I would describe it as not only unjust but inhuman and I would regard it as making a kind of human sacrifice for political rather than penalogical reasons.
§ The Home Secretary has announced that he will normally turn down recommendations for the release on licence of prisoners for certain categories of murder until they have served at least 20 years in prison. It may well be that regrettably some prisoners in these categories have to be detained in prison for very long periods. It is likely that they must be detained for long periods to protect the public. But everyone concerned with penal reform will agree with me that it must be absolutely wrong for the Home Secretary to announce a blanket policy for whole categories of offenders in advance, rather than to consider each life prisoner's case for release on its individual merits. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will speak on that point and I expect him to speak very forcefully about it. It would undermine the whole principle of parole scrutiny. Prisoners in any category, whatever they have done, can change their attitudes for reasons which include ageing, remorse, the influence of prison staff, families, friends and responding to opportunities provided in prison. Sometimes there will be a genuine religious conversion.
§ Yet under the new policy, no matter how deep and genuine the remorse an offender may feel, no matter how well he may behave in prison, no matter how positive are the reports on him and how good the prognosis, if he is in one of the categories mentioned by the Home Secretary he cannot expect to be released on licence for at least 20 years. I submit that to establish a system which refuses to accept that prisoners can repent and change is a throwback to the penal dark ages.
§ A further objection to this policy is the devastating effect it already has had on the atmosphere in those prisons which contain a high proportion of inmates in the categories affected by the changes. It is all too likely to increase violence—I must be careful because if I say anything injudicious it is likely to stir violence up. It is likely to increase violence by prisoners deprived of hope. These men in all cases have committed serious crimes, even horrible crimes; but they are human beings. Hope is about the only thing left to them and the Home Secretary is setting out to take away that hope.
§ The second change affects those sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment for offences of violence or trafficking in drugs. They will not he granted parole, except for short periods towards the end of their sentences, other than in cirucmstances which are wholly exceptional. It seems quite incredible that the 313 Home Secretary should have discarded in this way such an important means of controlling offenders' future behaviour. Home Office research has discovered that release on parole, which combines supervision by a probation officer with the possibility of recall to prison for misbehaviour on licence, reduces released prisoners' chances of reconviction. Moreover, I am informed that the effect is particularly striking for offenders serving longer terms of imprisonment—exactly the group affected by the new policy. These changes, therefore, ironically made in the name of combating serious crime, have involved throwing away one of the few penal measures which has proved effective in reducing these serious crimes. In short, these measures are not only unjust and inhumane; they are likely to prove counter-productive.
§ I must touch on another point which is perhaps a specialist point, but it means a lot to a number of human beings. The Home Secretary, in a Parliamentary Answer since the debate on the Archbishop's Motion, has announced that the Home Office committee will he abolished. That committee decides when life prisoners are to be allowed to enter the parole process. Until now the committee has consisted of three members of the Parole Board—I presume that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is still chairman of it—and two Home Office officials. I never thought the day would come when I should bewail the disappearance of this particular committee, about which I have said some harsh things in the past. But there is the old saying that if you get rid of nurse you are likely to have something worse. If we have tears we should prepare to shed them now for this committee. We have seen its limitations, but it is better than the absence of any such arrangements. The existing committee, under the wise chairmanship of Lord Windlesham, represents some element of impartial justice in the consideration of life prisoners. I have criticised the committee rather bluntly on occasions because I felt it had allowed itself to be too much governed by political considerations. But it was some check on the handling of life prisoners along purely political lines.
§ The Home Secretary has announced with pride that none of the life prisoners will be released on licence without his permission. We shall soon have about 2,000 of them. But how on earth he will give personal consideration to these 2,000 people or provide any sort of justice I do not know. The difficulty of securing justice for individual prisoners, was severe enough, but in future it will be very much more awkward.
§ Incidentally, in passing, if any noble Lord studies what the Home Secretary has said on this matter he may conclude, as I do, that the arguments for the change are one prolonged non sequitur. I do not intend to go into the legal aspects of this tonight and I do not know whether anyone else will, but the Home Secretary is being challenged on his policy in a number of cases and in one case a High Court judge has allowed an appeal. That is another difficulty. He may be trying to do things that he is not able to do under the law unless he wants to change that law.
§ A colleague of the Home Secretary said to me recently, "You must realise that Leon is a very kind man". The colleague in question is himself a very kind man, and that may or may not make him a good judge 314 of kindness. The Home Secretary is obviously a very intelligent man. I am sure that he wishes to make a success of his great office. But the changes I have been discussing are not kind, they are not intelligent, they are unlikely to be successful. They are brutal, foolish and, as I think, doomed to failure. I must beg the Home Secretary to remember that just for a few years he has under his control and at his mercy a large number of his fellow citizens. Some of them have done terrible things. As individuals they do not arouse much public sympathy. But one day he, like the rest of us, will need to be forgiven.
§ 8.18 p.m.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, we are indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having initiated this evening this debate which raises issues of considerable public importance. Quite apart from anything else, it provides an opportunity for the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, to make his maiden speech. Before he does so, I should say that I do not think there is a more appropriate matter on which he could speak, as he was a most valued colleague of mine on the Parole Board for some years. We look forward very much to hearing what he will have to say later.
As a former chairman of the board I particularly welcome the opportunity provided by the noble Earl's Question to raise some of the more important issues which now arise on parole policy, but before coming to some of these issues I should like to say something about those who now serve, or who have served, on the Parole Board. As the House will be aware, they come from a number of very different backgrounds. There are High Court judges, there are Crown Court judges, there are trade union leaders, psychiatrists, chief probation officers, retired police officers, magistrates, criminologists and educationists; and, in the case of the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, a distinguished former member of the diplomatic service. I believe that most of them—indeed, I think all of them—find the experience of working together as colleagues one of the most rewarding features of their jobs as members of the board. The workload carried is a heavy one. They often have to consider up to 30 cases at a time, and on a number of these cases the arguments are obviously very finely balanced.
As chairman, I was impressed by two features of our discussions. First, I cannot remember a single case where a member had clearly not read his papers before the meeting. I wish that we could always say that about all the Ministers of the Crown—those, possibly, in this Government and those in other Governments. Secondly, I was impressed not only by the care and the sense of fairness displayed by the members in considering even some of the most hopeless cases but also by their willingness on most occasions to consider diametrically opposed opinions and to change their own views on the merits of a case when they regarded that as appropriate. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we have been fortunate in the quality of the people chosen by successive Home Secretaries to serve on the board. I think that on an occasion such as this we should indicate our gratitude to all those who are carrying out this important public work on behalf of the entire community; and while I am saying that I think there should be added our gratitude to those 315 present and past members of the staff who served the board.
I want to discuss two matters. The first, which may appear to some to be rather technical, are the circumstances in which some cases are referred to the board, and some are not; and the, second, the matter already raised by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, the announcement by the Home Secretary that he proposes to make radical changes in policy relating to life-sentence prisoners and also to a number of prisoners serving sentences of more than five years who have been convicted of offences of violence or of trafficking in drugs. I turn first to the question of cases that, for one reason or another, are not referred to the Parole Board at all.
There are, of course, many cases that are not referred to the board for (in my view) entirely sensible reasons. As part of the process of expanding the parole system, it was decided some years ago that the board need not be troubled with the cases of many shorter-sentence prisoners where the local review committee was unanimously in favour of recommending parole. Again, the new categories of cases which will become eligible for parole for the first time next year will also not be referred to the board at all. Again, I personally support that decision. However, there is another and entirely different category of cases that have not in the past and will not in the future be considered by the board; and I am far from certain that this is right.
Until a few years ago, any prisoner with a computer-based prediction score of 35 per cent. or more—that is, an entirely statistically-based assumption that he had a 35 per cent. chance of re-offending within a period of two years—and where the local review committee was unanimously against recommending parole, did not go to the hoard at all. As a Minister at the Home Office I did not like that policy and I succeeded, albeit with some difficulty, in raising the prediction score from 35 per cent. to 50 per cent., thus ensuring that far more cases were referred to the board for a second opinion. This change of policy did not come into force until shortly after I became chairman of the board.
As chairman, I became progressively more unhappy about this whole approach. The calculations on which that prediction score was based themselves had been made many years before, even before the introduction of the parole scheme. Some of those criteria were of doubtful value. The pluses or the minuses which potential parolees received for factors—just to take two examples such as marriage and employment; very important factors—were I believe arbitrary. The consequences which arose from that plus or minus were in some cases both harsh and unjust. The difference of a single percentage point in the prediction score between 50 and 51 per cent. made the difference as to whether a case was or was not referred to a panel of the Parole Board. Consequently, some prisoners received a second consideration of their case because they fell just on the right side of the dividing line, and some got parole as a result of that second consideration; whereas others who were just on the wrong side of the dividing line did not have their cases considered by the Parole Board at all.
The policy was—and I fear is—even more unfair than this. First, there are immense differences of 316 attitude between local review committees at different prisons; and that is almost inevitable, given the different type of offenders who are held in custody. The great advantage of the Parole Board is that it is able, by examining cases from right across the entire prison system, to apply common standards of judgment to the cases it considers. Obviously, if some of the longer-sentence cases are not referred to it because of the prediction score, it is not able to do this at all. Secondly, women prisoners are treated entirely differently. There are no prediction scores for women; so, consequently, all those cases are referred automatically to the Parole Board.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, just out of interest perhaps the noble Lord will tell us why there are no scores for women.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Elton, reply on behalf of the Home Office. I am sure that he will do it far more adequately than I; but my recollection is that statisticians are quite unable to work out any prediction scores so far as women prisoners are concerned. It is as simple as that.
Thirdly—and this is in some respect a particularly difficult issue—there is the question of association. Quite rightly, the Home Office attempts to put to the board the cases of prisoners tried and convicted at the same time. But in such cases the prediction-score rule does not apply. If a prisoner with a high prediction-score of, say, 90 per cent. or more, gets turned down unanimously by a local review committee (and in normal circumstances therefore his case would not go to the Parole Board) he can still get it considered by the Parole Board is he is lucky enough to have an associate who has a prediction score of less than 50 per cent.
I believe that this demonstrates—or I hope that it demonstrates—the unfairness of the system. I hope to hear tonight that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is prepared at least to re-examine this situation. I am well aware of the implications of scrapping the prediction-score system: more cases would have to go to the Parole Board as a whole. But the working party of the board headed by Mrs. Susan Baring of which the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, was a member, made a number of recommendations to deal with the problem and I have still not heard any satisfactory answer given by the Home Office as to why there has been no action on these recommendations.
I turn now to the issue which was central to the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford. That is the announcement made by the Home Secretary of his new policy on life-sentence prisoners and to some serving sentences of more than five years. I am asked by my noble friend, Lord Hunt, to say that he very much regrets that he is not able to be present tonight but that what I am saying represents his own view on this matter. First, I should say that this new policy applies only to England and Wales. That appears to be clear from an Answer which I have only just received from the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, when I asked whether the Secretary of State for Scotland intended to apply the new rules to the Scottish Parole Board. Perhaps I might quote the appropriate passage of the reply, which is that the Secretary of State for Scotland: 317keeps continuously under review life sentence and parole policy in consultation with the Parole Board for Scotland, in the context that the safety of the public is a paramount consideration and that the deterrent effect of sentences of life imprisonment must he emphasised".Indeed; and that has been the approach in the past to the parole policy in England and Wales. But it is quite clear from that reply that the Secretary of State for Scotland, in making, in my view, an entirely sensible decision, has decided not to apply the new policy to cases in Scotland. Certainly, as I put the matter very directly to him, I do not think there is any other possible interpretation of the Answer I have just quoted.
I must say at the outset that there is absolutely no doubt that this is the most profound change in parole policy since the parole system was introduced in 1968. It was announced by the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary at the Conservative Party conference in terms which made it absolutely clear that he recognised the full significance of what he was announcing. Nothing, I fear, has been less persuasive than the efforts which have been made since that speech by some of the Home Secretary's friends to pretend that what he is suggesting is only a relatively limited modification of the existing scheme or that it developed perfectly naturally from some of the changes made by his predecessors. Neither of the arguments has substance.
None of the right honourable gentleman's predecessors, Conservative or Labour, ever suggested that there was to be an overwhelming presumption against giving parole or granting a prisoner a life sentence licence solely on the precise type of offence committed and irrespective of all other factors. If that view is challenged—and I cannot frankly see how it can be—I should like to quote from the last annual report of the Parole Board, Appendix 4, concerning the criteria for selection for parole. It is a substantial appendix and indicates the view of the then Home Secretary Mr. Jenkins who made this announcement in 1975. In paragraph 20 the view is set out in, I think the clearest terms:Commonsense and general experience will best guide committee members in identifying cases where the danger is grave. The following are no more than fairly obvious examples"—and then there is, in my view, a wholly sensible list—of course I would say that, because I happened to be a Home Office Minister at the time—of the types of person who came into that category. They included some of the cases which have been dealt with by the present Home Secretary in his announcement, but they included among others—and I quote—A person convicted of more than one sophisticated crime intended to produce a large reward, committed on different occasions, even if violence has not been used or contemplated".It is quite clear from that paragraph that the Home Secretary of the day believed that it was right to leave it—I quote again—to the commonsense and general experience",of members of the Parole Board as to what their view of such cases should be. He did that in the knowledge that if he disagreed with their views he could overrule them because when the board makes a positive recommendation that view is entirely advisory, 318 whereas if the Parole Board says, "No", that is the end of the matter.
Then, in paragraph 24, the appendix reads as follows:It can, however, be said that, just as the graver the criminal record (and hence the graver risk to the public of granting parole), the stronger need to be the reasons for granting it early in the parolable period.However, as the Home Secretary said, it should not be ruled out, conversely, if there is just, but only just, a good enough case for granting parole to a prisoner with a grave record, only a fairly short period of parole should be granted. This seems right both as a matter of equity, and of course the danger to the public will be reduced if the period is short".That was the situation as set out in 1974, and I think it indicates the very substantial gap between that policy and the one set out by the Home Secretary at the Conservative Party Conference. So I hope we shall hear no more about the suggestion that the present policy is simply a logical development of past policies. It is clearly no such thing.
What the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary has announced is that there are to be two clearly defined categories of life sentence prisoners: one which will serve a minimum of 20 years in prison and one which will not. There will be two parole systems: one in which cases can be examined on their merits and the other in which parole will be refused save in the most exceptional circumstances.
I endeavoured to point out some of the difficulties of this approach during the debate which was initiated last month by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, no doubt because he had many speakers to reply to on that occasion, did not deal with my arguments in his reply. I am sorry to say that neither have I received the letter which he indicated he would send to those speakers whose points he was not able to deal with that evening. I hope, therefore, that I may be a little more successful this evening.
Let me put the problem again in the most direct terms to the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Why is it right, clearly and demonstrably right, to insist that the driver of a getaway car after a robbery, during which someone was shot dead, who was as a result sentenced to life imprisonment, should serve at least 20 years in prison, whereas the robber who bursts into the home of an elderly couple and bludgeons them to death comes into the less serious category and can serve in many cases an appreciably shorter sentence? As this is the second time that I have put this point, I very much hope that I shall get this question directly answered this evening.
Let me now deal with the question of the determinate sentence prisoner—those sentenced to more than five years. We have already had pointed out, and I intend to do so again this evening, some of the extraordinary results of this policy. Why is it right that a man sentenced—and I give the same example that I gave on the last occasion—to five years three months should serve a longer sentence than a man sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, solely because the former was convicted of robbery, whereas the seven-year man had perhaps stolen the life savings 319 of many elderly people? At present, unless there have been the most exceptional circumstances, the man who is serving five years three months for the offence of robbery will be rejected for parole by the Home Secretary whatever the board recommends, whereas the seven-year man will just as certainly get parole if the Parole Board makes a favourable recommendation.
I hope we shall not be told by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that, in the Home Secretary's view, one case is clearly more serious than the other because violence was involved. If it is argued in those terms I should like to make two replies in advance. First, in the case that I have cited, it is nonsense to suggest that a single act of violence which leads to the kind of sentence I have given as an example is more reprehensible than the theft of the life savings of a substantial number of elderly people. That is just as much an act of violence as the robber who coshes his victim in order to steal his money. Its effects on the elderly people concerned can be even more devastating.
But there is a second argument, and it is this. It may be that, on the day in question, the same judge sentenced both defendants, one to five years three months, and the other to seven years. He did so because, in his view, one deserved a significantly longer sentence than the other. Until the announcement of the Home Secretary's new policy, the judge would have known that at some stage in the future the cases of both would have come up for consideration before a panel of the Parole Board, and that both would have been considered on the basis of precisely the same approach. The character of the offence would, of course, have been considered, as would the previous convictions, the prison reports, the home circumstances reports and the possibilities of employment and of suitable housing. In short, the cases would have been considered on the basis of equality.
In either case, the Home Secretary of the day could have overruled a favourable recommendation of the Parole Board, but as he has done this on average for about 12 cases a year, the board's view is decisive in the overwhelming majority of cases. In my own experience as a Minister, I had very few cases which fell into that category referred by officials for consideration.
That whole approach has now been scrapped. The Home Secretary has decided that henceforth, in an admittedly limited category of cases, the views of the sentencing judge and the Parole Board are to be disregarded. The right honourable gentlemen is saying, not only to the Parole Board, but also to the sentencing judge, "It may be that you think that a sentence of five years three months is appropriate in one type of case and seven years in another, but I, as Home Secretary, consider that if the five years three months man has committed a particulr type of offence, and the seven years man has not, then I will ensure that the seven years man will have the chance of leaving prison first".
I believe that such an approach is entirely wrong. If the Home Secretary believes that he, rather than the judiciary, should finally determine the length of a sentence—and, I repeat, exclusively because of the character of the offence—then the right honourable 320 gentleman should come to Parliament and introduce legislation authorising him to make that fundamental change in policy. To make these changes entirely on the basis of his discretionary power to overrule the Parole Board in individual cases is a serious error of judgment.
It is that, just as much as the new policy itself, which has caused so much public concern and has led to the resignation from the Parole Board of a most valued colleague, Dr. Julian Candy, and to the deepening anxiety of so many present and past members of the Parole Board. They fear that the new policy, which, as it is non-statutory, may be changed decisively by any future Home Secretary, will be seen to be both unjust and capricious, will cause serious tensions within the prison system, and will undermine the reputation of the parole system as a whole as well as the independence of the Parole Board. I believe that the Home Secretary has made a most serious mistake.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord Henniker
My Lords, may I first apologise for having been silent so long since I joined your Lordships' House, but I found it very hard to convince myself that, among other things, I had enough special or up-to-date knowledge to enable me to make a useful contribution. I am therefore all the more grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having initiated this debate, because until the beginning of this year I served on the Parole Board, both under the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and for a longer time under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I thank him very much for his verygenerous—undeservedly generous—tribute to me tonight. Before that, I served on the board of visitors and the local review committee of a local prison. I have also been on the mental health review tribunal at Broadmoor and elsewhere and now on the board of a community home for boys at risk and in trouble. So I think I know something of the outlines of this problem; hut, as in all human problems, the more I know the outlines the less idea do I have of the proper solution.
I realise that in making a maiden speech I must not be controversial, but it is a very difficult subject on which to agree with everybody. So I hope that I shall be forgiven if I appear to transgress a little. My main concern, with which I shall deal tonight, is the criticism of the Parole Board—and perhaps, especially, the inference which can be drawn from the recent changes in the parole system—that the Parole Board is somehow failing in its duty to protect public safety. I should like to break a lance on their behalf.
I must say that my blood ran cold when I saw that the noble Lord, Lord Hams, was speaking before me, because everything that I can say he knows much better than I, and can say it better. But I can truthfully and simply say that I have never served on a board on which I was so proud to serve and which I admired so much as the Parole Board. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has said, it has an enormously wide membership—professional members, judges, senior probation officers, psychiatrists and people drawn from every walk of life. That makes it very well informed from a variety of angles. I think all my colleagues were struck by the way in which everybody did the voluminous homework which was required 321 before each board, and we could go straight into each matter and discuss it in an informed way. The board is very far from monolithic; it has every sort of view. Yet it was extraordinary how, when you got down to cases, you reached agreement on what was fair in those cases.
Always—I should like to emphasise this, especially where violence is involved—the overriding consideration must be, and is, public safety. When one looks at the obvious failure rate, the Parole Board comes off well. When I last remember it, the number of recalls was about 10 per cent. and that covered the cases of minor, but persistent, offenders for whom a period of parole under supervision was the least of two pretty forlorn alternatives.
Whatever is true of normal parole cases in respect of meticulousness and care for public safety can be said with redoubled emphasis for lifers. I always felt that the procedure in the case of lifers was very impressive. One had a consecutive history over many years of what had happened to the prisoner, and the presence on the board, always, of a High Court judge, and the fact that the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge were asked for their opinion, meant that the punishment was in line with prevailing standards of punishment in this country. Add to that the fact that in every case the Home Secretary has always been able to turn down the board's recommendation and has done so in the few cases when he thought that there might be justifiable public concern, and I do not believe anybody can contend that any decision can be taken without absolutely full concern for public safety.
When I left the board at the beginning of this year it seemed to me that, after initial hesitations, it had become generally accepted, both by prison staff and by prisoners, as part of the control system of prison life. Parole provided for the inmates a reasonable incentive for good behaviour, and the prospect of its forfeiture for bad behaviour was a great help to prison staff. Of course I realise the extent and justification for public alarm about the spread of violence. Indeed, many people—I am among them—will know of cases in which the damage to the health and happiness of victims has gone far beyond the criminal act itself. But I do not believe that the existence or use of parole has anything to do with this problem of violence. What I fear is that the virtual removal of all real prospect of parole from some, and those probably the most difficult categories of prisoner, will make control even harder than it has been.
One of the Parole Board's greatest strengths, too, has lain in its measure of independence, and a reduction in its competence and freedom, as well as its continued involvement in considering cases which have no chance of parole, might reduce its standing, cast more doubt on its independence and make it harder to attract good people to serve on it. And it may strengthen the views of those, of whom there is quite a number, who believe that consistency and certainty are the paramount needs and that if they are not maintained the Parole Board should be abolished and an automatic system of parole substituted instead. I hope and expect that my fears are groundless, that I am Don Quixote, tilting at a non-existent windmill, but in matters of this kind I always remember Ernest 322 Bevin, the wisest man I ever served, who, when asked for the umpteenth review of the British Council after the war, turned down the idea with the advice not to muck about with it or start digging around its roots, or it would never grow.
It would be foolish to pretend that any system cannot be improved. It was my hope that the Parole Board, like many things in British life, had evolved and was constantly evolving through experience and case law to a position where it was established in public confidence. The board is constantly critical of its own performance and limitations. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has spoken graphically about it. Soon after I joined the board I served on the working party to which the noble Lord referred. We examined ways of trying to improve the board. We were chiefly concerned with its cumbrousness, with streamlining its procedures, eliminating delays and helping the board to devote proper attention to its more important tasks and to include within its scope those people with the wrong prediction scores (whom the noble Lord has mentioned) who get left out. To take one example, we thought that in straightforward cases, with short sentences for non-violent crimes, the local review committees should be able to recommend release without the delay of several months which reference to the Parole Board means.
This would have had excellent effects, but one in particular interests me. There are, I believe from my personal observation, some prisoners, especially young ones, who, having landed themselves in prison for the first time, are appalled by what they see: men wasting their whole lives and the awful problems they have themselves brought on their wives and families. When the lessons have sunk in, a quick decision on parole, with the support of supervision, could provide the best chance of their becoming useful citizens. From experience, too, I thought it would help the local review committee by giving it more real responsibility. The idea was turned down, and in that form perhaps it was unworkable. But there have been other important and, I believe, valuable improvements in terms of devolving responsibility. More, I believe, are still needed to speed up the processes and simplify them.
I fear that for a maiden speech I have spoken for too long. I did, however, want to say that I see the Parole Board, warts and all, as having developed into an institution which is a feather in our national cap. It is, I believe, flexible and realistic as well as sensitive and responsive to public opinion. I have spent most of my working life in such bodies, first on overseas affairs and lately the Parole Board. They receive more brickbats than praise. Criticism, of course, is healthy, but its too constant drip can undermine or erode. Perhaps I am too sensitive. I have been in fields where the news is not always what the nation wants to hear. I hope that we shall not, in frustration, begin to think of shooting the herald who brings the news. I hope, too, that there is general confidence in the Parole Board as an institution which is both necessary and valuable.
§ 8.56 p.m.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, may I, as another old Trinity man, be the first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, on his most attractive, 323 informed, succinct and, from the point of view of these Benches, entirely non-controversial speech. We are lucky to have him. The noble Lord had a distinguished and gallant career in the Army and a distinguished career in diplomacy. In later years he has been much involved in that curious world of the social services: Toynbee Hall, the City Parochial Foundation and, as he told us himself, the Broadmoor mental health tribunal. And since 1979 he has been a member of the Parole Board. I welcome the noble Lord, not only to this House but to the very limited group of Peers who are always the same, and never more than about 10, who meet about four times a year to discuss matters of this kind. If he prefers, as most of us do, to speak to crowded Benches, the noble Lord had better use some of his other information to make speeches; but in the small, not uncosy arguments which we have here the noble Lord is a very valuable and welcome recruit.
First let me say that today is a gala day. I should like the archives to be examined to find out how long ago it was that a 78-year-old Earl spoke on the only three Motions of the day. I congratulate the noble Earl not only on that score but also for putting down this Motion for debate. The Motion is concerned with improving the parole system. I wish to begin by congratulating the Home Secretary, and the noble Lord who represents him here, on the announcement which was made the night before last, I believe, about extending eligibility for parole to prisoners serving short term sentences of six months. This is extremely important. We have been urging it for two years. We welcome it. Let us not be curmudgeonly on that score. We wish to attack the Home Secretary on other fronts, but we appreciate what he has done about this.
The noble Earl's Motion also asks us to consider the position of life prisoners and the Home Secretary's new proposals relating to prisoners serving sentences of over five years. This is a very different matter. We have complained very bitterly since 1979 about many sins of omission relating to penal affairs. This is the first time that I, speaking as President of NACRO, have found it necessary roundly to condemn an act of omission. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, said something of the same kind. We have succeeded in NACRO, over 16 years, in working with, and not against, the Home Office to improve prospects for prisoners, whether convicted or on remand, and prevent crime. We have often disagreed with and criticised the authorities but almost always for their doing too little too late. Now we are confronted with some changes which, as has been said by every speaker except the maiden speaker, are undeniably retrograde. I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh's bitter comment on the Tory Government during their famous 13 wasted years: "They haven't put the clock back one minute". Now they have.
We are proud in my Party to have two ex-chairmen of the Parole Board. My noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich has already spoken, pursuing his formidable attack on the new regulations which he made in the Archbishop's debate. This allows me to do what I always do better than other things, which is to avoid any detailed criticisms. My noble friend Lord Hunt cannot be here. As chairman of the Intermediate Treatment Committee, he is looking at intermediate 324 treatment centres in the West of England. So I thought it as well to talk to him fairly thoroughly about his views and to represent them here; and each of them is a view which I entirely share. As we all remember, he was the first chairman of the Parole Board. He gave a most distinguished lead to both Government and board members on how the board should develop; he has left his mark on it and it can still be seen. In my noble friend's opinion, and in mine, neither the Home Secretary's Blackpool statement, nor his Written Answer to a Commons Question last week, does anything to improve the parole system. On the contrary, the statement can be read as implying, quite wrongly, that the Parole Board and the Probation Service, which supervises paroled offenders, are soft on certain serious categories of crime.
We have not yet seen the new guidelines for the Parole Board regarding implementing the policy, but my noble friend and I are both very much concerned about the restriction which they seem certain to impose on the freedom of the board. This point has already been referred and I shall go into it in a little detail because I think it is very important. It seems to us that the present intention is to provide guidelines which have regard to political policy as distinct from public interest. I do not suggest that members of the Parole Board would act politically, but if in effect they refrained from recommending for parole a prisoner in the categories virtually excluded by the Home Secretary's statement, notwithstanding their opinion that save for political policy it would serve the public interest to grant parole in that case, that would amount to a distortion which to my mind would be quite unacceptable.
Let us look at what the Home Secretary actually said about the public interest. He said:What I intend is that no one sentenced to more than five years imprisonment for an offence of violence to the person shall be released on parole, except where release under supervision for just a few months immediately before the end of the sentence is likely to reduce the long-term risk to the public, or in circumstances which are wholly exceptional".There the Home Secretary accepts that release on supervision can be in the public interest in some cases. Yet he is virtually preventing the board from granting parole in cases earlier than a few months before the end of the sentence, even though the board believes that it would be in the public interest to do so. That I find unacceptable, and I am surprised that members of the board have not felt the same. I have a suspicion that some of them have.
The board was created as an independent and politically neutral body. It ought not to be called on to take account of political considerations; these are the proper concern of the Home Secretary of the day. Nobody can dispute that at least one of the motives—I shall not say that it is the only one, but it is at least one of the motives—for this policy is to satisfy the political unrest from people who are sorry to lose the capital sentence. There can really be no doubt about that. I shall not say that it is the only reason, but it is certainly one of the reasons.
Undoubtedly the Home Secretary has always succeeded in crossing the board only a handful of times in a year. In my opinion, the present rules can maintain this position of only a handful of differences, but only at the cost of some of the board's indepen- 325 dence. I absolutely agree with the previous speakers that we shall miss the committee that the noble Earl spoke about. It was not merely better than nothing; I think that it was generally fairly good. The noble Earl had a little more trouble with it than I had.
As laid down by the 1976 Act, the Home Secretary will now continue to consult the Lord Chief Justice, and the trial judge, if available, and they will be his sole source of advice in regard to the minimum time to be served as retribution for the most heinous form of murder which we are talking about in relation to "lifers". We do not really quarrel with that, but we think it is an awful pity that the joint committee should disappear. It has been useful. It has at least ensured that exceptional cases were brought forward for formal review at a relatively early stage in the sentence; and in the early days of the parole scheme there were serving life sentences too many forgotten men whose case dossiers were piled up in the office of a certain Home Office official.
I should like to take this opportunity to defend the parole scheme, as did the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, against those such as the National Association of Probation Officers, who speak as though they want to abolish it. Despite its well-known shortcomings, it is absolutely undeniable that statutory supervision and support during conditional release on licence has proved of immense benefit to both the public and the paroled offenders alike. In his maiden speech the noble Lord gave a very clear example of this, and I think that all of us who have dealt with prisoners could quote others. In particular, there are a number of cases where it has worked extremely well with sentences up to five years, and even over five years. I can recall quite a number of such cases.
There is absolutely no case for abolishing parole unless it is replaced by something more constructive than a pious hope for shorter sentences. During the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, on 28th June 1982, my noble friend Lord Hunt put forward a proposition which makes real sense and which would retain the advantages without the disadvantages of the present system, at least for short-term prisoners. I shall not go into details now, but, roughly speaking it proposed that as a first stage all sentences of less than three years should be in two parts, the first half in prison, the second under a supervision release licence in the community. The courts could refuse this in special circumstances. The Lord Chief Justice seemed to agree with this in principle. I think that we shall have to put it forward again in the new year, since I believe that the only way we can redress the undermining of the parole system now contemplated would be by scrapping it and starting something new. That would require, as the new parole scheme which was announced the day before yesterday will require, more probation officers. But is not that a very good thing? We have appalling unemployment. We have a number of people who have had elaborate training as probation officers and do not have jobs. If we could save their dole money and employ them at the same time in this effective way, that would seem to be money which even this Government might be able to find. I hope that will he thought about. However, I must not discuss that 326 tonight; but it is a point which I fully intend to bring up again in due course.
Meanwhile, I am glad that my old colleague and friend, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has once again given us the chance to discuss these frustrating and depressing topics. He and I have been doing this for the past 30—or is it 40?—years. In spite of some few minor improvements here and there—and I repeat my welcome to the one mentioned recently—it is discouraging to see the slow but steady deterioration of our treatment of those kept in our prisons, whether accused of or convicted of offences. Let us keep up the pressure and we may get some more concessions later.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Lord Kagan
My Lords, I shall be very brief at this late hour. If prison is a stick, parole is the carrot in the judicial system. As in so many other fields, to leave the stick and take away the carrot produces very undesirable consequences. Parole gives the prisoner choice, and choice gives hope. After all, in most cases, particularly with young people, the time a man spends in prison is rather less than the time we hope he will spend in society afterwards, so that preparation for the future should take precedence over what one does for him during his stay in prison.
Parole helps to rebuild bridges. It acts as a decompression chamber of the soul, as it were, for re-entry into society. It is supported, and must be supported, by a very effective probation system. Recommendations for parole should be supported right from the start with assessment by probation officers, which should start from entry into prison, not when the prisoner leaves. It should be possible to assess at that time whether a particular person is capable of improvement, a change of heart, and so on.
As my noble friend Lord Longford said, there is no provision for doubts, repentance or remorse. There is hardly a person who at some point or other has not doubted what he has done and why he got into conflict. Unfortunately, at that point there is nobody to catch that mood, because in our prison system once a man has entered prison he is abandoned to the influence of other prisoners and not to the influence of prison officers. I believe that in Holland—I have spoken on this subject previously—before a prison officer is given an opportunity to take up a job in prison he undertakes an examination which proves him to be a good probation officer. If he cannot pass that examination he is not accepted. It is an upgrading of the quality of the staff which would make a success of the probation service and, subsequently, enable people to be put on parole usefully.
In other countries the churches play a much more important part in the prison service. It is difficult to assume that if a person is under total control for a number of years, and subject to a budget of between £10,000 and £20,000 a year, he cannot be influenced and reformed. One interesting aspect of the Korean war was that American prisoners, in a short period of two years, were indoctrinated to such an extent that when they returned to freedom later the United States authorities could not undo the results. It was perhaps a case where the better advocate won over the better course. Interestingly enough, the people they 327 used—the North Koreans—were highly educated and sophisticated politruks. If one can re-educate a person to a bad purpose, surely we should be able to do better than that to a good purpose. It needs faith and it needs application.
I shall stop at that, but may I just ask one question? On the previous occasion the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said that a study of the Dutch system was in progress and was expected to be ready by the end of the year. The Dutch seem to have a much better way of dealing with the problems that we are discussing. Is the study likely to be ready soon?
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, when addressing the House during a short debate (which was attended by even more of your Lordships than are at present here) I said that it was a lesson that one learned not to repeat what others had said perfectly eloquently and clearly. In having the privilege of winding up the debate on behalf of the Opposition, I intend to follow that maxim at this late hour. Like the other noble Lords who have spoken, I am most grateful to my stalwart noble friend Lord Longford for having returned to the fray. He will never give up the battle for the improvement of the parole system. As a non-Trinity man, and therefore with a much more objective view, may I congratulate the maiden speaker in the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Henniker. If I may say so, he spoke most attractively to the House and showed an expertise that we hope to experience again in future debates.
The case has been made very fully not only for the need for improvements in the parole system but for condemning—and I put it in those express terms—the Home Secretary's recent announcement. In saying that, I too want to pay tribute to what happened in the early hours of the morning before last in another place. It seems that all prison debates in both Houses occur either late at night or in the early hours of the morning, which is very wrong. There was an improvement, to which attention has already been drawn by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, so there is no need for me to repeat what he said. As I think he implied, it means that there will have to be an addition to the number of probation officers, which we should all welcome. I shall merely summarise what has been said already. But one felt that the Home Secretary's statement was a terribly retrograde and wrong step.
Item No. 1, if one is going to take away a discretion from the Parole Board, it is due to the Parole Board and to the whole nation that the Secretary of State expressly states why his experience of the Parole Board—because of its inaction, wrong action or whatever else it may be—has led him to introduce that reform. I ask the noble Lord the Minister to say in his reply what experience he can bring before the House to show that the Parole Board has acted without proper regard to the public interest and to public safety in the past which has made the withdrawal of that discretion necessary.
Item No. 2 has been mentioned and I therefore summarise it in this way. To some extent it is a repetition of the first point. It is wrong for the discretion and independence of the Parole Board to he taken from it. 328 As has also been said, if that step is taken, I believe that it is an offensive thing to do to the judges and the other members of the Parole Board who have fulfilled their duties to it with such eminence and satisfaction in the past.
I again merely summarise the third point. It is hopelessly wrong to remove hope. I know a little hit about the experience of prison officers and about their views. Quite apart from removing hope, it is the view of the prison officers that their task will be made so much more difficult by the fact that they will have to deal now with prisoners who were there already for violence and who will be told that whatever their conduct, and however much the prison officers influence them to behave well, there is no point in it, because they will not be considered unless they can put themselves in a category of a very exceptional case. I should love the Minister to say in his reply what "exceptional cases" is intended to cover. Could he kindly define the term for the benefit of the House? I too should love to see improvements. I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, if I may say so—always giving, as he does, an expert view, both as a previous Minister at the Home Office and a previous chairman of the Parole Board, and therefore always listened to with great attention—was a very fine speech tonight. I thought the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Donaldson and Lord Longford also brought great credit. I have already referred to the noble Lord who has delivered his maiden speech. In those speeches there were suggestions of how we could improve the situation, and I hope we shall come back to those matters.
I was delighted to hear in Lord Harris's speech, a reference to two eccentricities which appear to exist: one was that the Secretary of State who looks after Scottish affairs did not appear to like the activities and policy of his colleague who looks after England and Wales. I was also bemused by the information which was not previously in my mind at all, namely: I had always recognised the view—which is I think generally accepted by the male population—that males are guided by logic and women are guided by instinct. I did not know, until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that presumably there are crimes of logic which are committed by men and therefore can be measured in a computer, but there are crimes presumably of instinct committed by women, and their liability to commit crimes in the future cannot be measured by computer, because computers do not measure instinct.
I promised that I was going to be brief and therefore, as I have said, I am not going to repeat the speeches which have been made. I merely try to summarise the points and we shall all look forward to hearing the response from the noble Lord the Minister.
§ 9.22 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Earl. Lord Longford, asked Her Majesty's Government whether the parole system and the system for the release of life sentence prisoners on licence needs to be much improved. He does so in the wake of the announcement of my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary about two important aspects of the system. The first is the way in which he intends to 329 exercise the discretion given to him by the law in discharging his own part in the system. The second is the significant extension of the system to embrace large numbers of extra prisoners by the reduction of the period they must serve before they qualify for parole. This has, therefore, been a timely debate, and I am sure the House is grateful to him for providing the occasion for it and of showing the remarkable stamina, if I may say so, of participating in three consecutive debates, whereas I, a much younger man, did not have the temerity to take all three on the trot and got help on the intervening one. I bow to his greater resilience and his greater persistence.
I am also grateful to him for making the opportunity available for the admirable maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Henniker, in which he did not so much break his lance, if I may say so, as burnish it. If he thinks he has been in bodies which attract brickbats and scorn, however brilliant their work, he should just try a few months in the Home Office.
As a preliminary, I ought, I think, to remind your Lordships of the way in which the parole system has developed, but I do so with a fitting sense of humility in view of the immense weight of experience and, indeed, contribution to that development by those at present in your Lordships' House and which has been quoted from outside it.
Your Lordships will recall that the system was introduced in 1968 and that it gave rise to a good deal of anxiety when it was first started. Both the then Home Secretary and the Parole Board approached the scheme with caution, therefore, and only 1,800 prisioners were granted parole. That was 27 per cent. of those eligible. By 1974 the figure had risen to 3,500, which was 35 per cent. of those eligible. By then it was clear that the fears expressed at its introduction had little justification. In 1975 the then Home Secretary, the right honourable Roy Jenkins, felt able, in consultation with the Parole Board, to promulgate new and more liberal cirteria for the granting of parole. During the late 1970s and early 1980s releases on parole rose significantly as a result.
Last year, 5,180 prisoners, 56.3 per cent. of those eligible, were released on parole. The average length of parole licence in 1982 was nearly nine months and there were over 3,800 prisoners on parole in the community. The safeguard built into the system is that conditions can he attached to the licence and if the parolee breaks the conditions, including doing so by committing a further offence, he can be recalled to prison.
Your Lordships will notice from what I have said so far that the parole system was launched very cautiously and the increases in the use of parole were careful and slow. It ran for six years before the less stringent criteria were brought in. Up to then, the rate of recall had hovered steadily at about 8 per cent. in spite of the gradual increase in their number. About 92 per cent. of those paroled, in other words, served their licences successfully. The relaxation of the criteria meant a further increase in the number of prisoners paroled and an increase in their proportion of the prison population as a whole. A change in the quality of those paroled could be seen as a consequence, and the 593 parolees recalled last year represented 11.4 per 330 cent. of those paroled in that year. Recalls in one year may, of course, relate to releases made in a previous year but that is the nearest yardstick that I can give your Lordships.
Some of your Lordships may think that 11.4 per cent. is too high a figure. I dare say that more of their Lordships who are not in the House at the moment might think that than those sitting in the Chamber now, but I have to address all your Lordships. Your Lordships might therefore think this rather too high a figure, that it represents an unacceptable level of risk to the public and that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is right to question whether the system should not be altered in order to reduce it. That, I hasten to add, is not the deduction that the noble Earl himself would make, but it is a deduction that can and sometimes is made, and I ought therefore to comment on it.
Parole conditions are not mere gestures. They are a strict requirement. If a parolee is required to keep in regular touch with his probation officer and fails to do so, he is recalled. Over half the recalls were for breach of conditions that did not include the commission of a new offence. Less than half were for further offences. That, I hope, will put the figure of recalls into a clearer and more reassuring light. I do not think that it calls for a reversal of policy or even a major overhaul. My right honourable and learned friend has made clear recently that the trend towards more parole accords with his own broad strategy for dealing with crime and offenders. Indeed, he is in the process of extending the scheme to many thousands of shorter sentence prisoners who have hitherto been excluded from its benefit.
I now return to the statement on the parole system made by my right honourable and learned friend to which I have already referred. Noble Lords will be aware that an order has been laid before this House under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982. If it is approved, it will reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole from 12 months to six. The requirement that a prisoner must serve at least one third of his sentence if it is longer than six months remains unchanged. We have no intention of anticipating parliamentary sanction of what is proposed, but in view of the urgency and the considerable increase in the number of cases to be processed and the amount of work involved, if the order is approved, an instruction—No. 75 of 1983—has been sent to all Prison Department establishments in preparation for what must be done if approval is given. As is customary, a copy has been placed in the Library of the House.
I do not want to anticipate our debate on this order, but I must I think at least outline its intentions, although briefly. The present minimum qualifying period is 12 months and the minimum qualifying sentence for parole is about 19½ months. A reduction in the minimum qualifying period to six months would reduce the minimum qualifying sentence to about l0½ months. We estimate that this would increase the number of prisoners qualifying for parole each year from 10,000 to 19,000. To this can be added, a possible 4,000 more when the new young offenders' sentencing arrangements take full effect. Of these 13,000 additional candidates, about 7,500 adults and about 2,700 young offenders might be 331 paroled each year. This would increase the parole population from the present level of just under 4,000 to over 6,000. This would have the beneficial extra effect of decreasing the prison population by a like amount.
These changes will involve extra work for the local review committees. Indeed, we see a need to recruit some 200 additional independent members at prisons and youth custody centres throughout the country. The committees perform a valuable public service and are an essential part of the parole system. I hope very much that many public spirited people will come forward for consideration for this important work. I should add that anybody who is interested should get in touch with the governor of the prison or youth custody centre nearest their home.
I have set out the steady growth of the parole scheme under successive Administrations, and pointed to a further very substantial extension which the Government now propose. These improvements and extensions have been possible only because public confidence has been maintained. They would not have been possible without that confidence. Winning it has been the aim of all those responsible for the operation of the parole scheme since its inception.
In that context I now come to the decision which my right honourable friend has come to about the parole cases of certain serious offenders, which has attracted so much unfavourable attention this evening. I gave the details of this decision in full in answer to a parliamentary Question by my noble friend Lord Morris on 30th November. In short, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary intends to ensure that prisoners serving sentences of over five years for offences of violence or drug trafficking will be granted parole only when release under supervision for a few months before the end of a sentence is likely to reduce the long-term risk to the public, or in circumstances which are genuinely exceptional.
He has adopted this policy in order to take account of the general public concern about the increase in violent crime and the growing public criticism of the gap between the length of sentence passed and the length of sentence actually served in certain cases. His objective is to maintain public confidence in the parole scheme. As I say, that confidence has always been essential to the success of the system. It has always been jealously guarded, and I am sure that your Lordships will agree that we cannot afford to neglect it now. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, may regard this as a step backwards. I do not agree with him. What matters is that it was a step that was necessary if further progress was to be made.
Let me put the policy in perspective. Last year, in round figures, about 10,000 prisoners were reviewed for parole and about 5,000 were granted it. If the minimum qualifying period for parole is reduced to six months, as I have said, we estimate that taking the new youth custody sentence into account, an additional 13,000 prisoners will be reviewed each year, and a further 10,000 might be released on licence. Even in the language of the noble Earl, that surely, is a step forward. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, for his frank and generous recognition that it is.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord, but I must put him right about this matter. In the previous debate, and again today, I welcomed that part of the arrangement which means that more people will obtain parole. I am afraid that the noble Lord did not have it written in his brief, but if he had been listening to me with a modicum of care, he would have heard me say that.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I did not wish to paint the noble Earl in ungrateful colours. I quickly own that what I was reading at that time was in my own handwriting. I am glad that he accepts that it is a step forward. I fear that I shall not convince him that the step which he regards as being backwards was necessary. I would have thought that, in his view, it seems to be a case of reculer pour mieux saltier, but we must not dwell too long on this.
Under the parole scheme as the Government intend to extend it, there are likely to be some 23,000 prisoners a year considered for parole, and about 15,000 granted it. These are large figures. The figures for the categories to which my right honourable friend referred are somewhat smaller. Last year only about 1,000 prisoners in those categories were reviewed for parole. Of them, 360 were recommended for parole, and of those 360 only about 240 were recommended for parole before their final reviews and, therefore, for other than the short period now contemplated.
There is another important aspect to this question. It has frequently been alleged—and I was going to say that it was most recently alleged in a letter to the Guardian newspaper yesterday from a justice of the peace, but I rather think that I heard it alleged again this evening by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who will correct me if I am wrong—that in cases that fall into this serious category judges will have had the prospect of parole in mind when setting the sentence that an offender is to serve. The noble Lord indicates that he has not said that, and so I apologise for misrepresenting him, and I reinstate the justice of the peace as the last person to put this myth into currency. I have to say categorically that it is not so. The judges themselves have been at pains to say that it is not so. In a judgment reported in the press on the very same day as the letter appeared—though it was not, I notice, reported in the Guardian—the Lord Chief Justice himself again refuted this heresy. The passage in The Times report could not make this clearer. Perhaps I may quote merely two sentences:Questions of parole were not for the Court of Appeal. Their Lordships had repeatedly said that sentences were imposed by trial judges and reviewed by the Court of Appeal without regard to the impact or lack of impact of possible release on parole".That could not be a clearer refutation of the view that has been frequently repeated that judges give long sentences in the expectation that parole will shorten them. Only about one in three of the cases with which we are concerned received any parole at all last year: and fewer than one in four received more than the absolute minimum available at the last review. In all conscience the judges therefore could not spot the likely beneficiaries, even if they wanted to, and they have made it abundantly and frequently clear that they do not even try to.
333 If there is any residual doubt in this, if people feel that judges say they do not take the possibility of parole into consideration but actually do it subconsciously, there would have been an increase in the length of sentences when parole was introduced. But the statistics were analysed by Professor Nigel Walker in 1981. He found no sign of an upward shift in sentence lengths in the two years after 1968, and our own research has since confirmed his findings.
May I now return to these cases. I do not for a moment suggest that for those who make up that number of 240 this is not a very serious matter. It is a very serious matter. We should not forget that their crimes were also a serious matter. You do not get sent down for over five years for a violent crime when you have committed a pecadillo, and if you are given more than a five-year sentence for a sexual or sadistic assault on a child, you have not been merely philandering. There are victims in these cases and there is a need to protect society. If the victims in these cases are tragic, how much more numerous and sometimes how much more tragic are the eventual victims of the trafficker in illicit drugs?
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but the noble Lord is speaking as though the stronger sentence had any effect whatever. He must have read all the information which exists. There is not one criminologist who thinks that it has any effect. Surely the Home Office do not think this. It is almost unbelievable.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord does not strain my patience; I hope that I do not strain his credulity. I am seeking to make it abundantly clear that the British people regard the criminal law as their protection against the criminal, and the punishment of criminals as the only way in which the law can be enforced. We cannot proceed without the broad support of the British people. Therefore it is necessary to respond to that view. The noble Lord rightly exercises an educative role, and very often I try to join him in this; but the fact is that we must recognise public perceptions. I think that the public see the nature of a crime as being in one hand and the sentence in the other of a not always blindfolded justice. That is the scenario.
There is no question of either my right honourable friend or of his officials sifting cases in these categories out of the system and denying local review committees or the Parole Board itself the chance to consider them. Far from it. All will be considered in exactly the same way as at present. They will of course be considered in light of the Statement that the Home Secretary has made and your Lordships will recall that that Statement includes provision for release on licence earlier than otherwise for exceptional cases.
Noble Lords have asked what such exceptional cases might be. I can only reply that, by their very nature, they cannot be specified in advance. As I have said, all these cases will continue to be reviewed by the local review committees and the Parole Board. They will have in mind the declared intentions of my right honourable friend with regard to the final exercise of his discretion. Each case will be considered on its 334 merits. Those which are recommended for parole by the Parole Board—andwho better so to recommend?—will be referred, first, to me and then to my right honourable friend for consideration. We shall look carefully at each case, as we do at those cases which are referred to us now. My right honourable friend will be responsible to Parliament—as he now is and always has been—for all decisions to release on parole licence. Exceptional circumstances will be different—even unique—in every case, and it is not possible to predict how many of them there will be.
The noble Earl has also asked me about the system for the release on licence of life sentence prisoners. As he recognises, although the Parole Board are involved in giving advice on the release of life sentence prisoners, release on life licence is not part of the parole system itself. It is misleading to refer to a life sentence prisoner being granted parole or even being considered for parole—although I must confess that in conversation I find myself doing it—because he is not. The Parole Board are involved because the law provides that the Secretary of State cannot order the release of a life sentence prisoner unless he is recommended by the board so to do—and he is also required by law to consult the Lord Chief Justice, and, if he is available, the trial judge. But the final decision rests squarely with my right honourable friend. He is not obliged to accept the recommendation by the board for the release of a life sentence prisoner; nor is he bound by the views of the judiciary although he attaches a great deal of weight to them.
There are important differences between the review by the Parole Board of the case of a life sentence prisoner and of other prisoners. One is that a life sentence prisoner has no right to have his case reviewed after a specified time or at specified intervals thereafter. The times at which this is done are entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State. My right honourable friend looks particularly to the Parole Board for advice on risk to the public, and to the judiciary for advice on the time to be served to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence.
Unlike a prisoner serving a determinate sentence who is eligible for consideration for parole, a life sentence prisoner has no statutory right to have his case reviewed after a specific time. Originally it was the practice for all cases of life sentence prisoners to be formally reviewed by the Parole Board after seven years, but this proved to be unsatisfactory because it often raised prisoners' hopes falsely or caused unnecessary public concern. Accordingly, largely at the instigation of the Parole Board, the joint Parole Board-Home Office committee lamented by the noble Earl and other noble Lords was set up in 1973 to give initial consideration to the likely progress of a life sentence prisoner towards release and to recommend a date for the first formal review of his case.
Because of the Parole Board's special concern about risk the joint committee did not always find it easy to decide on a date for the first formal review, and in about half the cases referred to it the committee asked to see the case again. When the joint committee did decide upon a formal review date it was often shown to be unrealistically early, with the result that some cases 335 could be considered several times by the Parole Board before release was authorised. This is not only wasteful of resources but unsettling to prisoners and to prison staff and prisoners' families alike, as indeed is the uncertainty about the future in those cases where the joint committee have not felt able to fix a formal review date.
The Parole Board members of the joint committee were very concerned about this situation, and indeed on his retirement from the Parole Board the then vice-chairman wrote to the Home Secretary, my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, suggesting that the problem could be overcome to a large extent by the early involvement of the judiciary in the review process.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, may I ask a question on that? The then vice-chairman, the High Court judge, did not recommend the abolition of the joint committee.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, it sounds more like a statement to me than a question, but the noble Lord is right to put it on the record. The new arrangements which my right honourable friend has announced will enable the board to concentrate on their primary role of advising on the risk without getting involved in considerations of retribution and deterrence which are the primary concern of the judiciary. Moreover, every life sentence prisoner will in future know his position and how long he is likely to serve, subject to the assessment of the risk in his case. In future at an early date in each case the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if he is available, will be asked for a judicial view on the period of detention necessary to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, may I ask a question on that for clarification? Does that mean that the judge will be asked how he feels about this case in view of the original crime and sentence passed, or that the judge would be equipped with any fresh information about the prisoner?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, subject to correction, the judicial members of this review are looking at the crime and the need for deterrence, not at the progress of the prisoner and the element of risk, which is a matter for the Parole Board. If I find I am wrong on that point I shall return to it. I believe I am right.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Earl interjects that this is awful; but he did ask for an element of impartial justice and it is the judiciary that is concerned with retribution; it is the Parole Board that is concerned with mercy and progress. In the light of the views of the judiciary my right honourable and learned friend has to fix a date for the first reference of a case to the local review committee and this arrangement will apply in every case without exception. I apologise for speaking for so long, but at the end of the day your Lordships like answers to your questions. I shall nevertheless have to write to some of your Lordships with more promptitude than I have to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in the past.
336 It is not the case that life sentence prisoners are left in a sort of limbo for many years without their cases ever being considered. This has been suggested in the past. Under the previous procedure the cases of all life sentence prisoners were kept under review by the Home Office, so that if reports suggested that there might be grounds for advancing the date fixed for the next review by the Parole Board or the joint committee that would be considered.
As the Home Secretary has announced that these regular reviews will be an essential feature of the new arrangements where a date for a first or subsequent formal review is set for several years ahead, full reports will be obtained from the prison at no longer than three-year intervals and prison governors will be free to report at any time any special circumstances or exceptional progress made by a prisoner. Noble Lords, may find that more reassuring. If reports suggest at any time that there might he grounds for advancing the next stage, this is to be considered. When a prisoner has been detained for 10 years these reports will always be considered by a Minister. The prisoner, or those interested in him, can make representations at any time, and these too are considered.
I might add that the judiciary will consider a case, as I mentioned a moment ago, and the prisoner's first three years or so in custody. That is an important point for the noble Earl.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, this will be my last question. What is the position of prisoners who have already been promised a date at which the committee, about to become defunct, is to undertake their examination? When the committee disappears, how will this promise that cases will be reviewed be kept?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I do not want to commit myself unwittingly to a commitment and I will return to this in a moment, if the noble Earl will forgive me. The noble Earl is talking about the review date not about the release date, which he knows is inviolate.
My right honourable friend's announcement of the minimum period he would expect certain categories of life sentence prisoners to serve does not mean a departure from the fundamental principles governing the consideration of individual cases. Before releasing a life sentence prisoner the Secretary of State receives, and will continue to receive, advice from the Parole Board on each individual case on the risk to the public of releasing the prisoner and from the judiciary on the appropriate length of time to be served in prison. But final decisions on the release of life sentence prisoners will rest entirely with him and he is directly accountable to Parliament for the exercise of that statutory executive discretion. What he has done is to enunciate openly the policy that he will be following in considering each case that comes before him.
It is entirely appropriate that he should set out his policy clearly for the benefit of the public, and he intends to carry out his statutory responsibility on the basis of a clearly stated policy which he believes will increase public confidence in the way in which the criminal justice system deals with the most serious and violent offenders sentenced by the courts.
337 The noble Earl asked about life sentence prisoners whose cases the joint committee asked to see again before giving a date for the first formal advice. The future handling of the cases of these prisoners was covered in my honourable friend's statement. At the time when the joint committee would have considered the case again, the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if he is available, will be asked for a judicial view on the period of detention necessary to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence. In the light of the views of the judiciary, my right honourable and learned friend will fix a date for the first reference of the case to the local review committee, and this arrangement will apply in every case without exception.
I must deal with the noble Lord, Lord Harris, having been unwittingly discourteous to him in the past. He wished to draw attention to the reconviction prediction score and, in particular, the report of the committee chaired by Mrs. Baring. I think that the material that the noble Lord wants is in paragraph 3 of the report of the Parole Board for 1982; but I can also tell him that the score is at present being revalidated and preliminary reports suggest that it is probably still valid.
It cannot be extended to women, not for reasons of instinct or difference—well, it is a profound difference actually because women do not offend frequently enough to provide a statistical base from which to produce a reliable prediction score. That is why we are not doing it. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, drew as an example to which he wanted me to reply, the driver of a getaway car in a shooting incident and compared him to the person who bludgeons an old couple to death. Surely, the latter deserves as much punishment as the former or more, he said. Indeed, my Lords, he may so deserve.
I am sorry not to have written to the noble Lord already, but I now refer him to column 788 of the Hansard of 30th November, and my right honourable friend has made almost exactly the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Harris. He lists the categories in an Answer that I repeated there, and continues:Other murders outside these categories may merit no less punishment to mark the seriousness of the offence".
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, the point that I was endeavouring to make on the last occasion and today is this—and this is the point 1 should like to put to the noble Lord. Does not what he is now saying make it absolutely clear how unwise it is to fix rigid categories of different types of murderer? There are so many exceptions—and there are other equally compelling cases I can put to him—that it brings considerable doubt on to whether a new approach has a great deal of sense to commend it.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for the courtesy with which he puts his view. It is contrary to ours. What my right honourable and learned friend has done is to state the criteria he will be applying. Had he kept them to himself and merely allowed them to become apparent over the years, it appears that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, would have 338 been satisfied. I think it is better for him to let the public, whom he is protecting, know what he is about.
As to the second example, I certainly agree that indirect violence often can be as damaging as violence to the person; but if it is as terrible as the noble Lord suggests in the cases we are considering, then, surely the Parole Board itself would be likely to mark that in its decision. The noble Lord could leap to his feet and make the same interjection and I would give the same reply; so perhaps we should pass on to my overdue conclusion. I hear the Whips behind me saying, "Hear, hear". When that happens, I get rather worried.
I now return to the noble Earl's Question. I have spoken in more detail about the most recent developments in the system than the earlier ones; but, taken as a whole, I believe that what I have described is a process of steady evolution with a few periods of accelerated change. The process I think has been, generally speaking, a process of improvement. My right honourable friend's announcement has done much both to increase the numbers paroled and to ensure public support for the scheme, without which it cannot survive. Some will now have to wait longer for it and perhaps get very little.
It is not, let me remind the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, the only carrot. One-third of a sentence can be avoided altogether by a prisoner who behaves himself well, simply by remission. I must remind the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, that that is a very important control factor. I hope that those who read the dire predictions of disorder of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, will not forget it. I spoke of a process of improvement. I do not doubt that further improvements lie ahead. Whether they will be large or small, I cannot say, but at least, I do not think that they can come very soon because what we have already done in trying to extend the parole system cannot start for another six months. Then it must be tried and proved, and the public be convinced of its safety, before we move again. I hope that when that time comes we shall again have the enlightened and compassionate advice of the noble Earl and of the rest of your Lordships to assist us.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, the noble Lord, Lord Kagan, asked a question about comparative studies of the Dutch penal system.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend and so is the noble Lord, Lord Kagan—but nobody else, because they want to go home. I await the report as eagerly as the noble Lord does. I expect it about now, but when he asked me for a precise date I found that the office which could have given me that date had closed. Once again I must promise a letter.
§ House adjourned at five minutes before ten o'clock.