HL Deb 21 December 1983 vol 446 cc745-51

12.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Eligibility for Release on Licence Order 1983, which was laid before the House on 1st December 1983, be approved.

This order has been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which did not draw special attention to it. We had the opportunity of discussing the parole system generally on the Unstarred Question asked by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, as recently as a week ago. In that debate I explained that the change in the parole system which the approval of this order would bring about would be one of very considerable significance.

The effect of the order will be to reduce the minimum period of custody which a prisoner must serve before he can be considered for parole from 12 months to six months. The requirement that he must serve one third of his sentence if this is longer than six months will remain unaltered. The statutory background is as follows. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 established the parole scheme and empowered the Secretary of State to release on licence, if recommended so to do by the Parole Board, a person serving a determinate sentence after he had served not less than one third of his sentence or 12 months thereof, whichever expires the later. As a result of the interesting and fruitful debates on the Criminal Justice Act 1982 my noble friend Lord Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, inserted Section 33 in the 1982 Act, empowering the Home Secretary to provide a lower period than 12 months by order, subject to affirmative resolution.

The effect of the present arrangements has been to exclude any prisoner from parole who is not serving a sentence of more than about 19½months. The order will in effect reduce the minimum qualifying sentence for parole to about 101 months. We estimate that inconsequence some 19,000 prisoners a year will be eligible for parole, as against 10,000 at present. 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 paroled each year. This would increase the paroled population from just under 4,000 at present to over 6,000, and would have the very beneficial extra effect of decreasing the prison population by alike amount.

Your Lordships will appreciate that the machinery by which parole cases are reviewed has been carefully developed over a number of years. What we now have is a sophisticated process involving a number of separate components. In each case considered the prison staff have to provide reports on the prisoner's character and conduct. A probation officer from the area to which the prisoner proposes to go on release has to provide an assessment of the arrangements under which he will live there. The local review committee then has to make its own assessment of the case, and this is reviewed by Home Office staff. Only then are suitable cases referred to the Parole Board itself. This machinery may seem rather elaborate, but we believe that it is essential that both the potential risk to the public and the possible benefits to the prisoner should be properly weighed before the case is decided.

Part of that process forms an important part of the protection which the system offers to the public from the commission of further offences. Another element of protection is, of course, provided by the conditions written into each parole licence. These conditions may include requirements such as that the parolee shall meet his supervising probation officer at specified times or live at a particular place or refrain from particular activities. The breach of a condition is sufficient to have him recalled to prison. It is not necessary for him to re-offend.

The risk to the public is generally less for shorter sentences than long ones, and there is, therefore, scope for simplifying the review procedures for cases under two years. In view of the short time available for the process to be completed for prisoners in the new eligible category, we intend to take advantage of this and to develop a process that is at once simpler and more streamlined to deal with them. There is already a presumption in favour of parole in less serious and shorter sentence cases and this will continue to be so. The prime aim of the procedure will, therefore, be to identify the bad parole risk. We shall do so by means of simplified procedures and simplified paper work. We have devised abbreviated report forms for the use of prison staff and a standardised release plan report for use by probation officers. Those cases found acceptable by the local review committee will be dealt with under Section 35 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972. This authorises their release on the recommendation of the local review committee alone, without reference to the Parole Board. It is already in use in respect of all those serving sentences of two years or less, as well as for some others.

My Lords, we have considered the resource implications of these arrangements with care. Some of your Lordships may think, and indeed some of your Lordships have said, that we have exercised too much time and care in considering them; but care was essential. With more than twice the number of prisoners becoming eligible for review, the burden on prison staff, both of providing reports, even in a simplified form, and of administering the scheme, is bound to increase. The probation service in the prisons, and especially in the field, will have an increased number of cases to deal with. Moreover, as every release is the ultimate responsibility of my right honourable friend, the system has to be centrally overseen, and the administrative burden on the Home Office will also be increased. The necessary resources are provided for, and I expect the extra load on both the department and the prison and probation services will be taken up smoothly.

There is one area of the system which needs special mention, and that is the local review committees. They are an essential part of the parole system and in future their role will be even greater. We shall need new members. We estimate that we shall need some 200 new independent members. We have already started to stimulate recruiting, but I should like to say to the House and to any wider audience that I very much hope that many public spirited people from all walks of life. and from both the majority and the minority communities, will come forward for consideration for this important work. Anybody who is interested should get in touch with the governor of the prison or youth custody centre nearest to his or her home. I might add that a youth custody centre may formerly have been known as a borstal, and may in fact still be known as a borstal locally, and that is an appropriate place to which to apply.

My Lords. this is an important measure and it forms an essential part of the Government's strategy for the criminal justice system. In view of our very recent debate on the parole and life licence systems as a whole, I hope your Lordships will think that I have explained it sufficiently, and that you will give it the welcome which I believe it deserves. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 1st December be approved.—(Lord Elton.)

12.37 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for his explanation of the order. He is absolutely right that the whole question of parole was debated very fully in your Lordships' House. I can only say, and I say it very humbly, that I wish that the attendance in the House at that time had been greater and that the hour at which that debate took place could have been earlier, because it was a very important debate, especially having regard to our overcrowded prisons and the great national need to face the figures of crime that are ever before us.

It would be wrong, in my view, to repeat the matters that were raised in that debate when we are considering this particular order. The noble Lord the Minister, I am sure, will have been aware, as he frankly admitted on that occasion, of the concern that was expressed in the House that the whole of our parole system indeed needed some sort of expansion and review in the light of existing circumstances. He also will have noted the apprehension that various Members of your Lordships' House expressed—indeed, on all sides of the House that view seemed to be prevalent. There was considerable foreboding about the changes that seemed to be envisaged in regard to the parole system, when one was considering life sentences in particular.

My Lords, narrowing the discussion to this order, as one can, one receives it with pleasure because it is a move in the right direction. I noted, however, that the noble Lord the Minister was short in words, which is unlike him, when he dealt with the question of the resources that were available to deal with twice the present number of those eligible who would be subject to parole review. He said that this would cast a burden upon many, but certainly upon the probation service, and that this had been taken care of—I am paraphrasing the very short sentence he used in this connection. Would the noble Lord the Minister tell us whether the probation service itself is content with the resources which are now to be available to it in order to deal with this matter?

We rely upon the probation service completely for the success of the parole system and, indeed, for so much in seeing whether one of the elements of punishment, namely, the question of the possibility of redemption, is taken full advantage of in our criminal system. I am sure that we should all like to hear from the Minister some assurance that the probation service has been fully consulted, that its manpower is sufficient and that the conditions in which it works and will now have to work under an increased burden are to its reasonable satisfaction.

Having said that, may I also refer to one other matter mentioned by the Minister. That is the increased numbers that will be required for the local review committees. The noble Lord made an appeal which, from these Benches, I should like to echo: that public spirited citizens who feel that they have a contribution to make should come forward to man these committees. There is a great public duty to be done. There are many people in the community who, if they heard this invitation, would respond to it. So far as I am concerned, on behalf of my noble friends, I support that invitation and hope that it will be taken up.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I should like to give an unreserved welcome to the order. I thought that the noble Lord the Minister looked at me when he spoke of some people saying that the Government had taken rather too long. That is not actually fair. I did not say that in the last debate. I simply said that we had been recommending it for two years. If any of our recommendations get by in two years, we are wholly delighted. Let there be no mistake about that. I have served on a local review committee in my time. I should like to endorse the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. It is one of the most rewarding, human and satisfying forms of public service. I shall do all that I can locally to encourage people to apply. I hope that prisons will advertise in local papers because this is the only way to attract local people. With that. I welcome the order.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I was, unfortunately, not able to be here when your Lordships were discussing the parole system in general the other day or I would have had a few things to say about the Home Secretary's rule by decree in altering the parole system without the authority of Parliament. I echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge and unreservedly welcome the order which was advocated at some length, as the Minister points out, when we were talking about the Criminal Justice Act 1982. We are only pleased that after this lapse of time, which may be longer than some of us would have hoped, the Minister has been able to bring forward an order which, as he says, makes a substantial difference to the prison population and will help to relieve pressures on it.

My noble friend and the noble Lord. Lord Mishcon, echoed what was said by the Minister about local review committees. Obviously, I also hope that members of the public come forward. I warmly welcome the remarks of the Minister about the importance of having the representation of ethnic minorities on the local review committees. But far more has to be done than simply extending an invitation across the Floor of the House to those people to come forward. There has to be an active search within the community for people of the right calibre to come forward. It also has to be explained to them exactly what is the nature of the duties that they will be called upon to undertake.

My noble friend has the advantage of having served on one of these committees. He has first-hand experience. However, when I asked the Minister's predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, whether I could attend a meeting of a local review committee to see how it functioned, I was turned down in no uncertain manner because the noble Lord explained to me that these proceedings were entirely confidential, as if I would go immediately to the Guardian and reveal confidential secrets of what had happened in a particular LRC that I might have observed. I wanted simply to understand what the process was in order that I could better advise the many prisoners who were writing to me, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, is aware, because they found the process deeply and disturbingly mysterious. I still think that if the noble Lord wants to encourage people to join LRCs, he has to explain more about the nature of the work that they undertake.

I was a little concerned, I hope wrongly, when the noble Lord, Lord Elton, spoke of the simplification of procedures in respect of the short term prisoner, and the ways in which the authorities would try to identify the bad parole risk. I wonder whether that means that the parole authorities will depend extensively on the index of re-convictions which, as the noble Lord will recall, we have had some correspondence about in the past and which has not been validated by more recent studies of prisoners who have been granted parole to see whether it is still a reliable indicator of the propensity to offend again.

I fear that, with the pressure on the resources, there will be an inclination to depend more on some mechanical calculation of the statistical probabilities of offending again which may not be updated sufficiently with information about the actual experience of prisoners who have been released. It may therefore become unreliable. The Minister said that the objective, in the absolute, was the protection of the public from the commission of further offences. I think that he will agree with me, on reflection, that it is almost impossible to undertake to the public that the parole system can do that. It can aim at doing so. It certainly aims at releasing those whose propensity to offend again is less. But the Home Office itself, in the excellent document of its research unit, entitled Taking Offenders out of Circulation, showed the difficulty of predicting the likelihood of a person offending again. This is not a science.

The results achieved so far in anticipating human behaviour leave a great deal to be desired. It is not a way of guaranteeing to the public that someone examined by the parole authorities and released accordingly will be less likely to offend again than someone who is kept in prison. In the nature of things you can never be certain of that. It would be wrong to mislead the public into thinking that all those to be released as a result of the scheme will be angels and will refrain from committing further offences.

These are minor criticisms. I want to echo what has been said and to express wholehearted thanks to the Minister for bringing forward the order, and for helping in a small way to relieve the pressure on the prison population.

12.48 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this short debate. I should like to deal briefly with the substantive points that have been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked about finance and chivied me for being briefer than usual in terms which makes me feel that sometimes I speak perhaps at too great a length. I take advantage of his invitation. We estimate in broad terms that the cost of reducing the minimum qualifying period from 12 months to six months is some £2.25 million a year. The staffing costs in prisons and the Home Office will be some £1.8 million, and for the probation service some £1.2 million. This is offset in part by savings on victualling prisoners paroled, estimated at some £750,000. It is estimated that throughout the prison system, another 40 clerical officers will be needed at a cost of some £500,000, and in the parole unit, 24 more staff in junior and administrative grades, at a cost of £300,000.

It is more difficult to estimate what increase, if any, will be necessary in the operational staff in prisons since writing parole reports will be only a small part of their day to day duties of supervising prisoners. The reports on prisoners serving a shorter sentence will not be as full as those required at present. It is expected that the cost in increased operational staff will be about£1 million but it may prove to be less. It is estimated that the reduction of the minimum qualifying period will also involve employment of another 11 probation officers in prisons and 69 in the community for preparing the release plans, submitting reports and of course supervising parolees. The total cost in probation staff is likely to be around £1.2 million. As your Lordships know, 80 per cent. of the cost of the probation service is funded directly by Home Office grant. We have consulted carefully with the Association of Chief Officers of Probation and probation committees throughout, and I am not aware that they are uncontented about this. Because the cost is marginal, I neglected to mention the fact that a number of probation auxiliaries will be recruited as well.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, this time the Minister has not been short on words but he has been somewhat ambiguous. He stated that he was not aware that the association was uncontented. Could he be rather more positive? Is the association content?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the noble Lord places me in an awful dilemma. Whatever I say will colour the impression in one direction or another. The fact is that we have consulted both the Association of Chief Officers of Probation and probation committees throughout this exercise. I am not in receipt of complaint from them that they are discontented with this. That sounds as if I am covering up some seething discontent which I know is going on next door but which they have not written to me about. What I am trying to say is something more neutral than that.

I should like to thank all noble Lords who have supported the efforts of the local review committees. If necessary, we shall advertise in the newspapers, although in some prisons I understand that the scheme is going rather well without advertisement. The local review committees will not be aware of the reconviction prediction score, although I understand that it has now been revalidated.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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