HL Deb 04 November 1986 vol 481 cc1057-95

5.24 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether it is not time that the principles on which parole is granted or refused should be clarified.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question standing in my name. I am particularly happy to think that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, will reply to it. When I first entered this House 40 years ago there were giants on the Opposition Front Bench. There are giants there today of course, if perhaps not so many this evening. But there were giants then and there are giants now. I am thinking in particular of the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, and the grandfather of the noble Earl, Lord Swinton.

The noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, as some old-timers will remember, rendered unique services to this House and, incidentally, was immensely kind to me. However, he could not suppress the grandfather of the present noble Lord. On one occasion when there was a dispute over the American loan, the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, was rash enough to say about the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, who was sitting beside him. "Fortunately for him, the noble Lord is well endowed with this world's goods"; and the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, in an accent that I shall not try to reproduce, was heard to mutter, "I thought the House of Salisbury was pretty well off". The Conservatives did not consider that to be very good form, and for one reason or another the grandfather of the noble Lord did not come back very often. I always assumed that he had been frozen out. At any rate, he was a great figure and I am sure that as he looks down from wherever good Presbyterians go, he is happy to see that his grandson is handling this debate tonight.

Six years ago—indeed, three years ago also, to go no further back—I opened a debate on the working of the parole system. I expressed then a profound dissatisfaction, which I still feel at least as strongly, and I described myself as an unrepentant supporter of the principle of parole. I suppose in a way I had a psychological vested interest. I have one still. I was chairman of the Labour Party committee which reported in 1963–64 on the prevention and treatment of crime. We were the first body to recommend parole. Six members of that committee held office in the Labour Government that followed, including the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General. I am not sure who suggested parole, but I am ready to give the credit to the noble and learned Lords, Lord Gardiner and Lord Elwyn-Jones, or to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, or indeed to someone else. At any rate, parole was suggested and parole was carried into law by the subsequent Labour Government. I still feel that that was something of which to be proud.

The whole history of parole would take far too long to recite now, but what the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who will take part in this debate, has described as "the most profound change in parole policy since the parole system was introduced" took place in 1983. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, and other noble Lords spoke in scathing fashion about those changes. It may well be that he will repeat those denunciations tonight. Certainly I joined him then and I join him this evening, but tonight I shall approach matters rather differently and from what I call a more interrogative angle—not in an academic spirit and, if I may say so to the noble Lord, not in a particularly kindly spirit. I am sorry about that. The unkindness is not directed at him but at those who guide the Government's policies.

I must begin by asking why we want a parole system at all. The report of the Parole Board for 1984, which was the first year after the regrettable reforms mentioned earlier, began with the statement: The Parole Board wishes to put on record that the principal concern in all its deliberations is the protection of the public". That is a shift of emphasis, shall we say? No one can deny that the protection of the public is, as it always has been, of the utmost importance. However, when parole was first introduced it was intended as a measure which would humanise the penal system. It was not regarded as a measure to protect the public, though it was of course introduced especially with that consideration in mind. However, as time has gone on certain themes have emerged and I am exploring one element of those themes tonight; namely, that there has been a shift. The idea that the parole system is intended to make our penal system more humane seems rather to have been lost sight of.

I always believed, and still believe, that the supreme value of the parole system is that it holds out a moral inducement to prisoners to improve their characters. Another argument for parole which I do not underestimate about which we hear a great deal now is that it provides a measure of supervision for prisoners before they secure their final release from their sentence. They come out of prison and they are under supervision for a while. However, I am sure that parole would never have been introduced for that reason. Its primary reason was to give prisoners hope while in prison to lead them to improve their behaviour and ultimately their character.

In recent years another argument for parole has loomed much larger than when it was first suggested. We have seen the gross overcrowding of our prisons. It is now very much worse than it was 20 years ago when parole was introduced. That gross overcrowding has led many people to favour parole as a way of cutting the numbers in prison. That is an entirely laudable object, which I support strongly, but it was not the original object in introducing parole.

Between 1980 and 1981, the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, attempted to persuade the judges to reduce sentences. According to those who examine these matters statistically, there was some reduction in the length of sentences. There would have been a steady fall in the prison population if the noble Viscount had had his way. Unfortunately, he went to the 1981 Conservative conference and received what can only be called the "bird". After that, the poor man had to abandon his role as a penal reformer. He did not become an anti-penal reformer, which was the role adopted by his successor. The noble Viscount had a bad time.

Party conferences can be awkward. I do not say that is true only of Conservative or Liberal conferences. I do not know about the SDP. Even the Labour Party has had its troubles in the past and more recently. The Conservative Party has trouble with law and order debates. I wish the present Home Secretary, the much respected Mr. Hurd. nothing but good; but I was pleased to see that he was the only Minister who did not receive a standing ovation. I am sure that on the last day that will be counted as righteousness. When they say to him, "Well, did you do much good down there?" He will be able to say, "I refused to pander to the conference. I was the only one who did not receive a standing ovation." However that was something of a divergence. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, many standing ovations in the course of his life but not one at the Conservative conference. I hope that that is a charitable wish. An attempt to reduce the prison population was made by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. His successor reversed the policy. The present Home Secretary is holding the line with difficulty.

For a dispassionate and thoroughly expert discussion of the parole system, I turn—and I respectfully advise others to turn—to a learned book by Professor Nigel Walker called, Sentencing: Theory, Law and Practice, which was published in 1985. That is to say, it was published after the introduction of the sad reforms that I mentioned earlier.

In a six-page appendix, Professor Walker sets out the Parole Board's revised criteria for ordinary parole as confirmed at its annual meeting on 27th February 1984, again, as I said, after the reforms that I mentioned. There is one aspect only upon which I have time to concentrate. I shall give one quotation from Professor Walker. I have given the noble Lord the opportunity to see this in advance. The quotation from Professor Walker will make my point clear: It is clear that likelihood of reconviction is not always the foremost consideration. The Parole Board has taken the view that it may properly make its own assessment of whether the time served has been sufficient penalty for the crime committed. That is Professor Walker's interpretation of the Parole Board. He continued: the parole scheme requires the general support of public opinion and this must be an element in the Board's consideration of the particular case". Professor Walker then said: The sincerity"— of this argument— is slightly doubtful because the appeal to public opinion is always a sign that what one has in mind is not genuine justice but voters' justice. That is what in my crude way I would call mob rule, but those are my words and not Professor Walker's. He points out that we must accept that the Parole Board regards the retributive factor—a decision as to whether a person deserves to be in prison for so long—as something which may take precedence over everything else. Another important factor is what the public will say, and whether the Parole Board's credibility will be damaged if it makes an unpopular decision. In other words, the Parole Board occasionally feels it necessary to pander to public opinion.

When we talk of the public's attitude to prisoners in general or any particular prisoner, we cannot overlook the disgraceful exploitation of public anxieties by the tabloid press. I cannot believe that there is anyone in the House who is not disgusted by the way many of the tabloid newspapers treat such matters from time to time. They set out deliberately to exploit understandable public fears and stir up hatred against prisoners. We talk about public opinion—what the man in the public house would say if you went up to him. He would probably say what a taxi driver said to me the other day when I asked him how to treat prisoners. He said, "Hang the bastards". That approach is Satanic but many of the tabloids do their best to stir up that reaction.

Does the Minister consider that the Parole Board, under present arrangements, is in any way qualified to pass a verdict which dominates a prisoner's whole life? I say that in the presence of the Chairman of the Parole Board. He knows of my high regard for him, and he knows that I disapprove of some of the steps that he has taken.

The Parole Board is a quango of quangos. It is far removed from any kind of judicial body. The prisoner is not represented before it by lawyers and is not seen by it. The Parole Board relies on massive reports and, among other factors, on elaborate computerised calculations. I said "among other factors" because the Parole Board occasionally seems to be influenced by political considerations in general or in a particular case.

If there were time I should like to dwell on how the Parole Board can operate. I do not say that it does so every time. I shall give an example of a life prisoner, although I realise that we are talking about release on licence. If I am allowed to proceed, the House will see that I am making a general point. A prisoner who had served 20 years and who, for many years was accepted as not being dangerous at last, under the machinery provided, went before a local review committee. It was the first time that this particular prisoner had been considered by an independent body. As usual, expert knowledge was supplied by the governor of the prison who sat on the board. The prisoner was recommended for parole and was indeed congratulated by the chairman of the committee for the manner in which he had spent his years in prison. The prisoner then came before the parole Board, which knew nothing whatever of him at first hand.

In its wisdon, or lack of it, the Parole Board not only decided to refuse parole, not even to treat it as a doubtful case, but announced that it would be another five years before the prisoner, passed by the local review committee, could be considered for parole. That is a brutal and indefensible decision that I can only put down to political influence. I hope that the Minister will not say that this example concerns a life prisoner and that the situation is different in regard to those serving determinate sentences. The question that I raise is the same in each case. Is the Parole Board going to be governed by considerations of risk as to whether it is dangerous to let such a person out? Or are these other mysterious factors allowed to come in?

A number of noble Lords have strongly expressed the view in the past that the Parole Board should give reasons for refusing parole. I side with anyone who says that reasons should he given. We shall perhaps hear that view again tonight. I shall not, however, return to the subject myself at this time. In my estimation, much is hidden from us. It may be argued that in using the words "my estimation", I do not know what I am talking about. I have nevertheless been watching the situation for a long time and I have seen the impact on many lives. I can at any rate only give my own estimation. In my estimation, one reason why the Parole Board is so anxious not to give reasons for refusing parole is that in some cases they are reasons that it would not care to disclose. It does not want to come into the open. It has never said that a person is not being given parole because public opinion would not like it. That may be the reason, but it does not give that reason. It does not want to do so. That is one explanation why reasons are withheld. No doubt, however, that is not the only element in its attitude.

It is now 18 years since parole was brought into operation. It is time to take a look at it and to set aside the smokescreen around the principles that govern it. I sum up my remarks with some questions of which the noble Lord has had notice. Is it or is it not the case that the Parole Board today accepts a role of deciding whether a man deserves to be sentenced for a certain period of time, in view of the original crime, whatever is likely to be his behaviour on release? Cannot this fairly be described, as it often is by commentators, as resentencing? In any particular case does the Parole Board weigh up the possible effect of release on its credibility with the public? In other words, does it take into account its own popularity or unpopularity in trying to decide whether a particular man should be released? Finally, does the Parole Board take into account the views of the government of the day in reaching its conclusion about a particular prisoner?

Whether or not those questions receive an answer today—the noble Lord and, through him, the Government have had plenty of notice of them—they will not run away. They will always be in the minds of people, particularly those who see the suffering inflicted by some verdicts. An important book described by Adrian Speller as A Christian Critique of Criminal Justice, with a foreword by the Archbishop of Canterbury, reaches this conclusion: A quite different rationale for parole is now needed or its replacement by a fairer system for early release". There is a great deal of force in those words.

Before closing, I should like to put my thoughts into a wider perspective. These are hard times for penal reformers. I am glad that the Prison Officers' Association has, in my view, come out strongly as a penal reformer. So the cause of penal reform is not dead. But it is struggling. At a time of immense increase in crime, public hostility, whipped up by the press, will make it always very hard to do what enlightened people know is the right thing.

There has been much progress in thought about prisoners and crime. But today there is a bigger gap than ever between enlightened and unenlightened opinion in regard to crime, punishment and prisoners. I hope and pray that the noble Lord and, through him, the Government will always take the enlightened side.

5.46 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, it is, as usual, a privilege to follow the noble Earl, Lord Longford, especially on what may perhaps be described as his hobby-horse. It is born of his great interest not only in the prison service and the work of the Parole Board but also those within our prisons. I congratulate the noble Earl on being a member of the government, as he told us, that introduced the parole system. That system has been extremely effective and helpful. I congratulate the noble Earl on the part that he played at that time.

I should also like to welcome the chairman of the Parole Board. It is a very arduous job, as I think I am in a position to know. It is a privilege to have the chairman with us. I should perhaps declare an interest, not a present interest but a past interest, having been, perhaps for my sins—I cannot think of any other reason—for 25 years a magistrate, chairman of a juvenile court at Tottenham, sitting also in the adult court and in Crown courts. I was then invited to be a member of the Parole Board for the statutory three years, following which I was asked whether I would stay on for a further year. I have therefore had experience on what I might describe as the other side of the bench from all those noble Lords, I believe, taking part in the debate. This does not mean that my interest in helping the magistracy, the judges and everyone trying to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty is any less than theirs.

This evening I understand, we are asked to redefine the principles on which the Parole Board comes to conclusions. As the noble Earl has so rightly and aptly said, we door did in my day four years ago—keep in mind first the protection of the public. The second consideration is to minimise the risk of reoffending. The third was to ask ourselves whether a man could complete his period on licence without reoffending. Those were the principles—apart from consideration of the man as a person—that we took into consideration and that guided most of our decisions. I believe in fact that these principles were part of the Parole Board set-up at its inception 18 years ago.

The task of the members of the board, of whom there are now 55, is one of the most difficult in the country. The board has responsibility not only to the public but to the prisoner. The qualifications of the members of the board are very wide indeed if one studies, as I am sure all noble Lords will have done, the report of the Parole Board.

There are now eight members of the judiciary, eight psychiatrists, probation officers who are nearly always heads of their areas, magistrates, and other people all of whom, if one reads their CVs, have great knowledge in depth of people and the way they behave. They are giving of their services. I have not dared to ask how much the financial reward has gone up but I doubt very much whether it has increased by more than a pittance. I think that we received expenses but not very much more. It is very hard work indeed. If any noble Lord asks any of the judges who sit on the Parole Board whether they are willing to continue for more than the two year period for judges they say, "It is such hard work that I shall he glad to get to the end of it." However they each say how interesting the work is. Each case is separate and different; each case is considered on its merits.

Perhaps I may, give your Lordships figures from four years ago, although times have changed and the figures also. In 1982 the Board considered about 5,000 cases including the determinate and life sentence prisoners and the recalls. But in 1985, as the noble Earl has told us, it had jumped to 8,500 cases being considered by a panel from those 55 people. In 1986 I am reliably informed that it is likely to reach 10,000. However in 1985—the year of this latest report—23,477 cases of prisoners serving determinate sentences were eligible for parole. I submit that that is a very great number out of the present prison population. Of that number, 565 refused to be considered for parole.

Noble Lords will know that the parole system starts with a local review committee. There is such a committee in every prison in our country. The committee consists of people who are hand picked but who give a very great deal of their time to what is a very hard job and I should like to pay tribute to all that they do. In 1985 they considered 22,912 cases which were able to be examined. Of those, 14,886 were found suitable to send forward to the Parole Board, and 8,026 were unsuitable. As noble Lords will know, one member of each LRC interviews the prisoner. Noble Lords will also know that the Parole Board members do not have the opportunity of seeing the prisoners. Whether that is right/correct I still do not know. For 25 years I had been so used to seeing a defendant across the court that it was very difficult simply to read about him and never to see the face of a man in prison. However, I was very reliably told—and in the end I agreed—that it was not possible to interview every single prisoner in the 28 cases that we dealt with at every Parole Board which sat four to five years ago.

The Parole Board are given papers which we have to study. I say "have to" because there is a certain feeling that, "If you make a mistake, then I shall pull you down." There is a certain amount of competition to present one's case as well as possible in the light of the very hard work involved. Every time I sat on the Parole Board I used to spend the whole of the previous weekend with hardly any food. However, the papers that we are given are in very great depth. That is why in the end I came to the conclusion that it was not absolutely necessary for us to see the prisoners themselves.

The papers are from prison officials—the assistant governor, medical officers of all kinds, prison welfare officers—and local probation officers who are not in the prison but who visit the homes. It is very important indeed that the homes should be visited. If only the wives of prisoners realised how important they are to the welfare and perhaps the happiness of the prisoners then I think that they would stand by them to a greater extent than some now do.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness for one moment? Will the noble Baroness tell us whether the local review committee has information which then goes to the Parole Board? Does the central board—the Parole Board—have further information which is not at the disposal of the local review committee?

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I do not think that I can say this categorically, never having been a member of the local review committee. My information is that the Parole Board have the papers that are brought before us by people within the prison because they obviously have more up-to-date knowledge than the people on the local review committee can possibly have. So far as I know, all the papers are gathered by the prison officials in which the prisoners are serving. I think that information is correct.

The papers that are given to the members of the Parole Board in my view are adequate. Whether the decisions made by four, or sometimes five, good men and women true are always correct is of course open to argument. But the fact that so few prisoners come before us again on recall I think speaks very well for itself. In 1985, 803 prisoners—224 serving less than two years, 579 serving two years and over—had their recall licence revoked, either because they had failed to meet the requirements of the Parole Board, which are written down, or that they had reoffended. That meant either that the licence was revoked, or in some cases that the Parole Board said they would be all right, gave them another chance and sent them back on their own parole.

The recent legislation has made it possible for more offenders to receive a suspended sentence or, if committed to prison, to serve their sentence with parole often granted earlier. However, release on parole means that they are still liable to recall. I think that this should be emphasised more than it is. Therefore, until parole is finished, they could be—they are not always—brought back to prison. It depends on the misdemeanour.

This is a very interesting debate. I have been interested in all parts of law and order in this country for many years. I feel tonight that I know very little about the subject so I am looking forward to hearing the other speakers.

6.1 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I should like to begin by saying how nice it is to have a new face opposite us. We are a gang of penal reformers who come pretty regularly, and to have our average age reduced to something well under 60 is very nice for all of us. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, and I hope that he will enjoy the good-tempered but extremely serious discussions that we have from time to time, at which, I may say, we get attendance from almost all of us except Her Majesty's judges, which is a pity. I want to put that on record.

I wish to give one piece of old man's advice to a newcomer. The noble Lord will find that his advisers are excellent. They are good, straight, honest, caring, agreeable, hardworking and admirable people. There is of course a "but", which is that they very much prefer saying no to yes; so the noble Lord should watch out for that because to get anything done through the Home Office, almost always for the best reason, is very nearly impossible.

Having said that, I must now say that I am grateful to my noble friend for raising this matter. He is, in a spiritual sense, so to speak, my godfather in penal reform. He pitched me into it fairly hard about 30 years ago, and I have been trying to swim ever since. It does not mean that I agree with him either always or tonight.

I thought that his speech was so critical of the Parole Board that he failed to convey the admiration that I know he feels for its remarkable achievements over the past 20 years. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, quoted some figures. I have figures that are not exactly the same, and which I will not quote. However, I hope that the noble Lord, in answering, will be able to tell us the failure rate over two or three fears of people who are recalled from parole. The noble Baroness gave some figures, though they are always changing. They consist, so far as I remember, of about 10 per cent. after two years, of which 5 per cent. only recommitted offences, nearly all of which were trivial offences. Perhaps the noble Lord can confirm that. I really think that the noble Earl cannot feel very doubtful about the value of the Parole Board, even though there may be certain things in it to which he objects.

Things have changed a good deal since my right honourable friend Roy Jenkins introduced parole, post if not propter the suggestions of the noble Earl, in the Criminal Justice Act 1967. Then it was thought that after a certain time prison, which was expected to do some good, ceased to work very well and there might come an ideal moment when men could be released safely. Nowadays nobody thinks that prison does any good at all. I have yet to meet anyone who has studied the subject who does, beyond the fact that it acts as a retributive punishment which society still demands, I think with reason. It acts as an example to colleagues. As long as the man is shut up, he cannot hurt anyone. It also gives some kind of satisfaction to the slightly vengeful attitude of the public, who are determined that crime should not go free. That is what prison does today.

We nowadays think that, as prison does more harm than good, if there is ever a moment when a man should be let out without further danger to the public, this is a moment to seize. If prison, however necessary it is, does do harm of this kind—after all, it separates a man from his family; it stops his income; it associates him entirely with people who are also in trouble and one way and another, I think, it can do a great deal of harm—the sooner one can get him out, the better. That is the main point.

The very, existence of parole gives a man hope in prison, and hope is an important issue. Quite apart from that, it gets a very large number of people out of a bad condition and into a better condition. This seems to me something that we can all he entirely satisfied with, proud of and glad to help. It did not altogether suit the judiciary when it was first brought in, hut I think that, after 18 years, the judiciary is fairly solidly behind it. I think that the general principles of parole should appeal to the noble Lord almost as much as they do to the judiciary, and I hope that in due time he will feel better about it.

There are two additional reasons beyond the fact that it gets people out of prison, which in itself is very important. The first is that they are given supervision—and I regret that I cannot now remember the second. It is very important for parole to be earned. If a man wants to earn parole, he must behave properly to prison officers. That means that the prison officers tend to behave properly to him, which may lead to better things. Later on, after he comes out, it could even lead him to think that it may be just as good to try to live a conforming life as an unconforming one.

As a result of parole, as we have seen on my figures—and the noble Lord who is to answer will confirm them—there is a reoffending rate of about 5 per cent. The reoffending rate of the average male prisoner is, I understand, 58 per cent. Therefore the Parole Board, which takes so much trouble, is achieving a most extraordinary and most satisfactory result because, whereas the average rate for reoffending is 58 per cent., average in the case of parole is something like 5 per cent. This is very convincing.

I wonder what the objections are. We can all agree that the main consideration must be the considered judgment that the subject under discussion is unlikely to offend again if released. There can never be certainty over this judgment, which is why the parole system is slow and cumbersome, involving local and central committees. I too have sat on a local committee. My view is that the local committee has before it almost exactly what the Parole Board has before it. No doubt the Minister will clear this matter up. There is also the computerised categorisation of certain factors that tends to suggest more or less likelihood of offending, which I think is very important.

This is where we come to the rub. The board has always considered it a duty also to take into account the seriousness of the offence. It has always been more reluctant, and certainly slower, to recommend parole in cases of physical violence, rape and suchlike, considering that, even if the prognosis over reoffending was good, it must be very careful not to inflame the potential backlash from sections of the public that are bent on vengeance and despise mercy in such cases. This is really the centre of the noble Earl's complaints. The noble Earl thinks—and he will correct me if I am wrong—that the Board should have a duty to recommend parole where the prognosis as to reoffending is good, irrespective of the heinousness of the crime.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt. The heinousness of the crime would be part of a man's record and would obviously be a factor in trying to weigh up the chance of reoffending. However, the idea that they should actually say that this man deserves to be in prison because of what he has done, as distinct from dangerousness, was never part of the original conception as I understood it, or as it has been explained to me in these debates over many years.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I do not think that we are very far apart on that particular point. The noble Earl complains, and he has just more or less done so, with some reason that for an arbitrarily appointed board to make judicial judgments as to the length of punishment deserved by one kind of crime as opposed to another, is to usurp the function of the courts.

Ideally, the proper course would be for the judge who gave the original sentence to review every case at the time of eligibility for parole, and make his own decision. However, administratively this would be impossible. Instead, the Board, very carefully chosen and always containing one or more practising or retired judges, is given this duty. From the prisoner's point of view he is at least as likely to get parole from such a body as from the judge who sentenced him in the first place.

I really do not see what more can be done, if you agree that that must be taken into account. If you do not agree, and think that somebody who throws acid at a girl that he has been jilted by, and ruins her face for life, gets a 10 year sentence and can be released on parole after three and a third years because the prognosis is good, then I think that this is an unrealistic view. I do not think the public would tolerate the worst kind of crime being treated as well as that. I think the public keep a very careful eye on how lax and how gentle the sentences are that are passed on people who commit violence. I do not think it is any good pretending this is not the case. Whether the personal view of the noble Earl, or the Chairman of the Parole Board or the noble Baroness or myself is this, that or the other, in the end the laws of England follow the public and the public view. If they go further than that, they change. I really believe that we have got to accept this.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who was first Chairman of the Parole Board, confirmed that from their earliest days the Parole Board has always thought that it had a duty to take into account the seriousness of the offence. The noble Lord would have told your Lordships' himself this afternoon but he has just had an operation—successful, I am glad to say. I am sure all in your Lordships' House will join me in wishing him a lazy and delightful convalescence. His successor as Chairman of the Parole Board, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has checked with him and will pass onto your Lordships the views of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, on the Question.

In my own mind, I am clear that crimes of violence are in a different category from crimes against property. It would be a very long philosophical discussion to decide just how different. I would be prepared to enter into that discussion on another day.

I think that it is right that the Board should continue to take into account the seriousness of the crime in their selection of suitable candidates for parole. The point really is that parole is a bonus and not a right. There are suggestions that parole should be changed in various ways. My noble friend Lord Hutchinson is going to put forward one way which we have considered in our Committee. I shall not go into that now. I think it is something which should be fully supported by us all.

Perhaps I may conclude by saying that the good achieved by the Parole Board is obvious and continuous. The criticisms of the noble Earl are based on individual cases where there will always be differences of opinion. I reject his objection on principle to the board's taking into account the seriousness of the offence. I am certain somebody has to do this and any change might be for the worse. However, the fact is that he wants to see the Parole Board do more, not less. Therefore, we can still regard him as one of its convinced supporters.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for raising this subject with us once again. If anyone has earned the right to speak to us on this subject, by his long sympathy and involvement with all concerned, both criminal and victims, the noble Earl has earned that right.

We are sorry that this evening we are not going to hear the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, who is no doubt embargoed by the MacNaghten Rules—or is it Lord Addison? I knew insanity came into it somewhere. Tonight I am joining the select band which, as the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, come up from time to time in the same order in the same debates. Although I have spoken on this subject before in your Lordships' House, I do not normally do so. I put my name down this evening partly because I had a brief from the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility when it was expected that no bishop would be present. I am now rather abashed to be here when there is a bishop sitting on the Bishops' Benches. I am delighted that the right reverend Prelate is here, and I hasten to assure him and your Lordships' House that I do not speak in any way on behalf of the Church of England. However, I have been briefed and have been given a certain amount of background knowledge by the Board of Social Responsibility, for which I am grateful.

This evening, during the speeches we have heard of the various reasons which the Parole Board takes into consideration, and which are set out in the accounts of its work. The protection of the public always seems to head the list, whereas it should be an overriding presumption rather than one of a list, and certainly rather than the first of a list of aims of the board.

Among these reasons, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, talked about the need for an inducement to reform, as did other noble Lords. That is the keynote of the work of the Parole Board. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, spoke of the value of prisoners conforming and the effect that this has on the prison staff, which was a very good point. Also, a point which we should never lose track of is the value of hypocrisy, as Oscar Wilde pointed out in that wonderful short story of his where a man wears a virtuous mask for so long that his face grows to fit it. If you act as if certain things were good for long enough, your motives behind the mask will almost certainly change in the course of proceedings.

One of the many worrying things is that during the history of the Parole Board there has been pressure on the whole system, not just on the Parole Board itself but on the whole legal system, to make changes, mainly because the pressure of numbers inside our prisons is becoming intolerable. Obviously if the pressure becomes intolerable then we have to do something, but one of the things that should be done is quite clearly to spend more money on our prison system, and not to regard it as one of those subjects which must be swept under the carpet and upon which no government can defend the necessary expenditure. I am delighted that this Government at any rate have expressed their willingness to proceed a certain length along this path of absolutely necessary reform.

It seems to me that the Church also has a particular job to do in this field. We are told by the Gospel that it is our job to visit those in prison. Visiting those in prison, which is an injunction taken most seriously by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is a difficult task and an unpopular one. The idea has been muddled to some extent by Amnesty. I would not wish to say a single word against that organisation, which does such wonderful work, but there is one unfortunate side effect, which is that we now have reached a stage when men and women of good will tend to think that their responsibilities under this heading are discharged by care and help only for those who do not deserve to be in prison.

The Christian ethic is entirely different. The Christian ethic says that those people should be cared for but also says that those who deserve to be in prison should be cared for too. It seems to me that we have to carry out a job of public education to make this effective.

I live in a parish which in living memory, though not in my time, has had a public row about a remand home being sited there. The good people of the parish raised a frightful stink about a remand home being located among them, saying that it would lower the value of their houses and otherwise bring down the neighbourhood, and make it into a den of vice and crime; so much so that the councillors who were deemed to be responsible were, against all odds. turned out at the next election and it was some time before they got back in again. I am delighted to say that one of them is now my churchwarden.

I am not saying that Christians in the parishes are not among these people who protest and who fight in this kind of way. They are, and it is a great pity. However, it is very important that the Church should be seen and Christians should be seen—whether as members of the Church or as distinctly working anonymously in lay life—to be on the side of compassion and reform. The lead must be given.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked the Government three questions. One was what their attitude was towards the Parole Board taking on a quasi-judicial role. Here I take the side that is implied in the question which the noble Earl asked. However, the next two questions that he asked were whether the Parole Board took the unpopularity of its actions with the general public and the views of the Government into consideration. Here I have reservations about the point which I imagine the noble Earl was implying. I think, as has since been said by other speakers, that the Parole Board has a duty to take public opinion into account. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, in the last resort the enforcement of law and order lies in the will of the public at large. However, the Church and all men of good will have a duty to carry out a job of education on all of us who are legislators, and incidentally all who are journalists on the tabloid papers. The latter often raise dreadful campaigns about individual people without knowing sufficient of the facts about the individual and quite often without caring as long as it makes the headlines. Such a job of education on the public will enable the Parole Board to take those steps which, for other reasons, it thinks it ought to take. We must move the whole of the penal and parole system that way.

Lastly, very briefly, and most importantly, it has not been mentioned very much—it has just been touched on but I think it ought to he underlined once, twice and again—that this debate is occurring within a penal system which makes no sense and which has been starved of money. No one really knows the purposes of many of the penalties, and whether or not crimes could be dealt with in other ways. It is not until some government—and let us hope again that they are stimulated by informed public opinion—take the whole of that problem by the scruff of the neck and ensure that the penal system is reformed that we shall be able to take steps to see that this particular part of the system also works properly.

6.26 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, I should also like to express my gratitude to the noble Earl for initiating this debate because the question that he raises, as is so often the case with the questions he raises, goes straight to the very centre of the parole process. It gives rise to many issues, many of which we have debated here over the years and many of which have already been raised in this debate tonight. They are: Are the criteria right? Are they clear? If so, why cannot the LRCs and the Parole Board spell them out where there is a refusal, and spell out the criteria which have not been met? If they can do that, why cannot that information be conveyed to the prisoner? Are the criteria so clear that they can be applied consistently throughout the country by all the LRCs? Do these discretionary decisions lead to disparity and so cause prisoners to believe that the grant of parole is arbitrary or irrational? Is the quality of those who serve on the LRCs such that they exhibit a robust independence, or does the governor or the assistant governor of the prison wield too much influence on their recommendations? Those are the sort of questions to which I suggest the Parole Board should he constantly addressing itself.

I am much relieved to know that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is not subject to the McNaghten Rules, because if he did not know the nature and quality of his decisions, or, if he did know them, he did not know that they were right, and our debate would have to be very much longer tonight. However, with some apprehension I say that sometimes on reading the somewhat anodyne Parole Board reports one senses a slight air of complacency—a profile so low as to be almost invisible, and the open and questing approach in the days of my noble friend Lord Hunt and later, in the days of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has largely gone.

Although I may make some critical observations in what I have to say, as the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, has already said, I should like to pay a sincere tribute to those who give so much of their dedicated time to working on the board, and particularly to working on the LRCs. They have coped with the Section 33 cases, as they are called—the flood of cases which have come in as a result of lowering the threshold to six months—in a quite remarkable way. In round figures there were 11,000 cases considered in this area; 8,500 recommended, and almost all those paroled without any further consideration by the board. Under 3 per cent. recalled for reoffending. That is a remarkable achievement.

I agree with the noble Earl in his unease about the proclaimed predominant concern of the board being the protection of the public, as it is put in the latest report in 1985. If this means the public interest, then of course it is self-evident: early release, supervision, less likelihood of reoffending, reduction of overcrowding, must be in the public interest. But if, however, it means that the board has embraced the philosophy of this particular Government, then the fear expressed by many at the inception of the parole idea that a parole board might so easily become a mere arm of the Home Office will in fact have been realised.

The parole system at its inception was heralded quite differently by Roy Jenkins as, A significant contribution to the reform of the criminal law. A milestone in social reform. A new measure of treatment of offenders. It was regarded as a continuation of the custodial situation by other means.

The Leon Brittan alterations—the removal of the board's discretion in the excluded offences—and the destruction of the joint committee of the probation board and the Home Office, were accepted by the board without demur, and that acceptance that so shocked my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Harris and many others of us was, I fear now, an example of the board's "predominant concern". At a stroke the board's criteria in regard to this first band of serious offences became overnight broadly irrelevant. They may only be applied, in wholly exceptional circumstances and with the most compelling reasons"— that is, compelling upon one man, the Secretary of State. To the prisoner they are quite meaningless.

In the statement of the Parole Board of 27th February 1984, in which is set out the present criteria, the board says, rather pathetically, In these cases there is a strong presumption against parole". If one looks closely at the report, out of 990 such cases it appears that the board managed to convince the Home Secretary in the huge number of 13.

We have come a long way from 1968 when the board, in its report, said: The type of crime ought not to override all consideration of the offender as an individual. Later: No category, of crime excludes a prisoner altogether from consideration for parole. That was reversed by those reforms, so called.

Therefore we are left with four other categories of offender as set out in this 1984 statement on criteria. The statement sets out the six matters to he addressed when considering parole, and these six are all unexceptionable. Apart from the Leon Brittan exceptions I see nothing in those categories about the seriousness of the offence and the amount of time that should be served. With all respect to the noble Earl's reference to the quote from Professor Walker, the person's record, behaviour in prison, the medical background, the home circumstances and the supervision prospects clearly are matters which should be considered. It is in the guidelines that follow those six requirements that the application of the criteria seems to lie. It is here that I should have thought that clarification is certainly required in certain areas.

The first category is "grave offences outside the Brittan exceptions". Seriousness of the offence is referred to only in the context of the reoffending. That is the danger that any new offence would be of a similar kind to the original one, and therefore a grave offence. The board refers, sensibly in my view, to the carefully calculated risk of balancing this danger against the fact that parole under supervision may diminish that very risk itself. Safety, it is pointed out, where there is doubt, may be found by giving only a short period of parole.

This safety net raises a point which perhaps should be explored in greater depth. If you give parole of a week or two at the end of a medium or long sentence you run little risk of any reoffending in the period, and you can proudly claim a high success rate. Indeed, if any of your Lordships looks at the table on page 45 of the last report you will see that it discloses that over 60 per cent. of licences are for periods less than six months, and 95 per cent., if I am right, are for under 12 months. Perhaps the board would enlighten us a little further in their next report under this head.

The next category is the "less grave offences"—often what are described as the one-off crimes. Here mention is made of the notorious case, or those arousing serious local concern, as a reason for refusal. This is a matter touched on by my noble friend Lord Donaldson. This worries me, and I would suggest requires much deeper thought bearing in mind that the prisoner will inevitably rejoin the community on a finite date in any event.

Suppose man A commits an indecent assault on a child and gets four years, and man B defrauds a bank and gets six years. Is the fraudsman to receive parole before the sex offender because the latter has aroused the emotions of the community, although the judge in sentencing these two men made it perfectly clear that he thought the offence of fraud was the worst of the two? A subjective view of the public's emotional engagement surely cannot be a valid criterion for a decision affecting the liberty of the individual. The sense of public condemnation surely should be reflected in the original sentence and not at the time of supervised release.

The third category is "the inadequates"; the repeated petty offenders. Here the basic consideration appears to be the prisoner's behaviour in prison. His failure to co-operate should, it is said, involve a forfeiture of parole, otherwise there is a presumption in favour of early release. Again I sense an inconsistency here. Clearly failure should be one consideration in discussing whether parole should be advised, but incarceration in the squalor and despair of some local prisons may engender ultimate non-co-operation, whereas in good conditions and with imaginative management in another prison co-operation may be quite easily given. This, I would suggest, requires further consideration.

Finally there are the Section 33 cases, to which I have already referred. Here it is said that there is a clear presumption in favour of parole—a presumption that I personally would like to see extended to all categories. But here, maybe because of the presumption, the system appears to have worked very well; yet the judiciary, as my noble friend Lord Donaldson has pointed out, are finding it hard to adjust to this vital lowering of the threshold. The judges have discovered that it gives rise to anomalies. But parole inevitably gives rise to anomalies. Mr. Justice Waller, a great supporter of parole, pointed this out many years ago, that at the 12-month threshold a prisoner serving three years and another serving 18 months might well be released on the same date. Now it may happen with sentences of 12, 15 or 18 months. Further anomalies arise because time on remand in custody counts for remission but does not count for parole. Other difficulties arise in activated suspended sentences.

I hope that the Home Secretary will stand very firm on this. Judges should get around, get into the prisons, see the conditions there, study the statistics of successful parole and, indeed, perhaps sometimes participate in our debates here and pass shorter sentences. I read only last week that no judge, incredibly, has visited Holloway Prison in the last ten years.

If the judges continue to complain, the Secretary of State could consider the introduction of what one calls the quasi automatic supervised release scheme which was canvassed by the Home Office in 1981 and supported by the All-Party Appeal Affairs Group. This means that all short term prisoners, unless exempted by the trial judge, would serve one-third in custody, one-third under supervision on parole and have one-third, as at present, remitted. Time on remand on custody would count and each part of a suspended sentence would be treated as a separate sentence. This would iron out most of the anomalies about which the judges complain.

I end by reverting to two short matters and asking the noble Lord who will reply for the Government a few questions. The first concerns the quality of the LRCs, the local review committees. How are these members recruited? The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, has spoken about members of the board; but how are the LRCs recruited? What qualifications do the members have? Is there compulsory training? How many come from ethnic minorities? Does the chairman and/or the governor recommend? Is there any feed-back or follow-up to assist members of these committees in assessing whether the criteria they apply are correct?

The other matter I wish to refer to concerns bureaucratic delay. I understand that extra personnel have been added to the parole unit in the Home Office. I ask the Minister: have they been able to sort out and reduce delays? How many parolees are still without information on their eligibility date? Is the delay between local review and consideration by the Parole Board still in excess of 10 months, as it was some time ago? The Minister will know that I have been concerned in a case where the delays and confusions were so horrendous that the Ombudsman has investigated and reported on the whole matter.

Although, as I have said, I admire profoundly the efforts of all those who work so hard to make parole a success, the system surely and the criteria which are at the centre of the system, must be constantly examined, reassessed and improved and the Parole Board should be shown to be doing so. Until the public, and indeed all Members of this House, are entirely convinced—I am sad not to see the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, in his place—that parole is in a real sense an exercise in crime prevention, as well as having the attributes referred to by the noble Earl, it cannot be deemed a success. Above all, it still has not yet won the full confidence of prisoners themselves and that, too, must always be a vital measure of its real achievement.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having raised this Motion. He initiated a similar debate in 1983 and it is valuable that we have the opportunity from time to time to discuss the work of the Parole Board and to thank the many members from the different disciplines for the admirable work they carry out, as do the members of the local review committees. This debate gives us an opportunity to discuss not only parole but some of its wider implications on criminal justice policy.

The noble Earl began by referring, quite rightly, to the work which he and his colleagues carried out in the period 1963–64, when he was chairman of the Labour Party committee which made a recommendation which led directly to the creation of the present parole system. They made their recommendation just before the election. and Frank Soskice, subsequently Home Secretary, accepted that proposal. It eventually formed part of the Criminal Justice Bill 1967, introduced by Mr. Jenkins. In 1968 the board began its work. It is right to say that, in the light of the fact that there have been some fairly partisan exchanges in the House in the last few weeks about the system, it owes a great deal of its strength to the fact that it has had a substantial element of bi-partisan support. In 1967, the scheme as introduced by Mr. Jenkins in the House of Commons, took the form of providing for recommendations by Home Office officials being made nominally to Ministers and Ministers acting upon those recommendations.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, then leading for the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, made a powerful and persuasive speech in which he said he thought it would be preferable to have an independent Parole Board. So persuasive was his speech that Mr. Jenkins accepted that view and government amendments were introduced at Committee stage in the House of Commons. Therefore the scheme as we now have it is, in the fullest sense of the term, a bi-partisan scheme.

My noble friend Lord Hunt, who was the first chairman of the board, is unhappily unable to be with us today. As my noble friend Lord Donaldson said, he is unwell and we all very much hope he will he back with us very soon. But in those early days he was supported on the board both by a number of notable figures from outside the judiciary and by individual judges. The present Lord Chief Justice was a member of the Parole Board in its early days, as was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Roskill. It is right to draw attention to that background in the debate today when we are looking, after a substantial period of time, at what has gone right, and in a number of respects, what, clearly, has gone wrong.

I agree with much of the speech of the noble Earl. However, he will not be astonished to learn that there were one or two points with which I did not agree. I shall come to them in a moment. I start with the quotation which he gave from the views of Professor Nigel Walker. My noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington dealt with this point as well. The noble Earl quoted Mr. Walker in saying that the likelihood of an offender's reconviction is not always the board's foremost consideration. As a former chairman of the board, I say say that it is indeed a most important consideration, but it is not always the foremost consideration. Let me give some illustrations as to why I believe that is right. I know of no great body of opinion on the board when I was chairman who differed from this view. They came from all parts of the political spectrum, but I can never remember deep concern being expressed on this aspect of our work.

Let us take the case of the IRA man or woman who comes to this country and tries to blow up a substantial number of people but does not quite succeed and no one is killed. He or she, therefore, in normal circumstances does not get a life sentence, but they get a substantial prison sentence. Is it to be argued that the only consideration applied at that, perhaps, first review on a 12-year sentence—that is, after four years—should be whether that person is likely or is not likely to commit another offence? I think that people have to ask themselves the question whether an attitude of that sort would commend itself to public opinion. We cannot totally pretend that public opinion does not exist. Of course, we must not take a cowardly view, being frightened of being attacked by the Daily Express, the Daily Mail or even the Sun; but it is right, I think, for us to have a decent regard for the anxieties of our fellow citizens. I believe that that is the job of the Parole Board, and I think it right in a case of that sort that it has to take that into consideration.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, yes, let us take the IRA and, of course, I am Irish. I have denounced the IRA more often than most. But if you take the case of the IRA person who gets only 12 years, it cannot have been like the case of the gentleman who got 45 years the other day. At any rate, he gets 12 years. Is that much worse than the man who attempts murder and gets 12 years? There is more public feeling about it; but does that mean therefore that you should keep him in longer?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I believe, obviously, that every case should be considered on its merits which is why I was very critical of the approach made by Mr. Brittan—and I shall be coming on to that in a moment. But just to deal with this point, I consider, at a time when this country has been exposed to a high level of terrorist violence, the idea that the only consideration which the board should take into account is the likelihood of reoffending to be quite unacceptable. I must make that absolutely clear.

I was going to develop other similar examples, but because of the time I shall move on. Mr. Walker, having made what I believe to be not a very powerful point, then went on to say that the Parole Board took the view that the scheme required the general support of public opinion and that this had to be an element in their consideration. He was obviously rather critical of that view because he said that it meant that what the board had in mind was not genuine justice but voters' justice.

As I have already made clear, I do not accept this view. I did not do so as chairman and I certainly do not do so now. It is simply, I believe, silly to pretend that when the public is alarmed the board should totally ignore their views. But, as I have indicated already, the board is looking the whole time at a whole range of exceedingly difficult cases. It is dealing with a whole mass of sex offenders—to take one particular illustration mentioned by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington—perhaps four or five a day; for that is the level of the work load. I am going back now three years in my recollection but I cannot recall people saying, "My goodness, what will happen if we are attacked by the press on this one?"

You have to take a look at the man's or woman's previous convictions, at what is believed to be the likelihood of their committing a further offence. You have to look at the prison reports and, particularly in the case of a sex offender, the home circumstances. What sort of background is he going to be injected into on his return to the community? I know it sounds extremely complacent always to say this but, I think that, by and large, the Parole Board, dealing with hideously difficult cases and always facing the prospect of being attacked either in this House or elsewhere when they do get it wrong—and, of course, periodically a misjudgment is made—do their job remarkably well.

The noble Earl said that the Parole Board is a quango of quangoes: it consists of a large number of men and women but they do not, it is said, have any particular qualifications for their job. Maybe they do not: but they represent to a significant degree a cross-section of the community. I think that, broadly speaking, one of the most helpful developments in the last few years is the fact that, despite the present argument with the judiciary—and argument there is—about sentences at the lower end and the implication, as far as that is concerned for the parole system. I believe that it has created a substantial degree of confidence with the judiciary, which is extremely important. If there had not been that degree of confidence by the judiciary, there could have been even more unattractive consequences as far as general sentencing policy is concerned. If the noble Earl believes (as he appears to believe and, as I suspect, others believe) that there would be something to be said for prisoners having the opportunity of meeting the board in formal session or being represented by counsel at such sessions. I am bound to tell him that I would view that with the deepest scepticism.

I have seen this done. I saw it in Wisconsin, a good, liberal, Democrat state with civilised views on how offenders should be treated. They took the view that it would he a good idea to have inmates given the opportunity of meeting what was in a reality a panel of the Parole Board. I was pretty shocked by it. Certainly, they had the opportunity of going into the room and sitting down. If they were incoherent it was a most embarrassing session, and we have to accept the fact that many of the people concerned often would find such an experience deeply intimidating and that those who were more verbally fluent would obviously feel more at ease. But at the end of it all they were brought back and told that they had either got a recommendation or that they had not; and they were given it in formula terms. They were given a reason, but on the basis of Reason A, B, C, D, E or F. It was read out to them. One of them delivered himself of some very rigorous opinions about the quality of the board and the quality of the judgment, and I am bound to say that I had some sympathy with him. Although the intentions of that panel had been admirable, fair-minded men and women as they were, I did not believe that they had anything approaching the degreee of information that a panel of the Parole Board would have had in dealing with a comparable case in this country.

That, I repeat, is not a question once again of complacency. It is simply looking at another system, comparing it with our own and coming to the conclusion that perhaps there is something to be said for our own. Lastly, before I move on to territory where he and I are in agreement, there is one other point which the noble Earl raised and that is the belief, the suspicion, that he appears to have that there is some form of political influence exercised on the board.

With my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington—and, if I may, I will adopt this choice of language because I thought it was admirable; he applied it to local review committees and I should like to apply it to the Parole Board—I am a strong believer in robust independence. I believe that if the Parole Board ever were to become a creature of the Executive it would be a dismal business indeed. But I must tell the House that I had the opportunity of working for (or, shall I say, working with) two Home Secretaries of different political persuasions, Mr. Merlyn Rees and the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw. On no occasion was I subject to any political advice, direction, guidance or anything of that character. Indeed, I know both gentlemen well enough to know that they would have known how I would react, and I know them well enough to know that they would never put me in that position in the first instance. I can reassure the House that I should certainly have taken the most substantial objection to any attempt at pressurising in terms of dealing with an individual case. I can inform the House, that that certainly did not happen and, I am quite sure, does not happen now.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt? In my submission, it works in a much more subtle way than that.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, it may be that I was being given guidance of such subtlety that I was never able to understand it, in which case we probably got very upset with one another!

I should like to raise one or two specific questions with the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate. First, may I say on behalf of my noble friend Lord Hunt, who is absent tonight, that he was concerned, as was my noble friend Lord Hutchinson and as I am myself, about the references in the 1985 report of the Parole Board to delays which have taken place in the system. I am deeply perturbed by suggestions that, as my noble friend Lord Hutchinson said, a number of cases were not considered until after the parole eligibilty date. That is, quite frankly, disgraceful. It means that men and women did not have their cases considered at a time when Parliament had decided that they should be so considered.

I am concerned about that, but of course I understand one of the reasons for it. In the 1985 report of the board we are told of the substantial increase in the number of parole reviews of inmates serving sentences of two years and over. They say that in 1983 there were about 10,000; in 1984 some 12,500; and in 1985, 13,750. That creates a massive workload. All your Lordships on all sides of the House must recognise this too: if there is going to be a massive increase in the workload there have to be more people to do the work.

That is one of the problems, because many of us remember the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie. I use that as an example. He has not been with us for some little time but I am quite sure that his views will not have changed and therefore I am sure I am in no way doing him an unjustice. He took the utmost pride in telling us of the reductions there had been in the size of public service manpower. I said, both when I was a Minister in a Labour Government and afterwards, that I believed the public service had become swollen and unmanageable, particularly in a country like our own which has had such a remarkable lack of success in managing its economy. That is undoubtedly one reason: we have not managed our economy particularly well and this huge burden has been imposed upon it. However, if we are going to increase the burden of work as we have, it is ludicrous to do so without making resources available for officials to be in place to carry out that work.

It would be folly for the Government to try to pretend that they were taken wholly by surprise. We all know perfectly well how the prison population of this country has been escalating in recent years, and therefore they knew perfectly well that there was going to be an expansion of the number of parole cases coming to the board. They should have made the resources available but they did not, and therefore I am afraid they must accept a very high measure of responsibilty for what has happened.

Secondly, I want to come back to an issue I raised in 1983. I hoped then that I was going to get a satisfactory explanation from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who was winding up. I know that I am undoubtedly going to get a more satisfactory one from the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, three years later, and so I will try the same questions again and hope, as I say, for a more satisfactory explanation. What have the Government done following the report by the committee of the Parole Board of which Mrs. Susan Baring was chairman? Following the report of that committee, which was duly considered by the Parole Board, I wrote to the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, expressing the board's views on the various matters that had been raised. It was dealt with as long ago as 1980 in the board's report for that year.

Mrs. Baring's committee raised a number of issues, and, in particular, one I should like to identify. It was touched on earlier, I think by the noble Earl. The question was whether or not more cases should be considered by the Parole Board itself. The position at the moment of course is that if a local review committee is unanimously against giving parole and the offender has a high prediction score—namely, 50 per cent. or more—that case does not go to the Parole Board. I have pointed out on a number of occasions that this is extremely unjust, and there are a number of reasons why I take that view. First, how is the prediction score itself calculated? In the first place, it is calculated on the basis of research that was carried out in 1965, over 20 years ago. When that prediction score is calculated a number of factors are taken into account: home stability, employment prospects and so on.

I remain seriously concerned about cutting out cases for consideration by the board solely on the basis of such a calculation. Not all my colleagues took that view. We were a large board and the board is now even larger. A number of people had different views on the matter but I consider that turning people down for consideration by the Parole Board solely on the basis of that prediction score is quite wrong. I hope very much that we shall hear tonight that the Government are prepared to look into that particular question.

Then there is the issue of the shorter-sentence prisoner. The present dispute, referred to in the Parole Board's report for 1985, indicates that a considerable amount of judicial concern had been expressed about it, and in particular about the situation of 10–18 months' offenders all being released after six months despite the different lengths of sentence imposed.

I think we all understand the character of the problem but of course Parliament knew perfectly well what it was doing. We discussed all these matters on the Floor of the House when the Bill went through, and the higher judiciary certainly knew about it, because they were consulted. When so many complaints are constantly made about what has been done in this respect, it is very rarely pointed out that senior members of the judiciary were consulted; so obviously it does not lie in their mouths to complain now when the system about which they were consulted was implemented.

Secondly, it is only fair to say that I think a case can be made out against it. It is a very rough and ready approach compared with the more detailed work done by the Parole Board in regard to longer sentences. The reason is that the information available to the local review committee for shorter-sentence prisoners is often of an extremely brief and sketchy character. That must be true, and there are problems about that. We all know why it has been done. The reason does not simply concern the parole system: it is a reaction to the crisis of prison numbers. If that is in fact our principal concern then almost certainly it would have-been better to adopt a different approach altogether and to have some degree of automaticity of release so far as shorter-sentence prisoners were concerned, with of course additional resources which would have to be made available to the probation service in order that it could carry out the appropriate degree of supervision.

We shall obviously come back to this argument when we deal with the criminal justice Bill in the next Session of Parliament; but I repeat that, as long as the present debate on shorter-sentence prisoners is to continue, those of us who want to reduce the size of the prison population will undoubtedly want to support the Home Secretary. But certainly when we get to the Committee stage of the Bill next Session, I think that a number of us will want to come back to this question of automaticity, which, in my view, it would have been far better if the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, had accepted. I hope very much, despite some of the political problems involved in the fact that we are approaching a general election, that that will be done.

Lastly, I come to the point on which the noble Earl and I are agreed—that is, the decision made not so long ago by the last Home Secretary on the parole and life sentence systems. It was without doubt the most substantial change made since it was introduced in 1967. Mr. Brittan announced this policy, not in Parliament but, appropriately at a Conservative Party Conference. No doubt the applause that he received gave him pleasure; but I wonder now whether he is not rather embarrassed by this whole episode.

What Mr. Brittan then did was, first, to announce that there were to be two clearly defined categories of life sentence prisoners, one of which would serve at least 20 years and one of which would not. That is now the policy. There are now also two parole systems. In one, cases are considered on their merits; and in the other, they are not. Let me just go over the examples I gave in 1983 again, because they indicate the folly of allowing party conferences to make, in reality the judgments on these matters.

How can it possibly be right to have a system whereby—I am now dealing with the policy of life sentence prisoners—the driver of a getaway car after a robbery, during which someone is shot, should serve at least 20 years, whereas the robber who bursts into the home of an elderly couple and beats them both to death is not covered by that policy? What conceivable principle underlies that approach? I asked the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on the last occasion; and he was quite unable to defend the policy, because although it made sense at a conference it was quite incapable of being defended on rational grounds in Parliament. I hope very much that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, will have a rather better brief today, but I have a slight doubt whether that will be so.

Secondly, let me deal with the determinate sentence prisoner, the prisoner who gets over five years' imprisonment and is caught by the new parole concept. How can it be right that a person who is sentenced to five years three months should, almost automatically, serve a longer sentence in prison than the man who gets seven years, solely because the five year man was sentenced for robbery, whereas the seven year man has merely systematically stolen the life savings of a large group of old age pensioners? In the first case, the robber will have his case rejected by the Secretary of State whatever may be the view of the Parole Board, save in the most exceptional circumstances, whereas the seven year man will get parole if the board so recommends; and of course without the Home Secretary taking the slightest interest in the case. What I find so surprising is that this policy was introduced entirely on the basis of the Home Secretary's discretionary powers.

Faced with the criticism from a number of us that he had chosen to ignore Parliament, he said that if we felt so strongly about it the 1967 Criminal Justice Act should have been drafted so as to avoid any Home Secretary ever having had the opportunity of doing what he, Mr. Brittan, had done. But of course one has only to look at what happened subsequent to 1967 to see the fallacious character of that argument, because it is quite inconceivable that such a policy would have been introduced by Mr. Callaghan when he was Home Secretary, by Mr. Maudling when he was Home Secretary, by the noble Lord, Lord Carr, when he was Home Secretary, by the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw, or by Mr. Douglas Hurd. Only one Home Secretary would have contemplated taking action of this character and that was Mr. Brittan. That is the painful legacy that he has now left his successors.

How are we to escape the clutches of this disastrous policy? It may be that this country's reputation will still be saved once again by the European Court of Human Rights. I very much hope that it will, because I believe that this policy is damaging to the interests of justice, it is damaging to the whole credibility of the parole system and it is a major destabilising influence in many of the high security prisons in this country. I have never met so much anxiety as has been expressed to me by experienced prison governors, about what are the implications for them of the introduction of this policy on which they were never consulted. At no stage were they asked by Mr. Brittan for their views on this matter.

One has to recognise that it is probably idle to expect radical change before the election because too many people have been trapped by their own rhetoric. But I hope that there will be radical change after the election. Otherwise, I fear that the damage to the parole system could be very deep indeed.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, has, I am sure for good reason, sentenced the House to a long term of imprisonment, but I hope that in the remarks that I shall make to your Lordships I shall grant you parole. To turn to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I think the House would agree with me if I were to say that he so often beckons us, with that very sincere and much-loved voice, down several alleyways of philosophic thought and mercy. Sometimes it is wise to follow him right the way down the path. Sometimes it is wise to follow him only part of the way down that path. But it is never wise to ignore him completely and I am sure that we are all very much indebted to him today, not only for his speech but for introducing to the House this Question, which has been so very well debated.

I too should like to say how glad I am that the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is with us. It must irk him very much to have to remain silent under whatever rules it may be, but I know that he will have listened to this debate with the greatest of care and respect.

It is very suitable that the Question comes before the House at this particular time, and I too welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, will be answering for the Government on this occasion. He has as a colleague a young Minister of State, and possibly the House can pray that two young Ministers with their enthusiasm and a fresh young look—I am not going to say a juvenile look, by any manner of means—at the very severe problems that face us in regard to the general matters of prisons, reform, the parole system and so on, will have the courage to do more than their predecessors could do in effecting necessary reforms.

As I said, it is at a very apposite time that we are debating this matter. I say that for two reasons. First, we are told that there is to he a criminal justice Bill very shortly and—I offer the funereal words so often said at about this time in your Lordships' House—it is not proper to anticipate the gracious Speech. But there is to be such a Bill, and I hope that the Home Office will take advantage of the opportunity of this debate to do something in the Bill about the whole of the parole system and about so much that worries us in our prisons at the present time.

There is another reason, and that too joins up with the first one. I refer to the Weeks case before the European Court of Human Rights. I wonder whether I may pause for a moment only to tell your Lordships, I hope very shortly, something about that case because it shows—and I am not going into the merits of Article 5 of the convention which is before the European Court—at least one example that must put a query in our minds as to the whole way in which we have gone in regard to penal affairs.

Weeks was 17 years old in December 1966 when he pleaded guilty, among other offences, to armed robbery. The robbery concerned 35 pence and had been committed with a starting pistol which was loaded with blank cartridges. There was medical evidence before the court which said in its expert terms that this young man was not of such mental instability as would justify sending him to a mental institution. The learned judge thought that the most merciful thing to do for this young man of 17 years of age—your Lordships may have sons or grandsons of that age; and one knows the very formative time that that age happens to be—was to give him an indeterminate sentence. The judge's view was upheld by the Court of Appeal, so the whole machinery of licence and parole and the Home Secretary's discretion could be exercised in his case. Weeks was granted parole for the very first time 10 years later.

It will not surprise your Lordships I suppose that, having had 10 years of treatment of that kind, the conditions of the parole were broken and this was the history thereafter. So far as I know, he is still in prison. In an example of that kind the United Kingdom is respondent in a case before the European Court dealing with the question of whether or not there should be reasonable periodic reviews, and so on; matters into which I shall not go. Whatever that young man did at 17 years of age are your Lordships satisfied that a debate of this kind should not take place where questions are asked of the Home Secretary: is all right with the parole system; is all right with our prison policy? I repeat that it was a case involving 35 pence and a starting pistol with blank cartridges.

I say at once that I have the greatest sympathy for the Parole Board. I say that because it is not just the tabloid press that attacks some of the decisions of the Parole Board. We have had those attacks in this House. The Parole Board has been told, or it has been implied by questions at Question Time, that it has been utterly reckless because of what has happened after a few instances—and only a few instances can ever be quoted—where things have gone wrong and offences have been recommitted; and dangerous offences of that kind. I shall not mention any names because at least one noble Lord is not present in his seat. I think it would be wrong of me to mention any names in that context. But it is not just the tabloid press. It is also responsible parliamentarians who sometimes weaken the respect that ought to be given to the Parole Board. Then of course one gets the attacks the other way round; that the Parole Board is obviously not exercising mercy where it ought to he exercising mercy and it is not acting in the way that it should.

In what I regard as the discipline that is put upon me to be comparatively brief. I do not want to pose arguments at this stage. My noble friend Lord Longford has dealt with many points that I know the Minister would want to deal with, and so have other speakers who have spoken with such effect in this debate. I want to put matters before the Home Secretary and before the noble Lord who represents him in this debate so that they may be considered properly when, as I said, the Criminal Justice Bill comes forward or when fresh thoughts on the parole system take place.

There is no doubt that there is an impression abroad—I shall put it no higher—that the parole system works in too arbitrary a fashion. The impression undoubtedly is that the categories with which it has to deal are too arbitrary. A judge imposes a sentence of six years, possibly realising or not realising what it means when it is six years, or over six years or under six years. But once he does that (and it can be a matter of sheer chance as to whether somebody comes before a certain court and the sentence is six, seven or five years) a whole atmosphere, a whole series of conditions, a whole set of circumstances change from the point of view of the powers and the abilities of the parole system.

There is also doubt about the life sentence prisoners, a feeling that they will not come any more before a judicial body or before the judges, but will be in the hands of the system of the Parole Board. Reference has already been made to the serious administrative delays that were referred to in the last report. I shall not repeat what has been said. The matter is before the Minister now by virtue of what has been said in this debate. The number of life sentence prisoners is possibly going to be increased by the Criminal Justice Bill because the Home Office, as I understand it, has expressed a view that those who are psychopathic prisoners may well come within the category suitably of life sentence prisoners. So this is another section that may for all we know come within the purview of the Criminal Justice Bill. If that is so, and if that is the normal way in which psychopathic offenders are to be dealt with, the whole question of how life sentence prisoners come up before the Parole Board is obviously of great concern.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. All life sentence prisoners go before the Home Secretary. The Parole Board will have discussed the cases first, but they always go before the Home Secretary individually.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I appreciate that point and I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for reminding us of it. But as she rightly says, they go before the Parole Board and then have to go before the Home Secretary. I am therefore saying that without any judicial step, without any step before judges, those people (who are about to be increased in number if the psychopathic offenders join with them) will be subject to the Parole Board procedure together with the review and the final decison of the Home Secretary. Therefore, as I said, this whole system must be looked at very carefully.

I, too, had intended to speak about the suggestion made in regard to short-term prisoners—one-third sentence in custody, one-third under supervision and one-third released under the normal arrangements by way of remission. That has already been dealt with during the debate. I hope very much that the Home Secretary will take this suggestion on board and see whether something can be done about it.

I also want to express my regret, in my closing words, at the Home Secretary's announcement on 11th October 1983. If ever there was a retrograde step taken it was on this question of removing discretion from the Parole Board and laying down a mandatory system that in regard to certain offences, whatever they may be, prisoners would not be considered unless 20 years had passed. That was more than a retrograde step. In my judgment it is something that a Conservative Home Office will have to live with, with shame, unless it has the courage now to alter what was announced on that date.

It has been an interesting and informative debate. I believe that the House ought not necessarily to expect promises tonight, because 1 imagine that the noble Lord the Minister is not—let us face it—in a position to make promises in regard to suggestions, though I am sure he will do his very capable best in dealing with the questions that have been put to him. This debate has been important enough for the Secretary of State, together with his junior Ministers, to consider carefully the matters raised in the Question that was so well, and in such a timely way, put forward by my noble friend Lord Longford.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I am delighted to be answering on behalf of the Government this evening the Question put down by the noble Earl. I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for initiating this debate on a public issue of great importance. His long interest in the operation of the parole scheme is a matter of record. Others in the House—in particular the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Harris of Greenwich—have direct experience of its operation and the House will have listened with particular interest to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to this debate. The Question asked by the noble Earl directs us to the principles on which decisions whether or not to grant parole are based. He suggests that they need clarification. I believe they are clear, but this debate provides a welcome and helpful opportunity to restate them.

As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has acknowledged, strictly speaking parole is granted only to prisoners serving determinate sentences. Release on life licence is subject to different procedures and turns to some extent on different considerations. When a prisoner is granted parole he is still serving the sentence of the court. He is not free. He has exchanged the constraints of prison walls and the supervision of prison officers for the constraints of his parole licence conditions and the supervision of probation officers. If he breaches the licence conditions he can soon find himself back inside the prison walls. But, as the noble Earl has rightly reminded us, the parole scheme exists because Parliament has acknowledged that a prisoner may derive more benefit from serving part of his prison sentence in the community under the direct supervision of the probation service than from serving the whole sentence in custody; and, if the prisoner benefits from parole, so in the long term may the community. Few in this House would, I think. disagree with that commonsense assumption, which holds as good today—perhaps even better, given the deplorable overcrowding in our prison system—as it did in 1967, when the scheme was introduced.

But there is—and always has been—another side to the equation. Against the possible benefit to be derived from the grant of parole in an individual case has to be set the risk to the public of releasing a sentenced offender into the community earlier than would otherwise be the case. The protection of the public is one of the objects of a prison sentence. It is true that a prisoner given a determinate sentence must be released eventually. Whether or not parole is granted, the public is only protected for a fixed period. But where the risk to the public would be high whenever the prisoner was released the public have the right to be protected against the offender for as long as possible. So long as such a prisoner is serving his sentence, he should be serving it in custody, not in the community; and of course it is against offenders who commit the most serious offences of violence that the public have the most right to be protected.

So there are really two potentially conflicting principles underlying the decision whether or not to grant parole: the possible benefit to the individual and the community on the one hand; and on the other hand the need to protect the public. In the end a pragmatic assessment of the balance of benefit and risk has to he made in each individual case.

It follows that, so long as both sides of the equation—benefit and risk—have to be taken into account, parole must be a selective process. That means that there must be time, following the passing of a prison sentence, for observation, reporting and selection to take place. And that means in turn that there has to be a minimum qualifying period after sentence before the decision whether or not to grant parole is taken. That is now either six months or one-third of the sentence, whichever is the longer. Thus, over half of all sentenced offenders still do not qualify for parole. Nevertheless, the decision in 1984 to reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole from 12 to six months has increased the numbers of prisoners eligible for parole each year from around 10,000 to about 23,000.

The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, referred to Section 33 prisoners. I take this opportunity to stress that parole for short sentence prisoners under Section 33 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 is not automatic, as has been suggested in some quarters. The same principles apply to the selection procedure. It remains an assessment of the balance of benefit and risk. In I 985 around one in four prisoners serving sentences under two years who were eligible for parole were not granted it. Nevertheless, the Government are conscious of the concern that has been expressed by members of the judiciary about the operation of this aspect of the parole scheme. The Parole Board referred to this concern in its annual report for 1985.

The decision to reduce the minimum qualifying period represented, as I have said, a major extension of the parole scheme. New procedures were introduced. They have only been in place for just over two years; and we have been reviewing them in the light of some of the concerns that have been expressed. We have identified certain improvements which can be made. These are being actively pursued. In particular, we believe that the documentation available to local review committees can be improved so that they are in a better position than they have been to assess the nature of the original offence in these cases. We are also looking again at the guidance currently given to local review committees about the criteria for selection for parole in these cases. On reflection, we think this guidance could be clarified to stress more clearly the need to balance in these cases the same principles as apply in all other cases—the principles of benefit and risk to which I have already referred. I believe that these improvements will strengthen the parole scheme by reinforcing the selection process which lies at its heart.

Although it is possible to define in very broad terms, as I have done, the principles underlying the parole decision, each individual case has to be treated on its merits. A difficult, sensitive judgment has to be made, and Parliament has said that, although the final discretion as to whether or not to release a prisoner on parole should rest with the Secretary of State, who is directly accountable to Parliament, he should not be able to act without the advice and recommendation of a body capable of assessing the risk of early release. That body is of course the Parole Board, which brings together both professional expertise and lay opinion. The board is independent of the Home Office. Home Office Ministers must answer not for the advice which they get from the board but for the way in which they act on that advice. But, as the noble Earl has said, the board looks at cases on the basis of published criteria. These indicate that the main factors which the board takes into account in its assessment of whether parole should be granted are the nature of the offence, the prisoner's criminal and other history, his prison behaviour, medical considerations, his home circumstances and his general prospects on release and likely response to supervision.

Generally speaking, the Parole Board sees the same documents as those seen by the LRC. I think that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked what documents were available to the board. The board will also see the LRC recommendations with reasons. It will see the judge's sentencing remarks and, if applicable, the Court of Appeal papers. Also, the Parole Board may call for further reports, such as psychiatric reports, if it so desires. It weighs these factors and then decides, as I have said, whether the possible benefit of release on parole outweighs the potential risk to the public. The noble Earl spoke of the board perhaps slightingly as a quango of quangos. I believe that it is wholly sensible that we should look to a body composed not only of those with a particular expertise—judges, magistrates, criminologists and probation officers—but of ordinary members of the public to carry out this assessment. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Windlesham, who is chairman of the Parole Board, in his place this evening and I am sure that noble Lords will acknowledge the hard work of the board.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, asked how many prisoners have their licences revoked. I believe that the record speaks for itself. Only 803 prisoners had their licences revoked in 1985. That represents 5.6 per cent. of the number recommended for parole. The number of prisoners serving sentences of under two years who had their parole licences revoked was 224, which represents 2.6 per cent. of the number recommended for parole. The fact is that today there are around 6,000 offenders serving their sentence in the community who, were they not on parole licence, would otherwise be in prison. That speaks well for the selection process at the heart of parole. It is a tribute to the Parole Board and to those who serve on the local review committees, on whose recommendations, with the agreement of the Parole Board, many decisions are based.

However, as I have said, there is a duality in the parole selection process. The final decision rests with the Secretary of State. I can do no better than to quote the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, when giving judgment in the case of Findlay et al which was brought before the House of Lords: Neither the Parole Board nor the judiciary can be as close or as sensitive to public opinion as a Minister responsible to Parliament and to the electorate. He has to judge the public acceptability of early release and to determine the policies needed to maintain public confidence in the system of criminal justice. This must be why Parliament saw as necessary the duality of the parole system: without the advice and recommendation of a body capable of assessing the risk of early release the Secretary of State was not to act; but, having received such advice and recommendation, he was to authorise early release only if he himself was satisfied that it was in the public interest that he should". It is against that background—above all, the need to pursue a policy in relation to parole which maintains public confidence in the criminal justice system—that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is following the practice of his predecessor in exercising his discretion restrictively in cases involving the most serious offences of violence and drug trafficking. Each case is still considered on its merits, but because of the need to protect the public from the worst, violent offenders and because of the need to ensure that the principles of retribution and deterrence are not undermined, parole is granted in such cases only in exceptional cirumstances or for a few months at the end of the sentence where the likely benefit is clear. The same principles apply—the principles of benefit and risk—but because of the nature of the cases involved the scales are more heavily weighted against release.

It is important to distinguish between the principles on which the parole scheme is founded and its operation. That is where I believe the noble Earl's analysis to be flawed. The underlying principles have not changed, but, as I have emphasised, they are potentially conflicting. At different times over the years since the inception of the scheme the board and successive Home Secretaries have given more weight to one side of the parole equation—benefit and risk—than the other. On the one hand, as confidence in its operation gained, and on the advice of the Parole Board and after consulting the judiciary, the parole scheme in this country was extended. Section 35 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972 was one such extension. By enabling the Secretary of State to release less serious offenders on parole licence on the recommendations of the local review committees it increased the scope for the Home Secretary to refer cases found unsuitable by local review committees to the Parole Board for a second look. It increased the numbers granted parole without increasing the failure rate or the relative demand made on resources by the selection process. Section 33 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982 extended the parole scheme to shorter sentenced offenders, again without any sacrifice of principle and without increasing the failure rate or significantly increasing the total resource costs. The result is that more people than ever before are now eligible for parole and are granted it.

However, there is nothing immutable about the selection rate for parole. In the early days of its operation the proportion of prisoners granted parole was comparatively low. Greater weight was given then to the risk factor than to the possible benefits of release. In returning to a more restrictive policy in relation to the most serious offenders, present Ministers are in an important sense only turning back the clock. An increasingly more tolerant approach in such cases has been reversed. The nature of the offence and the likely gravity of any reoffending have always been significant factors in parole decisions. The Government now wish to give them more weight in the most serious cases as part of their policy of maintaining public confidence in the criminal justice system.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Scarman, has said, the parole scheme allows for such an approach. It is entirely proper for the Parole Board also to put greater weight on these factors, if it chooses, in making recommendations to the Home Secretary; in other words, to take account itself of the policy which it knows will be applied provided, as remains the case, that it continues to consider each case on its merits. That is not resentencing. It is a firm application of the principles on which all parole decisions have always been taken. The Government believe that after 19 years the parole scheme remains an effective means of selecting on a pragmatic but principled basis those prisoners whose early conditional release under supervision might be of long term benefit to the public and to themselves.

The release of a life sentence prisoner is also at the discretion of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, subject to a favourable recommendation by the Parole Board, after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice and, if he is available, the trial judge. Again, my right honourable friend is not bound to accept a recommendation for release by the Parole Board; nor is he bound by the views of the judiciary, though he naturally attaches great weight to them. But there is a fundamental distinction between the consideration given to the cases of prisoners serving determinate sentences and to those of life sentence prisoners. As I have said, a determinate sentence prisoner must be released at the end of his sentence. The main consideration is whether he can be released earlier than in the normal course, to serve the balance of his sentence under supervision in the community. With a life sentence prisoner, the main consideration is whether he should be released at all.

There are two essential ingredients to the decision whether a life sentence prisoner should be released. Has he been detained for long enough to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence for the offence; and is the risk to the public acceptable? My right honourable friend looks primarily to the judiciary for advice on retribution and deterrence and to the Parole Board for advice on risk. The public safety is always the pre-eminent factor whenever the release of a life sentence prisoner is under consideration. Even if a lifer has been detained for long enough to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence, he will not be released if the risk is thought to be unacceptable. On the other hand, there will be cases where the sheer heinousness of the offence demands a very long period of detention on grounds of retribution and deterrence even though the individual prisoner may be thought not to pose any undue risk to the public.

That is a crucial point and one which I believe has led the noble Earl, Lord Longford, to give a distorted picture of the role and current practice of the Parole Board in life sentence cases, though I do not wish to go into the circumstances of the particular case that he has mentioned. As I have said, although my right honourable friend the Home Secretary looks primarily to the Parole Board for advice on risk, consideration of risk to the public is not the Parole Board's exclusive concern in reviewing life sentence cases. The board has itself made this clear in its annual report. In arriving at a decision whether or not to recommend the release of an individual life sentence prisoner, the board must have regard to all relevant factors, including not only the risk to the public but whether that prisoner has been detained for long enough to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence for the offence. Ever since it was brought into the life sentence review process in 1968, whenever the Parole Board has considered the case of a life sentence prisoner it has always been aware of the views of the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if available, on the retributive and deterrence element of the sentence; and this has been one of the factors which the board has taken into account in arriving at its recommendation.

Under the revised arrangements for the review of the cases of life sentence prisoners announced in November 1983, the Parole Board will now normally only review a case when a prisoner has already served a period which takes account of the views expressed by the judiciary about the requirements of retribution and deterrence; in other words, where the issue at stake is likely only to be the risk to the public of releasing the offender, but that will not always be the case. Under the present procedures, for example, the Parole Board will review all cases at the 17-year point regardless of whether the requirements of retribution and deterrence have yet been satisfied. It is bound in such circumstances to take account of the requirements of retribution and deterrence. The board's function in this respect has not changed, as the board itself pointed out in paragraph 12 of its report for 1984.

As I have said, I cannot answer for the Parole Board, and nor should I. But to sum up, I would answer the specific questions put to me by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in the following way. First, and this is fundamental. I am sure that the board continues, as it always has done, to consider each case on its merits, taking account of all the circumstances—a point emphasised by my noble friend Lady Macleod. Secondly, in considering all the circumstances of cases involving life sentence prisoners the hoard is bound to take account, as it always has, of the requirements of retribution and deterrence, whatever its assessment of risk. In doing so, it will no doubt take account of any view expressed by the judiciary or by the Home Secretary, but it is certainly not bound by them, and in no sense is it resentencing such an offender, who is after all serving a sentence of life imprisonment.

Thirdly, if the Parole Board refuses to recommend parole in the case of a prisoner serving a determinate sentence it is not resentencing him to a further period of detention. It is refusing to recommend that the executive should change the basis of his detention. Parole is a privilege, not a right. Particularly in the most serious cases involving violent crime the board is bound to have regard to the original offence and the response of the court as reflected in the sentence passed. In such cases, the risk to the public of any repeat of the original offence is obviously a very significant factor. The board will always be conscious that the public is protected from the offender by the sentence of the court. Still, in each such case the Parole Board will weigh the possible benefits of parole. In some it will, and does, recommend parole. But it may, and often does, conclude that in view of the nature of the original offence the public should continue to be protected from the offender.

Fourthly, there is inevitably a link between individual parole decisions and the maintenance of public confidence in the criminal justice system. A bad failure on parole is bad for the parole system and bad for the criminal justice system; and of course such considerations affect the assessment of the balance of benefit and risk in the cases of the most serious offenders. The maintenance of confidence in the criminal justice system is a primary responsibility of the Home Secretary. In the exercise of that responsibility he is applying a more restrictive policy on parole of violent offenders. The Parole Board has agreed to take account of that policy and is doing so. But the application of a more restricted policy still requires an assessment of the benefit and risk in each individual case; and the board continues to make its independent judgment in each case.

It is important to keep in mind that the greater caution being exercised in the granting of parole to the most serious offenders is only one side of the balanced approach which the Government are seeking to bring to the parole scheme as to all other aspects of their criminal justice policy. The fact is that over the past 30 months the number of prisoners eligible for parole has more than doubled. More prisoners are benefiting from early release and from a period under the supervision of the probation service than ever before.

I shall now turn to some of the more detailed questions that were asked by a number of your Lordships. The noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Hutchinson, asked about parole delays. Due to an increase in the relevant portion of the prison population, the number of prisoners serving sentences of two years and over who qualify for parole reviews has risen from about 10,000 in 1983 to over 13,500. That has placed a considerable strain on the parole review machinery and regrettably resulted in an increase in the number of prisoners learning the decision on parole after the parole eligibility date.

This increase has occurred in the category of more serious cases which fall to be considered by the Parole Board. Extra resources have been made available to the Parole Board. In particular, a number of extra staff have been allocated to it. That has enabled us to contain the problems imposed by the increased case load, and inroads are now being made into the backlog of cases. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has given a public assurance that provided there is no unforeseen surge in the workload there is every likelihood that parole delays will have been eliminated by the end of the year.

There are now over 2,200 life sentence prisoners in prison. The number of life sentences in the community has also placed a strain on the resouces of the life sentence section. That has led to increasing delays in processing life sentence cases, with the result, as the noble Lord said, that the normal time taken between consideration by the LRC and the Parole Board had increased to an average of 10.5 months by the end of 1985. There has been an increase in the staff complement of the life sentence section. It is hoped that that, coupled with the resetting of priorities in relation to the other work of the section, will reduce the average to nearer six months in the not too distant future.

I have been asked why reasons are not given for a refusal of parole. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, made many relevant points. I know that many of your Lordships will be aware that a good deal of sympathetic consideration has been given over the years by the Parole Board and successive governments to the possibility of giving reasons for the refusal of parole. The practical difficulties raised by pursuing that possibility have been considerable.

Parole panels, which usually consist of four or five members, may be unanimous in their recommendations against parole but may not agree on the reasons for refusing it. There will be considerable difficulty therefore in producing an acceptable compromise statement of the various reasons for the outcome. Since that would have to be done in many thousands of cases a year where parole is refused, it would not he feasible. Because of that, experiments have been conducted by the Parole Board and the LRCs to see whether, in each case, reasons might not be selected from a stereotype list of appropriate causes for concern.

There is no doubt such a procedure, although not without problems, could more readily be adopted, but the experience of those overseas parole schemes which have done that shows quite clearly that stereotype reasons give prisoners little satisfaction and inevitably give rise to demands for further elaboration; in other words, reasons for the reasons.

It would be difficult to institute such an arrangement without making it possible for prisoners to appeal against the reasons they have been given. This would lead inevitably, we are assured, to the involvement of the courts and the disclosure of the confidential reports made on the prisoners as part of the present parole system. It would represent a significant shift in the concept of parole from being a privilege to being a right. It would also require legislation and the setting up of a new type of parole scheme. The demand on resources would be high, and it is doubtful whether the end result would be that more prisoners were granted parole.

A question was asked about the membership of LRCs. By statute, they consist of the prison governor, one member of the board of visitors, one probation officer and two independent members. The board of visitors' member is nominated by the board of visitors itself and the probation member by the local chief probation officer. The independent members are recruited by various means but the aim is to get as wide a cross-section of society as possible. Age, sex and occupation are all taken into account. Ministers insist on two names for each vacancy to allow choice. I should like to emphasise that many ethnic minorities serve on LRCs and training is always provided for new members.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, drew as an example the driver of a getaway car in a shooting incident compared to the person who bludgeoned an elderly couple to death. I can only repeat what my noble friend Lord Elton said in response to the same question in 1983. Surely, the latter deserves as much punishment as the former or more. Indeed, he may so deserve. I would refer to a statement by the then Home Secretary, that other members outside these categories may merit no less punishment to mark the seriousness of the offence.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, does the noble Lord not realise that the difference between these two cases is that the first cannot now be considered on its merits because of the new policy, while the second can be? What is the possible, conceivable argument for the introduction of such a policy when such a clearly absurd situation arises?

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, the noble Lord would accept, I believe, that there has to be a certain category of offence that is considered by the LRCs alone and perhaps other categories that are not. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also raised the matter of the reconviction prediction score. It has recently been revalidated by a full and thorough Home Office study that will be published in the not too distant future.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, mentioned the European Commission's report in the Weeks case. It was by no means unanimous and the Commission itself decided to refer the matter to the European Court for final ruling. Its decision is awaited and there is nothing I can add at this stage.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will forgive me if I interrupt. I especially did not go into the issues, and said so, that were before the European Court. I am obliged to him for saying that a decision has not been made and, indeed, he would not want to comment on it. I shall not ask a question but, purely for the record, I referred to the facts of the case as showing something dreadfully wrong with our penal system when this matter concerned a young man of 17. I shall not repeat that portion of my speech. I am however obliged to the noble Lord for what he said about the European Court.

Lord Beaverbrook

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I accept what he says about not mentioning the details of the case.

This has been a valuable and interesting debate, with a number of weighty contributions. I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part. The issue of the release on licence of men and women held in our prison establishments merits such debate. It touches the lives not only of the individuals concerned but of their families and of the communities to which they may return. The principles underlying the decision-making process are, I believe, clear and soundly based. Individual cases are considered carefully on their merits. It is right that the operation of the parole scheme and of life licensing should be kept under review by Parliament. I can assure your Lordships that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will take careful note of all that has been said in the debate.

House adjourned at five minutes past eight o'clock.