HL Deb 12 May 1989 vol 507 cc868-905

11.28 a.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

rose to call attention to the Report of the Review Committee of the Parole Board for England and Wales, The Parole System in England and Wales (Cmnd 532) and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking those noble Lords who have put down their names to speak today. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the first of the line of distinguished chairmen of the Parole Board, is especially sorry that he cannot be here, but he has been good enough to give me his views. I hope that I am not out of place if I go on to express a mild regret that no one holding high judicial office has felt able to speak. But there it is.

When we debated prisons on 30th November the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, had only just appeared. In a reply to a subsequent Question on 7th March the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said at col. 1356 of the Official Report that comments on the report had been asked for by 10th March. Since that closing date is well past I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us a little more about the views of government today. However, I am bound to say that I have been around too long to be too optimistic as to what will happen.

Parole in this country has not had a very long history. I cannot help recalling that when I moved from the Treasury to the Home Office in the summer of 1966 the then Home Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, was in the throes of deciding what to put in a forthcoming Criminal Justice Bill and parole was very high on the agenda. The idea in this country had its origin I believe in a committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and had been elaborated in a White Paper issued by Sir Frank Soskice, as he then was.

It is not without interest that when the parole provisions under the Criminal Justice Act 1967 were introduced there was no provision for a parole board nor, at first, when the idea of a board was conceded, for that board to have any responsibility for reviewing life-sentence cases. I propose to say no more today about life-sentence cases in view of the inquiry currently under way by your Lordships' Select Committee, except perhaps just to make the passing comment that the media so often manage to get it wrong, in that life-sentence prisoners were released on licence long before parole was ever thought of. They still are; and they are not released on parole.

At the time of the 1967 Act, prisoners in general were able to earn remission of one-third of a determinate sentence by virtue of good behaviour in prison. The amount of remission permitted had its ups and down, but by then it had pretty well settled down to this figure of one-third, not on any particular ground of principle. The introduction of parole meant that a prisoner, in addition, could be considered for release under supervision for a further third of his sentence, subject to his serving at least 12 months in custody. Therefore a prisoner who received, say, a six-year sentence could be released after two years. After that he would spend two years on parole under supervision and then he would have no further commitment.

The theory was that parole related not to the prisoner's behaviour in prison—that was taken account of by remission—but to his prospects on release. I shall not weary your Lordships by going over the history of parole since that time, except to say that in my view two mistakes were made. The first—the disadvantages of which only became apparent in the light of experience—was to reduce the minimum qualifying period of custody from 12 months to six months. That change, carried out under statutory powers, took effect in 1984 and aroused hardly a whisper of criticism at the time.

The second mistake, the objections to which were only too glaringly obvious at the time, was the decision of the then Home Secretary—announced, as I recall, to a Conservative Party Conference in 1983—that in general parole would not be given to those sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment for offences involving drug trafficking, sex, arson or violence.

The consequences of both those decisions were among the problems which led to the setting up of the Carlisle inquiry in July 1987. The first one added a considerable burden to the resources needed to handle cases and also gave rise to anomalies which caused great dissatisfaction, both to those who received sentences and to those who imposed them. For example, because of the minimum period of custody required, prisoners sentenced to terms of imprisonment of different lengths could end up by qualifying for release on the same day. That was not the only anomaly; and it all added still further to the blurring which had developed between remission and parole.

The second decision raised doubts about the whole concept of parole, although in the end courts accepted that Sir Leon Brittan had not exceeded his powers in making that change without parliamentary authority. The practical results were disquieting. It meant that the sentences which the judges had thought appropriate to impose in open court were handled by the Executive in different ways, according to the nature of the offence.

There were quite a number of other considerations, apart from those two, which called for examination. There were the frustrations of prisoners going through the exercise of having their case for parole considered at the one-third point of their sentence, and having all their expectations aroused, when there was really no conceivable prospect of them being granted parole. There were great and increasing delays and, underlying it all, there was the feeling that no one quite knew what a sentence imposed by the court would mean in practice. Even now we often hear on the news bulletins that a person has been sentenced to, say, 14 years' imprisonment; but no one knows how long that sentence will last. The only reasonably certain assumption being that it will not last 14 years.

There was an accumulation of considerations in this respect which called for an outside inquiry. That inquiry was carried out by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues with great expedition and thoroughness. A clear report, and one which was unanimous on all the main issues, was presented to the Home Secretary last October. I am sure that all those interested in penal affairs must feel grateful to the committee for its achievement. It is right to add, for the sake of the record, that a comparable inquiry has been carried out in Scotland under the chairmanship of Lord Kincraig. That committee's report, which took account of the Carlisle Report, was submitted in March of this year.

The Carlisle Report aimed at devising a solution which would result in more meaning being attached to the totality of a sentence passed by the court. A basic conclusion was that a distinction should be drawn between the short and the long sentence, and that for the short sentence there should be an end to discretionary parole. The committee drew the line at the period of four years.

For those individuals who were sentenced to four years or less—that is, the great majority—the committee recommended that release should take place at the half-way stage of the sentence; but that the individual should remain at risk for the totality of the sentence in the sense that if reconvicted he could be required, in addition to any fresh sentence, to serve what remained of the original sentence.

Further, as regards sentences of 12 months or more and up to the maximum of four years, the committee recommended that the individual should be supervised on release up to the three-quarter point of the sentence. I shall illustrate what that means. A prisoner sentenced to three years' imprisonment, for example, could be released after 18 months but would be subject to supervision for nine months and still remain at risk, if reconvicted, during the last nine months of that period. All of that information would be known when the judge passed sentence.

For those individuals serving more than four years, the committee concluded that discretionary parole should be retained. Such sentences concern serious criminals who should not be released to society without an individual assessment. However, the committee thought that the earliest time at which a prisoner could be considered for parole should be at the half-way point of his sentence and not after a third of the sentence had been served. If a prisoner failed to get parole, he should be released after two-thirds of his sentence. All discharged prisoners should be subject to supervision up to the three-quarter point of the sentence and should be at risk for 100 per cent. of the sentence. I hope that I have got this right; it is all a little complicated. I was comforted to see that the Home Office press notice at the time managed to get it wrong, but I gather that this is now fashionable in government departments.

One added set of recommendations was that the relevant dates could be postponed on account of misconduct in prison. I add this as being contrary to the view which the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, frequently puts to us, with his customary eloquence. My own experience makes me wonder how prison discipline could be maintained unless there were some mechanism for extending the period of detention if a prisoner seriously offended against prison rules.

One can argue about some of the committee's recommendations; I propose to do so myself in a moment. But it all adds up to a pretty sensible approach. It would restore meaning to the sentence passed by the court; it would reduce the office work and cut down delays; it would be comprehensible to the courts and to the prisoners; it would end the blurring of remission and parole; and it could not be criticised as being soft—at least not with any justification.

The committee also thought—and I think that the Scottish committee went along with this—that there should be no attempt to hand out different treatment according to the nature of the offence. The committee thought that questions of deterrence and punishment were for the court when deciding what sentence should be imposed and that the test of whether the prisoner, if released, could be a danger to the public should apply to all, without differentiation. I for my part certainly go along with that.

However, although I hope that the broad concept is acceptable, there are obviously points on which opinions will differ. For the long serving prisoner who does not get parole it is still proposed that he should be released at the two-thirds point and in the case of a sentence of, say, five or six years, the period of supervision between that point and the three-quarter point would be quite short.

Then there is the question whether it is right to put the dividing line between short and long sentences at four years. The Scottish report goes for five and there are those who would prefer three, as I myself am inclined to do. I am not at all easy about a recommendation that the parole board should normally give reasons for its decision to refuse parole. The committee recognised that there must be some exceptions when someone gives information on the understanding that it will not be disclosed to the prisoner. There is, for example, the case of a wife whose enthusiasm for getting her husband home is rather less than the impression she herself has managed to convey to the husband. However, in going beyond that I find it a little hard to accept that prison officers and others reporting on parole would be as frank and as helpful as they should be if they knew that their views could be disclosed, especially perhaps the prison officer who would have to continue in close contact with the prisoner. To give reasons sounds attractive, but the difficulties I perceive are not simply those of a former bureaucrat in love with secrecy.

I also do not agree with the proposal that the parole board should become an executive body with complete responsibility and that the Home Secretary should no longer have any locus in individual decisions. The Scottish report comes to a different decision and so, I know, does the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. The Home Secretary would not often overrule a recommendation. He would still be barred from authorising release if the parole board had not recommended it. But with his responsibilities for penal policy, I think it right that he and not a proxy should remain accountable to Parliament for the discretionary release of prisoners guilty of very serious crimes.

It is perhaps worth recalling that when the 1967 Act was before Parliament the fear was expressed that if the Home Secretary were left a free hand, he might go around letting out inmates in droves far too early, whereas it turned out in practice that successive Home Secretaries had to turn down a few recommendations for release which in their view were premature and could have jeopardised the whole of the parole system in the public eye.

However, to go back to basics, what is in issue here is whether we should retain a system of parole based on release at a particular point of the sentence, followed by a period of supervision in the community. I believe that we should and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, agrees. It is not always remembered that the fact that many thousands are sent to prison each month also means that there are thousands each month who leave prison and return to the community.

I cannot help thinking that it is better that as many as possible should be subject to skilled supervision as they seek to re-establish themselves in the outside world—many of them persistent offenders who are simply inadequate and find great difficulty in standing on their own feet—rather than that they should serve some proportion of their sentence and then come out cold, with no further obligation and no one to give them any help and supervision.

I have nearly finished, I realise that I have gone on for some time but it is difficult to handle the subject, even leaving out great chunks, without taking up a bit of time. I point out that 120,000 people have already been released on parole, with immense savings in both human and financial terms. Experience on the whole is mildly encouraging in that those released on parole tend to re-offend less seriously than those not released under supervision. If anything remotely favourable can ever be said about any aspect of penal policy, it must be something quite special and unusual.

The proposals of the Carlisle Committee, as I understand them, are not aimed primarily at reducing the prison population, and their effect at worst would be broadly neutral. But the committee is right to emphasise that all that it proposes depends in the end on a sensible policy and that without it there might arise the need for a root and branch review of sentencing law and practice. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

11.47 a.m.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, this is the second time within a short period that I have had the good fortune to follow the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, in a debate in this House. The other occasion, as the noble Lord said, was on 30th November last year when he initiated a debate on alternatives to imprisonment. As that debate took place within five days of the publication of our parole review, I had the opportunity on that occasion to address your Lordships and to set out in general terms the conclusions that we reached.

If I may say so, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord that he should have chosen to have a debate on the report itself. I thank him for the kind remarks that he made about the work of the committee. It was a great honour to be invited to chair that committee. I was most fortunate in its membership and I know that all members would wish me to say that we were extremely lucky in the very high standard of support that we received from the secretary and the assistant secretary from the Home Office, who worked with the committee. If, as some people have been kind enough to say, the report is at least readable and well argued, whether or not one agrees with the conclusions, the vast majority of the praise for that must go to William Fittall for the work he did as secretary of the committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, mentioned that parole had a short history in this country. It is interesting to note that the history of the idea of conditional release is somewhat longer and starts with the principle of the ticket of leave which applied in the 19th century to those who had been transported to Australia. It is also interesting to note that the Select Committee on Transportation set out in 1837 the terms of the ticket of leave. The committee stated, with regard to the earlier conditional release of these people, that: This indulgence on the whole has a very useful effect, as it holds out hope to a convict if he behaves well and is liable to be re-assumed in case of misconduct". It is equally interesting to note that when the system of transportation was ended, and the idea of the ticket of leave was carried forward with those who were instead sentenced to penal servitude in this country, it immediately caused an outcry of concern in this country when, for the first time, people realised that those who had been convicted of serious offences were being released earlier than the date on which they need have been released.

The Review Committee's report was published in November of last year. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, the Home Office asked for comments on it by 10th March. I understand from a recent answer given to Mr. Wheeler in another place that a substantial body of comments has been made. If there is one message that I wish to put to the Government today, it is that even if the problems of parole are not at the moment the political flavour of the month, the fact is that does not mean that those problems have gone away. We were set up as a committee to carry out this review because of the very real feeling that existed that the parole system was not working properly. We found as a committee that that concern was fully justified and that many of the individual criticisms made of the parole system were justified.

I suggest to the Government and to my noble friend who is to reply that those criticisms of the parole system will continue until the system is changed to meet them. What, then, are the criticisms which I believe are justified? Clearly, it is not the principle of the idea of conditional release itself. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, 120,000 people have been released earlier than they otherwise would have been with enormous savings in human and other resources and with a very low failure rate. The committee strongly emphasised the importance of our belief that release on supervision back into society was better than people being released back into society unsupervised. However, the particular problem, as we see it, is that as operated the system has lost judicial support and has lost much public support. It has led to an enormous, unnecessary increase in the work of the probation service and of the prison service. The system has also been treated with a good deal of cynicism by prisoners and offenders themselves.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Allen, that much of that loss of support stems from what he described as the two mistakes that were made in 1983. Certainly, the loss of judicial support for the scheme, stems very much from the decision, which I believe to be wrong, to reduce the minimum qualifying period for parole at that time. That decision was taken for the very best of reasons. The effect of that decision has been that the vast majority of offenders today who are sentenced to shorter terms of imprisonment are released at a third of their sentence, or six months from the date of their sentence. That involves something like 80 per cent. of those sentenced to up to two years' imprisonment.

That meant, in practice, that the gap between what the sentencing judge had decreed and what was happening in effect had become too great. Those who were sentenced to, let us say, two-and-a-half years or 30 months imprisonment, because 30 is simply dividable by three, were in fact serving probably only 10 months. The whole of the sentence would be completed after 20 months, in that there was no form of supervision or means to recall beyond that time. The effect of having a minimum qualifying period meant that the differentials between different sentences were substantially affected. In some cases they were totally eroded. Judges found that after having given one man 12 months, another 15 months and another 18 months because they believed there was a distinction in the part those men had played in a particular offence, all those people came out of prison on the same day, six months after their sentence had been passed. We believe, with great respect, that that cannot be right.

However, I also suggest to the House that the whole principle of attempting to have a selective system of release for the shorter term prisoners cannot work. If a selective principle of release is to be effective, those who are deciding the date of release should do so on criteria different from those which a judge has used in imposing a sentence in the first place. If they use the same criteria, all they are doing is resentencing in secret the person whom a judge has sentenced in open court. One cannot with sentences of 18 months or two years take different matters into account when considering the prisoner's parole, from the matters which the judge considered at the time of sentencing.

We came to the conclusion that, as regards shorter sentences—we took shorter sentences to mean all sentences up to and including four years—the fundamental principle must be fairness between the individual prisoners and proportionality of sentence to be served. If that is adhered to, one will not get the situation where a person with a longer sentence can be released either at the same time or even earlier than someone with a shorter sentence. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen, said, we suggested that rather than having a selective system of release for all sentences up to and including four years' imprisonment, prisoners should, subject to their good behaviour, be released back into society after they have served 50 per cent. of that sentence. But, as a means of giving a reality to the sentence as a whole, prisoners should remain under sentence in society for the whole 100 per cent. of the sentence. If during that other half they commit any other offence, they can be returned to prison not only for the new offence but for any outstanding period between the date of committing the crime and the end of the previous sentence they were under.

As we believe in the idea of supervision, we have also stated that those who are released from prison in this way, should be under supervision until they have served three-quarters of their sentence, provided the sentence originally was one of 12 months or more. We believe that such a system is simpler, much fairer and much more readily understood. I believe it would be wholeheartedly supported by the judiciary which has the responsibility for imposing sentences. It is surely right that when a person receives a sentence of two or three years' imprisonment, he should know what it means, and not know that his date of release will depend on someone else making decisions about him in private.

It is surely right that the offender should know that if he has a longer sentence than another person, he will serve proportionately the same amount of that sentence; namely, he will have a longer term in prison than the man who received the shorter sentence. I believe that a system under which a person has to serve 50 per cent. of the sentence inside, is released under supervision if he behaves, until three-quarters of the period of the sentence has passed, and is under risk of recall for 100 per cent. of the sentence would restore reality to sentencing. It would also answer the criticisms that have been made, particularly by the judiciary, of the effect of parole at present.

I understand that there is concern in some quarters as to whether the proposals in relation to sentences of less than four years would have an adverse effect on the prison population. We dealt with that issue at paragraph 295 of our report. As the noble Lord said, in general terms our report is neutral so far as concerns prison numbers. We recommend that these people should come out subject to good behaviour after serving 50 per cent. of the sentence. The average time spent in prison by a person serving a sentence of up to four years at the moment is about 51 per cent. Of course there is a risk that as a result of people re-offending during the second half of their sentence there could be an increase in the prison population. We believe that the extent to which that would happen would be counteracted by a new approach to sentencing as a whole. We made it absolutely clear in our report that we believe that returning reality to the full sentence will mean and should mean a reappraisal of the length of sentences that are passed.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships the same example as I gave when I spoke in debate on 30th November. At the moment if one passes a sentence of three years' imprisonment the chances are that the prisoner will spend 12 months inside and 12 months under supervision, and then his sentence is completed. Therefore, if one thinks that he should serve 12 months inside one may well pass a sentence of three years. Rather than passing a sentence of three years with 12 months served inside and 12 months on probation, surely it is better that the court should give a sentence of two years knowing that that means that 12 months will be served inside prison and there will be supervision for the remaining 12 months and a risk of recall during the last 12 months.

Perhaps I may ask my noble friend when he comes to reply whether circuit judges themselves have indicated that they believe that the introduction of reality into sentences would be taken into account in sentencing. At the moment I have no doubt that there is a certain amount of compensation and sentences are longer than would otherwise be the case to take account of the effect of parole. I believe that our recommendation would tend to bring down the generality of sentences in that area.

I apologise if I am talking for too long, but perhaps I may now turn to the other half of our proposals concerning sentences of more than four years imprisonment. There, of their very nature, the considerations must be different. Eighty-six per cent. of those offenders are in prison for offences involving drugs, sex, violence or arson. They are the much more serious and worrying offences. We believe that it is right to retain a selective system of release for those people because there are new criteria which can be looked at in their cases. We believe that they can and should be reviewed by the Parole Board as at present. All of those people will come back into society. We believe that it is important that where possible they should come back under supervision rather than be without supervision at all.

The present restrictive policy, to which the noble Lord referred, we found to be flawed in principle and harmful in practice. It attempts to differentiate between people given the same length of sentence on the basis of the effect of the crime that they have committed. Yet that surely is a matter for the judge at the time of sentencing. He, when deciding the length of sentence, takes into account whether violence has been used, whether there is a sexual nature to the offence and matters of that nature. If at the end of the day, having taken into account all the matters which he should take into account, the judge decides that the right sentence is one of 10 years, it seemed to our committee that the same principle should be applied to the release of that man, whether the 10-year sentence was for fraud or for armed robbery.

The harm in practice is that, while we know that many of those people will not receive parole until a very few months before their release, their cases have to be reviewed after they have served a third of their sentences. The result is an enormous waste of time in nugatory reviews carried out by the probation and prison services of the cases of people whose chances of release are practically nil.

Therefore, we recommend that in future selective conditional release on parole should apply to those people, but the parole eligibility date should not start until they had served 50 per cent. of their sentence. At that time all people, irrespective of the nature of their offence, should be looked on on the same basis. The test should be to weigh the risk of their committing a further serious offence at a time when they might otherwise still be in custody against the benefit to society and to themselves in releasing them under supervision in the hope of there being less likelihood of their committing further offences in the future.

I noticed that in his reply when the report was published the Home Secretary said that some of the recommendations raised difficult questions in the context of the Government's policies for ensuring the public is adequately protected. Perhaps I may tell the noble Earl why I believe that our proposals will provide greater protection for the public than exists at present.

First, we are not advocating that the worst offenders should come out on parole. All we are saying is that after serving 50 per cent. of their sentence they should all be looked at on the basis of a similar test. But in applying that test of risk of reconviction, clearly the nature of the offence for which they have been committed in the first place and their criminal history are relevant issues in deciding whether there is a risk of their continuing to offend in future. Secondly, what is the present position? If people do not get parole at all they come out at the two-thirds point without any supervision whatever. The sentence is completed at 66 per cent.

Under our proposals, if prisoners do not receive parole they would still come out under a degree of supervision at the three-quarter period of their sentence. If they were granted parole after serving between 50 and 66 per cent. of their sentence, again they would be under supervision until three-quarters of the period of their sentence had passed. All of them would be under the risk of recall to prison if at any stage during the whole length of the sentence passed by the court they committed some further offence.

Therefore, we believe that the extended period of supervision in society, with supervision for the worst cases where at present there is no supervision, and the deterrent effect of reconviction during the whole length of a sentence, which at the moment ceases after two-thirds of the sentence, would enhance the protection of the public from such offenders rather than the reverse, as the Home Secretary's answer seemed to imply. I urge the Home Secretary to accept that it is in the interests of the protection of the public. It was certainly with that intent that our proposals in that area were put forward.

Perhaps I may finally say that, as the noble Lord mentioned, we also made many points concerning procedure. I should have liked to have had an opportunity to reply to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord. We believe that it is right that a person should be told the reasons why he is not given parole, difficult as that occasionally might be. We believe that it is right that a person should know what is said in the reports written about him if they are the basis on which the decision is to be made. It is interesting, somewhat to my surprise and despite what the noble Lord said about the concern of the prison service, that the prison service is in favour of the prisoner knowing what is said about him. It believes that more misunderstanding results from the prisoner thinking that a prison officer has said something critical about him than would arise from his being allowed to see what has been said about him.

Finally, we believe that tremendous savings could be made if the Home Office made the Parole Board an executive body. I am not talking about life sentences where the person can be kept in for the whole of his life. The Home Secretary may well wish to have day-to-day control in those matters. But, in those cases where one is merely dealing with the time of release at some point between 50 and 66 per cent. of the period of the sentence, it is unnecessary for the Home Secretary to have direct responsibility for each individual case and for the Parole Board to be advisory. It is enormously wasteful with regard to the duties required to be carried out by the parole unit in the Home Office. We believe that it mars and blurs the responsibility of the Parole Board in respect of the decisions that it takes. That is not the situation in Canada. We were impressed by the way in which the parole board works over there.

The effects of our proposals would be to reduce the load on the board from some 24,000 cases a year to 4,000 cases a year. We believe that the board itself can well look individually at 4,000 cases a year. One would no longer need a local review committee. The handful of decisions which are at the moment rejected by the Home Secretary each year do not justify the retention of that complicated system.

I apologise for having spoken for longer than I intended. I have attempted to outline some of the aspects of the report that we are debating. I hope very much that, when my noble friend comes to reply—although I appreciate that the Government will not yet have had time to come to a conclusive opinion—he will give encouragement that the recommendations of the report are being considered with care. I believe that they have the support of those whose criticisms led to the setting up of the committee. They would enhance the present system of conditional release. Obviously, as one of the authors of the report, one hopes that one's efforts over a period of a year will not merely be confined to the waste paper basket, but will be enshrined in legislation.

12.11 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, as we expected, we have listened to an interesting speech. My normal pleasure at following the noble Lord is somewhat obscured on this occasion because I cannot offer him unqualified congratulations on the report. I cannot go even as far as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who speaks with special authority and who gave a kind of broad approval. I should say, although it hardly needs saying, that I speak entirely for myself. The view of my party will be expressed by my noble friend Lady Ewart-Biggs towards the end of the debate. I am proud to think that she is now Chairman of the New Bridge for ex-prisoners which I was instrumental in starting. It is flourishing under her chairmanship more than it ever did under mine. At any rate, my noble friend will give the views of our party.

I agree with anyone who says that this is a first class report. If a student submitted it for a Ph.D. at a university, he would receive a doctorate with acclamation. It will therefore always be of great value to students of the subject. However, if I am asked whether, in my opinion, it should be put into operation immediately, I am afraid that I must reply with an unhesitating negative. I shall first of all discuss the report as matters seem to me at the present time, and then on a certain hypothesis which will appeal more to the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow. For me, the crucial paragraph—I shall not speak for long—is paragraph 298. The noble Lord said a good deal to that effect this morning. The paragraph states: We have proposed the scheme which we have described above in the hope and expectation"— I repeat that word, "expectation"— that it will be accompanied by the changes in sentencing which we wish to see". That is the whole assumption of the report. In my view, it is a totally unjustified assumption, but it is the explicit assumption in the report.

The changes that the committee wishes to see are reductions, and that is made plain in the same part of the report. I cannot imagine a greater triumph of hope and expectation over experience. In debate after debate in this House, we have called attention to the ever increased sentencing—a combination of the wisdom or folly of the present Government and judiciary. Why we should expect a sudden change on that point defies my intelligence. I need not go over the whole history of the efforts made by Mr. Whitelaw—now the noble Viscount, Lord Whitelaw—when he was Home Secretary to persuade the judges to reduce their sentences. Nothing of the kind happened; indeed, the opposite happened. The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, was by implication quite critical—indeed, he was explicitly critical—of the change in 1983 which the report described as marking a watershed.

In paragraph 33, the report states: It seems clear to us that [those changes in 1983] were the main reason why the judicial and political consensus, which had hitherto existed, broke down". Anyone who has ever listened to the debates here knows that there is no consensus and that there has not been since that time. The idea that there will be consensus in the future seems to me far too optimistic. After all, we have a Prime Minister who favours hanging. That is one way of reducing the prison population, but it is not the recommended way. I rather think that it appealed to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, in the past. At any rate, we have a Prime Minister who, at Conservative Party conferences, openly distances herself from her well-meaning Home Secretary, Mr. Hurd. We have to face that situation. We live under a certain form of government for which I do not hold the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, responsible. I have always regarded him as a liberal-minded Conservative, which may have been awkward for him in his Cabinet days. At any rate, it is not his fault that we live under those conditions and must face them.

Therefore, I believe that it would be absolutely disastrous to introduce reforms based on the expectation that there would be a reduction in sentences when most of us have no reason to suppose that such a thing could possibly occur. In the previous debate, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, was judicious.

Other people supporting him including the noble Lord, Lord Reay, who opened the debate—the choice of the Back-Benchers here—called for more severe sentences. The idea that all that will change and that there will be reduced sentences is a fantasy. It would be monstrous to introduce a report which I believe would, but might at least on any calculation, lead to an increase in the prison population. That idea is totally unacceptable to me and to anyone who calls himself a penal reformer.

However, let us try to assume that that point is covered. I do not think that it will be covered in practice, but in the years to come it might be. We might find some policy for reducing sentences and something on those lines might be reasonably considered. I do not want to dismiss the report as though I knew better than the committee. Of course, I do not. I have learned many things from the report which will always be of immense value. I heartily endorse some of its conclusions; for example, the denunciation of secrecy and the ghastly delays which cause more agony than almost anything else. The acceptance at last of the idea of the reasons being given for refusing parole is most welcome from such an official body. There has been a great deal of thought about supervision, which I do not have time to discuss now, but which is of great interest. I do not share the noble Lord's optimism about the possibilities of supervision, but I still believe that it should be explored in every possible way. I should like to express my humble admiration for the amount of thought that has gone into the report on the question of supervision.

I must now give, in a sentence or two, my answer to the question: supposing that sentences were considerably reduced, are we to favour the report even on that unreal hypothesis? Perhaps I may be a little biased in this matter.

The noble Lord was kind enough to refer to the committee of which I was chairman and it has also been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Allen. It produced a report entitled Crime—A Challenge to us All. That was a committee which is credited in the report with making the first explicit call for the setting up of a fully fledged parole system. As the chairman of that committee, I must express gratitude on behalf of us all. I cannot remember who suggested the idea of parole to the committee. It did not come from me, although by that time I had been concerned with prisoners for many years. It may have come from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones. I shall give him credit for it anyway, although the look he gives me now makes me unsure whether or not he remembers making such a suggestion.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I regret that I cannot even remember whether I was a member of the committee.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, then I shall give the credit to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, who is not with us this morning. I spoke to her yesterday and she definitely remembers having been a member of the committee and in fact she played a very important part on the youth side.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to interrupt him again, he has reminded me that I was in fact a member of the committee and I remember now that it fell to me to retire along with the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, from time to time to see whether we could come to some satisfactory conclusion in the deliberations of the committee.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord advances in his recollections of the committee. Before the end of the day he may even claim the credit for having invented the parole system. But wherever it came from, it: was suggested by our committee.

I stand here today an unrepentant believer in parole. The committee of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, does not quite abolish parole but it does go a long way in that direction. It reduces the number of prisoners to come under consideration for parole from 24,000 to 4,000. When the time the number is down to 4,000 I expect that someone will just chop off the last 4,000. As an unrepentant believer in parole, I believe that this report sounds the death knell of parole. I am entirely against it and feel that it has been a great mistake.

What is so magical about parole? These issues are all matters of opinion, and there are arguments to support other methods of release. But in my eyes parole is the one way of giving some motivation to prisoners to improve their moral life both in prison and later. To remove that inducement and hope which is now given to many people who are very short of hope would be a wicked thing to do. So I am entirely opposed to anything that goes so far to destroy the parole system.

There is an argument which I shall touch on only briefly, and which the noble Lord has already mentioned; namely, that if there is a very short time for parole, there comes a point at which it becomes absurd when someone is only in prison for a few months. However, speaking more broadly, it is argued that the judge has passed sentence and it takes a long time (I do not think I am misinterpreting the noble Lord) before another worthwhile opinion can be given.

I think the noble Lord underestimates the value of the LRCs, and I must suggest that he underestimates it because he wants to abolish them. They must include of course the governor or deputy-governor. In my opinion it is in the nature of things that a prisoner is examined more carefully by an LRC than he would be by any judge. To throw away all that machinery is a disastrous aspect of a disastrous policy.

I am sorry to speak so strongly, but it is how I feel. I prefer to end with a perfectly sincere tribute to the noble Lord, for whom I have so much regard, on his having produced a memorable report. So long as it is not put into operation, it will have done nothing but good.

12.24 p.m.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, in my view this is an admirable report. I am sad that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, may not perhaps have read the whole of the report.

The Earl of Longford

Yes I have, my Lords.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

Well, my Lords, he seemed to be talking about a different report from the one that I have read. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, on its contents. It is full of common sense, as one would expect it to be having regard to the chairman and to the great practical experience in ordinary life of the members of the committee. It is clearly and logically presented in language that can be readily understood. It sets out the history of the system, the way in which it works, its weaknesses and its failures. It then spells out the committee's own recommendations, stating frankly and succinctly the reasons for them. As a lawyer, I must say that it is a contrast to the opaque mish-mash of the Green Paper that we debated on 7th April.

The committee point out that at a time when the courts had been provided by Parliament with an array of non-custodial sanctions, nevertheless the numbers of people being sent to prison had increased and so had the lengths of sentences. Very early in the deliberations of the committee it was found that the question of parole was inextricably bound up with sentencing policy. However, the terms of reference made no mention at all of that.

It is with that central aspect of the report, which was not mentioned at all by the noble Lord, Lord Allen, that I want to deal in my contribution to this debate. I wish to highlight a number of passages in the report and then ask the Minister to tell the House the Government's reaction to them. On the very first page of the report the committee refer to experiencing: a sense of puzzlement that we as a country appeared to find it necessary to resort to an expensive and unsatisfactory sanction"— that is, imprisonment— more widely than most of our neighbours". At paragraph 236 the words of an American writer are quoted with approval: Expediting the release of prisoners while doing nothing to stem the flow of admissions is like bailing water from a boat without repairing the gaping hole in its bottom". It is to that gaping hole that I wish to direct your Lordships' attention.

At paragraph 217 it is noted that: as a society we should be aiming to send fewer people to prison". And again in paragraph 208: All the time that our society persists in seeing imprisonment as 'real punishment' and every other form of sentence as a species of 'let-off our prison population seems unlikely to fall significantly". At paragraph 295, to which the noble Lord has just referred, we find what I suggest is the key passage in this report: the new scheme that we have proposed … should provide the springboard for a thorough reassessment of present sentencing levels. We therefore recommend that the implementation of our proposals should be accompanied by a determined attempt on the part of the Government and the judiciary to secure a corresponding reduction in sentencing at all levels". That is a recommendation on the part of the Government.

The report contains a large number of recommendations, as we have heard. Spelt out in passage after passage is the fact that the implementation of these recommendations demands a clear commitment from government and judiciary to reduce the length of sentences across the board. I ask the Minister to tell the House without equivocation: will the Government undertake this commitment and with it undertake to discuss with the judiciary how best to achieve the required result?

As we have heard, the report recommends the supervised release of short-term prisoners at one-half of the sentence served—the last half to be served in the community. I am wholeheartedly in favour of supervised release and of the non-selective approach for the short-term prisoner for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, has so clearly indicated.

I am also very supportive of the emphasis that the report places on the role of the probation services on through care, as it is called, and the provision of a release plan for every prisoner and provision of adequate resources to make this possible. However, my one quarrel with the committee is that it rejects release at one-third of the sentence served. The reason for that rejection is clearly because the committee was convinced that the judiciary would not accept it. The judges demand that a sentence passed in court should, so far as possible, mean what it says. In the minds of the judiciary that still means that the sentence should involve incarceration. The judiciary still finds it extremely difficult to hoist in the concept of a sentence of imprisonment meaning that some of it shall be served in incarceration and some in the community. The constant reference to sentences meaning what they say always involves sticking to the old—what I would now describe as out-of-date—concept of punishment: that is, that prison sentence means a sentence served in prison. A prison sentence now in civilised democracies throughout Europe means a sentence which is partially served in prison and partially served in the community.

The fact of the matter is that under the present parole system thousands of prisoners have been released into the community at one-third of their sentence without any harmful effect on society. Indeed, the 1986 figures indicate that 11,000-odd of the 15,000 short sentence prisoners considered were given such parole. The report recognises that under its recommendations such prisoners will serve a higher proportion of their sentence in prison than hitherto. I find it difficult to go along with that. In its proposal, the committee says that prisoners should remain at risk to the end of the sentence period. If they re-offend then the court will have power to order the balance of the sentence to be served as well as any new sentence which may be imposed. As the committee frankly says, the result of that may well be a substantial increase in the prison population whereas, as NACRO points out, their release at the one-third stage would reduce the prison population by over 8,000 at the present time.

This concession to the judiciary can be justified, as the report makes abundantly clear and as has been made clear again today by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, only by an equivalent concession by the judges that they will reduce present prison tariffs. Whether this can best be achieved by strengthening principles which have already been laid down by the Court of Appeal, or whether (and I quote again from the report), the Government should go further and invite Parliament to define more precisely the limits within which the judicial discretion should operate", is not for us to determine.

The last passage that I should like to quote is from paragraph 297 of the report. It states: 'Much hinges on … the commitment of the Government to work for lower overall sentences. There is the risk that the disappearance of release at a third and the increased liabilities which we propose for the latter part of the sentence could add, possibly substantially, to the prison population". The first part of the next paragraph was quoted by the noble Lord recently. However, I should like to underline the final sentence. If these changes were not forthcoming, and the scheme which we have recommended had a significant adverse effect on prison population, we are satisfied that the case for a root and branch review of sentencing law and practice, and its interaction with early release mechanisms, would become irresistible". Those are very strong words indeed. The ball is therefore planted firmly and clearly in the Government's court. The House will want to know, I am sure, where the Government intend to kick it. As some of us have argued for years, the key to the overcrowding problem, the disgrace of the remand situation, the introduction of minimum standards, the unrest in the prisons, and an effective and acceptable system of parole, lies in the hands of the judiciary working in co-operation with a determined and committed Government.

Here is an official report that spells it all out. Will the Government at long last now sit down with the Lord Chief Justice to respond to this report and take positive measures to plug what was referred to as the gaping hole? The judiciary is the responsibility of the Lord Chancellor. The report makes it abundantly clear that its recommendations cannot be implemented without the co-operation of the judges. The noble and learned Lord is not here to participate in this important debate, as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, pointed out in his opening remarks. That is surely regrettable and gives further fuel, along of course with the recent Green Paper, to those who support the idea of a ministry of justice. In the noble and learned Lord's absence, perhaps the Minister will tell the House whether discussions have already taken place over the past six months between his department and that of the noble and learned Lord. It is not so much Green Papers that are needed as green lights on the road between Queen Anne's Gate and Great Peter Street. In six months surely those lights have at least changed to amber.

I end what I have to say by simply commending some of the more important recommendations. I differ strongly from the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale. That the Home Secretary should cease to be responsible for individual parole decisions, and that the board should shoulder that duty except for "lifer" cases, surely must be sensible when one reads in the report that at the moment the Home Secretary is in law responsible for every single decision. We all know that 90 per cent. of the decisions which are made in regard to these short sentence releases were in fact made by LRCs. Would it not be infinitely more sensible to take this duty away from the Home Secretary and make it realistically the duty of the expert board? I agree very strongly with the idea that prison governors should serve on the board in the future. That there should be open reporting and reasons given for refusal of parole I could not support more strongly, having dealt with many cases of clients who, regrettably, have gone to prison. On those rare occasions when that has happened during my professional career I have seen the suffering which people undergo. There is the trouble and disturbance which is caused by prisoners having no idea why their applications for parole are turned down. There are the endless discussions between those who have succeeded and those who have failed. Surely we have reached a point in our democracy when we can grow up and be adult about the matter and men and women can be told perfectly straightforwardly why they had been refused parole, except on rare occasions. Surely we have reached that point. I have never been able to understand the difficulties which exist in that.

I believe that it is right that the LRCs should be abolished because they have grown and grown under the previous system. The Leon Brittan restrictions should also be abolished. I also strongly support the view that there should be ethnic monitoring of parole decisions and there should be a simplification of the supervision procedures in relation to young offenders.

All those proposals appear to be eminently sensible. I strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, said in his speech about the overall effect of those recommendations giving greater protection to the public than they do at this time. That argument appears to be overwhelming when one reads the report. With anxious anticipation I await the reply of the Minister to the matters which I have raised in order to hear the Government's intentions.

12.42 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, I greatly welcome the debate and am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for introducing it. We are also greatly indebted to noble Lords who have already spoken in the debate from great experience and commitment to this field.

I speak as a layman in these matters but as one who is aware that public concern about the level of crime in our society goes deep and is widespread. I recently attended an open day at the Home Office and was amazed to learn that by the age of 28 one-third of the male population of this country will have been convicted of an indictable offence—that is, one in three. Much of that may be petty crime, but crimes of violence are on the increase. Certainly none of us can be complacent. The Church recognises that there are deep reasons for the malaise. Nevertheless, the response to the problem of crime must be a penal system which represents an adequate deterrent to offenders. That must be one of its purposes, as well as a concern with reformation and public safety.

Surely it goes without saying that any penal system must be concerned with the need for proper and effective treatment of prisoners. In a civilised let alone a Christian society the system must be one that is in itself humane, just and comprehensible to those who are subject to it. It must also be workable within the resources at our disposal. Among those resources are our prisons where the Church is involved through the ministry of prison chaplains of all denominations. They, as much as any of us, are aware of the enormous pressures that the prison service has to bear in terms of overcrowding and of the resultant tensions that build up within the institution when left to bear the brunt of custodial sentencing at a level which appears to bear no relationship to available prison accommodation. The report that we are considering today recognises that the present parole system does little to ease these problems and can actually exacerbate them, despite the dedicated service of those who serve on review committees.

Over the years the parole system as we have it has given the impression of being both arbitrary and complex and has, through the delays inherent in an overburdened process, fuelled frustration and uncertainty within our prisons. What is more, although early release is a mechanism whereby overcrowding in prison may be controlled, our parole system has manifestly not achieved that objective. I am told from the inside, as it were, that the sense of inequity and disappointed expectations that the system has generated together with the tension created by waiting for Parole Board decisions, have had a detrimental effect on the morale of prisoners, their families and hence on the whole penal system. The effect of the present system on those categories of prisoner excluded from its provisions is of course dispiriting to the point of despair.

There needs to be a change and the present proposals offer a beginning. The introduction of a clear and comprehensible system that treats all prisoners alike within the limits mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, can be constructive only when it comes to trying to persuade offenders that the system plays fair and that justice is for all.

Not that the report is starry-eyed. The need for probation officers to monitor the progress of those granted parole or a conditional release is clearly recognised. It is to be hoped that should the proposals be implemented, Parliament will not be starry-eyed about the resources that will be needed by the probation service to carry out this role. One of the thrusts of the report is to bring back meaning into the entire sentence through the licence conditions under which parole or release is granted. However, that puts the onus very much on already overburdened probation officers and we must be clear about that and be prepared to provide what is needed.

That applies also to the prison service. The report assesses the opportunities that the proposed reforms will provide in preparing prisoners for their release. It suggests drawing up a sentence plan for each prisoner serving more than four years' imprisonment with a view to preparing him or her for return to society. Such proposals offer an important opportunity to place renewed emphasis on the rehabilitation of prisoners. But if that is not to be just wishful thinking which will leave probation officers to pick up the pieces, it is vital both that this preparatory work is well thought out and, crucially, properly resourced.

I welcome the report. Its proposals are just and humane. I believe that the penal system must treat offenders as human beings if it expects them to behave as such in the outside world. Uncertainty, disappointment, secretiveness and apparent arbitrariness bring about the frustration, resentment and ultimately the anger which have all too often seen our prisons in chaos.

The proposals contained in the report will not answer all our problems but they may help to alleviate some of the factors that cause "dis-ease". However, if we go along this particular road we must not be half-hearted in our commitment to provide the necessary infrastructure to make it work. Neither must we demur from taking a critical look at our propensity to view custodial sentencing as the only effective way of dealing with crime, which plainly it is not.

12.50 p.m.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate, particularly with his final sentence and with his demand for more resources. We have seen something of the kind go wrong over the fresh start for the prisons. That could have gone through with far less trouble if a little money had been pushed into it. The same will apply to anything which happens following the report.

Having said that, I believe this is a particularly good report. As has been said, one would expect it to be so from the quality of the members of the committee, all of whom have fairly extensive experience of the problems we are discussing—and that is by no means always the case. I congratulate the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, on having achieved unanimity with so many experts; a very difficult object to achieve. I eagerly support the noble Lord, Lord Allen, in asking the Government to tell the House what they think about the issue after seven months. That may seem a short time for the Home Office but it is a very long time for the people concerned: prisoners, probation officers, prison officers, governors and so on. Therefore, we must have some indication from the Government that they feel as friendly towards this report as I do; and as do all the speakers today with the possible exception of my old and noble friend Lord Longford who did not seem to approve of it very much.

My noble friend Lord Hutchinson, who as a member of NACRO (of which I am president) is likely to agree with me, has seized on the most important passages in the report, though not directly linked with parole. The rather subtle point is that which describes the Government as, failing to grasp the nettle of sentencing reform, but finding it more convenient to allow judges a free hand and to restrain the size of the prison population more covertly". That is a very insulting remark and I am glad it was made. Anyone who reads it carefully will see that it is no compliment.

The report also states that, there will be no alternative to a root and branch review of sentencing law and practice". That has been raised by every speaker and I shall not say much more about it. It is perfectly clear that the parole scheme cannot put right that which is wrong. It cannot put everything right that is wrong but that is no reason for not trying to do so. My view on the report is that, on the whole, I agree with it.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. Let us suppose that in fact there is no reduction in sentences. Would the noble Lord still favour the report although it is based on the assumption that there will be a reduction in sentences?

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, the answer is, yes. The present situation is appalling. To consider the report in relation to the crisis in the prisons is akin to a doctor presented with a patient who has terminal cancer and a sprained ankle but who nevertheless spends his time on the sprained ankle. It is still worth doing so. The report is about fairness and justice and not basically about the prison population which, of course, is a far more important aspect. That is very much the line taken by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson.

I shall follow the report itself a little and move away from the prison population. We have an argument on this subject most years. I have told the Government what to do on at least three occasions. I know they will not do it. Overcrowding in the prisons is perfectly curable given the will, but the will is not there. However, I shall not discuss that matter any further this afternoon. In point of fact, the parole system is a very important part of the whole. It may as well be right and this report will largely put it right.

I well remember in 1967 urging my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who I may say needed no urging, to go bravely ahead with the introduction of the new parole scheme. We can all be happy that he did so. The fact that 20 years' experience has suggested improvements and even some changes in principle in no way derogates from the scheme's remarkable success. It has demonstrated that many sentences can be reduced in length without significant risk to the public. The report states that one in five parolees re-offend after release but that most of their offences are petty. Only 5 per cent. of the offences are serious enough to justify revoking the licence. That compares extremely favourably with the percentage of reconviction within two years of all prisoners, which stands at 55 per cent. If we could get it down to 20 per cent. of the whole, of which only 5 per cent. is serious, that would be very much better than the ordinary average which occurs everyday under the present system.

The scheme proposed in the report should do even better because, as the report clearly shows, there is good evidence to suggest that supervision for a period on release leads noticeably to less re-offending than continuation in prison. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hutchinson in regretting that, for the under-four-year cases, the date of release is to be increased from one-third to a half but I am prepared to give that away in order to bring the judiciary with us. If we can obtain agreement we would at least have something right in the prison system instead of, as at the moment, more or less nothing.

The report defeats its own argument about this when it states: It matters little from the point of view of public safety whether prisoners at the lower end of the scale spend nine months in custody or six and the sooner they can be released, the better". Hear, hear, I say to that.

I was glad to see some reference to the Prior Report. It is particularly disappointing that the Government have rejected its main proposal that boards of visitors should cease to be disciplinary. I hope that when the changes recommended in this report come to be made the Prior recommendation can be made, too. My last thought is that every Home Secretary has too much to do, so the proposal to give the parole board the duty to make its own decisions instead of making recommendations to him must be a sound one. I endorse the view that parole boards should contain prison governors. That is important and we must endeavour to meet that objective.

I should like to make a final point. I wish we could occasionally get a Law Lord to our debates. I have an enormous respect for the judges. They are just like everybody else, only cleverer. If we can put forward proposals to the Home Secretary which he believes are worth trying, and if he can persuade the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, with himself, to talk to the judges then I believe that they would try out such proposals, whatever they may be, in a proper and loyal way. If they do not attend our debates, the cannot know what we think. However, perhaps that is asking rather a lot.

If the Government accept the report more or less in its entirety, which they should, it will remain essential reading for students of criminology for many years to come. The background chapter tracing the history of remission from the ticket-of-leave man, whom most of us first met in Dickens, right up to today, is most clearly told. The reasoning is impeccable throughout the report. I await the Government's verdict with impatience and with the hope that they will accept its main recommendations without further delay.

1 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I welcome the decision of the Government to provide time for this important debate, and I join with everybody else in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for having agreed to introduce it. Like both of my noble friends I deeply regret that we have no member of the judiciary present today. It seems quite astonishing with a debate of this importance and character that we find ourselves in that position.

I propose to divide my speech into two sections. The first will deal with those matters on which I find myself in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues. Secondly, I shall deal with those matters where I find myself not agreeing with them. Perhaps I may first turn to those matters on which I suspect that we are all largely agreed except perhaps for the noble Earl, Lord Longford. As they are generally accepted I shall probably spend less time on them. I accept one of the committee's most important recommendations; namely, that discretionary release should be abolished for those prisoners serving the shortest sentences. I am sure that is right, and I welcome the fact that nearly everybody has agreed to it. At the moment the parole system is submerged under an avalanche of paper. The arrangements for short-sentence prisoners introduced by Sir Leon Brittan, have proved to be a failure. Their inconsistencies have undermined judicial confidence in the entire system and they have been of only marginal benefit to those affected.

When they were introduced I believe that all of us were prepared to accept them largely on the ground that the Government were not prepared to go any further. I believe that we all accepted that they were probably the least attractive of the options available to the then Home Secretary. I consider that Lord Carlisle's recommendation that we should have a four-year cut off is probably right. But as the committee itself recognises, there are problems associated with its related recommendation that their non-discretionary system should be applied at 50 per cent. of sentence rather than the present discretionary system which can operate at one-third of the sentence.

I believe that unless this significant change were to be accompanied by the most stringent review of present sentencing practices, for the reasons cited by the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, the long-term effect could be to increase our already intolerably high prison population. One has always to look at changes of this character with the greatest caution. I can well remember being involved with the decision to introduce suspended sentences. They had a most dramatic long-term effect on the prison population of a kind that was not anticipated at the time it was introduced.

A large number of the shorter-sentence prisoners currently released after serving one-third of their sentence provide only a fairly minor threat to our society. But they represent a major proportion of the entire prison population. If they are to be released in future at the 50 per cent. stage and without any prospect of a change in the level of sentencing in the courts (together with all the other related recommendations of Lord Carlisle's committee) we could face yet another significant crisis in our prisons. So I welcome the committee's recommendation that the new scheme should be accompanied by action by both the judiciary and government to reduce the current levels of sentencing.

I say that though I have some sympathy for what the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said. Governments of different persuasion have used phrases of this kind for the past 20 years. Unless there is a determined effort to do something, there is a risk that the prison population may rise notwithstanding the many other admirable proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues. I am well aware of the resistance of the judiciary to what I am about to say; but I suspect that in the longer term we shall not make any significant progress in this direction until we have a sentencing council.

I come now to another issue of high importance also dealt with in the report. That is the introduction of the so-called restrictive parole policy by Sir Leon Brittan in 1983. In that year he told the Conservative Party conference that he proposed to introduce a new policy for all those sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment who had been convicted of offences involving sex, drug trafficking, violence or arson. He said that in future, save in the most exceptional circumstances—and he said that in order to protect himself from judicial review—he would not agree to parole except for a very short period at the end of the sentence.

This policy has had two effects. First, we have had demonstrated to us the sheer absurdity of the policy. A judge sitting in the Crown Court deals with successive cases on the same day. In the first he sentences a robber to five years and three months for robbery. In the next case he has before him a man who has stolen the life savings of a large number of elderly people. He gives the thief a longer sentence of seven-and-a-half years because he believes he deserves more severe punishment. But what is the effect of Sir Leon's policy? The man who received the seven-and-a-half year sentence has the opportunity of coming out on parole on first review at the two-and-a-half year stage and well before the man sentenced to the shorter sentence who is almost automatically prevented from having his case seriously considered by the parole board. It is a truly nonsensical policy. It seemed that in 1983 and everything that we have seen since has justified the view that we expressed on that occasion.

Secondly, there is the serious damage inflicted both on the parole system itself and and on the prisoner's family. As the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale and Lord Carlisle, said, although those affected by Sir Leon's restrictive policy are almost certain to be denied a significant period of parole, they have to have their cases reviewed by the local review committee and the parole board. Prison officers, the junior governor grades, prison probation officers, chaplains, consultant psychiatrists and home probation officers, all have to prepare detailed reports as though those cases were to be considered on their merits. But of course they all know perfectly well that they are not going to be considered on their merits. It is a cruel farce. As the noble Lord's committee rightly said, the policy is flawed in principle and harmful in practice. I say to the noble Earl that it will be an absolute disgrace if, whatever the Government do as regards the other recommendations of the noble Lord, this deplorable policy is not changed.

I now turn to those matters where I have some serious doubts as regards the committee's recommendations. On this matter I fear that I do not share the views of my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. These matters relate to the giving of reasons for adverse parole decisions and to the proposal that inmates should be given access to all the reports prepared on their cases. To some extent these recommendations are interrelated. Perhaps I may deal first with the argument about reasons. I accept at once that in principle it is desirable to do this. While I was at the Home Office I supported the idea. At that time what I meant by giving reasons was different from what the noble Lord and his colleagues have proposed. I considered that we should give generalised reasons for the board's concern. For a time the Parole Board did that and for a not inconsiderable period. They decided to identify, as an internal exercise, those matters that gave rise to concern.

However, as chairman of the Parole Board I became increasingly sceptical about the desirability of this approach. While in Sydney I had the opportunity of talking to the judicial chairman of the New South Wales Parole Board and his colleagues, who had introduced just such a policy. They told me that far from ending the argument about the giving of reasons, it had had exactly the reverse effect. It had, if anything, made inmates less satisfied. They wanted not a standardised reason for concern but a full and detailed explanation as to why they had been refused parole.

Later I had the opportunity of meeting a panel of the Parole Board of the State of Wisconsin when it was interviewing inmates at a medium security prison. I came away a firm opponent of the idea of interviewing prisoners. I very much welcome the majority recommendation in the noble Lord's report. But here again the Parole Board of the State of Wisconsin gave standardised reasons for concern when denying parole. It was abundantly clear from the demeanour of all concerned, including the inmates who were given the reasons at the hearing, that they resented this deeply.

I consider therefore that we have in this matter a clear choice—either to give a clear statement of the board's view, setting out in reasonable detail why an inmate has been rejected for parole, or to give no reasons at all. I do not believe that the giving of a generalised reason for concern is a serious option. It might of course make the decision ECHR proof, if I may so describe it, but it would I believe cause nothing but trouble in the prisons.

I now propose to say why I agree neither to the giving of detailed reasons nor to the provision of all the reports in an inmate's dossier to the prisoner. Perhaps I may start by making a rather obvious point. The inmate wants release. That is his interest. I fear that I do not share the view that he will find it entirely satisfactory to have an impeccably argued case as to why he is not to get parole. I believe therefore—this is one of the few matters on which I do not agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford—that if reasons were to be given there would continue to be complaints about the arbitrariness of the system. It would not dispose of that at all.

I do not propose to deal with the administrative problems associated with such a policy. However, they are rather more significant than the noble Lord and his colleagues imagine. I propose to illustrate the practical problems which would be associated with the introduction of this policy. I should like to look at the case of a man with a long record of violence. Perhaps there have been several cases of unlawful wounding, one or two cases of actual bodily harm and finally a sentence for grievious bodily harm. His principal problem is drink. Sober he can be a fairly reasonable man; drunk he is viciously violent.

In such a case—and there are many of them—the board pays a great deal of attention to the area of his drinking problems. When he is in prison he does not have access to drink—at least we very much hope that he does not. In such circumstances the board will want to look especially carefully at the home circumstances to which he will return. Does the wife really want him home? Do the children want him home? The wife when interviewed by the home probation officer is often ambivalent. There may be some residue of affection for her husband. The marriage may have lasted through several prison sentences. But when drunk he may have beaten her and he may have beaten the children. The probation officer will ask the question, "Will you have him home despite his past behaviour?" She may indicate that she has told her husband on a visit to his prison that they would very much welcome his return home, but she confides to the home probation officer that she is not certain about this. She may add that she has formed a new relationship which of course she has not disclosed to her husband.

In such a case a panel of the board may conclude that the home circumstances report is not satisfactory and that without a stable domestic base he should not be released. Two questions arise. If the recommendation of the noble Lord's committee were to be accepted, the prisoner would first be told that despite what his wife had told him on the visit to prison, he was being rejected for parole because of what she had told the home probation officer. That information would be given to a man with a long record of violence who would eventually emerge from prison possibly deeply indignant about his wife's conduct and determined to wreak vengeance upon her. And of course, if he obtained full disclosure of the home probation officer's report with the other papers in the case, he would then read for the first time that she had formed a possibly temporary relationship with another man. The consequences for the wife, in cases of this character, could be extremely serious.

To cases of that kind I suppose that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, would respond that paragraph 336 deals with the point. There it is said that the board should have a discretion to deny full disclosure where this would cause "specific harm". A single member of the Parole Board could, it suggests, give his consent to withholding a particular document before the rest of the dossier was passed to the prisoner. But two questions arise. First, as he is to receive the remainder of the dossier, it would be obvious to the prisoner that the only document removed was the home circumstances report—and thus that it is something that his wife said is the real reason for him being denied parole. Secondly, when the home circumstances report is prepared, is the woman in this and other cases to be warned formally that the entire contents of the report of the interview will be furnished to her husband?

It seems obvious that that will have to be done. But will that not make it less likely, as the minority report of the Kincraig Committee on the Scottish parole system has pointed out, that the Parole Board will receive honest expressions of opinion in some of the reports submitted to it? I could deal with other groups of inmates whose cases could cause significant problems, but because of the constraints of time I shall not do so. All I shall say is that I remain unconvinced that these proposals are desirable.

In conclusion, I hope that there will be significant changes in the parole system. I very much hope that the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues will not be ignored as were the recommendations of the Prior Committee. However, the first priority has to be to restore confidence in the system, damaged as it has been by the changes introduced by the last Home Secretary. That confidence will not be restored—on this matter I very much agree with what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford said—until the present intolerable delays in the system are eliminated.

If a prisoner is to be released on his parole eligibility date, the papers have to arrive with the board six to eight weeks before that date. Yet we have recently been told by the Parole Board that in the second half of 1988 only a very small minority of cases submitted to the board met this timescale, and many arrive after that time. That causes entirely justifiable anger both to prisoners and to their families. But it is worse than that; it is leading to a totally unnecessary increase in the prison population. It seems a little odd that we have heard the noble Earl telling us how sorry he is that remand prisoners are being sent to police cells and kept there in intolerable conditions, at a time when he and his colleagues are presiding over this truly absurd situation.

I hope that the noble Earl will deal with this matter when he comes to reply to this debate. I say that because I think that there is a significant concern about the issue. I also hope that one of the results of this debate will be that he will be able to assure us that such substantial delays will no longer occur. I trust that he will also be able to tell us that the bulk of the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues will be accepted by the Government.

1.20 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying, despite the slightly cool reception which my noble friend Lord Longford gave to these proposals, how very much the Labour Party welcomes the thoughtful and thorough analysis of the parole system which the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his colleagues have produced. I should also like to congratulate the authors on the very elegant draftsmanship which made the report extremely easy to read.

We believe that the report is both logical and coherent, based on the important principles of restoring meaning to the sentence yet, at the same time, retaining an awareness of the practical constraints. It also reflects the concern felt by many of us that our system of parole has been confused, over-complex and unjust and therefore is in urgent need of reform. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, for his report and we are also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen, for allowing us to debate the matter today.

In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Allen, gave a characteristically clear and comprehensive account of the contents of the report; and the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, added to what he said. Many points have already been mentioned, so I should merely like to stress some of the points made on the positive side of the report and also to mention certain proposals which give cause for alarm.

First, we very much welcome the report's reference to crime prevention. It says: The contribution which the courts and prisons alone can make to reducing crime is strictly limited". On these Benches, we have always argued that a thoroughgoing properly resourced national crime prevention scheme is required. We agree with the comments contained in the report that prison should only be used as a last resort and that custody should no longer occupy such a central place in our sentencing structure.

Secondly, I very much welcome the thorough and comprehensive account of the sentencing and release mechanisms in other jurisdictions. Surely we should take note of what is being tried out in countries with similar cultures and demography to our own—and countries which also share the same problems—in order to provide a background against which the strengths and weaknesses of a particular system can be assessed. In a country such as ours, which sadly—indeed, it is often repeated in this House—still has the greatest number of people in prison in relation to its total population, surely anything we can learn from other countries by way of research and experiments about sentencing policies and early release mechanisms must be of great importance. I am very happy that the report focused on what is going on abroad, because very often we do not take that aspect seriously.

We entirely agree with the report's view that the restricted policy in granting parole to those sentenced to more than five years' imprisonment for offences involving, sex, drug trafficking, violence and arson, introduced by Sir Leon Brittan in 1983, is—and every speaker has mentioned this point—as the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle quoted: Flawed in principle and harmful in practice". In our view the parole board should consider each prisoner's case for release on its individual merits, rather than in accordance with a blanket policy announced in advance covering whole categories of offenders.

During my service on the Select Committee concerned with murder, of which the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is also a member, we found from evidence given by witnesses, and from our visits to prisons, that one of the major causes of unrest, in the sense of injustice in prison, is the fact that this policy was brought out by the Home Secretary at the time. Prisoners have resisted it more strongly than any other measure. While serving on that Select Committee we also came to appreciate more and more the importance of introducing much greater openness into the release process.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, does not agree with what I am about to say because I have now heard him giving his arguments—indeed, they are most potent arguments—as to why he would not like to see the reasons for a refusal of parole given to the prisoner concerned. However, I should like to stress what the report says on this issue. It says: The advantages of open reporting far outweigh any disadvantages". It goes on to say: Secrecy breeds rumour and suspicion". I believe that that is true. The situation would not be perfect; indeed, there would be many problems, such as those which have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, on many occasions. However, on the whole it must be right—and other countries lead us in this way—to have a more open system.

I started with an open mind on this subject but after hearing evidence from those most closely affected as regards the caring of prisoners—notably, the prison officers and the probation officers—to the effect that more knowledge and more openness would actually help them in their care of prisoners, I became convinced that this policy was right.

The other part of the report which I should especially like to support is the emphasis on the preparation for release and the need for more resources to be devoted to after-care. I do so, as my noble friend Lord Longford said, in my capacity as chairman of New Bridge for Ex-prisoners and I should like to say that through our voluntary associates who visit prisons, and through our scheme of finding jobs for prisoners on their release, we have learnt how very little is done in real terms to prepare prisoners for their eventual release into the community.

I know that there are successful pre-release employment schemes operating in a small number of institutions, but unfortunately the places are very limited indeed. Therefore the majority of prisoners are discharged without any real preparation. For instance, in Britain a prisoner may be allowed one short period of home leave towards the end of the sentence, whereas in West Germany, Holland and Scandinavia long-term prisoners are entitled to as many as six periods of home leave per year. We must remember that in those countries the level of the prison population is a great deal lower than ours.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a short example of the experience of a New Bridge client who is serving a sentence in Grendon. By his own account he has greatly benefited from the therapeutic regime which is in operation there. He has gained insight into his behaviour and perhaps will never again be in a better position to change. He is currently serving his fifth prison sentence and he is 30 years of age. He wrote a letter to his New Bridge voluntary associate in which he says: In here"— That is to say, Grendon— it's easy to keep up the determination, or conform to the therapeutic regime that surrounds us 24 hours a day. The test will come out there in the big bad world, and, as you know, that scares me half to death". He goes on to say: I really need the help that you seem to be offering. I want to stay out of prison. I want some support. I want to feel needed and useful, I want to have friends … I want to get it right the next time, that's all I mean". I think that that demonstrates the compelling need to consider how prisoners can best be prepared for discharge. After all, it is very difficult for those who want to stay out of prison when one morning they find themselves outside the prison gates with about £20 to £50 in their pockets, with nowhere to live, no work and wrestling with exactly the same problems as they had when they were locked away.

I implore the Government to take heed of the recommendations in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and to put greater emphasis on rehabilitation. They should do this both from the humane point of view and to try to bring down our grotesquely high reconviction rates.

Finally, perhaps I may touch on the part of the report about which most, if not all, noble Lords have spoken—namely, the proposal to end parole and introduce automatic release for those sentences of under four years. We certainly welcome this from the point of view that it would eliminate the unfairness of the present system, arising from the inconsistent approaches which have been described by previous speakers. It would relieve the prison and probation services of a very great burden of administration. It would also be of enormous benefit to the families who live in anxiety and uncertainty.

Like most speakers, we would prefer to see the supervised release of short-term prisoners take place after one-third of the sentence rather than one-half, as recommended in the report because of the danger which again every speaker has brought out that there could be an increase in the prison population. The Carlisle review opted for automatic release for those serving under four years. Had they opted for one-third of the sentence, as has been mentioned today, it is calculated that the prison population would be reduced by 8,000 people.

I know that the report stated, and every speaker has repeated, that the new scheme is proposed in the hope and expectation that it will be accompanied by changes in sentencing. Here I agree with my noble friend Lord Longford. Surely one cannot rely on just hoping. Sadly, we see no evidence that a sentencing review will occur. We fear that the result will be a higher prison population. Many noble Lords have mentioned that it is sad that nobody from the judiciary is with us today. But I fear that members of the judiciary are often not very interested in what goes on in prisons; their interest is merely in the sentencing policy.

We very much welcome the report. The only change we ask for is that a complementary part should be added to the report whereby the Lord Chief Justice should issue guidelines to judges to reduce sentences. In this way a package would be made out of the Carlisle recommendations. Its only adverse effect—namely, a danger in the rise of the prison population—would be counteracted. But if, as we fear, this does not come about, we should like to see a new sentence introduced whereby the short-term prisoner spends one-third of his time in custody and two-thirds on release. That would move the bounds away from prison towards supervision. Like other noble Lords, I very much look forward to what the Minister will say. I hope that he will seize the opportunity which this carefully analysed report has offered to the Government and tell us that they will not turn their back yet again on some very serious proposals for improving the arrangements within our prisons.

1.34 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, this has been an interesting debate, one in which, as always, your Lordships have expressed considerable concern about the plight of prisoners and how best to deal with them. The House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important subject. The noble Lord referred to the fact that the date by which the views on the report should have been sent to the Home Office was 10th March. He said that he hoped that the Government would be able to give their views today. I am bound to tell him that on several occasions your Lordships have expressed a desire to hold a debate on the subject of the report by my noble friend Lord Carlisle before the Government had made up their mind on it. The debate today has provided your Lordships with that oppportunity.

I notice that the noble Lords, Lord Hutchinson and Lord Donaldson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, all said that they hoped that the Government would give their views. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, did so because it was he who specifically asked in a Parliamentary Question for the opportunity to have a debate. I rather fancy that if the Government had come forward and if I were to say this afternoon exactly what the Government proposed I should have brought the Tower of Babel down upon me for not having listened to your Lordships' views before the Government had made up their mind. So I resisted the opportunity to tell your Lordships exactly what we proposed to do. That resistance is quite easy because we have not yet made up our mind and we are considering the report very carefully. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, that we are not turning our backs on the report. It is very valuable and we intend to look into it and consider it most carefully.

The report which my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow and his committee produced was the result of tremendous research and a very well-considered appraisal of the whole system. Its conclusions have been wide-ranging and have provoked a great deal of thought and interest. Whenever we come to discuss parole, prisons or punishment, those are always matters which exercise the minds of your Lordships. It is right that noble Lords should have the opportunity to discuss them today.

I was encouraged by the letter which the noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, read, I think from a prisoner or an ex-prisoner to New Bridge, explaining how he wanted to keep out of prison and to keep on the straight and narrow. That is one of the most difficult tasks that the whole system of prisons involves—to enable a person both to be confined and yet to have hope and opportunity for the future and to be given the chance to gain self-confidence. It is a theme which has run through the remarks of all noble Lords—to try to find the best way of achieving that.

I am bound to say that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is always entertaining in his speeches. I think that he was the only person to dismiss my noble friend's report in a fairly cavalier way. Even if, as my noble friend, Lord Carlisle, said, it meant shorter sentences, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, dismissed the report because he was very sensitive to maintaining the parole system. I understand his sensitivities. However, I never expected that he would introduce the subject of hanging in his debate. He has a breadth of ingenuity in bringing in totally irrelevant matters, even though they are enormously interesting, such as my own personal views on the subject. I cannot see what that has to do with the debate today, I just admire the noble Earl's ingenuity in extending the debate into that realm, where I do not propose to follow him.

I wish to pay a particularly warm tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, and his committee, who have given up a lot of time and have immersed themselves in a very difficult matter in order to try to help us all: the problem of parole. As my noble friend said, it may not be the flavour of the month but the problem will not go away. We recognised that there was a problem. That is why we asked my noble friend to chair this important committee. The result was that the committee realised that the problems which we were concerned about were real and genuine. The committee highlighted them and made some very useful recommendations.

Members of the committee came from all parts of the country and a great effort was put in by them which has resulted in a clear, succinct and interesting report, for which your Lordships and many others will be most grateful. I wish to thank my noble friend and his committee for all that they have done.

The report made it perfectly clear that the committee was by no means anti-parole. That will please the noble Earl, Lord Longford. The committee pointed out that since 1967 over 120,000 prisoners have been released earlier than they otherwise would have been, with enormous benefits in resource terms, both human and otherwise. So parole does seem to work.

It was valuable to hear the views of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford on the drawbacks of the present system. He referred to a sense of inequity and desperation on the part of those who are inside prison and who are affected. I thought the speech of the right reverend Prelate was a particularly thoughtful and understanding one. I can well understand the desperation of those who are involved. However, parole has advantages. It is a significant fact that those who are released on parole are much less likely to be reconvicted within two years of their release than are those who do not receive parole.

It is not just a matter of the frequency with which people re-offend. The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, touched on this point. Recent research has shown that when those who are on parole commit further offences, the new offences are less serious than the ones for which they were originally sentenced.

The committee also paid tribute to the commitment and hard work of all those who are involved in the parole system. That is something that I also would like to endorse. The parole system in England and Wales depends very largely on the involvement of a large number of members of the public who sit on local review committees at prisons without being paid, and who apply themselves unstintingly to what is a very demanding task. They act on reports which are prepared by members of the prison staff and the probation service, all of whom perform their tasks with great dedication and professionalism.

Members of the parole board are paid, although as some of your Lordships may be aware, far from handsomely. Many of them are busy professional men and women who give their time to advise on these difficult decisions. As my noble friend said in his report, all this is in the best tradition of public service in this country. The Government are grateful as indeed I know your Lordships are, to those who are presently involved and all those who, over the last 20 years, have been involved in this very important work.

We were glad that the committee recognised the strengths of the parole system. That will have given the noble Earl, Lord Longford, some degree of comfort. In particular we were glad the committee recognised the part which is played in it by a large number of people throughout the country. But, as we have heard over the past couple of hours, the committee made some telling criticisms of the existing system with which its major recommendations were concerned. I would like to refer to one of the more practical issues which certainly worries me immensely. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, referred to this issue. The committee was particularly concerned, as we all are, about the delays which are occurring in the consideration of parole cases. It thought the delays meant that the system had become unworkable in practice. I do not agree, but I do think that the delays which are now occurring are unacceptable.

We have always aimed to give prisoners a decision on whether or not they will be granted parole by the date on which they become eligible for parole, or by the anniversary of that date if they are serving a longer sentence. Although a large proportion of cases are not suffering from delays, there is nevertheless a substantial number where we have not met our targets, and this we consider is unacceptable.

The problem arose from the steady increase in the number of longer sentenced prisoners who are eligible for parole. These are the cases which are considered by the parole board and which have to go through the whole process of consideration by the local review committee, then preparation within the parole unit of the Home Office and consideration by the board. It is a thorough and careful process. There are a large number of papers to read and digest. People have to be given a chance to do this. It all takes time. However, I realise that that is not a good excuse; it is merely a fact.

Parole delays, after all, cause a great deal of distress and anxiety both for individual prisoners and for their families. They also contribute quite unacceptably to the overcrowding in prisons. It is by no means a sensible use of resources to allow a release to be delayed. Therefore we have taken a number of steps to remedy the situation. Perhaps the most significant of these is increasing the number of staff who are available to deal with the cases in order that the cases may be put before the parole board more swiftly. We are also increasing the size of the parole board itself, and we have made a number of changes to working practices which should also help. We accept the criticism of the existing system in this respect. Indeed it was one of the reasons why the committee was set up in the first place. However, I would not like anyone to think that we had just waited until the report was available before we made any changes. Improvements to the system are being undertaken all the time.

At the heart of the Carlisle Committee's proposals for change is the suggestion that the existing parole and remission arrangements should be replaced by a system of conditional release after half the sentence has been served. For those who are serving sentences of over four years, this release would be selective. It is also proposed that prisoners who have been released but who are convicted of a further offence, should be liable to return to prison to complete their original sentence.

We were grateful for the assistance of my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow in explaining his report so clearly. However, I am bound to make it quite clear that if the proposals of the committee are implemented, they could have far-reaching consequences in terms of resources. It would not be right to take any decisions without giving very careful thought to how much the cost would be. Under the proposed arrangements, some prisoners, who at present become eligible for release when they have served one-third of their sentence, will not be eligible until one-half has been served.

The argument of my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow was that sentencing would come down. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, posed a very pertinent question when he asked the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, whether he would still be in favour of the report if sentences were not reduced. The noble Lord replied that he would still be in favour of it.

However, unless sentencing practices were to change, some people would spend longer in prison. Some people may think that is a good thing, others may think that it is a bad thing. However, whatever one feels about that, it would have a considerable impact on the prison population in a system which is, as your Lordships know only too well, already seriously overcrowded.

The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, said that the Government had no will to alter the system. I do not think that is either fair or true. There is a large-scale prison building programme in progress at the moment. It is by far the biggest programme that has been undertaken in this country for a century. The programme is now well under way and we do not want to jeopardise its success by adding to the problem if it is not necessary.

The question of the relationship between sentencing practice and early release procedure is a very complex one. The Carlisle Report recognises that present sentencing tariffs have evolved within a particular framework, and that if the framework for early release changes, sentencing levels will need to change or at least be looked at.

The committee recognised that there was an artificiality in trying to revise release mechanisms independently of a review of sentencing. My noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow said that judges had indicated they would impose shorter sentences. I was not aware that the judges had said that. We have received comments on the report from a number of members of the judiciary. When the Government have reached their conclusions on the recommendations, we shall need to consider the sentencing implications with the judges. I know that that will satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington, asked whether we had discussed the report with the Lord Chancellor's Department. The answer is that we have.

We clearly need to consider carefully the views of the judiciary on the implications for sentencing practices before we can reach any conclusions on the resource implications of those proposals. When radical changes are proposed, we obviously have to be aware, among other things, of their financial implications, which could be considerable.

However, our prime duty is to ensure that the public is adequately protected and that offenders are adequately punished and have adequate means for getting back into society. Where it is consistent with fulfilling those duties, we should aim to have a system of parole or early release which is logical, straightforward and easily understood by the public, the judiciary and the offenders themselves.

I have tried to give an idea of the context in which the Government are considering the recommendations of the Carlisle Report. As I have explained the Government have not yet made up their mind on my noble friend's proposals. It would, therefore, have been wrong for me to pre-empt our decisions or to indicate that we have reached any firm conclusions. However, I can assure my noble friend Lord Carlisle and the noble Lord, Lord Harris, who both expressed concern, that we are looking at the report with great care and thoroughness.

The debate has been timely, coming as it does while we are still developing our ideas on the future of the parole system. If the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, and others of your Lordships feel disappointed that I have been unable to give a firmer indication of what the Government propose to do, I hope that you will consider that it is, among other things, in deference to your Lordships in order that the Government should have the benefit of your views on my noble friend's report. The whole debate has provided a valuable contribution to the development of our views and I can assure the House that we shall consider most carefully the points which have been raised.

1.52 p.m.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I shall not keep your Lordships long. The debate has brought out that this is both a very complicated and important issue. I certainly had not expected the Government to come along today with cut and dried decisions before noble Lords had had an opportunity to express their views. However, I am just a shade disappointed that the noble Earl has not been able to go a little further. We have been given no indication of any possible timetable or of any possible issue of a White Paper or any indication of what happens next. In particular, we have had no reaction to the criticisms which have been universally expressed of the 1983 decision about those serving more than five years for crimes of sex, violence, arson and so forth. I hope that before very long the Government will be able to come to some decision on that issue if we ask a Question about it within the next few weeks.

I think that one can claim that the contributions made to the debate by noble Lords—leaving aside the introducer of the debate—who know quite a lot about the subject will be helpful to the Government and will add to the various contributions they have received in response to the invitation for comments on the report. I think that it has been of particular value that we have had this opportunity for the chairman of the committee to speak to us and tell us about the committee's conclusions and the reasons for them. For my part I should not have minded if he had gone on for rather longer.

I should like to say one word about the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. I enjoyed his characteristic and entirely foreseeable comments on the somewhat controversial issues which I ventured to raise in my opening remarks. I make the very mild complaint that he said that I had not commented on the underlying problem of the sentencing policy of the courts; I ended my remarks by saying that those underlay everything else. However, I realise that that was at the end of a rather long and boring speech and if by then his attention had wandered I make no complaint.

It is quite true that one of the issues which has come out very clearly from many of the contributions to the debate is the question of sentencing policy. I shall read very carefully what the noble Earl has said on that issue and I hope that perhaps some members of the absent judiciary may also do so.

I should also like to say a word to the noble Earl, Lord Longford. I think that he is too gloomy in saying that this report spells the death knell of parole.

I have some knowledge of the pigeonholes at the Home Office, which are quite voluminous. I end by saying that I hope that this report will not be consigned to those pigeonholes. As the Minister conceded, this is not a problem which will go away. I hope that it will not be all that long before we have some further reactions from the Government on the committee's recommendations. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.