HL Deb 13 July 1992 vol 539 cc38-48

5.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd June be approved [4th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the order transfers from the Secretary of State to the Parole Board, responsibility for the release and recall of long-term prisoners who are sentenced to less than seven years under the new Act from 1st October this year.

It may be helpful to your Lordships if I were to say something about the existing parole scheme. At present, prisoners who are serving more than 12 months in prison must serve one-third of their sentence before they can become eligible for parole. Whatever length of time a prisoner may have spent being remanded in custody—which can be offset against his prison sentence—he must spend at least six months in prison before being eligible for parole.

Every case is considered by a local review committee, and the more serious cases—those who are serving four years or more—are also seen by the Parole Board. The middle third of the sentence is available for parole. Those who do not receive it are released unconditionally at the two-thirds point of sentence.

But the scheme does not work in all cases in the way in which the court may have wished. Those who are in most need of supervision often do not obtain parole. They are then released, as it were,"cold" into the community. The system has also been criticised for its secrecy. Because of those short comings, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State asked my noble friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow to look at the parole scheme and at remission. My noble friend's committee reported in 1988. The new arrangements largely follow its recommendations which were warmly received.

But there was one area where the Government felt unable to agree with the committee. The committee had proposed that Ministers should withdraw from the decision-making process entirely, and that they should give the Parole Board the final say on the release and recall of all long-term prisoners. Ministers consider that Ministers should keep the responsibility for the release of those who have committed extremely serious offences because, in the end, it is Ministers who are responsible for the safety of the public. Therefore, in the White Paper, Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public, published in 1990, the Government proposed that the Parole Board should have sole responsibility for deciding the release of those who are serving more than four but less than seven years of imprisonment.

The order before your Lordships this evening will transfer to the Parole Board certain functions which are at present held by the Secretary of State relating to those offenders who are sentenced under the new Criminal Justice Act when Part II of the Act comes into force in October.

The Act introduces three new early release schemes. Although two of them are outside the scope of the order, your Lordships may find it helpful for me to explain all of the schemes. Those who are serving sentences of less than 12 months will be released automatically at the half-way point of sentence, subject to their good prison behaviour. Their release will be delayed by any additional days which may have been awarded for misbehaviour. They will not be supervised on release but, like all prisoners who are released under the Act, they will be under liability until the end of the sentence.

No longer will there be "remission". These prisoners will be "at risk". If they commit a further imprisonable offence before the end of their sentence, the outstanding period of the original sentence may be added to any new sentence. That gives more impact to the sentence which was originally passed by the court while giving some incentive to good behaviour.

For those who are serving between 12 months and under four years, there will be an Automatic Conditional Release Scheme. Those prisoners will also be released automatically at the half-way point—subject to good prison behaviour. But, on release, they will receive compulsory supervision from the probation service. That supervision, which will be on licence, will extend to the three-quarters point of their sentence. Thereafter they will be at risk. The judge may direct, though, that the licence period should run to the end of the sentence for some sex offenders.

The licence will make real demands on the individual. A condition may be added, for instance, requiring him to attend on a course to address an alcohol problem or to prohibit contact with a named victim, and the man who is on licence may be recalled to prison if the licence conditions are breached.

I have referred to two schemes which are not the subject of this order in order to put the schemes into perspective. I now turn to the new parole scheme, which is the subject of this order. This is tougher than the present parole scheme. It will apply to those prisoners who are sentenced to four years or more on or after 1st October this year. They will have to serve at least half of their sentence in custody—instead of one-third, which is the case at the moment—before becoming eligible for discretionary release.

Those who do not receive parole will be released at the two-thirds point of their sentence automatically. But release in either case will be on a licence, which will last up to the three-quarters point, or in the case of some sex offenders to the end of their sentence. The fact that those who are released without the benefit of parole are to receive compulsory supervision for a period—one-twelfth of sentence—is a real improvement on the present scheme.

I should add that sentence planning will form an integral part of the scheme. Prisoners will see the reports which constitute the parole dossier, and the Parole Board will give reasons for its decisions. That represents a significant step towards a more open and a more fair scheme—one in which the prisoner knows what is going on, sees what is going on and one in which he can realise the effect of his own behaviour. I am sure that it will be widely welcomed.

I have already indicated that Ministers have decided to retain the final say on the early release for those who are serving sentences of seven years and more. Those represent the minority of long-term prisoners.

The Parole Board has done excellent work under the direction of my noble friend Lord Colville of Culross and his predecessors. The Parole Board has amassed considerable skill and expertise in making difficult judgments about the release of offenders, including those who have committed extremely serious offences and who pose most risk to the rest of the community. But it is the Home Secretary who has the responsibility for public safety. That is a public responsibility for which he is responsible to Parliament and it should not be delegated to a body of people, however eminent.

Ministers decided, therefore, that it should be they who should continue to consider the cases of those who are serving the longer sentences. Those people will have committed the most serious offences such as robbery with violence or violent sexual crimes. It is right that Ministers should continue to safeguard the public by making the decisions on when and whether those persons who are serving that kind of sentence should be allowed back into, and among, the public. Ministers will, of course, have the advantage of all the expert and professional advice on each case, but the decision will remain that of the Home Secretary.

The seven-year determining point was fully debated during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. We believe that this is the right point for the start of the new scheme. But the Act also provides for Parliament to be able by order to approve a higher, or indeed a lower, threshold if, in the light of experience, that seems to be right.

When the Criminal Justice Act comes into force, the Parole Board will apply specific directions on the release and recall of prisoners which will be given to it by the Home Secretary. These directions will come in on 1st October. They will be announced shortly, and they will be made available in the Library of both Houses of Parliament.

On release, the directions will set out three conditions which have to be satisfied before the Parole Board can recommend parole. They relate to the risk of further offences being committed; to the prisoner's willingness to tackle offending behaviour; and to the resettlement plan of the prisoner and his rehabilitation.

These directions will require the board to assess the risk which is posed to the community if an offender should be released early into the community under supervision. Under the order, the Parole Board will have the final say on the release of prisoners who are serving between four and under seven years. At the moment, it makes recommendations. But the Home Secretary very rarely overturns the board's recommendations. Out of almost 4,000 cases in which the board recommended parole last year, the Home Secretary overturned the board's recommendations in only 13 cases.

The order will also extend the board's existing recall powers. It requires the Secretary of State to act on the board's recommendation to revoke a prisoner's licence and to recall him. Under the present arrangements, the Secretary of State, via the Parole Board, can only recall a prisoner if there has been a recommendation by the board or by the courts, except in the case of an emergency. And he must release an inmate, who has been recalled by emergency authority, if the board so recommends.

Under the new arrangements, the criteria for recall will also be set out in policy directions to the Parole Board. These will be published together with the release directions. The directions will require the board to assess the risk to the public if the offender is allowed to remain on licence. It will also have to assess the extent of his compliance with the conditions of the licence.

The order will also provide that the Parole Board, in the light of its expert assessment of any case, may set conditions to the licence for released prisoners. This will allow the Parole Board to fit the detailed licence conditions to the circumstances of each offender, and to take into account the level of risk, which is involved in release, in every case.

These may include conditions which prohibit contact with named individuals, or conditions which will require attendance on courses which are designed to tackle alcohol or drug abuse. This will be done in close consultation with probation officers in order to ensure the correct level of supervision, such as prohibiting contact with a young victim in, for example, a sexual abuse case.

Parole is by no means granted automatically in every case. The Parole Board's annual report for 1991 states that parole was recommended in 53 per cent. of cases last year. Only 8 per cent. of those who were paroled were subsequently recalled to custody. I suggest that the arrangements which are introduced by this order represent a significant improvement in the way in which parole decisions are administered, both in the interests of offenders and of ensuring the protection of the public. I trust that this order will meet with the approval of your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 23rd June be approved [4th Report from the Joint Commit tee].—(Earl Ferrers.)

5.24 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for explaining the order so clearly and for setting it in a context which gives me an excuse for moving fairly widely. I was rather surprised to hear him say—if I heard the noble Earl aright—that government policy is largely based on the Carlisle Report and that it is a tougher system of parole. When we discussed that report here there was no suggestion that it was a tougher scheme but there was a suggestion that it was a more enlightened and liberal one.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may just interrupt the noble Earl. I can assure him that I will not do it again. The toughness was supposed to refer to the time spent in prison and not to the parole conditions.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am sorry but I cannot follow the point. I am talking about the treatment of prisoners and I understood that it was tougher on them. Anyway, I have made myself plain and I am afraid that the noble Earl has not, as far as I can understand him.

The noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, produced a memorable report. A very generous tribute was paid to a committee of which I was chairman, which reported on penal matters generally. I am not sure whether it is in order to refer to anyone sitting on the Woolsack, but a lady not 100 miles from here was one of the most distinguished members of the committee. According to the Carlisle Report, that was the first committee which specifically recommended a parole scheme. I am sure that all the members of that committee will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle, for that reference.

However, when the report was debated in this House the noble Earl said that it was well received. It was not well received by me. I pointed out that it was likely to result in more people in prison rather than fewer. I said that then and I say it again now. In fact, according to the latest Home Office calculations, as a direct result of the Government's policy which we are told stems from the Carlisle Report, there may be anything up to 1,400 more prisoners in prison, so the Government's parole policy may be tougher. That policy is not in accordance with the principles of the Carlisle Report as they were understood at the time.

The report offered the hope and expectation that the judiciary would adjust its sentencing policy and therefore there would be fewer people in prison. At the time I expressed the opinion that that was the triumph of hope over experience and so it has proved. The judiciary has not adjusted its policy and the likely result of the Government's parole policy is that there will be more people in prison. That is the unhappy result.

So much on the general question of the Government's parole policy. As regards this particular order, I am leaving it to my noble friend Lord Richard who will deal with it much more effectively. As the noble Earl went fairly wide in his remarks, perhaps I may offer a few remarks about the position of life prisoners. It may be pointed out that life prisoners do not receive parole, but are released on licence. However, it is almost impossible to discuss the whole question of parole without dealing with life prisoners.

Last Thursday I visited a lady in Holloway aged 39. She is serving a life sentence for her share in the murder of her husband's mistress. She was not present when the offence was committed. It was a horrible murder committed by two other people. Although they may have thought they were carrying out her wishes she had no control over them. She was certainly not in a position to pay them. It may be felt that her share was not the greatest. At any rate, she recognises that she shared in the murder and that she used gravely compromising words. She feels also that it is quite right that she should receive the severe punishment which she is receiving.

I now come to the point. She has been informed by a Home Office official that she will not be considered for parole until the year 2004. That will be 17 years from the time when she first went to prison. It is generally assumed that it takes another three years to come out of prison. Therefore this lady will spend 20 years in prison without an appeal to anybody and just on the notification from the Home Office official. I shall not be long and there is a great deal to be said. I hope that we shall have a debate on this subject later in the year. This lady is of course serving a mandatory life sentence and not a discretionary one.

Perhaps I may quote something said by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, in the debate on the Address.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, stated: After October … "— that is, this October— there will be the extraordinary spectacle of two separate systems running in parallel. One will be for the so-called discretionary lifers, which will be more open, and fairer, and will have sufficient judicial characteristics to satisfy the European Convention on Human Rights, and should lead to better informed decisions. That does not apply to this lady.

The noble Lord continued: The other, for so-called mandatory lifers, will retain the objectionable features of decisions taken by the Executive, in private, in the absence of the prisoner or his legal representative, on grounds that are never disclosed. That is the system under which the lady to whom I have referred is living her life.

The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, went on to say: That cannot be right. Moreover, it is unlikely to endure".—[Official Report,12/5/92: col.252.] The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, went on to quote the words of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he was Leader of the House. He quoted him at some length, but I shall cut it short. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, had said: With regard to the debate on mandatory life sentences, I am sure that we have not heard the last of it, and it may be that on maturer reflection, policy will move in the direction which some of your Lordships wish to see".—[Official Report,23/7/91; col.652.] That was in the direction of obliterating any distinction between mandatory and discretionary life sentences. That was the attitude of the House, and the Leader of the House at the time gave the impression that eventually that would prevail.

As I have not given the Minister more than five minutes' notice of this, I am certainly not asking him to pronounce on this particular case, which I hope to take up in some other way, and nor am I asking the House to pronounce on it, but I am asking the House—without any kind of vote, of course—to agree that justice will not be done to this lady or to others like her until the views that have been expressed so firmly by your Lordships' House, by the judiciary and by penal reformers all combine together for once. I repeat that justice will not be done until the views that were expressed in the House of Lords in 1991 prevail.

5.32 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may say at the outset that we on these Benches generally support the order which the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has moved.

In so far as the speech of my noble friend Lord Longford was connected with abolishing the distinction between mandatory and discretionary life sentences, he will know that he is pushing at an open door as far as we are concerned. It is a little unfortunate that the overwhelming view of this House, including that of many noble and learned Lords who have spoken in such debates, among them, I believe, the then Lord Chief Justice, was ignored by the Government in that somewhat cavalier way. However, that matter ranges perhaps wider than the precise order that we are considering.

We welcome the order as a step in the right direction. I should, however, like to raise four matters with the noble Earl, of which I have given him short prior notice. Although he has not had much prior notice, I believe that he is at least vaguely aware of the matters that I want to raise with him. The first is to ask why a period of seven years has been chosen. Why not eight, nine, or 10? Indeed, why any period at all? In another place, the Minister responsible, Mr. Peter Lloyd, merely said that in his view seven years had been chosen as "a matter of judgment". But on what is that judgment based? Is it based upon some statistical analysis of the kind of crimes that attract sentences of seven years or more, as opposed to the kind of crimes that attract sentences of seven years or under? Is it based somehow or other on the desire to be tougher on certain classes of case which, if one analyses the statistics, fall into the over-seven-year category rather than the under-seven-year category?

Of course, it is always nice to know that a Minister is exercising his judgment on a particular matter, but it might be a little more helpful if at some stage the Government could give us an indication of the basis upon which they have come to this judgment. As the noble Earl said, it cannot be on the basis of the Carlisle Committee report. I shall quote merely one sentence from that report. The Carlisle Committee was emphatic about the need for the change, stating: The present structure is not the right one for the new scheme which we propose. We believe that the only answer to these problems is for the Home Secretary to cease to be responsible for individual parole decisions". If the thrust of the Carlisle Report was that decisions in relation to parole should be removed from the Home Secretary and passed to the Parole Board—and it is a thrust that we would accept—we think that it is wrong that the Home Secretary should get himself involved in parole decisions. For the life of me, I do not see how the Government can say,"Very well, we accept the thrust of the argument in relation to sentences of under seven years, but we shall have a cut-off point at seven years". Again, if they accept the thrust of the Carlisle Report, it is for the Government to justify why they have chosen the somewhat arbitrary figure of seven years as the point at which they will start disregarding that report.

Secondly, I am concerned about directions that may be given to the Parole Board. Again, in another place, the Minister responsible, Mr. Lloyd, stated: When the Criminal Justice Act comes into force, the Parole Board will apply specific directions given to it by the Home Secretary on release … The directions set out three conditions which have to be satisfied before the Parole Board can recommend parole. They relate to the risk of further offences being committed; the prisoner's willingness to tackle offending behaviour; and the resettlement plan and rehabilitation".—[Qfficial Report, Commons,6/7/92; col.146.] All those conditions apply to the individual prisoner—in other words, one assumes that the direction will say that the Parole Board has to consider whether or not that prisoner is likely to commit further offences; whether that prisoner is willing to tackle offending behaviour; and whether that prisoner has a sensible resettlement plan for his rehabilitation. As I understand it, therefore—and this is the point upon which I should like confirmation from the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—any idea that by those directions one will exclude certain classes of crime from the consideration of the Parole Board will now go. In other words, one cannot say in relation to certain sexual offences, certain drug offences or certain offences of violence that the Parole Board will be directed by the Home Secretary not to consider parole in relation to those classes of offence. As I understand it, the directions that are coming from the Home Office will apply to individuals, not to a class of case. I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is, in fact, the position.

I also question whether the power—and, indeed, intention—to issue guidelines, which the Government have announced both tonight and recently in another place, is still appropriate in cases where the Parole Board will be given greater powers and, indeed, almost the ultimate say in respect of offences for which somebody has been sentenced to a term of up to seven years. In those cases, why should the discretion not be left to the Parole Board? Why should the board not be allowed to get on with it? I hope that I am not being unduly combative in relation to the directions, but I really do think that it would be helpful if we knew a little more of the Government's thinking as to precisely what the directions will cover.

We welcome the statement that in future prisoners will be able to see the reports that constitute the parole dossier and that the Parole Board will in future give reasons for its decisions, which it does not do at present. I assume that that will apply only to prisoners who have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment of less than seven years—or is it the intention that prisoners will be able to see the dossier if they have been sentenced to a term longer than seven years but where the Parole Board is in the process of considering it? If the latter is the case, will prisoners who are sentenced to terms of longer than seven years also be given the reason the Parole Board turned them down for parole for those offences—if it did turn them down? I assume also that where prisoners see the parole dossier and the board gives reasons for its decisions that process will be subject to judicial review in the usual way, though I suspect that it will not be appealable in any real sense of the word.

However one looks at this change the Parole Board and the probation service will require more resources. When the Criminal Justice Bill was passing through Parliament in 1991 it was perfectly clear that the probation service would be called on to shoulder greater responsibilities and to fulfil a great many more tasks. At that time we on these Benches made the point that the probation service would need greater resources if it was to do the job properly. The order imposes additional responsibilities on both the Parole Board and the probation service. They will need greater resources. I should be grateful for the Minister's assurance that those resources will be forthcoming.

As I indicated at the outset of my remarks, broadly, we support the order as a step in the right direction.

5.41 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for his welcome for the order. When I saw that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, had put down his name to speak I thought that he would be pleased that the Government were producing yet another liberalising measure. I expected his agreement to it. But the noble Earl was a trifle perturbed by my use of the word "tough".

The Government are always in the difficulty of what to do with people who have misbehaved in society and how to make them better and make them improve. There has to be an element of toughness. We have tried to say that those who commit the worst offences—the most serious offences—should spend longer in prison and that they will now spend half of their sentence in prison as opposed to a third. In my book that is being tougher. It does not mean that the regime in prison will accord with the noble Earl's view of toughness; the fact is, however, that those people will be in prison for longer. What we have then tried to do is give them more chance of remission and more chance of doing better outside prison. In that way we have shown an enlightened view.

The noble Earl referred to lifers. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, put it very well when he said that that was going somewhat wide of the order. I thought that it was quite a lot wide of the order. However, I do not blame the noble Earl for trying to make his point. He was not out of order; he merely extended the scope of the debate considerably. However, I do not think it is necessarily a point in which we want to get too involved today. There is a distinction between a mandatory life sentence and a discretionary life sentence and I know that that distinction irritates a number of people, including the noble Earl. He will remember that Parliament endorsed the distinction, admittedly after some fairly fearful arguments, when it enacted the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The release of those serving mandatory life sentences will continue to be the responsibility of the Home Secretary, following a recommendation from the Parole Board and consultation with the judiciary.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, for his support for the order. He was quite fair in asking his questions. He asked why on earth the Government had chosen seven years as being the point where the Home Secretary should be responsible for releasing those people on parole. He asked why, if the thrust is to let the Parole Board make the decision, the Home Secretary should keep the power after seven years. The best way of putting it is this. The Parole Board knows full well the details of all these cases. It is the best body to judge the most suitable time to release a prisoner. But in the end the Home Secretary is responsible for public law and order. It is up to him, we believe, to say when those who have committed the worst offences should be allowed back into society and among people. That responsibility should belong to the Home Secretary. Of course, he will take the advice of the Parole Board. And, of course, he will take the advice of all those who know the individual. But in the worst cases—those who have committed the worst offences—it is right that the Home Secretary should, in respect of his duties for public law and order, keep that responsibility.

The noble Lord, Lord Richard, referred to the directions—

Lord Richard

My Lords, before the noble Earl leaves that point, I wonder whether he would be kind enough to deal with this problem. He referred to the "worst cases". If, for the sake of argument, one accepts that point—I do not—why does he make the assumption that seven years should be the cut-off point for the worst offences? One could have a case of someone serving 10 years for a financial offence and someone else serving six years for an offence of violence. How can one make that comparison merely on the length of the sentence?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I apologise for not answering the noble Lord's point. It is a perfectly fair question to ask. One has to make a judgment somewhere. If one had said "eight years" or "six years", the noble Lord, Lord Richard, could still have come up with the same question. We consider that seven years is a reasonable length of time. Anyone who has been in prison for more than seven years has committed some fairly heinous crimes. We have also allowed for the fact that, if this is proved to be incorrect, then by a further order Parliament can either raise that length of time or lower it. There is flexibility there. Clearly, one has to start something new from a given position. We thought that that was a reasonable period of time to take.

With regard to directions, Ministers will give the Parole Board directions on release and recall. Those will be promulgated shortly by way of a parliamentary Question and a letter from the Ministers to the chairman of the Parole Board. It is hoped to do that before the Recess. Copies of the letter and the directions will be placed in the Library of your Lordships' House. The noble Lord, Lord Richard, is correct that any directions will be given to the board on individual cases and not on classes of case.

The noble Lord also referred to the dossier. As part of the policy of openness, this dossier, which contains the papers for Parole Board consideration, will be disclosed to the prisoner. There will be very limited exceptions to the policy of openness. Exceptions will be decided by the chairman of the Parole Board. Prisoners will be able to seek corrections to the papers. It is hoped that these will be resolved via the internal procedures before the Parole Board considers the case. This will apply to prisoners who serve more than seven years as well as to those who have left seven years. The noble Lord referred to judicial review. Decisions like this are ultimately liable to judicial review but we hope that that such cases will be few and far between. We should like to see those problems adjusted and addressed before reaching that ultimate sanction.

The noble Lord referred to resources and said that if people are being given more work they should have more resources. The number of people on the Parole Board will be increased from 60 to 80. That increase will be resourced, and therefore there will be increased resources.

I hope that I have dealt with the points raised by the noble Lord. I am grateful to noble Lords for their support for the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.