HL Deb 21 March 1995 vol 562 cc1210-6

8.7 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the draft orders provide that in the case of sentences of less than 10 years the Secretary of State must release the person where the Parole Board for Scotland so recommends. It might be helpful to noble Lords if I describe more fully the effect of the orders. I should mention that similar, but not identical, provisions are already in place in England and Wales.

Section 20(3) of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993 provides that the Secretary of State for Scotland may, after consultation with the Parole Board for Scotland, make an order by virtue of which, in relation to such class of case as may be specified in the order, certain provisions relating to long-term prisoners will be read as requiring, rather than enabling, the Secretary of State to act upon the recommendation of the board. At present the Secretary of State has no power to release a prisoner except on the recommendation of the Parole Board; but he may refuse to accept such a recommendation. The Kincraig Committee, which examined the parole system and reported in 1989, concluded that there should be no change in the formal role of the Secretary of State.

However, as the Kincraig Committee noted, in practice the Secretary of State rarely intervenes in the decisions of the board. He has generally done so only in connection with the more serious offences; for example, offences involving serious violence, terrorism or drugs. In their response to the Kincraig proposals, the Government announced that they would seek powers to enable the Secretary of State to delegate to the board responsibility for release decisions and these powers were taken in the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993.

Under the provisions of that Act only those prisoners who are sentenced to four years or more will be eligible for consideration for parole after serving half their sentence. However, there are in the system prisoners who qualify to be considered for parole at one third of sentence under the provisions of the earlier Prisons (Scotland) Act 1989. The principle of the 1993 Act was that for any prisoner sentenced before its commencement the existing provisions would remain in force.

We therefore took powers in Section 18 of the 1989 Act, as amended by Section 134 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to enable the Secretary of State to exercise essentially the same order-making power in relation to prisoners sentenced before the commencement of the 1993 Act. The operative date for that purpose was 1st October 1993.

That is why there are two orders before your Lordships this evening. Together the orders ensure that all eligible prisoners are treated on the same basis, whether their release is considered under the 1989 Act or under the 1993 Act. The orders propose that, in cases where prisoners are serving a sentence of less than 10 years' imprisonment, the board's recommendation for parole must be implemented by the Secretary of State. Any recommendation for parole involving a sentence of 10 years or more will continue to require the approval of the Secretary of State.

The orders also provide that, where such prisoners have been released on licence, the Secretary of State will be required to revoke the licence and recall the person to prison if the Parole Board so recommends. However, the Secretary of State will retain his power to recall any prisoner if it is not expedient to refer the case to the board for its recommendation. He would then refer the case to the board as soon as possible to consider whether to direct the prisoner's re-release.

It might be helpful if I gave some indication of the scale of cases which will be affected by these orders. In 1994 the Parole Board for Scotland considered 815 cases, of which 692 were determinate sentence prisoners being considered for early release. Of these, 628 were serving sentences of between four and 10 years. In fact, in 1994 only 368 of the 628 considered were actually given the benefit of early release on parole. Because the Secretary of State has not historically intervened often in the board's recommendations, we would not expect the orders themselves to result in an increase in the rate of prisoners being released on parole.

I am confident that the time is now right to entrust this greater authority to the board. We have made very significant changes to the parole scheme since the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act was enacted. We have made the scheme much more open and accountable and have strengthened the proper independence of the board.

The board now has 16 members and I would like to pay tribute both to the recently appointed chairman, Mr. Ian McNee, and to the other members for the conscientious way in which they carry out their functions. The board has an onerous workload which it discharges efficiently against tight deadlines. I believe that it is well placed to exercise the significant responsibilities placed on it by these orders, and I conclude by requesting that they receive your Lordships' approval. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th February be approved [11th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Fraser of Carmyllie.)

8.15 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his full explanation of the orders and the additional points he made about the numbers of people who were considered for parole. Nevertheless, I wish to make several points. Basically I disapprove of secondary bodies, with no representation possible, making important decisions like these. I do not mind such bodies giving advice to the Secretary of State since we cannot expect him to examine every case in great detail. However, in certain cases it will be important for further representations to be made by some outside voice. I am thinking more of Members of another place who may represent the families of prisoners who feel that a member of the family has not, for some reason, been fairly treated. The family may take the view that the Parole Board was automatically unsympathetic towards the type of offence with which the prisoner was involved or even that the members of the board were not totally impartial.

The Minister said that the Secretary of State rarely interferes with a decision of the Parole Board and that would be fine if all things were equal. However, there are always exceptional cases. I wish to know whether the system whereby the Secretary of State occasionally has to interfere in a case works well. On what basis does he interfere? Is it because of representations from other people, particularly Members of Parliament, who may in some cases be approached by relatives of the person in prison? Members of Parliament or others may wish to make an appeal to the Secretary of State in special cases.

Another point which I feel is important is the following. I am grateful to the Scottish Council for Single Homeless for writing to me. It made the first representations some time ago. This is not in the sphere of the Minister; it is more in the sphere of the Department of Social Security. It is obviously an important consideration for the prison service and the Government that when single prisoners are released now, housing benefit is not given, as was the case some time ago. They now have a maximum of 13 weeks which is not long for a prisoner to establish himself. Research carried out by the Scottish prison service and a survey carried out by SACRO Grampian both show that housing is the most significant concern for prisoners when they leave prison. Up to 20 per cent., many of whom are single, leave prison without a permanent address to go to. I hope that the Minister is aware of the problem of housing for prisoners.

Of particular importance is the knowledge that housing benefit can be available for up to 52 weeks. That can ensure that someone leaving prison has a secure base to which to return and it may well reduce the chances of re-offending. I am sure that the Minister is much better acquainted with the workings of the legal and prison systems in Scotland than I, although I have some knowledge of them. I cannot help thinking that it must be much more economic to pay a prisoner housing benefit for a little longer and give him or her a chance— we are also talking about women prisoners—to establish themselves. Then the ex-prisoners will not be so likely to re-offend. I know that housing is not included in the order, but housing provision is obviously an important part of whether a prisoner makes a go of being released on parole.

Therefore, I hope that, if not now perhaps later, the Minister will let me know whether the Government are considering representations on the special case of prisoners being allowed longer on housing benefit. There is an economic as well as a humanitarian basis to it.

Otherwise, there has been some advance in the past few years in the parole system and from that point of view I welcome the two orders.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I too address my thanks to the Minister for the way in which he introduced these two orders, of which we were pre-warned in the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act. In the future parole will in effect be granted, amended and revoked by the Parole Board. Curiously, the Secretary of State has removed from himself the possibility of discretion in this matter.

However, I certainly approve of the fact that the Secretary of State has retained the powers of emergency revocation of parole licences under Section 17(1) (a) (ii) of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act. That is appropriate because, reflecting on my time in the social work department, it often took a while to come to a decision to recommend that parole be revoked, A lot of time will have passed before the application for that to happen is made. Therefore, given that time lag, the emergency powers are quite sensible. The provisions in this order are fine, with the proviso that the Parole Board is well selected and representative—and given that it is indeed well supervised and scrutinised. Presumably, the Parole Board will also enjoy the transfer of blame to a degree when things go wrong.

I thank the Minister for clearing up the question of eligibility, The diminishing number of prisoners who were eligible for parole at one-third of sentence will to a degree have been a little worried about that. But my memories are that few people were actually given parole at one-third of sentence; it was usually half sentence before they were liberated. As a result of this order, parole reports will continue to be prepared with the usual two principles in mind; namely, to avoid the public being exposed to serious risk of harm, and to ensure a good chance of rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation is difficult in prison: when you enter a prison you have to learn how to live in a prison. In some respects rehabilitation starts only when you get out—though I must admit that I am very impressed with the work of those who are involved in sentence planning, which was recently introduced to the Scottish Prison Service. A lot of consultation is required before someone can be released on parole. Obviously that involves negotiations and discussions in the prison and also in the home area. It must also involve agencies such as housing, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove and the DSS. This reminds me very much of what we discussed last week in relation to the Mental Health (Patients in the Community) Bill. A very sound aftercare plan is required before someone can be released into the community if that person is to succeed. Parole will continue to be regulated by a social worker using conditions imposed by the Parole Board, but will be agreed to by the parole licensee on a rather reluctant basis.

I have one or two more comments to make. There has always been some concern about the time that it takes to come to a decision regarding parole. That should be available at least two months before a possible liberation date is achieved. I know that there are very many reports to be done, and missed appointments cause delays. But the prisoner lives in a considerable vacuum and it puts him under a lot of stress. I have even met prisoners who have deliberately not asked for parole because they cannot handle the stress of waiting for the decision.

Secondly, there are some prisoners who do not particularly like social workers. That is usually because of past recommendations and/or failed supervision arrangements. I believe that the trend of moving back to specialist social workers dealing with offenders will get round that. In addition, there is nothing like going to meet the person in prison before he is released. I have done it, and I know that it has considerable benefits.

It is also important to stress right at the start what the recall or revocation conditions will be, because sometimes people build up quite fantastic ideas about how easy it is to get recalled. In fact, it is quite difficult.

Finally, parole is the most powerful incentive available in a long-term prison to ensure good conduct. Not only is that good for the prison and the staff; it is also good for the prisoners, who make the effort the give up offending behaviour.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, perhaps I may respond briefly to the contributions that have been made. I am grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for the broad welcome that they have extended to these orders. I am sure that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will he gratified to know that the noble Lord thinks he is an appropriate person to take decisions. But more generally there is an appreciation that it is desirable in those cases of under 10 years that I have indicated that the greater independence of the Parole Board should be asserted. I can certainly give an undertaking to the noble Earl that the independence that is properly vested in the board is a principle that will be studiously maintained.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, was quite properly concerned to ensure that if there were representations to be made by a particular member of another place or someone elsewhere with regard to the eligibility for parole of a particular prisoner, they should be heard. I can give him the clear reassurance that any representations made by Members of Parliament, or others, will be carefully examined and considered. Indeed, if the noble Earl were to look to the Parole Board (Scotland) Rules of 1993, he would see that there are now in place very much clearer and much more open requirements in relation to what will go before the Parole Board. The prisoner will have a dossier which will reveal to him exactly what reports will be put before the Parole Board. That will be some four weeks before they are to be considered. It will allow him to make written representations about why he or she should be given early release on parole. I am sure that the noble Earl will accept that that is a desirable change.

So far as the single homeless are concerned, certainly the question of supported accommodation for released prisoners is a matter that will always be of concern to the board. The board is unlikely to recommend any early release unless the prisoner has a proper home or a supported hostel place to return to. I recognise, as he does, the desirability of ensuring that there is sufficient provision for that. The matter of housing benefit is a rather different issue relating to a rather different point.


Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the Minister one question relating to the subject of single people. I am sorry if he thinks that I am intruding. I happen to be the chairman of an organisation in Greater Manchester called SELCARE. I inherited it from the former distinguished Member of this House, Lord Rhodes. Our organisation has properties which we are able to offer to people as somewhere to go if they are viewed as suitable for release into the community. Is anything else like that in being? I am sorry to intervene, but I wanted to put that question to the Minister because our organisation works very well in our situation.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, the noble Lord should certainly not apologise for intervening.

What he says on these matters is always to be regarded very carefully, given his personal involvement in a number of very worthwhile schemes. Whether our schemes work as well as those for which he has a responsibility, I am not sure. But certainly, as I understand it, there are a number of very good schemes in place. If, by means of such schemes, people can be placed, so much the better. That would certainly help any prisoner who is otherwise regarded as capable of facing up to what would be responsibilities in the community once he or she is released. I feel that we were on a slightly different point from the benefit point, which often has to do with giving up houses that otherwise are held empty for a long period.

Finally, the noble Earl was concerned that parole decisions come too late. The new procedures are designed to ensure that the parole decision will come at least six weeks before the parole qualifying date. This should allow adequate time for pre-release arrangements to be made by social workers. If there are prisoners who do not have sufficient regard for them, I hope that the change in arrangements will redress the balance there.

On Question, Motion agreed to.