HL Deb 17 December 1998 vol 595 cc1497-501

2.2 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, I beg to move the Motion standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The order before your Lordships will be made under Section 50(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and will extend the powers delegated to the Parole Board by the Secretary of State. Specifically, the board would have authority to take decisions on the grant of parole to determinate sentence prisoners who are serving a sentence of up to, but not including, 15 years. At present, the board has those decision-making powers in respect of determinate sentence prisoners serving up to seven years. The order does not deal with the arrangements for considering the release of discretionary or mandatory life sentence prisoners. There are no plans to change those arrangements.

The order is part of the Government's wider commitment to modernising and improving the performance of the criminal justice system. The Prison Service has a central role in taking forward this programme of change, and in working with other criminal justice agencies to develop more effective ways of protecting the public.

The parole system, introduced in its current form by the Criminal Justice Act 1991, plays an important part in reducing the cycle of offending behaviour and hence reducing the overall level of serious crime. In particular, parole offers a valuable incentive to prisoners convicted of more serious crimes to address the root causes of their offending behaviour while in custody. However, decisions about parole are primarily about risks. I am afraid that we cannot get away from that. For the parole system to operate effectively, and to maintain public confidence, the evaluation of risk must be undertaken very carefully. Above all else, decisions on releasing prisoners on parole must be concerned with the need to protect the public. It is a testimony to the success of this process that only around 5 per cent. of those released from prison on parole are recalled for reoffending while on licence.

Alongside effective decision-making, the Government are also conscious of the importance of timely decision: both for prisoners themselves and to ensure the most efficient and effective use of prison accommodation. The Prison Service is working together with the Parole Board to reduce delays. A range of improvements to existing procedures are being introduced to make the parole process more efficient; these actions are being supported by independent research and audit projects. The goal is to ensure that all those prisoners regarded as suitable for early release are freed at the earliest possible date.

It is in this context that the Government have reviewed the way in which parole decisions are taken in cases involving determinate sentence prisoners. The Parole Board currently has delegated authority—by means of the Parole Board (Transfer of Functions) Order 1992—to take decisions on the grant of parole to determinate sentence prisoners who are serving sentences of at least four years and less than seven years, and who were sentenced after 1st October 1992. In other cases involving determinate sentence prisoners, the Parole Board currently performs an advisory function, and final decisions are taken by Ministers, or by the Prison Service on behalf of Ministers. Last year, the board's recommendations for release were agreed in all but two out of 520 cases. This clearly underlines the quality and consistency of the board's decision-making and raises questions about the need for the board's recommendations to be subject to review before a final decision is made.

The Government, therefore, take the view that the Parole Board's delegated authority should be extended. We published our proposals in a consultation paper entitled, Improving Parole Decision-Making, on 6th October. At the end of the consultation period on 4th November we had received 38 responses to the paper: 33 supported the paper in their entirety; five others offered differing degrees of support. The proposals also have the full support of the Parole Board's chairman and chief executive.

The proposals outlined in the consultation paper are those which are now set down in the order that we are debating today. The central proposal is to extend the Parole Board's decision-making powers to cover prisoners sentenced to determinate sentences of up to, but not including, 15 years. I should stress that there is no magic claim for moving the cut-off point from seven years to 15 years. Certainly, there is no direct correlation between the length of the sentence and the complexity of the parole decision. Wherever the line is drawn, the board is likely to be faced with a small number of complex or contentious cases.

We have aimed to strike a balance between removing the existing inefficiencies in the system and ensuring that the release of offenders responsible for committing the most serious offences would be subject to ministerial veto. Prisoners serving longer sentences are likely to include those considered a significant danger to the public at the time they were sentenced. There is clearly a "public interest" argument in allowing decisions in these cases to involve an element of review, including the possibility of referral to Ministers in particularly contentious cases. Most importantly, the vast majority of the correspondents to our consultation exercise on this issue agreed that 15 years was an appropriate threshold. The order, therefore, sets out proposals for extending the scope of the Parole Board's delegated authority to encompass determinate sentence cases involving sentences—I say again—of up to, but not including, 15 years. This will include those sentenced before 1992 who are not covered by the present delegation.

The draft order also reflects the need for transitional arrangements for cases where the Parole Board makes a recommendation prior to being granted its new powers, but the Secretary of State has not acted upon it. We propose to limit the Parole Board's new powers to take final decisions on those cases which are considered by the Parole Board after the new order comes into force. Cases where the Parole Board has made a recommendation prior to the order coming into force, but where no final decision has been reached, will be dealt with under the current procedures. Increasing the scope of the board's delegated authority to take decisions in this area would be a positive recognition of the quality of the Parole Board's assessments in these cases. It would also allow decisions to be made more quickly. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th November be approved [First Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Hoyle.)

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the order has been presented by Ministers as a sort of adjustment of functions; in other words, a kind of streamlining within the Home Office. I rather suspected that the over-used word "modernisation" would creep into the noble Lord's speech and, indeed, I was not disappointed. I am sure that that will help his standing with the spin-doctors.

However, I believe that the order is more significant than just being a matter of streamlining in two respects: first, as regards its origins; and, secondly, its effects. The root of the proposals lies in the Treasury. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State confirmed that to the Standing Committee in another place when it considered the order on 8th December. He said that the proposal was part of the comprehensive spending review, that it arose from considerations of efficiency and cash saving and that it saves between £70,000 and £75,000. The Treasury is ever watchful of candle-ends. Of course, we have no indication of where this money will go.

However, this proposal does not seem to have arisen originally from a decision of penal policy, or from some consideration of the proper borderline between the respective roles of Ministers and of the judiciary and its colleagues on the Parole Board. That is important in that it throws some light on the Government's thinking in respect of the borderline, which, as your Lordships know, is a matter of controversy between the Government and others, including the Lord Chief Justice, as regards other aspects of the release of prisoners. We on these Benches are on the side of the Government, although it might perhaps be more accurate to say that we are pleased that the Government continue to follow the policy which was introduced in our day.

I am, therefore, glad to point out that the Treasury origins of this order show that the Government's view remains, as the noble Lord the Lord in Waiting said, that the Home Secretary, answerable to Parliament, should decide the release date of prisoners guilty of the most serious offences, including those serving life sentences, whether mandatory or discretionary.

That brings me to the important effects of this order. As the noble Lord said, it means that prisoners serving between seven years and 15 years will have their release dates fixed by the Parole Board directly, and not by the Home Secretary with its advice. That takes out of the direct responsibility of Ministers answerable to Parliament decisions on the release of prisoners who have committed perhaps not the most serious offences, but, nevertheless, serious enough to have warranted long prison sentences. We are talking mainly about the judgment of the risk of releasing these prisoners rather than the term "appropriate form of punishment for the offence concerned" or of "deterrence".

But the risk of releasing these prisoners is a most sensitive matter as far as the public are concerned. The Minister told us a few moments ago that some 520 prisoners serving between seven and 15 years are released under the terms of this type of legislation. He also said that about 5 per cent. of paroled prisoners are subsequently recalled from licence because of other offences. That seems to me to mean that some 26 offences, broadly speaking—these are obviously not precise figures—are likely to be committed by those released under this legislation. By definition, they are people already known to be capable of committing serious offences. That is some indication of the risk involved.

There appears to be no particular reason for choosing 15 years—"no magic" I think was the phrase used by the Minister. The Criminal Bar Association has close knowledge of these matters and, I understand, suggested 10 years. All that the Minister in another place said was that the Government thought 15 years was about right bearing in mind the need for efficiency. The Minister said much the same just now. That is not very reassuring to those who had hoped that this was a carefully judged matter based on the consideration of the seriousness of the offences involved. So far we have been told nothing, in either House, about, for example, the numbers of armed robbers or serious sexual offenders who are likely to be involved in this modified system. It would be helpful to know the numbers—if not today then in due course—as it is a measure of the risk involved.

To those concerned about the early release of serious offenders, the main reassurance is that we are told that the Government will keep an eye on the situation. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to repeat that reassurance given by his colleague in another place and tell us that the Government will, if necessary, revise the figure of 15 years downwards.

This efficiency measure may involve a greater risk to the public. It will certainly reduce the answerability to Parliament for these decisions. It certainly should be kept under close review. If it appears that the protection of the public has been reduced, then the £75,000 will not have been wisely saved.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, it is not particularly Treasury led, as the noble Lord said. We believe that this is a way of increasing efficiency and reducing delay and, at the same time, not increasing the risk to the public.

The noble Lord asked me what would happen to the £70,000 to £75,000 which is estimated will be saved. We intend that it will go towards the much broader responsibility of the Prison Service for developing constructive regimes. I am sure that the noble Lord will agree with me that that is a good way for the money to be spent.

The noble Lord asked why 15 years; why not 10 or any other number. Most of the responses that we had from many people who are closely involved in this matter were in total agreement with the paper and that the figure should be 15 years. If it is less than 15 years there would still have to be a careful assessment of the risks to be taken. In only two cases in 1997–98 was there a disagreement where the Minister did not accept the Parole Board's decision. We believe that 15 years is the right length of time. Whatever the length of time, very careful consideration would have to be given to all the cases that came before the board. We believe that this is the right way forward.

I give the noble Lord an assurance that the matter will be kept under constant review. Having seen what the Parole Board has done in the past and what it has done in relation to its previous powers and in relation to the cut-off at seven years, we can all agree that we owe the Parole Board a debt of gratitude and that it is the right authority for considering these cases in the future. I am sure that it will consider public safety as a priority in arriving at what are very difficult decisions. With those few words, I hope the House will agree the order.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may raise a point with him. He promised to keep this matter under review. Can he be more specific? Would it be possible at the end of one year to show whether this has been working successfully? On this side of the House we support the measure and it has had general support in the consultative process. We should like to see at the end of one year the outcome of these applications.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I shall pass on his suggestion to my right honourable friend that it should be considered after one year. I repeat to him the assurance, which I have already given, that there will be a constant review. It may well be possible to do just what the noble Lord suggested.

On Question, Motion agreed to.