HL Deb 19 November 2002 vol 641 cc259-62

3.14 p.m.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I should say that my Question inquired whether there was a practice rather than assuming that there is one.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they consider that there should be a change in the practice which leads a prisoner, who consistently maintains that he is innocent of the offence for which he has been convicted, to prejudice his prospects of being released on parole.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that clarification.

There is no rule or policy which prevents a prisoner who denies guilt from progressing through the system or from being released on parole licence. Such prisoners may be granted parole if their risk is assessed as having reduced to a level which is compatible with the protection of public safety.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, instead of the fulsome praise that one normally accords to an Answer, perhaps the Minister will allow me to express my gratitude at being the first Member of the House to be allowed to ask the first fifth Question. Although it was achieved by ballot, I suspect that it may have had something to do with alphabetical merit.

Can the Minister inform the House when the unfortunate Mr Robert Brown—whose conviction was quashed very recently, he having served 25 years in prison—might have been released but for the fact that the Criminal Cases Review Commission stepped in and referred the case to the Court of Appeal? Apparently his request for parole was refused some 14 years ago.

Secondly, is the Minister aware that, apart from the human suffering of spending another 14 years in prison, the sheer financial cost of the Home Office's inflexible policy in regard to this man involved some £500,000 for those 14 years and, no doubt, will cost something of that nature by way of compensation?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord on being the first asker of a fifth Question. The fact that noble Lords are leaving the Chamber at the moment is not a comment on the quality of his Question.

As to the serious question about the position of Mr Brown, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1977. There were seven parole hearings in relation to his case. The first took place in June 1984, the second in December 1988, and I shall write to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, with the dates of the other hearings. On each occasion the issue raised was not whether he denied guilt in relation to the crime of which he had been convicted in 1977, but what risk did he pose. That was the issue addressed by each of the seven parole hearings.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, in view of the concerns about this case, can the Minister assure the House that a thorough review of the parole system will be undertaken to ensure that none of the suggestions outlined in the Question applies?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I should make it clear to the noble Lord that the position is as described in the Parole Board's annual review for the year 2000–01, which indicated that denial of guilt is not a reason for refusing people parole. The review said that such a policy would be unlawful. It stated: The courts have been consistently clear that the Board has to work on the basis that a prisoner applying for parole has been properly convicted. It can place no credence in a denial of guilt … the Board's role is to make an assessment of the risk of the prisoner reoffending if released". That is the approach that has been taken.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, is it not correct that when the Parole Board takes a judgment in such matters, the assumption is made that the man was guilty of the offence. In coming to that conclusion, does it also consider the fact that he has never apologised or in any way expressed any regret for the act that he is alleged to have committed? So when the Minister states that the matter is not considered, obliquely it is considered, is it not?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there is an element of truth in what the noble Lord says in this sense: the issue is one of risk. All the circumstances may be taken into account; but the myth that one is seeking to get rid of is the idea that, if one denies one's guilt in relation to a crime, it automatically follows that one will not receive parole. That is not the position. The approach taken by the Parole Board is one of assessing risk. The board assumes that the defendant has committed the crime of which he has been convicted—because there is no other realistic basis on which it can approach the matter.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend saying, in other words, that the press reports were totally wrong?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am loath to comment on detailed press reports. If and in so far as it has been said that because the defendant denied guilt for his crime he was thereby automatically denied parole, that is wrong. 'That is not a lawful approach, and it is not the approach taken by the Parole Board.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is it fair to ask whether that aspect is taken into account? There is a widespread view that that is the situation. I suggest that it is probable that people would take it into account. In the light of what the Minister has said, is there an argument for stating that it is in no way to be taken into account and that it is, therefore, not a matter for discussion on these occasions?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, got it broadly right. Of course it could be a relevant matter. If one is denying one's guilt and one is not participating in any programme that seeks, for example, to try to deal with the behaviour that might have led to the crime, that could be a relevant factor in relation to risk. But the important point to address is this: if a person denies the crime of which he has been convicted and is thereby never granted parole, that is not the right approach.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, according to Home Office Research Study 202, the way in which the Parole Board deals with the problem outlined is by ensuring that the prisoner has undertaken a number of offending behaviour programmes? Such programmes are often not available for months; therefore, prisoners who are eligible for parole in every other respect are kept in prison because of the scarcity of prison service programmes.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, again, it comes down to the question of what is the level of risk for an individual prisoner or defendant. If in order to reduce that risk certain programmes have to be gone through and there are shortages in relation to those programmes, that is not a desirable position. However, there is a balance to be struck between the protection of the public on the one hand and the availability of the programmes. Ultimately, the protection of the public has to come first.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is not the position this: the prisoner is looked upon as adding to the risk automatically if he is released if he has not in the eyes of the Parole Board "addressed the offence'? He has not shown contrition. He has not admitted that he is the person who was properly convicted. Therefore, it is taken into account to that extent—how seriously that is done no doubt varies from case to case.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I have accepted that it could be a relevant matter if and in so far as it bears on risk. If a defendant persistently denies his guilt and refuses to take part in any programmes designed to address his offending behaviour, that could plainly bear on the issue of risk. As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, rightly said, that could have an effect on the outcome. But the critical point to make clear is that if a person denies his guilt it does not follow automatically that he will not be granted parole.

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