Parole System: Public Protection

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Tuesday 5th April 2022

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Thomas of Gresford Portrait Lord Thomas of Gresford (LD)
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My Lords, the Statement says that

“there is no such thing as a risk-free society; we cannot guarantee that no one released from prison will go on to commit a serious crime. Let us be very clear about that as we have a more honest debate about the assessment of risk”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/3/22: col. 831.]

Well, let us have an honest debate. In 2020-21, the Parole Board conducted over 6,000 oral hearings and considered over 20,000 paper applications. A record 16,443 cases were concluded, and 4,289 prisoners were released, while 11,437 remained in prison for the protection of the public.

Who made these decisions? The Parole Board consists of over 300 members: 169 independent members from all backgrounds, all jobs and all parts of the country; 61 judicial members such as Crown Court judges or retired judges with a lifetime experience of the criminal justice system; and 68 psychologist members and 35 psychiatrist members with active careers in the prison system. It is, you may think, an experienced pool of people to assess risk.

What percentage of prisoners released by the Parole Board have committed further serious crime? The Parole Board itself said in an earlier report that the percentage of offenders who committed serious further offences in 2018-19 following a release decision or a move to open conditions was 1.1%. Can the Minister give a more up-to-date figure? If that is correct, it suggests that the professional and experienced Parole Board gets it as right as you would expect in its assessment of risk. As the Statement says,

“there is no such thing as a risk-free society”

and it cannot be guaranteed that no one will reoffend.

But the Parole Board, unlike a court or tribunal, is quasi-judicial. That means that politicians can interfere and get their hands on its decisions. That is what is happening here. The Government promise to provide

“further detailed criteria for … the statutory test.”

The statutory test is that the Parole Board

“must not give a direction”—

for release—

“unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”

So my second question is: what “further detailed criteria”? Why are we not told today if this is necessary? This Statement, I suggest, is all bluster with nothing thought through.

The Statement goes on:

“In cases involving those who have committed the most serious crimes, we will introduce a ministerial check on release decisions, exercised by the Justice Secretary.”

Well, there have been nine Justice Secretaries since 2005, with an average tenure of 21 months and two of them for less than a year. Five of the nine were non-lawyers. When justice was in the hands of the Lord Chancellor in this House, it was the pinnacle of his career; he did not need to look for further ministerial office. Today, Justice Secretaries move on from their comparatively small departments: consider Liz Truss or Michael Gove, for example, whose political ambitions may not even now have been fulfilled.

The current Justice Secretary is a lawyer. His page on the government website says:

“Dominic started his career as a business lawyer at City law firm Linklaters, working on project finance, international litigation and competition law.”

He later worked in Brussels. You might think that that was not the best training for the assessment of the risk of reoffending by an offender. Let us contrast that experience with that of the Parole Board members, which I have outlined. Has Mr Raab ever been in a criminal court—except to close it down or, if it is new, perhaps to cut the tape—or a prison? Is he the man to second-guess the decisions on risk taken by the highly experienced Parole Board? That is what is being thrust upon us.

The Statement declares that only 5% of the Parole Board come from “a law enforcement background”. Well, they do include a number of retired chief constables and prison governors. What is the Government’s intention? They say it is that members will

“have greater first-hand operational experience of protecting the public from serious offenders.”

The Statement also suggests that one such law enforcement person should sit with two other members on each hearing to form a tribunal. Does that mean that we can now expect a flood of police and prison officers to be appointed? Is the whole purpose of this alleged reform to skew the Parole Board towards negative decisions?

An alternative apparently being considered is that the Justice Secretary should sit as a judge with two assessors when he makes his decision. Is he serious? Personally, I think it would be an excellent use of his time to have direct experience of all the things that he is responsible for: the delays, the listing, the adjournments, the frustrations and the raw emotions of victims and the families of defendants. He would then discover that he is dealing with real people, mostly from disturbed backgrounds—people with problems and illnesses. I think he would then turn for help to psychologists and psychiatrists, and perhaps even to experienced judges. Perhaps he would create his own personal parole board to advise him. “Sit, sit”—I invite him to do so.

So the truth is that this Statement is not oven-ready. It aspires to be half-baked, but the central filling has not been decided on. Still, we are coming up to the end of the Session, and a few headlines for the Justice Secretary are very acceptable when his career has not finished.

Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Wolfson of Tredegar) (Con)
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Well, my Lords, I do not know whether my career has even begun, but I will respond to the points that were made, dealing first with the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede. I should say first that I am grateful for his broad support for the thrust of what we are seeking to do. As to consultation, the department has consulted extensively throughout the review. We had a public consultation on opening some parole hearings to the public, including discussions with a wide range of practitioners and experts. Round tables and individual discussions with stakeholders with in-depth knowledge and understanding of the parole process were held, and these informed some of the outcomes of the review.

Some of the consultation regarding the victims Bill was also relevant here because it went to the issue of victim participation. Regarding the number of officials who would be working on this, the cost thereof, and the resource points that the noble Lord made, I say that modelling and costs are to be worked through in detail as the legislation is developed. A full impact assessment will be published when the legislation is introduced.

So far as potential unfairness is concerned, a point which I will come back to when I respond to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, one of the issues here is that whichever of the two models to which he referred we end up putting in place, there is always court review. That is built in, to ensure that there is no substantive unfairness and that the system is compliant with our convention obligations, particularly Article 5.4.

Remote hearings were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, and in particular the involvement of victims. During the pandemic, the Parole Board made extensive use of virtual hearings and has indicated that it will continue the practice. It has also resumed traditional oral hearings and it will be for the Parole Board to ensure that all representations can properly be made. For example, if there were representations, or the victim wanted to say something either with or without the offender there, it would be up to the Parole Board to ensure that the proceedings were substantively fair to all parties.

I respectfully agree with the noble Lord that being moved to an open prison is indeed a privilege and not a right. They are a valuable resource supporting successful and safe resettlement into the community of prisoners who have been suitably risk-assessed, but only those prisoners identified as being appropriate to hold in lower security conditions should be moved to an open prison. Although in this context the Parole Board makes a recommendation, the final decision is for Ministers. In December, the Lord Chancellor took the decision to require greater scrutiny of Parole Board recommendations on open prison moves and will now oversee the decisions in the most high-risk cases personally, those being offenders who have committed murder, other homicide, rape, and serious sexual offences or cruelty against a child, and in cases where officials do not reject a recommendation from the Parole Board, Ministers will consider the recommendation of the Parole Board.

The final point that the noble Lord made was of the Secretary of State being the final arbiter and whether that meant that there was a reputational risk for the Secretary of State. There are two points. First, as to the ultimate arbiter, this brings into play the fact that there is a court oversight to ensure that the system is procedurally fair, so to that extent the Secretary of State is not the ultimate arbiter as there is court involvement as well. However, I respectfully take the noble Lord’s point about reputational risk. The flipside is that ultimately, it is Ministers’ responsibility to ensure that dangerous offenders are not released on to the streets and so, if I may put it this way, it is quite right that the buck stops with elected Ministers.

I turn now to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. I accept, as the Lord Chancellor made clear in the other place, that the Parole Board has a great deal of experience and generally does a good job. The majority of parole decisions are unproblematic. That is why these reforms apply only to offenders who have committed the most serious offences. However, there have been cases involving the release of the most serious offenders which have given rise to significant public concern and undermined confidence in the system: Pitchfork, Worboys and others. Therefore, this is not a case of politicians interfering, which I think was the verb used by the noble Lord. As I said a moment ago, politicians have a duty to protect the public and it is quite right that they step up, so to speak, and ultimately take responsibility for the system and those very risky or higher-risk decisions.

So far as a test is concerned, the test in legislation was set out in the substantive Statement but is worth bearing in mind. It says:

“The Parole Board must not give a direction”

for release

“unless the Board is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”

However, the courts have interpreted that and, to be fair, one can see why. In particular, in the case of Bradley in 1991, a court judgment stated that the role of the board is to

“carry out a balancing exercise between the legitimate conflicting interests of both prisoner and public”.

Therefore, the statutory test has changed to become a balancing exercise between the rights of the prisoner to be considered for release and the responsibility of the state to protect the public. I suggest that that was not the original intention of Parliament.

We propose to set out release test criteria. The noble Lord asked what they were. I could read them out, but, if he will forgive me, I will drop him a note setting them out, which will then be available, rather than read them all into Hansard, so to speak. I hope that is satisfactory.

Some Justice Secretaries may have political ambitions —I am responding as somebody with no political ambition and very little of a political career—but, as I said, the ultimate decision does not rest only with the Justice Secretary; there is court involvement. There are two models being looked at. The first would be for Ministers personally to take the decisions. In that case, there would be a route of appeal to the Upper Tribunal. The second would be to create a new review panel to take the decision, which would comprise the Secretary of State and two independent panel members. Decisions by this panel could be challenged through judicial review. Either option introduces ministerial oversight into the release decisions of the highest-risk offenders to keep people safe and to give public confidence in the system. Also, either alternative would be lawful under the convention, in particular Article 5(4), which says:

“Everyone who is deprived of his liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings by which the lawfulness of his detention shall be decided speedily by a court and his release ordered if the detention is not lawful.”

We are confident that either model would be consistent with those obligations.

I hope that I have responded to all the substantive points made, but I will check the Official Report and when I write with the criteria, if there is anything I have not picked up, I will add it to that letter.

House adjourned at 9.19 pm.