[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered imprisonment for public protection.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. Sentences of imprisonment for public protection are an often overlooked part of our criminal justice system, despite their huge impact on those prisoners continuing to serve them. They were intended to protect the public from serious offenders and ensure that dangerous violent and sexual offenders stayed in custody for as long as they presented a risk to society.
Under the IPP regime, offenders given an IPP sentence were set a minimum term that they had to spend in prison, but unlike with most other sentences, there was no upper limit, meaning that once the minimum tariff had been served, the offender must apply to the Parole Board for release. Only if the Parole Board is satisfied that they are not a danger to the public can someone serving an IPP sentence be released. Release is therefore not automatic, and if the Parole Board is not satisfied that someone serving an IPP sentence has demonstrated that they no longer pose a risk, the prisoner can remain in custody indefinitely.
I have discussed these concerns with colleagues, including the shadow Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), who also realises the gravity of this important issue and how it impacts on so many families. That is why I applied for the matter to be debated by right hon. and hon. Members in Parliament.
The point that the hon. Gentleman has just made is very important. This issue has a big impact on families. I do not think we should lose sight of that as the debate proceeds. The other point is that the number of prisoners who self-harm during these sentences is much higher than the number across the rest of the prison population. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those two factors should play a part in his thinking?
With great eloquence, the hon. Gentleman has highlighted two of the key reasons why this debate is so important. I concur fully with his views.
In many cases, IPP sentences that had shorter tariffs, of less than two years, have become in effect a life sentence as people have been stuck in limbo, unable to prove that they no longer pose a risk, often for reasons beyond their control. For those IPP-sentenced prisoners, the sentences did not work as intended and instead have become an unfairly punitive aspect of our criminal justice system. I would like to focus my remarks today on those prisoners, as it is those on the shortest tariffs who have experienced the injustice.
Why were IPP sentences abolished in the first place? Although designed to protect the public from serious offenders, IPP sentences were in reality handed down for a far broader range of offences than was intended. They were handed down at the rate of more than 800 a year, moving thousands of people into prison indefinitely. That led to offenders who had committed more minor crimes facing a short tariff but an indefinite sentence.
The Prison Reform Trust published late last year a report that showed that more than half of prisoners still serving an IPP sentence had a tariff of four years or less and 15% had a tariff of less than two years. Custody and imprisonment should be used as a last resort; and indefinite custody, with no fixed end, should be used only where a very serious offence has been committed. I fully appreciate that there are cases in which individuals have committed heinous crimes against humanity and therefore the local communities are extremely concerned about the prisoner’s release. One such case was highlighted to me by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). He and his predecessor in that seat had both worked with the local community to highlight their very serious concerns about someone who had killed three children and impaled them on railings after murdering them in their home.
However, I am most concerned about the non-serious cases wherein someone is sentenced to a short sentence but ends up being imprisoned for years on end. Where people are safe to be released, we should not be keeping them in custody to serve many multiples of their tariff for the crimes that they have committed. That stands against the principles of natural justice, on which our justice system was founded. The more widespread use of IPP sentences than was intended has also led to a number of instances in which offenders who committed the same offence in the same context were handed sentences such that one offender could be expected to spend a lot longer in prison.
Even the author of IPP sentencing, David Blunkett, acknowledges that this was a flawed policy. Lord Blunkett has noted:
“The consequence of bringing that Act”—
the Criminal Justice Act 2003—
“in has led, in some cases, to an injustice and I regret that”.
In 2012, the Government rightly took the decision to abolish sentences of imprisonment for public protection for offenders, meaning that that option was no longer available to judges. However, although that was the right decision, the issue remains of what to do to address the situation of those who are currently serving an IPP sentence.
My hon. Friend is right to recognise that these sentences have now been abolished. The Parole Board previously aimed to get the IPP prisoner population below 1,500 by 2020, but the latest figures show that the number of people still serving IPP sentences is above 2,400. Given that these sentences have actually been abolished, does my hon. Friend agree that those who are continuing to serve them should be re-sentenced under the rules that exist at the moment?
With great telepathy, I, too, will be referring to the Parole Board and the statistic that my hon. Friend has very ably highlighted. I fully agree with her.
As I said, the issue remains of what to do to address the situation of those currently serving an IPP sentence. That is the issue that the current Government have to grapple with. The problem remains a real one for the prisoners, for their families, for the justice system and for wider society, which needs to have confidence in a justice system that rehabilitates people and is fair and proportionate.
Let us examine the continued use of IPP sentences. On 31 March 2019, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) has highlighted, 2,403 prisoners were still serving an IPP sentence and had yet to be released, despite the abolition of these sentences more than seven years ago. Of those prisoners, nine out of 10 have already served the minimum tariff that was handed down to them by the judge at their trial. A large proportion of those still serving an IPP sentence after surpassing their original tariff were initially sent to prison to serve a short tariff. Of the close to 400 people on an IPP sentence with a tariff of less than two years, more than half have served nine years, or more, beyond their original tariff. That is a travesty.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who cannot be here today, has informed me that a recent parliamentary question that she tabled has revealed that there are currently 46 women on IPP sentences, yet the Ministry of Justice does not know how many of those women have children. Given that that is such a low number, and given that the impact of mothers’ imprisonment on children is well documented, I believe that that is a shocking admission. The Parole Board predicts that unless changes are made to the situation faced by IPP prisoners, there will still be 1,500 people in prison serving an IPP sentence by 2020.
To illustrate the issues faced by people still serving IPP sentences, I shall draw attention to some particularly tragic examples of the effect that the indefinite nature of IPP sentences can have on those people sentenced to them.
Just before my hon. Friend highlights his examples, I will raise the case of my constituent, Wayne Bell, who has had a mental health crisis and is now unable to engage with the parole process. Given that a study a few years ago showed that one in 10 IPP prisoners was seeking psychiatric help in prison, which is double the rate for the normal prison population, does my hon. Friend share my concern that these prisoners can easily get into a downward spiral? They have a mental health crisis and are not able to engage with the parole process, and that makes them more depressed. There is no way out of that downward spiral for them; there is no ability for them to resolve their situation.
My hon. Friend’s excellent point encapsulates the mental health issues and the intertwined nature of what we are discussing. I will elaborate further on the mental health problems faced by prisoners.
In 2009, Tommy Nicol received an IPP sentence with a minimum four-year tariff for stealing a car from a mechanic’s garage and injuring a man’s arm in the process. Once his tariff was completed, the Parole Board refused his request to be released and told him he should access a therapeutic community, in order to address his mental health issues and become safe to be released.
Tommy’s mental health suffered as he was repeatedly denied access to mental health treatment courses. He was moved to prisons that did not even offer those courses, making proving that he had been rehabilitated increasingly difficult. In November 2014, he made a formal complaint saying that IPP sentences were a form of “psychological torture”. Around that time, he also began to self-segregate and went on hunger strike. His behaviour became increasingly erratic as he understandably struggled to deal with the psychological impact of his situation. Tommy tragically took his own life in prison in September 2015.
James Ward was given an IPP sentence in 2006 with a tariff of only one year for setting light to his mattress while in prison serving a fixed sentence for a fight with his father. He ended up serving not one year but 11 years.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case of arsonists is often serious in the IPP sentence structure? Because of the links between arson, sex offending and reckless behaviour, arsonists have been disproportionately affected.
The hon. Lady ably makes the point about arsonists who end up serving a lot longer than they should. It is not fair.
During those 11 years, James Ward regularly self-harmed and his mental health deteriorated significantly. He has since spoken out about the damage that the IPP sentence did to his mental health, telling the “Today” programme:
“Prison is not fit to accommodate people like me with mental health problems. It’s made me worse. How can I change in a place like this? I wake up every morning scared of what the day may hold.”
IPP sentences leave prisoners in limbo, with a lack of access to courses and treatment. Those cases show how much more needs to be done to address the issue faced by those serving IPP sentences. They also highlight a particular issue for IPP-sentenced prisoners, namely being unable to complete the courses that the Parole Board has told them will help to demonstrate that they are safe for release. That is partly because we face an increasingly violent and overcrowded prison system, where there are simply not enough places on development courses and therefore not enough opportunities for short-tariff IPP-sentenced prisoners to demonstrate that they no longer pose a risk.
There are other problems, which are easier to fix. For example, the families of IPP-sentenced prisoners have said that prisoners are prioritised for places on courses based on how close they are to their release date. Because IPP-sentenced prisoners do not have a fixed release date, they fall to the back of the queue and can struggle to ever get on the appropriate courses. I would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on what is being done to address that issue.
IPP sentences have a huge impact on prisoners’ mental health, as they would do on anyone locked up and deprived of their liberty with no end in sight. They create a sense of despair and hopelessness, which can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. This is demonstrated by the fact that IPP prisoners are significantly more likely to self-harm than determinate-sentence prisoners and even life-sentence prisoners, which is an amazing statistic. This is borne out by numerous reports, such as those by the Prison Reform Trust, the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King’s College London.
Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons found that IPP prisoners were significantly more likely than life-sentence or determinate-sentence prisoners to have arrived in their current prison with problems, including feeling depressed and suicidal. Mental health issues are already endemic in our prison system, with at least one in three prisoners reported to have mental health issues by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons reports. The real figure is likely to be greater.
Instances of self-harm are already too high, with 55,598 in 2018 alone. We need a comprehensive and fully-funded strategy for the reduction of all forms of violence in prison, including self-harm, and that must include special support for those on IPP sentences. Will the Minister outline what special provision is made to tackle the mental health conditions of IPP prisoners, especially those with shorter tariffs, who have served way beyond their tariff and probably never expected to be in this situation?
Another issue that affects the prisoner’s ability to rehabilitate and turn their life around is recall. When an IPP-sentenced prisoner is released, they are released on licence, with strict licence conditions that must be followed. Breaching those conditions can result in recall to prison. In many cases, that is a correct and appropriate response, but there are cases where technical breaches—for example, missing a probation meeting due to unforeseen illness or travel delays—have resulted in recall to prison. The excessive use of recall to prison for minor breaches of licence has contributed to the number of IPP prisoners remaining in prison staying stubbornly high. Families of those serving IPP sentences have called for a more reasonable approach to recalls to be taken, to ensure that only those breaches that suggest that someone poses a risk should necessitate the deprivation of an individual’s liberty.
Minor breaches of licence conditions are often not crimes in and of themselves, but simple things, such as missing appointments and breaching administrative conditions. The ex-head of the Parole Board told of offenders sent back to prison for turning up drunk at their bail hostel, even though that presented no risk to anybody. Repeated recall to prison while on release on licence also prevents an IPP prisoner from securing housing and holding down a job, both factors that are proven to reduce reoffending rates. Indeed, 936 people on IPP sentences were released by the Parole Board in 2017. In the same year, 543 people on IPPs were recalled. This is a complex and serious issue that will be tackled only through proper co-ordination between the Ministry of Justice, prisons, probation services and the police. Will the Minister outline his Government’s strategy to tackle the issue of recall?
The only way that an IPP prisoner can finally be entirely released from their sentence is to apply to the Parole Board, 10 years after their release from custody, to have their licence ended. Many experts and campaigners have rightly pointed out that this is simply too long and sets people up to fail. Does the Minister have plans to amend this?
Before concluding, I will highlight the impact of IPP sentences on our justice system. Such sentences do not just have a detrimental impact on the mental health and stability of offenders, both while in prison and during release on their extraordinarily long licences; they are detrimental to the efficient running of the prison and parole systems. The Parole Board has historically heard the cases of offenders given longer sentences than those who were subject to IPP sentences, but is now forced to conduct a lengthy risk assessment process for short-tariff offenders on IPP sentences. There is also no doubt that the rapid increase in the number of prisoners on IPPs contributed to prison overcrowding, which continues, despite the abolition of IPP sentences, because many IPP sentence prisoners face difficulties in demonstrating that they are safe to be released.
The prison population has risen significantly since 1994, especially following changes to minimum sentences since 2000. The UK now has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe, with 141 prisoners per 100,000 of the population. Our prisons are often dangerously overcrowded, with many prisons operating at significantly over their certified capacity. Such overcrowding has a detrimental impact on safety, which has deteriorated considerably under this Government; prisons are substantially more violent than in the past. Overcrowding has also had an impact on the ability of prisons to rehabilitate offenders effectively; Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons has repeatedly raised it as an area of concern because it affects the resources available to reduce reoffending.
It is now time for IPP sentences to be resolved. Continued calls for further change—including from former Justice Secretaries, from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and from the chair of the Parole Board—have focused on the unfairness for prisoners who are still serving IPP sentences and on the challenges that they create for the prison system. Abolishing new IPP sentences was the correct course of action, but there is still more to be done to address the issues that face those who were sent to prison for a short tariff that has effectively turned into a life sentence.
The families of those on IPP sentences are making proposals that may well offer a way forward. For example, Donna—the sister of Tommy Nicol, who I referred to earlier—is now campaigning for reforms to the system that prisoners on IPP sentences face. She has called for the sentences of those who are serving initial tariffs of four years or less, as her brother was, to be converted to fixed sentences. Is the Minister looking at that? There are many suggestions for reforming these outlawed sentences to ensure that public safety and justice is served. Suggestions from the criminal justice reform sector include converting IPP sentences to fixed-length sentences, starting with shorter tariffs, and protecting the public with minimum licence periods.
The Government need to finish the job that they started. Their challenge now is to lay out how they will ensure that this wrong is finally righted. Until it is, it will remain a stain on our justice system.
Order. I am anxious to get everyone in, so could all colleagues keep an eye on the clock and speak for no more than six or seven minutes each, please? I call Victoria Prentis.
Thank you very much, Sir Edward, for calling me first. Owing to unavoidable complications at home, I will have to leave early; I apologise to both Front Benchers that I will not be present for the summing up, but I look forward to reading what they have to say. IPP sentences are an issue on which I have long campaigned and I would not have missed this debate for the world, so I am so grateful to you for allowing me to take part.
It is a great pleasure and honour to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi). He has said almost all that needs to be said, so I do not think that colleagues will have any difficulty in keeping to the time limit that you suggest, Sir Edward. He is right, and he fairly said that both sides of the House have been at fault on this difficult issue.
IPP prisoners and their families were the victims of fairly catastrophically bad policy making in the first place. When that was seen and, to my great delight, the system was changed in 2012 by those of us who were then in power—not that I was at the time, directly, but I was a civil servant working in the field—a residue was left because the changes were not made retrospective. As the hon. Gentleman said, that has left the fate of these people as a stain on our system. They are the victims of poor policy making, but also of enormous churn at the Ministry of Justice.
As ever, it is a great pleasure to see my dear friend the prisons Minister in his place. I hope that he will be allowed to stay in post long enough to sort out this matter and several others—including children’s criminal records, about which I will talk to him later. It is very important that we get on quickly with the reforms that my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) posited when he appeared before the Select Committee on Justice in July 2016. In answer to my fairly brusque questions about whether he would
“consider changing the release test or other legislative change”
to help IPP prisoners, he told me that he was “actively considering” it. Unfortunately, the following day he was moved on. That has been the picture of my attempts to get Ministers to engage with the issue over the past four years, so I very much hope that we will hang on to the present Minister long enough for him to do something about it.
The test for the release of IPP prisoners is very high. As Dr Harry Annison of Southampton Law School noted in written evidence to our Committee, IPP sentences fall
“little short of life imprisonment”.
As I said in my intervention earlier, I am particularly concerned about those convicted of arson offences. The Committee heard evidence about a man who was convicted for a minimum of 10 months in 2006 and was not released for 11 years. I also remember from when I was in practice an extraordinary case of an individual who had been convicted for setting fire to a pair of church curtains and was still in prison very many years later; the reasons and lifestyle that had led to the original offence really did not make him a continuing risk to society. The hon. Member for Slough has already spoken, as I am sure other hon. Members will, about the horrific despair of individuals in prison who do not know when they will be released. It is Kafkaesque, and it is not acceptable in our criminal justice system.
IPPs were used far more widely than was intended. They were often given to offenders who committed low-level crimes with very short tariffs of less than two years. They were handed out at an extraordinary rate when they were first introduced. They proved very difficult to understand, they left victims and families uncertain about how and when people would be released, and they have led to real inconsistencies in sentencing. The sentence created its own complexities that were not fully foreseen when it was conceived. The test for release was set at a very high threshold, which has led to real problems with mental health, suicide and self-harm; the hon. Gentleman has already gone into those, so I will not.
There is good news, however: since 2017, there has been a concerted effort by the Prison Service, the probation service and the Parole Board to progress cases. In 2017-18, the Parole Board ordered the release of more than 900 IPP prisoners, including the re-release of some who had been recalled. The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister to go into recall in some detail; that is important across the Prison Service in general, and particularly with this cohort, for which there are real concerns about how the recall system is being used.
There is a great deal more to do. Immediate action could be taken, without legislative change, on treatment programmes. The Parole Board and prison psychologists have gone to enormous lengths to say that there are options other than treatment programmes that demonstrate the case for release, but boards remain very influenced by programmes that offenders have undertaken.
I am concerned generally about treatment programmes and their evaluation. We held up the sex offender treatment programme as a gold standard for many years, and then we got rid of it overnight and brought in new systems because it was proved not to work. I was interested by the response to a recent freedom of information request from Transform Justice, which showed that 95% of accredited programmes have no impact evaluation. I am really worried about the undue weight that boards are placing on programmes that have not been properly evaluated. The lack of provision of such programmes is effectively keeping people in prison without real evidence that it is the right place for them. May we please have urgent action, Minister, on treatment programmes and their evaluation, as well as real direction, so that we do not over-rely on programmes that have not been fully evaluated?
In the “Prison Population 2022” report, which the Justice Committee published in March, and in the Government response, which they very kindly gave us yesterday, there is a great deal of common ground between the Government and the Justice Committee. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), the Chairman of the Justice Committee, will go into them further, but there are very good practical suggestions in the report from the Howard League and from the Parole Board itself on how to deal with IPP prisoners. I encourage the Minister to take all of them on board. However, I have to say that I, along with others on the Justice Committee, would go further. We think that these prisoners represent such a blight on our justice system that legislative change is the only way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for his contribution in opening this debate.
I want to say something at the very beginning that I hope Members will regard as helpful. All those in prison under an IPP sentence are there because at some point they committed a crime and hurt a victim. We should not forget that in this debate, because there are many people in prison for serious offences that have caused a great harm to people in the community. The question we are considering today is: how do we achieve a balance between punishment of those individuals for their offences and providing a helpful pathway to rehabilitation?
When it was introduced originally, the IPP sentence gave a minimum term, but also set out a series of conditions by which the risk that an individual who has committed an offence poses to society has to be assessed, in order for them to reach a standard that would allow them to be released back into the community.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has zoned in on what should be the two central pillars of our justice system. Does he agree that wider society needs to see rehabilitation—the second pillar that he talked about—as one way to help to reduce the risk of reoffending, so that people can have more confidence in the justice system?
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman—or my hon. Friend, as I will still call him in this case—makes a key point.
The key issue that I want to raise is this. Many IPP prisoners have passed the minimum tariffs—we have heard today the figure of 2,400 prisoners currently serving over-tariff IPP sentences and now, because of where we are in the timeline, many are serving severely over-tariff IPP sentences. There are many individuals for whom we need to find a pathway, to give them clarity and to enable them to reach a conclusion after they have served their minimum term and paid back to society, but we also need clarity about their rehabilitation and ultimate release.
The right hon. Gentleman is speaking with his characteristic eloquence. Kevin Willis, a constituent of mine, has served 13 years in custody, which is the equivalent of a 26-year determinate sentence, after being sentenced to an IPP with a four-year tariff. As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, Kevin Willis committed a serious crime and deserved to go to prison. However, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this kind of legal limbo, whereby Kevin has no idea when or even if he will be released, is unconscionable? Also, members of the public will find it hard to understand why some people serve only half the sentence that is announced on the steps of a court, while others seem to serve many multiples of their sentence. That is another problem that affects faith in the justice system.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, in the sense that we have to assess the risk that an individual potentially presents to society. We have a minimum term; people have passed that minimum term; we now have an element of indeterminate sentencing, whereby risk is assessed and release happens when that risk is deemed to be sufficiently low for the prisoner to be released back into society.
I want to know from the Minister what assessment is being made of the current potential risk from the 2,400 prisoners serving IPP sentences, including 43 women. The reason they are still in prison is either that they have been moved from prison to prison and not been tracked effectively, or the courses to help with their rehabilitation have not been made available, or they pose a risk because of the deterioration of their mental health while in prison or because of other issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough said. What assessment has the Minister made of those prisoners, and how can he prove that there are pathways for each of those individuals? That is the key thing that I want to know from the Minister in this debate.
It seems to me that there are three clear pathways left for individuals with IPP sentences. Either we have a rehabilitation pathway that says, “These individuals need to complete these courses in order to reach a stage where the Parole Board can assess them to be a low risk to society and therefore eligible for release,” or, if there is not a rehabilitation pathway, we might need to consider resentencing, so that there is a definitive end-date to their sentences, or the crime is such that, whatever current pathways are operational through rehabilitation, the end-date, which might be some years hence, needs to be reassessed and might take into account time already served. What we need for each of those 2,400 individuals is clarity about what their sentences will ultimately mean.
In the Justice Committee, we produced a report that indicates that we want to see that clarity, and we have said that we would like to see legislative solutions for both release and recall of indeterminate-sentence prisoners, to ensure sentencing certainty on this issue. Helpfully, the Minister of State, the hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland), has this week published his response to our report, as has been mentioned. I want to complete my brief remarks by asking a couple of questions about the Government response.
In their response, the Government have said:
“We are committed to providing long-term prisoners with opportunities for rehabilitation, so they can demonstrate they can be released safely back into the community and we welcome the Committee’s acknowledgement of our efforts to improve the progression prospects of IPP prisoners”.
How many assessments have been made of those prisoners and what is the pathway for them? The Minister also said in his response that the Government
“are continuing to prioritise post-tariff prisoners in accessing rehabilitative interventions, including Psychology Services-led reviews, and enhanced case management for those prisoners with a complex set of risks and needs. We have also developed Progression Regimes at four prisons across the country”.
How many prisoners currently on that list of 2,400 does that cover? The Minister has also said that the Government are
“progressing indeterminate prisoners struggling to achieve release via the usual routes.”
With all the things that the Minister says he is doing in response to the Justice Committee’s report, at what date does he estimate that the current number of 2,400 over-tariff IPP prisoners will be in a position to be forwarded to the Parole Board for assessment? [Interruption.]
The Minister looks quizzical, but that is a question that he needs to answer, because if he has an end-date, he needs a programme to get to it. He needs to assess those 2,400 individuals, see what courses they need to undertake, establish the elements of risk in those cases and determine whether those 2,400 individuals will reach a threshold for release. We accepted in our report that there are those within that 2,400 who might never be released because they may still pose a threat to society. Nevertheless, that is still a time-pathway conclusion that the Minister and his Department can reach on an individual.
My simple plea is this: when and how? If resentencing is required to provide clarity, when will that happen? Ultimately, the key thing that I want from this debate is clarity, and that might mean a long time further in prison or a course to help to release somebody in due course, but clarity is needed.
Finally, I go back to where I started. We should not forget the victim of the original crime, and there should be some discussion and some conclusion as part of these pathways about victim management for those against whom the original crimes were committed.
As always, Sir Edward, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing an important debate on an important subject.
I am delighted to see the Minister in his place. He has had a long and distinguished career at the criminal Bar, so he will know, as well as any of us who have seen this type of sentencing in practice, that this is an unconscionable situation, which is the result of a policy in the past that was well-intended but, frankly, an error. That error was corrected, but not corrected retrospectively, hence the decision reached by the High Court and the Supreme Court that they could not interfere with sentences that, at the time they were issued, had been lawfully given, as the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said. However, that does not remove the political and moral conundrum that faces us.
The right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), a fellow member of the Select Committee, very fairly points out, as we accept in our Select Committee report, “Prison population 2022”, that there will indeed be a number—perhaps a significant number, but I suspect not a majority—of IPP prisoners who are unlikely to be safe to be released in any significant period of time and perhaps never. I suspect they are a minority, but there will be some. Nobody has an issue with that, but certainty is important for them and for the victims of their grave crimes, so that they know that that will be the case.
In those circumstances, the defendants probably ought not to have been sentenced to an IPP in the first place, but to a life sentence. If that is the case, the correct thing is to put that right rather than continue with the fiction that they are on an IPP with a tariff that they have long since superseded.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. His experience at the criminal Bar leads him to the same conclusion as it leads me. Given that the situation is unacceptable for the reasons that have been highlighted by the right hon. Member for Delyn, and highlight in detailed by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and fellow Select Committee member, it is unacceptable that we should leave a situation in which some people are in limbo.
One such case was illustrated in our Select Committee report in evidence from the sister of an IPP prisoner who died after a self-harm incident in prison. That individual
“often found himself in prisons that did not offer the specific type of rehabilitation he needed with no support or guidance on how to move to a prison that offered them. If there ever was a ray of hope with regards to this it was often lost owing to the lack of feedback on progress, the resource being changed or even closed down.”
That leads me to conclude, first, that we need to ensure that the prison regime offers proper rehabilitative and therapeutic offender management courses to those in a position to benefit from them. That requires a steady and stable regime within the prisons, which is not yet always the case in many institutions. Secondly, it implies a greater degree of monitoring of the specific needs of IPP prisoners to make sure that they are moved to establishments where courses are available. Thirdly, it means moving away from the current practice whereby IPP prisoners are very often not allowed to seek transfer to open institutions, which gives the Parole Board the difficulty of not having been able to test their behaviour and therefore the risk of reoffending in open conditions. The board has to take the difficult risk, in public perception terms, of either keeping those prisoners locked up perhaps needlessly or releasing them immediately without their having experienced open conditions. All that needs to be addressed.
The Parole Board gave evidence to us that certain mechanisms currently available to it could be made more use of. I urge the Minister to speak urgently to the chair of the Parole Board about speeding up, for example, the ability to prevent needless recall for technical reasons by, as has been pointed out, suspending the period of supervision after four years of good behaviour on licence—a specific and sensible proposal—and removing the cancellation of the licence after 10 years on licence. In many cases, that would be significantly more than the minimum term that they were sentenced to by quite a multiple. Those are sensible things that could be done.
Also, we have to grasp the nettle that, as Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd rightly said, Parliament needs to grasp. We must either make resources available so that proper rehabilitation can take place or change the test for release. That would certainly need to be consulted upon, but it is something we need to set out because it has been very highly set at the moment. And/or we could change the statutory provision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) said, so that people can be re-sentenced under the current sentencing practice and procedures to a determinate sentence. In the worst cases, that will no doubt be life, or sometimes significant and at other times less significant determinate sentences, but the IPP prisoners, their families and the victims of the offenders will know precisely what the regime is and what the rules are that relate to the release.
That ought not to be too difficult to achieve. I cannot think for one moment that there would be opposition to that in any quarter of this House, were the Government to seek to find a legislative opportunity to introduce that. I earnestly urge my hon. and learned Friend the Minister—I know he is a reformer at heart and recognises the need to move these matters on—to make the case as strongly as he can within Government to find the time to take the fairly modest steps that would rectify an injustice that is a needless blot upon our system.
I thank the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) for securing this debate. I also thank the other Members who have made contributions.
I can fully understand the concerns that have been expressed today, and I am someone who firmly believes in the punishment fitting the crime. I have long had an issue with the release of sexual predators back into society. Indeed, there was recently an issue with an offender who had a long history of sexual offences in my constituency, who was repeatedly inappropriate with young children. The community carried out a citizen’s arrest when he was caught in the midst of a lewd act. As a consequence of running away from a person walking by who witnessed the act, the perpetrator was injured. My point is that, had he not been released, it would have been better for the offender, who truly seems unable to keep himself under control, and most certainly better for the young girls who have had their innocence stolen and are unable to undo or unsee the acts that he carried out in front of them. I want to get that story in at the beginning, because I agree with the Members who said that the punishment must fit the crime. I am clearly of that ilk as well.
At the same time, we recognise the pressures on the prison and parole systems. Before they can be released, prisoners serving indefinite sentences have to demonstrate that they have addressed their offending behaviour and are no longer a risk to society.
On 21 June 2011, the day the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was published, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave a press conference and said,
“we’re going to review the existing system urgently with a view to replacing it with an alternative that is clear, tough and better understood by the public.”
So there have been lots of requests for change. On 20 April 2016, the then Justice Secretary, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), wrote to the Chair of the Justice Committee about prison reform. He said that although he had no current plans to change the statutory test for releasing prisoners after completion of the tariff, there were initiatives to help IPP prisoners to make progress towards release. There has therefore been much talk about this during the time that I have been in this House, and I suspect long before that as well.
I can fully understand the reason why such sentences were given, but I also understand that our duty of care to the prisoner means that we need to have rehabilitation in place to ensure that they can get back into the community if they are fit to do so. I am possibly from a generation that believes that there are consequences for actions, and the consequence of a sexual offence should mean curtailment of freedom, especially for those who seem likely to reoffend. We need to remember that it is not about a number on a page or a statistic, but about children: little boys and girls whose innocence has been stolen and who will battle with that loss all of their lives. It is not simply a matter of removing that person from their lives, but of learning to deal with the trauma and to trust again. Although we can never mete out enough punishment for them to get their lives back, we can prevent other children from having to go through what they went through.
When an offender commits a sexual offence, he or she needs to know that their actions will result in their removal from society until it is deemed safe for them to return to society, and even then it will not be without changes. No one can commit such offences and return to their life; it is irrevocably changed. To be honest, I feel little or no sympathy for them. My sympathy is reserved for the victims. We must be able to ensure that those who are likely to offend or present a danger are kept away from the vulnerable and from communities.
Do we need to change the system? Yes, we do. Do we need to make it more effective? Undoubtedly. Do we need to provide help and assistance to those who struggle with urge and impulse control? Definitely. Do we need to have a form of rehabilitation that truly prepares the inmate for the real world? Certainly. Are the vulnerable in the community the ones whom we must serve in any decision to release an IPP offender? Absolutely. There must be a bottom line in any change. I am sure that the Minister who will respond to the debate will consider that, when making any suggestions for change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate and making a comprehensive, detailed and powerful argument about the injustices of what are supposedly short-term sentences.
There has been much agreement in the debate, so we await solid answers from the Government about the action they will take on this important issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) pointed out, there were 2,403 prisoners still serving IPP sentences, yet to be released, as of March this year, and 90% of them have already served the minimum tariff handed down by the judge at their trial.
We cannot say that enough has been done in the seven years since the change. As the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), put it, the policy has been corrected, but not retrospectively. That means that thousands of people are waiting in limbo, as their ability to imagine a world outside prison, and their chance of rebuilding their lives without reoffending, deteriorate. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) made a point about balance. We should remember that the people in question have, to use his words, committed a crime and hurt a victim. The balance to be struck is between punishment for the offence and providing a pathway to rehabilitation.
The argument against IPP sentencing is clear, and the Government do not seem to disagree with us on that simple question of justice: indefinite custody with no fixed end should be used only for the most serious offences, where the public would be genuinely at risk. We have heard many examples where that was not really the case, and where relatively minor crimes are still being punished disproportionately with what some feel amounts to a life sentence. The Howard League for Penal Reform has said that
“this cohort of prisoners had particular difficulties with anxiety as they saw others who had been convicted of similar crimes after 2008 enter and leave prison while they were detained substantially beyond their tariff date.”
Where people are safe to be released, we should quite clearly not be keeping them in custody to serve their sentence many times over. It is against all the most basic principles of fairness and justice, and the punishment must fit the crime—a point that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) stressed in his speech.
I agree with every word that the hon. Lady is saying. The punishment must fit the crime, but does she agree that the real concern is that the punishments are not what judges handed down in court, when they had all the facts before them, but are increasingly the preserve of the people, within custody, who apply often completely extraneous considerations?
That point is well made and I thank the hon. Gentleman.
The impact on those serving IPP sentences and their families is heartbreaking. We have heard of people who have self-harmed and died by suicide in prison. The shocking fact, mentioned by many of those who spoke, that IPP prisoners are significantly more likely to self-harm than both determinate-sentence prisoners and life-sentence prisoners, goes to show the urgency with which the Government need to tackle the issue. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) made clear, IPP prisoners are victims of pretty catastrophic policy making.
A study published for the Griffins Society in 2019 examined the impact on women serving IPP sentences. Six of the nine women interviewed had tried to commit suicide multiple times during the sentence, and five of the nine had had their children taken into care. Those are significant risks for the 43 women still serving IPP sentences today, and their innocent families. I would love to know what action the Government have taken on the matter. What have they done, for instance, in response to the family of Tommy Nicol who, as we have heard, died by suicide while serving an IPP sentence? His sister Donna has called for the sentences of those serving initial tariffs of four years or less to be converted to fixed sentences. It seems that that could be a common-sense way to tackle the ongoing injustice of IPP prisoners. What is the Government’s position on that?
We can talk about the flaws in the original policy of IPP itself. We all agree on that. However, a major reason why many prisoners who have served their time are still waiting in limbo is the chronic mismanagement of the justice system that the Government have presided over. That mismanagement affects everyone involved in our prison system—not just prisoners with IPP sentences.
We have heard about prisoners who have been asked to demonstrate commitment to therapy for mental health issues, to prove that they are fit for release, but who have no access to such therapy in the prison they are in. That is in part due to the sheer numbers of people on waiting lists for those much-needed courses in our overcrowded prisons. I have urged the Government before, and I will urge them again, to take action on the deficit in mental health provision in all parts of society. However, one in three prisoners has mental health issues and the people involved are often more of a risk to society, so surely prison is one area where particular attention is given to mental health provision. Can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to make mental health a priority in our prisons?
There are other reasons for the situation, specific to IPP prisoners, that would be far easier to fix. We have heard in the debate about prisoners being given access to important courses of the kind I mentioned based on how close they are to their release date, which in the case of an IPP prisoner is indefinite. If we are serious about rehabilitation, those prisoners will need more support on their release from prison. When people emerge from prison to a housing market in crisis, low-paid and insecure work as the only option, and a safety net that has been slashed by austerity over the past decade of Tory rule, it is unsurprising that reoffending rates are so abysmal.
Although the important issue of IPP sentences is, quite rightly, the focus of today’s discussion, we are speaking about it in the context of a wider justice system that is falling apart. Many prisons are operating at significantly over their certified capacity. That overcrowding is just one factor that has led to prisons becoming substantially more violent in recent years.
The deficit in the provision of courses that make recidivism less likely, including training for work and mental health therapy, is in part due to the impossible number of prisoners on the waiting list in any given prison. Those problems are especially acute for the IPP prisoners who are the subject of the debate, but they affect all types of prisoners and, with them, our broader social fabric. That is what will really put public safety at risk—not the release of prisoners who may well be ready to reintegrate into society but who are not given a chance to prove it. What are the Government doing about overcrowding, and how many more Tommy Nicols are we likely to lose while we wait for them to take action?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward; as a former member of the legal profession, you will have a particular interest in this important issue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on securing the debate. I know that he has long had an interest in such issues, and I have debated them with him before in my former capacity as a Law Officer. It is a pleasure now to be able to address the hon. Gentleman and other right hon. and hon. Members as Minister of State for Justice.
We can all agree that the sentence of imprisonment for public protection has long been a source of great concern. I well remember the introduction of that type of sentence, pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The provision came into force in 2005, and initially it was used quite often.
The sentence was applicable to and used for a range of offences, including serious assault, threats to kill, arson and a range of other offences that we have heard about today; those are, of course, serious, but I do not think that the courts at the time envisaged what the full consequences would be. Indeed, there is a Court of Appeal authority, from the case of Lang, which, importantly, limited the ways in which IPP sentences could be used. It had an immediate effect on the range of uses of the sentence. There was legislative change in 2008 after another Court of Appeal case in which serious concerns were raised about the system’s ability to cope with the relevant cohort of prisoners. Quite rightly, in 2012 the sentence was abolished by the Government under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The IPP population consisted of many dangerous offenders who often had committed serious violent or sexual offences. At the time there was evidence before the courts of troubling escalations of behaviour, prior to the offending that led to an IPP sentence. The policy that underlay the imposition of that regime was twofold—first, the punishment of offenders, but also a specific public protection function was part of the underlying policy introduced by the Labour Government, who for the first time enjoined sentencers to consider future risk. That was unprecedented: the issue had not been approached in such a way, and it introduced a clearly delineated function that was to be exercised in the form of a determination of dangerousness. Judges were asked to make a decision based on the information and evidence before them—either a pre-sentence report, a psychiatric assessment, or the serious nature of the offence itself—and determine whether an offender was dangerous enough to merit an IPP.
That was the law and policy at the time. We rightly now look back on that with concern and the wisdom of 15 years’ experience, and realise that it has led to some of the cases we have heard about today, and many other cases that we have dealt with in our constituency casework. That was the reality of the situation facing the courts then, and although I hear the view expressed by many right hon. and hon. Members about the possibility of changing the law to effectively re-sentence those offenders, we must take some care. It could be done—there is no immutable bar to passing legislation that would have a retrospective effect, but there is a sensitivity in cutting across the original sentence and the finding of the court. It will be difficult for a fresh sentencer to put themselves entirely in the position of the sentencing judge at the time of the offence, which is why I hesitate before accepting the strong views put forward by hon. Members.
The Minister makes an entirely fair point, but he began by acknowledging that there are people in custody who have served time far beyond what the original sentencing judge anticipated. My constituent has served 13 years after an IPP with a four-year tariff. I recognise the difficulties with re-sentencing, but should we not be concerned when people are in custody for far longer than the original sentencing judge had in mind?
My hon. Friend has considerable experience of criminal practice, and he has dealt with many cases of great seriousness. He is right to draw to my attention the specific case of his constituent. We can deal with this problem in other ways, and I will outline those to the House as I develop my remarks. Indeed, I hope specifically to answer the queries that have properly been raised by right hon. and hon. Members.
May I supplement the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk)? The Minister refers to the difficulties of putting oneself in the position of the sentencing judge, but no one is likely to have been better placed to understand those difficulties than the former Lord Chief Justice, when he made his observations in the course of a judgment in the Court of Appeal. We know that there are circumstances—for example, when a sentence is reviewed for other reasons—when the court will, for reasons of good public policy, embark on that difficult exercise. Although this issue must be borne in mind, there is precedent for demonstrating that it is not an insuperable obstacle.
I agree that in the appellant procedure there will often be that check and balance, but this is slightly different. This would be a change in the law and legal framework to alter the position from the one that applied when the offender was sentenced, to the position now. Whether we like it or not that is a departure, and we must be careful to avoid setting inadvertent precedents.
We must be able fully to reflect on the assessment of risk that was made by the learned judge at the time of sentencing. In other words, how does a court properly assess the length of a determinate sentence—that, presumably, is the aim of right hon. and hon. Members—and decide whether or not to take the further step of imposing a life sentence, which might be appropriate in some very serious cases? I do not pretend that these issues are easy, but neither is it a matter that the Government should do nothing about. Other measures we are taking are already yielding significant results, not just in reducing the number of prisoners held under this regime, but by ensuring that more eligible prisoners can be considered as quickly as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), Chair of the Justice Committee, mentioned the remarks of the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who spoke not just about changing the statutory provision, but about changing the test for release, which is important. I think he would concede that the test for the release of prisoners held under this sort of regime must be as consistent as possible, bearing in mind the different classes of prisoners who are held in custody either on minimum terms or subject to parole.
We must take great care not to create too many different tests that could mean that one group of prisoners could be treated in a different or more favourable way than another group. I do not say that the argument has no merit, but there are difficulties in creating potential inconsistencies. It is beholden on me, both as a lawyer and now in this position of great responsibility, to ensure that the unforeseen consequences that occurred with this policy making do not repeat themselves thanks to any change we may make.
Let me develop the point about the ways we can best support prisoners to show that they can safely be released—that is the solution that stares us in the face regarding so many people in that position. As the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) laid out well, ensuring public protection from violent and sexual crime must be paramount, and our continuing efforts to rehabilitate prisoners subject to this regime are bearing fruit. We have seen a dramatic fall in the IPP prison population over the past years, and the figures cited by the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), and others, are correct. It is a dramatic fall, although I accept that there is still a significant cohort, and we must also not forget that a number of IPP prisoners have been recalled—I will come to that in a moment. However, progress is being made in the right direction.
In January 2016, more than three years ago, a joint HM Prison and Probation Service and Parole Board action plan was drawn up to deal with IPPs. Initially it was primarily focused on improving the efficiency of the parole process, because at that time there was a significant backlog in listing oral hearings for IPP and life-sentence prisoners. As a result of receiving additional resources and changing some of its processes, the Parole Board and the public protection casework section of the Ministry of Justice made progress, and their combined effect was to eliminate that backlog. Simply having a more efficient system resulted in a significant improvement to the pace with which IPP prisoners were released. Following those improvements, the plan was expanded to include a greater focus on those prisoners who, even with a much more efficient parole system, needed additional support to reduce their own risk and secure a release decision from the board.
What was done? A central case file review, by senior psychologists, of IPP prisoners who had not made the anticipated progress achieved considerable success. Out of 1,365 completed reviews, 233 prisoners in these most challenging cases achieved release, with a further 401 achieving a progressive move to open conditions. We have put in place enhanced case management for the most complex cases, so that a multidisciplinary team can work together to remove barriers to progression.
The joint IPP action plan has also overseen further improvements to the process and, perhaps most significantly, we have opened three new progression regimes, building on the success and the outstanding reputation of the first such regime, which was established at Warren Hill. Those sites operate a staged regime of increasing freedom and responsibility, allowing evidence to build on offenders’ ability to manage their own risks. The rate of release from a progression regime is higher than the average release rate across all Parole Board hearings, which is something that, I think, all right hon. and hon. Members will welcome.
As comprehensive as the plan and the opportunities it provides to IPP prisoners is, the decision actively to engage with efforts that promote rehabilitation, and so demonstrate that there can be safe release back into the community, must ultimately be for each individual prisoner. In my view, that is why Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service change programme, in delivering a new offender management model, is fundamental, not only for IPP prisoners but for all offenders. With increased staffing, and the introduction of the key worker role in all prisons, staff will be better equipped, and given more time, to work with individuals who may not be engaging in the way they need to do to reduce their risk.
We are aware that some prisoners may well have become demoralised, with no fixed date of release and the prospect of a further parole hearing currently not holding much hope for them. Here, the key worker will need to get alongside the prisoner and build hope from the foundation of a strong relationship, encouraging them to grasp the opportunities that are available.
It is not unreasonable to ask at what stage that process will be completed for prisoners currently serving IPP sentences.
The right hon. Gentleman asks that question again, and I take it fairly and squarely. The answer must be that it will be on a case-by-case basis, because each prisoner has an individual story and set of needs, and that does not merit a one-size-fits-all approach. Frankly, the cohort we are now dealing with will probably be the tougher end of the spectrum. I think that the right hon. Gentleman conceded quite properly that there will be a cohort of IPP prisoners who may never be released because of the seriousness of the offences and the risk they still pose—I know he accepts that. Therefore, I cannot give him a figure or a timescale, but I can say that the work that is going on has shown a vast increase in the pace with which we have achieved release and resolution. The model we are now adopting will, I believe, lead to even greater engagement.
As the months go by, the right hon. Gentleman can, of course, hold me to account, and if there is no progress he will rightly ask me the questions and I, independently, will ask civil servants why the initial progress has not been maintained. As a member of the Justice Committee, he will hold me to account for that.
I want to deal with more of the figures we were looking at. We have rightly heard about the overall unreleased IPP population. About 200 of that cohort of 2,400 have yet to serve their minimum tariff. As I said, we have made progress in reducing that population. In 2017-18, the Parole Board progressed to open conditions or released about three out of every four IPP prisoners who appeared before it.
As I was saying, the cohort becomes increasingly challenging, which will require increasingly intensive rehabilitation. Rehabilitating, and assessing the risk presented by, these prisoners, many of whom, sadly, have committed serious sexual offences against children, is particularly challenging. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) opened his remarks by referring to that sort of horrendous offence and the need for public protection. It should be acknowledged that some IPP prisoners may never be released because the risk they pose is just too great for safe management in the community.
We are working to reduce the incidence of self-harm among IPP prisoners as part of our prison safety programme and here, again, the key worker will perform a vital role. Additionally, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service is improving the process for people at risk of suicide or self-harm. We have improved prevention training for nearly 25,000 prison staff and have refreshed our partnership with Samaritans for three years, with £1.5 million in funding to support the excellent listeners scheme, through which prisoners are trained to provide support to their fellow prisoners—peer-to-peer support that we all know works in so many settings.
Working to address broader mental health issues in the IPP population remains important. Since last April, we have a new national partnership agreement for prison health. Mental health services are available in all prisons. Turning for a moment to the issue of women IPP prisoners, I am glad to say that they have a dedicated senior psychologist providing a specific progression pathway, and support from a multidisciplinary team to deal with some of the mental health challenges they face.
The commissioning of mental health services by NHS partners is based on a local assessment of health needs, and the services are provided to prisoners on the basis of individual need, which, when we think about it, has to be right. The one-size-fits-all approach does not work, as we know, when it comes to mental health. Independent professionally trained clinicians carry out assessments, and no one is refused access where there is an assessed need. We are well aware that many of those serving IPP sentences experience mental health difficulties, and part of the action plan aims to ensure access to appropriate treatment. An example that I mentioned earlier is the case file reviews carried out by senior psychologists. Alongside those who have been released or moved to open conditions, 54 of those reviewed have been transferred to secure hospitals, where they can receive the best treatment for their needs.
The issue of recall has properly been raised. With regard to the test of recall, it is important to reiterate that it is stringent when it comes to IPP offenders. They can be recalled only when their behaviour and the nature of the licence breach indicate a causal link to their original offending and that the public are at risk of further serious, violent or sexual offending. That is a different, and more stringent, test for recall than that which exists elsewhere in the system.
Work is being done to ensure that recall is properly focused only where it is necessary to protect the public, and efforts are being made to keep offenders on licence in the community wherever possible. Those efforts include the creation of new guidance for probation officers on licence variations of alternatives to recall, and on best practice in the management of offenders on licence, to improve their compliance and prevent the risk from escalating.
A new power to release IPP prisoners on the papers is being used for those on recall. The Parole Board has introduced a quicker, 48-hour turnaround time to consider licence variation requests from probation, to support continued management on licence in the community. We are investigating the rise in the number of IPP prisoners on recall, to see how that rate can safely be reduced and, citing the hon. Member for Ashfield, to get the balance right between the need to protect the public and the need to rehabilitate offenders.
A number of cases were raised with me. I agree that that of Wayne Bell is concerning and I understand that he is now receiving treatment for his mental health issues in an appropriate setting, which is welcome. The troubling case of Tommy Nicol was properly raised. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), met with Donna Mooney, Mr Nicol’s sister, earlier this year. We remain in contact with her at an official and, I very much hope—although I am a new Minister—a ministerial level. We have another meeting with her planned for the autumn. It is a particularly tragic case, but I assure right hon. and hon. Members that we will continue to work with her to address the concerns that she raises with such dignity and clarity.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who sadly has been called away, asked about the work led by the University of Southampton. We are very much aware of the work of Professor Harry Annison, who works in partnership with the Prison Reform Trust and has already given us an important insight into the impact on families of their loved ones serving IPP sentences. I am looking forward to seeing the conclusions of the next stage of his work, which is currently being supported by IPP and family leads from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. With regard to the entire IPP population and the action plan, although I am not able specifically to indicate the number currently subject to that action plan, I assure the House that it is having a wide-ranging effect and will continue to be implemented.
I have lived with the IPP regime for much of my professional and political life. I am profoundly grateful to the hon. Member for Slough for having raised this issue today, allowing us to debate it in a calm and considered way that reflects the genuine concerns of the families of people who are subject to that regime, but also understands the enduring and important function that the justice system plays in protecting the public from serious and violent offences. I believe that the best approach is for us to continue our successful efforts to help those offenders rehabilitate, and redouble those efforts whenever necessary and whenever an offender wishes to engage. That will provide the best chance for those prisoners to become once again law-abiding members of the very communities that we are seeking to protect.
I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken time to engage in this important debate. I think you would agree, Sir Edward, that there has been consensus and agreement on so many issues, between the shadow Minister, my good friend the hon. Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), members of Select Committees including the Select Committee on Justice, and that Committee’s Chair, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill).
However, I fear that the Minister has responded with a great deal of hesitation and caution, which does not befit the urgency of the action that is required. Although we should not forget the victim, the punishment must fit the crime. We cannot ignore the glaring official statistics on excessive sentences, the mental health problems of prisoners, or the need for a rehabilitation pathway. We cannot leave people in limbo. Sentences need to be determinate, not indefinite. Although we have corrected the policy, we have not done so retrospectively, and the current situation—as other right hon. and hon. Members have pointed out—is simply unconscionable and unacceptable. That is why I urge the Minister to take urgent action to resolve this unsatisfactory situation.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered imprisonment for public protection.