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Parole Board: Maintaining Public Safety

Volume 684: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

[Judith Cummins in the Chair.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effectiveness and transparency of the Parole Board in maintaining public safety.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I thank colleagues for joining me this afternoon to debate what is a pressing issue for our constituents and for the wider country in maintaining and ensuring public safety.

Although this debate will focus on the wider parameters and aspects of the Parole Board’s effectiveness and transparency, I would like to draw the House’s attention to a specific and notorious case, which is a matter of considerable concern to my constituents in South Leicestershire—the case of Colin Pitchfork. In 1988, Pitchfork was sentenced to life imprisonment for the brutal rape and murder of two young girls in my constituency. On 31 November 1983, 15-year-old Lynda Mann was raped and strangled by Pitchfork in the village of Narborough in Leicestershire, and on 31 July 1986, 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth was raped and strangled by Pitchfork in the nearby village of Enderby.

Although those crimes were committed over three decades ago, the murders of Lynda and Dawn continue to live long in the memories of my constituents. I regularly hear from those who still live in the villages of Narborough and Enderby who have fond memories of growing up with these two young women and will never forget their tragic and untimely deaths.

As hon. Members may be aware, Pitchfork’s case is not only notorious for these heinous and abhorrent crimes, which tragically ended the lives of two young girls; it is also known as a pivotal moment in English criminal justice history. He was the first person in the world to be convicted using DNA fingerprinting evidence pioneered by Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.

Following the tragic deaths of Lynda and Dawn, which made headline news across the country, Leicestershire Police conducted one of the country’s largest manhunts for the perpetrator. In an attempt to find those who were responsible, Leicestershire Police took the unprecedented and innovative step of blooding over 5,000 men—asking them to volunteer their blood and saliva for the purposes of DNA testing—in the hope of finding a match to the evidence that was left at the scenes of those awful crimes.

In a painstaking six-month process, the University of Leicester, the Forensic Science Service and Leicestershire police combed through the samples given by local men, but no matches were found. Only after he was overheard bragging that he had asked a friend to donate a DNA sample in his place was Pitchfork discovered, arrested and tried for his crimes, during which he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The brutal and callous nature of Pitchfork’s crimes raises questions as to whether such a person should ever be released from prison or could ever be truly rehabilitated. There is little doubt among professionals, among my constituents in South Leicestershire and in my own personal opinion that, had Pitchfork not been caught, he would have taken yet another young life; that Pitchfork wilfully deceived the authorities during their investigations; and that he continued to exercise his freedom and live his life when his victims could not—a further indictment on this individual’s character.

Mrs Cummins, I would like to inform you and the House of the representations that I have made to the Parole Board regarding Pitchfork’s case on behalf of my constituents and the families and friends of the victims. I also commend the Secretary of State for Justice, the Minister with responsibility for prisons—she is in her place today—and the chief executive of the Parole Board for England and Wales, Mr Martin Jones, for their work and assistance on this matter. Their willingness to assist my constituents and me, and their devotion to this particular case, should be commended. I would like to put on record my sincere thanks to them.

The Parole Board’s purpose is to carry out—independent of the Government, the legislature and the judiciary—risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can safely be released into the community. As such, it can be regarded as the final barrier between prisoners and us in wider society.

As I have mentioned, the Parole Board’s independence from the judiciary, the legislature and Government is key. For the most part, prisoners who have served their sentence and can demonstrate their successful rehabilitation should be properly assessed ahead of their release. Their eventual release, if granted, is a crucial part of their rehabilitation and sentence, so that they can go back into the community as a person who is changed for the better and who will be able to make a positive contribution to our society.

Rehabilitation is a cornerstone of our criminal justice system and a hallmark of our tolerant, forgiving society. Although our country has one of the highest prison populations in Europe, we are a freedom-loving, rules-based democracy and I accept the need for our country to recognise that a person’s historical actions do not define them for all time. A person’s historical failures do not mark them for the rest of their life. We, as a country or a people, do not lock up individuals and throw away the key. When we remove people’s liberty, we invest time and taxpayers’ money in prisoners under a duty of care to work with them to rehabilitate them, and to consider an avenue towards their potential future release, a new start in life and a return to being safe, productive members of our society.

Questions, however, will remain for those who are perhaps not capable of being rehabilitated. It is not my place to pass judgment on the suitability of an individual’s character or their ability to re-enter society as a changed person. The rates of further serious offences among those who are deemed to be safe and who are released by the Parole Board are so low that it is clear that the Parole Board has robust practices in place to make those judgments from a specialist point of view. It is tasked by all of us and by all our constituents to ensure that those it deems fit for release no longer present a danger to the public. To the Parole Board’s credit, it does not often get those decisions wrong, but if it does, the wider public pays the price.

I endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman has said thus far, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. The circumstances he outlines in relation to his constituents and the arguments he advances resonate strongly with me and with people in St Helens, particularly the village of Billinge, where Helen McCourt was murdered in 1988. Her mother has fought a successful campaign for the introduction of the rule that if a murderer does not give information about the whereabouts of their victim’s remains, that will strongly affect the criteria for their release by the Parole Board. I pay tribute to the Government for putting that on the statute book in recent months.

Picking up on what the hon. Gentleman said about when the Parole Board gets it wrong, Marie McCourt had to watch her daughter’s killer be released from prison under parole. I accept the argument about public safety, but this is about public decency, too. Releasing someone who murdered a woman and never gave information about her remains is an affront to public decency.

I entirely agree that it is at the very least questionable when someone who has not shown contrition for their crimes, and over decades of custody, has not assisted investigators but is deemed fit for release.

I ask Members kindly to cast their minds back to 2018 when it was reported that John Worboys, a man convicted of 12 serious sexual offences and suspected of approximately 100, was proposed for release by the Parole Board, having served 10 years in custody. His proposed release caused considerable and understandable outcry among the public, press and, indeed, parliamentarians. Worboys’s case was a watershed moment for much needed reform of the parole process. Victims were not advised of the proposed release, and little information was provided about the reasoning behind the decision, and the then Secretary of State for Justice acted swiftly to bring new, welcome levels of transparency to the system.

I was pleased to feed into some of those changes to the parole process, having a link to the Pitchfork case, and like others I greatly welcomed the changes that were made. The announcement of a new mechanism two years ago for victims and families to request that decisions be reconsidered, and for summaries of decisions to be issued to the public, helped to bring the parole system into the 21st century and, crucially, helped to provide victims and families with a greater say in the criminal justice process, to help them seek the justice they deserve. From being a detached and at times obfuscated process, the parole system appears largely to have learned its lessons from the Worboys case. It has become more open and transparent to those who matter most, but it must continue its challenging work of ensuring public safety.

The Parole Board must have all the necessary resources to arrive at the correct judgment. I encourage the Minister to continue to ensure that it has all the necessary resources to carry out its important task.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for introducing today’s debate. In 2018-19, there were 8,272 hearings that were not concluded at the time, including about 2,500 cases that were deferred on the day, or adjourned, because of a lack of sufficiency of psychologists’ and probation reports. Does he recognise that we need proper resourcing throughout the criminal justice system to ensure that victims in particular are not let down when hearings do not go ahead?

I agree that there is always a strong argument to be made for more resources. In an area such as the criminal justice system, and, specifically, the Parole Board, there is always a good argument to be made to the Minister, who I am sure is listening, about the need for more resources.

The Parole Board has, however, demonstrated its effectiveness in a majority of cases, with a most welcome low level of serious reoffending by those released. Through measures passed in the House, the system has given victims more of a voice, and a clearer view of the process and the decisions made in cases. I ask the Minister to consider how that process can be maintained, and indeed strengthened, to ensure that a balance continues to be struck between releasing those who are fully rehabilitated and halting the release of those who might still present a danger to my constituents and those of every other Member.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) on securing this incredibly important debate. I echo his comments on the importance of Parole Board discretion in serious cases such as the one he described, and its ability to keep people in prison when they represent a danger to the public.

The single point I want to make is that of the importance of Parole Board involvement with rape cases in particular. Some 84% of rape convictions are dealt with by a standard determinate sentence. That means that the Parole Board is not involved at all in the release of those criminals. A key question to me is what the Parole Board is for, if it is not to determine whether rapists are going to reoffend. The reoffending rate for sexual offences is around 14% and we need to look again, seriously, at the level at which the Parole Board gets involved to make sure that every single serious sexual offence is looked at and that there is the discretion to decide whether someone is released among the public, as well as some analysis of how effective it has been. As my hon. Friend said, the issue has existed for many years and we have an opportunity to get it right.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Cummins, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Alberto Costa) for introducing this important debate.

I start by extending my sympathies to the families of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth. I cannot begin to understand what they must have gone through over the years, with the victims being so young. My sympathies are with them at this time. My hon. Friend mentioned the impact on the wider community in Leicestershire and I am deeply aware of his interest in the case, the support he has given and continues to give to the victims’ families and his constituents more widely, and his personal efforts to bring the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Justice and to liaise with the Parole Board, meeting with its chief executive and providing a letter to be included in the parole dossier outlining his concerns so that those may be considered at the right time.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Parole Board fulfils a significant and fundamental role in protecting the public from harm. In providing a fair way to consider the release of those held in our prisons on indeterminate—and in some cases determinate—sentences, the expertise of Parole Board members is thoroughly to assess the risk and take effective decisions. That expertise is clear, with public protection absolutely at the heart of every case.

My hon. Friend was right to mention that there are only a limited number of cases in which the Parole Board allows a release and the offender goes on to reoffend. Serious further offences are rare. Less than 0.5% of offenders under statutory supervision are convicted of serious further offences, and I believe that this very low level shows that the Parole Board is reaching the right conclusions when it comes to release. None the less, each one is taken extremely seriously, and a review is carried out of all to identify any lessons for the better management of future cases.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, over the past two years, we have taken a number of steps to improve the effectiveness, and particularly the transparency, of the Parole Board system. We introduced two key changes. First, in 2018, we worked with the Parole Board to amend its rules to allow it to provide decision summaries. Previously, the rules prevented the Parole Board from revealing any details of the reasons for its decision. The provision of those summaries allows victims and the wider public to understand why the board has made a decision in a case. To date, around 4,000 decision summaries have been issued, mainly to victims.

Secondly, following last year’s case of John Worboys, whose release decision by the Parole Board was overturned by the High Court, we developed a reconsideration mechanism for decisions made. Where there is evidence that a decision is irrational, or procedurally unfair, the reconsideration mechanism allows the Secretary of State, or the prisoner, to apply for the decision to be looked at again. Victims may ask the Secretary of State to apply for reconsideration on their behalf, and since July 2019 the Government have submitted 23 applications for that, five of which followed victim requests.

Prior to that introduction, there was no way to challenge flawed decisions without resorting to costly and time-consuming litigation. Now, as set out in the 2015 victims code, victims have the right to make a victim personal statement to the Parole Board and the entitlement to apply to attend the hearing to read their statement. Last week, we published a revised code of practice for victims of crime, which reinforces those rights by stating that the Parole Board must agree to the statement being read at the hearing by the victim, or someone else on their behalf, and provide a summary of its decision on application, unless there is a good reason not to do so.

Those important steps have increased the transparency of the process and decisions made by the Parole Board, but we believe there is still more that can be done. We recognise that the Parole Board is responsible for considering the release of prisoners who have committed some of the most serious and violent offences, and who have sometimes caused unimaginable harm and distress to victims and their families. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that members of the public, particularly victims, might struggle to comprehend how prisoners can ever be assessed to be safe to release.

I believe that for victims’ families really to understand the decisions, it is important for them to be more involved in the process. However hard it may be to accept, the board’s difficult role is not to decide whether the offender should continue to be punished for the crimes that they have committed; its decision is about the current risk and whether the offender would pose a danger to the public if they were released. Greater openness and transparency will enable us to increase that understanding, and that will build trust and confidence in the system.

I believe firmly and passionately in the rehabilitative nature of our penal system, and that rehabilitation is a cornerstone of the system. The Minister has outlined that the threat to the public, or the compromising of public safety, is the first and foremost consideration. Does she accept that for a lot of victims’ families, there are issues around truth and justice, and that in cases where families do not feel as though they have had that, it is an affront to them and to common decency, and it only exacerbates their pain, to see people who were committed for the most heinous crimes being released without showing a shred of remorse?

I completely understand that point, and I cannot imagine how it must feel to be in that situation—if someone had taken away a loved one, or done serious damage to me as the victim of a serious crime, such as rape. The justice system requires the person who committed that crime to go before a court and a sentence to be pronounced, and that is the sentence the person serves when they go to prison. The Parole Board must determine whether that person, having served their sentence—having done their time—is safe to be released.

Of course, the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire raised then comes come into consideration: is that person safe to be released, or are they manipulating the process? Are they telling the truth? Are they really committed to going forth and not committing further crime? That is when truth and deception come into play.

We are very aware of the importance of victims having their say, so that they have a right to be heard and feel that they have participated in the process. That is why we announced on 20 October—just over a month ago—the launch of the root-and-branch review of the parole system. That will build on the reforms that I have talked about today, and it will look at whether more fundamental reform of the system is required. One of the key things that we will consider in that review is whether we can increase openness and transparency to continue to improve public understanding, so that there is more confidence in the system.

We are running a consultation on whether parole hearings should be open to the public in some limited circumstances. The Parole Board is required to hold hearings in private, so public hearings would be a really significant step towards improving openness and transparency. We recognise that although there would be benefits in that, there are complexities and challenges around protecting the privacy and the safety of all involved—that would include victims—and ensuring that witnesses provided the candid evidence that the board would need to make effective decisions. That is why we are consulting on the process to ensure that any changes are made safely and responsibly. The parole process is extremely difficult for victims and their families, and we are determined to do as much as we can to give them the support and information that they need.

I will pick up further on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire made about sentences, and whether it is appropriate to release someone who has committed a crime such as the crimes committed by Colin Pitchfork, or other horrific crimes, where people are not rehabilitated. If Colin Pitchfork were to be sentenced now, he would likely receive a whole-life order, because under provisions introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the murder of a child that has a sexual or sadistic motivation attracts a whole-life order as its starting point. The Government recognise the particularly abhorrent nature of cases where a child has been murdered, as set out in the sentencing White Paper, and we intend to go further by making a whole-life order the starting point for any premeditated murder of a child.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) made an important point about the significant effect of rape on victims and what a dreadful crime that is. She will know that if a judge determines that an offender is dangerous, it is possible to hand down an extended determinate sentence. She will also know about the changes that we are proposing in relation to people who are sentenced for more than seven years—they will have their sentences increased, because we are recommending that they serve two thirds of their sentence, rather than half. However, I appreciate the important points that she made on the question whether such offenders should go before the Parole Board.

The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made a point about resources. I hope she spotted that in today’s spending review, our Department’s finances went up by 8%. The Government are committed to ensuring that the justice system has the necessary resources to ensure that we can deliver justice. She will know that demand in relation to the Parole Board has increased significantly and dramatically over the years, with 30 times more cases—that is 8,000 more—being heard each year compared with 20 years ago.

The increase in demand has led to the need regularly to review systems and processes, but also to invest in increased provision. In 2017-18, we injected additional funding to enable the recruitment of over 100 new Parole Board members, so that more hearings could be held. I pay tribute to the Parole Board for managing not only to ensure that it keeps up with the rate of determination during this covid crisis, but to increase the number of matters that it has managed to determine in this difficult and challenging period.

The system is effective at protecting the public from dangerous criminals—it is a thorough and sophisticated process for carefully assessing an offender’s risk—but I want to look at whether it is the most effective model to deliver the parole function over the longer term. The root-and-branch review, which I mentioned, will look at whether we can go further to deliver justice. Together with the Parole Board, we have already made great strides to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the parole system. I am pleased that, through the root-and-branch review, we are now able to take the next steps to ensure that the future delivery of this critical public protection function is the best it can be, with fairness and public safety at the forefront of its focus.

Question put and agreed to.

To allow for the safe exit of Members participating in this debate, and for the safe entry of Members arriving to take part in the next, I am suspending the sitting for two minutes.

Sitting suspended.