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Parole Policy And Prison Discipline

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 7 February 1984

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2.50 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what additional disciplinary problems are being encountered in prisons in England and Wales as a result of the Home Secretary's declaration at the Tory Party conference that parole is to be denied automatically to certain classes of prisoners.

My Lords, parole is not being automatically denied to any prisoners. My right honourable friend has every confidence in the prison service, and the small number of minor incidents allegedly linked with the new policies on parole have been handled quietly and well.

My Lords, the Minister knows perfectly well that parole is being automatically denied to the classes of person referred to by the Home Secretary in his speech to the Tory Party conference. Is the Minister aware of the remarks made by the prison chaplain in Parkhurst which were quoted in yesterday's Guardian, that the Home Secretary's decision gives inmates more reason to be actively disruptive? Is the noble Lord aware that the Prison Officers' Association recently had to see the Secretary of State to tell him that he had created enormous problems for it by his announcement? Is he aware that prisoners and their families are bewildered and dismayed, particularly those on the point of being released, at being knocked back sometimes for years? Does he not think that in those cases the decision of the Home Secretary constitutes a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits cruel and unusual punishments?

My Lords, I cannot accept almost anything that the noble Lord has said. The policy was worked out and openly stated in the full light of understanding of the pressures that might result. There have been pressures. My right honourable friend is aware of them through the channels that the noble Lord mentioned and others. As I have already said, they have been handled well and successfully The fact is that we have a policy which reassures the public that there is a direct relationship between the seriousness of an offence and the length of a prisoner's service of sentence as a result of that offence. This was introduced at a time when the public was becoming disturbed by perceiving that these two factors were diverging.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord the Minister agree that in any study of penology a policy that gives no hope must be hopeless in itself?

My Lords, there is no policy that gives no hope. There is a policy under which those serving for serious offences and those serving for life know where they stand and what they can expect.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that Parole Board reports over the past 15 years since the Parole Board was set up have shown clearly that few prisoners serving long sentences for acts of violence and for drug trafficking have received parole at the first review with the maximum eligibility, that most have to wait a second and, in many cases, a third review if they are to get parole for a few months before their normal date of release? Against that fact—I think that the Minister will have to agree that is so—can he explain what useful purpose is likely to be served by the Home Secretary's new policy which would justify the great difficulties now created for prison staff owing to tension in prisons?

My Lords, the purpose of imprisonment is not only reform—which is rarely achieved—it is also deterrence and retribution. The cases of all eligible prisoners will continue to be reviewed by the local review committee as before, and will continue to be selected for reference to the Parole Board as before. All cases will continue to be considered by the committees and the board on their individual merits, bearing in mind the Home Secretary's stated intention in relation to the exercise of his discretion. The Parole Board, to which the noble Lord rightly gives great weight and of which he has great experience, is still involved in every case. I believe that the system is just.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is widespread indignation in the prison service, both among governors and among members of the Prison Officers' Association, that neither of their professional organisations was consulted before the right honourable gentleman made his speech at the Conservative Party conference?

My Lords, the prison governors and the Prison Officers' Association are fully in the confidence of my right honourable friend who has had discussions about this matter. The policy was not worked out in conjunction with them in detail; but he has been in close consultation with them ever since and he does not need reminding of the close involvement of these dedicated members of the service, without whom no prison policy would work.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether child sex offenders are supervised when they are eventually discharged? Would not some form of parole system be a safeguard when they go back into the community?

My Lords, prisoners are customarily under supervision when they are on release on parole.

My Lords, does not the noble Lord agree that the Prison Officers' Association made representations to the Secretary of State on the lines that I have mentioned, and that they feel a continuing anxiety about the possibility that serious disturbances may result from the psychological pressures on these prisoners whose expectations have now been dashed? Does he not think also that when the courts originally sentenced those persons they did so in the expectation that parole would be considered on its own merits by the statutory authorities constituted for the purpose, and that the Secretary of State, by usurping those powers, has created a dangerous situation?

My Lords, on the noble Lord's first point, certainly the Prison Officers' Association came to see my right honourable and learned friend, and it was proper that they should. They told him of the feelings in their service and it was also proper that they should. There is no feeling of panic or alarm. The only thing that contributes to the danger of ugly incidents now is the way people constantly say, "Isn't it going to happen?", in the terms that the noble Lord has. On the noble Lord's final point, I am glad of this opportunity finally to debunk a complete misunderstanding of what has happened. The Lord Chief Justice has refuted the heresy that sentences are made in the expectation of parole. If I may quote the passage in The Times Law Report of 13th December 1983 which could not have made this clearer,

"Questions of parole were not for the Court of Appeal. Their Lordships had repeatedly said that the sentences were imposed by trial judges and reviewed by the Court of Appeal without regard to the impact or lack of impact of possible release on parole",
I hope that will be remembered.