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Volume 710: debated on Monday 27 April 2009


Asked by

My Lords, we introduced a new parole process for indeterminate sentence prisoners on 1 April, with targets for each of the agencies involved, to be monitored by senior representatives of each agency. We amended the Parole Board rules to increase its capacity to hold hearings and increased the board’s budget by 18 per cent in 2009-10. We are recruiting more judges to the board. This package of measures will, over time, significantly reduce the delays in the parole process.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply but, according to a Written Answer he gave last month, hundreds of parole hearings are still being delayed. Why do the Government not provide the resources to the Parole Board and others now to deal with cases on time and to release those who are safe to release? That would reduce prison overcrowding and the need for so many new prison places, Titan or otherwise, especially as the Times last week gave a figure for the cost of borrowing alone for each new prison place of £150,000.

My Lords, we agree. Delays in any prisoner receiving their parole decision are unacceptable. As my reply set out, various measures are being introduced to tackle delays. I repeat that we have increased the board’s budget for 2009-10, from £8.3 million to £9.8 million, but increasing the budget alone does not solve the problem. We need more judicial members to consider parole cases. We are in the process of recruiting more board members, including judges, and we have changed the Parole Board rules to allow greater flexibility in the composition of Parole Board oral hearings, thus enabling more cases to be heard on time.

My Lords, later this afternoon, we understand that the noble Lord will come to the House to make a U-turn on Titan prisons, so as to save the Government a bit more money and impose more strains on the Prison Service. How long will it be before he comes back to this House to make a further Statement on that alleged 18 per cent increase in money for the parole system—it is very necessary—to reduce the pressure on prisons?

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord supports the 18 per cent increase in the budget for the Parole Board in 2009-10. I presume that if it should ever happen that his party is in power, it would not dream of cutting that. Perhaps he could give a response to that later. I will be coming to the House and the noble Lord will have to be patient.

My Lords, would it not be a more sensible solution to those that have been proposed by the Government for them now, especially in the present financial climate, to take the decision to abolish preferably all life sentences or at least those that are discretionary?

My Lords, of course the Government listen with particular interest to what the noble and learned Lord says with his vast experience, but what he proposes is not on our agenda at the moment.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the appointment of more judges to the Parole Board, but he will recall that in February 2008 the Court of Appeal criticised the independence of the Parole Board in its position within the Ministry of Justice. Will the Government consider the Parole Board to be made part of Her Majesty’s Courts Service and to function as a court, when the pressure on judges might not be so great?

My Lords, we have considered carefully the judgment to which the noble Lord refers, which is why within the department these matters have now been transferred to a different division; namely, no longer the NOMS division but the Access to Justice division.

My Lords, should the Government not have foreseen the pressure on the Parole Board when they introduced indeterminate sentences in 2003?

My Lords, I am quite prepared to say that the number of cases that arose out of having the tariff too low for indeterminate sentences perhaps should have been foreseen. I am glad we have been able to put that right in the Act passed by this House last year, and to be able to say that the fact that the tariff now cannot be any less than two years has already had an effect.

My Lords, in how many cases have the delays been so serious that they led to successful judicial reviews? What was the cost of these proceedings and any compensation awarded subsequently?

My Lords, I am not able to say how many judicial reviews there have been against the Parole Board as a result of delays in the process because we would need to conduct a manual trawl of such reviews to provide the information. However, I will write to the noble Baroness with as much information as I can provide.

My Lords, while I welcome the measures announced by the Minister, can he give the House an indication of when it is likely that the backlog in the hearing of cases, which is of very considerable proportions, will be disposed of? The delays caused form a serious blot on the administration of justice in our country.

My Lords, I can help the noble Lord. Provisional year-end hearings for 2008-09 indicate that there were 2,300 three-member oral hearings and 416 single-member oral hearings. It is estimated that 5,000 oral hearings will be heard in the 2009-10 financial year, including clearing the backlog of cases as well as new ones. Of course it would be a foolish Minister who got up and said that we would clear all the backlog—some of it involves just a few weeks’ delay—but I repeat that none of it is acceptable.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that one of the reasons for the delay in granting parole to those who might be assessed as safe to release is the failure of the Government to ensure that the prisons provide the rehabilitation courses required? The Minister did not say anything about this in his outline of the measures he is taking to reduce the delays. How has the situation regarding the provision of courses changed since the court decision of 2008 in the case of the Secretary of State for Justice v Walker and James, where the court referred to the systemic failure on the part of the Government to provide the necessary rehabilitation courses in prisons?

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the case has been heard by the House of Lords Appellate Committee and that we await its judgment. It is therefore best for me not to comment on it. So far as courses are concerned, when considering whether to direct the release of tariff-expired IPP prisoners, the Parole Board will consider a whole range of information on each prisoner, not just whether they have completed important formal accredited programmes. We allocated an extra £3 million in each of the last two financial years to streamline assessments and improve access to courses and, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear, the number of courses has been increased. More importantly, changes to the categorisation procedure mean that IPP offenders can move straight to category C prisons where many more courses are available.