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Prisoners: Licence Recalls

Volume 712: debated on Monday 6 July 2009


My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department and I are today announcing the publication for the first time of information relating to those offenders who have been released from prison on licence, subsequently recalled for whatever reason and who have not yet been returned to custody.

That information is published today and a copy of the information release has been placed on the Home Office and Ministry of Justice websites. It is also available in the Libraries of both Houses and in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. It covers the period 1984 to 31 March 2009.


This information is being published following an audit of the work of police, probation areas and the United Kingdom Border Agency. It was carried out by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which has responsibility for licence revocation policy.

In seeking to protect the public from known offenders after their release from custody, the police and probation services deal with some of the most highly unpredictable people in our society, many of whom lead chaotic lives. We have ensured that these services have the powers that they need to manage such offenders.

Many offenders return to the community on licence following a period in prison and complete a successful rehabilitation. But others are prone to breaking the conditions of their licence and therefore become subject to recall to custody.

All offenders serving a sentence of 12 months or over are released from prison under licensed supervision to the probation service. They are all subject to a set of standard licence conditions, requiring them to report regularly to the probation service, live at an address approved by the probation service and to be of good behaviour. In many cases, they will also be subject to additional licence conditions, which are designed to help the probation service to manage the offenders effectively in the community. These licence conditions can place a wide range of restrictions or requirements on the offender—for example, to undertake offending behaviour work, not to enter an exclusion zone, to abide by a curfew or to live in a specific hostel.

Offenders are told at the outset of their period on licence that they may be recalled to custody if they breach any of the conditions of their licence. Reasons for recall range from a deterioration in an offender’s behaviour that leads the probation service to conclude that there is an increased risk of the offender committing further offences, to a failure to maintain contact with their offender manager. The probation service does not have to wait until a further offence has been committed before an offender is recalled.

The Government have taken a number of steps over the past 12 years to strengthen this recall system. In 1999, the use of executive recall powers was extended, a step that has proved to be both swift and effective. Previously, prisoners serving sentences of four years or less could be recalled only through the courts—and, as this was a slow and bureaucratic process, it was rarely used.

In the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we extended the period of the licence applied to determinate sentence prisoners serving sentences of 12 months and over, so that the licence does not expire until the end of the sentence. Previously, such licences expired at the three-quarters point of the sentence. The number of prisoners recalled was 13,467 in 2008-09.

This Government have also overseen a significant improvement in the probation service’s enforcement of licences. In 1997, enforcement audits showed that appropriate enforcement action was being taken in only a third of cases where prisoners were serving sentences in the community. By 2008, over 95 per cent of licence breaches were being effectively enforced.

In April 2007, we introduced an end-to-end target for recalling offenders, covering the period from the decision to recall the offender to the offender being returned to custody. The target is for 75 per cent of offenders to be returned to custody within 74 hours, where they are subject to emergency recall, and within 144 hours, where they are subject to standard recall. Performance against these end-to-end targets has improved to 70 per cent being returned in target timescales in October 2008 to March 2009 from 60 per cent in the same period a year earlier.

Recall process

The recall process is as follows. On behalf of the Secretary of State for Justice, NOMS considers whether to approve a recommendation for recall. The recommendation is submitted by the probation area with responsibility for supervising the offender on licence. Where a recall is approved, NOMS revokes the offender’s licence on behalf of the Secretary of State and issues a revocation notice to the police. NOMS sends the revocation notice both to New Scotland Yard’s Police National Computer Bureau and to the police basic command unit that covers the area in which the offender’s last known address is recorded. At this point, it becomes the responsibility of the police, with input and intelligence from other agencies, to apprehend the offender and return him to custody. All agencies involved in the process give priority to recalling and apprehending those offenders who have previously been convicted of serious sexual and violent offences and who are assessed as potentially presenting a high risk of harm to the public.

The audit covered all offenders in England and Wales whose licences had been revoked between 1984 and 30 June 2008. It enables NOMS to determine the precise number of those who have been returned to custody and, for those who have not, the action that has been taken, and is being taken now, to apprehend them. For the future, we have decided, working with the National Statistician, regularly to publish information on offenders who have had their licence revoked.

Audited data for those who were recalled between 1984 and June 2008 and provisional data for those recalled between July 2008 and March 2009 show that, of all those offenders whose licences have been revoked, 954 had not been returned to custody. Between January 1999 and March 2009, 91,965 offenders had their licences revoked. On the basis of partial data, and using assumptions where necessary, we estimate the number of licence recalls between 1984 and 1999 to be around 10,000. (Paragraph 8 above explains why there were many fewer recalls before 1999.)

The audited data show that, between January 1999 and 30 June 2008, 81,757 offenders are recorded as having their licences revoked, of whom, as at 26 June 2009, 81,164 had been successfully returned to custody; the remaining 593 (or 0.7 per cent) have not yet been apprehended. A further 19 offenders who had been recalled prior to 1 January 1999 were also recorded as not having been returned to custody, thus giving an audited total of 612. The provisional data held by NOMS, which have not been reconciled with data held by police and probation, shows that in the period from 1 July 2008 to 31 March 2009 a further 10,208 offenders had their licences revoked, of whom, as of 26 June, 9,866 have been successfully apprehended and returned to custody and 342 (or 3.4 per cent) have not yet been apprehended, though experience suggests that most of these offenders will in due course be returned to prison.

The breakdown of the number of offenders whose licences have been revoked and who have not been returned to custody for each of the 42 local criminal justice board areas in England and Wales is given (table 3) in the information release, together with a breakdown of the offenders’ index offences (table 2).

Follow-up action

As part of the process of completing the audit, NOMS wrote to each police force and probation area in England and Wales, enclosing a list for each area of all offenders who have been recalled and have yet to be returned to custody. They were asked to check the list for accuracy and to determine whether some offenders might be removed from the list—because, for example, they had been returned to custody under a different name or had died. They were also asked to renew efforts to return to custody those who remained in the community. Following the audit, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) wrote to all police forces in England and Wales, asking them to take priority action to arrest and return to custody all those offenders on the list who had previously been convicted of sexual or violent offences, while also reviewing and renewing their efforts to apprehend the remainder. Intensive reviews of the priority cases are under way and are driving appropriate action.

More generally, ACPO will work with forces, and with other agencies and the Home Office, to ensure that the police continue to do all that they can to make the recall system effective. They will identify and disseminate information on what works and how to tackle the main obstacles to speedy arrests in these cases. For example, the Metropolitan Police has established a unit in each London borough dedicated to arresting wanted offenders, including those subject to recall. Other forces have instigated dedicated days of action for apprehending wanted offenders. All forces are also working with all the criminal justice agencies to integrate the management of offenders so that, when it is proposed to revoke an offender’s licence, the police have the intelligence that they need and are best placed to deal with the request and protect the public from the risk posed by the individual.

NOMS, the probation service and the police are working closely together to share information and improve working practices. For example, NOMS and the police are working to put in place a new “early warning system” for recall, whereby the probation service shares intelligence with the police on the likely whereabouts of the offender at the point at which recall is requested. Better information sharing and a clear and consistent identification of these offenders will greatly assist in ensuring their timely arrest.

The Government are committed to improving performance further and all agencies are working to ensure that they make the optimal contribution separately and together.

NOMS has established a network of “recall liaison officers”, covering every probation area and police force to share information and improve performance. Performance data are issued and monitored monthly through local criminal justice boards (LCJBs). A best practice guide has been produced and is shortly to be issued to all LCJBs, designed to improve further multi-agency performance in respect of recall.

The performance for each area against the licence recall target for the periods April 2007 to March 2009 is given in the information release. The performance has been broken down by agency and by LCJB area. LCJBs monitor performance against the target. Over the past two years since the target was introduced, there has been a steady improvement in performance across all the agencies. We are committed to working with LCJBs to improve further performance.

I am advised by our statisticians that the first release of data in this manner is not a basis for ongoing release. I have therefore asked Ministry of Justice statisticians to work with the National Statistician to put a full range of data relating to licence recalls and placements back in custody into the public domain on a regular basis in line with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. A statistical notice has been released today on the Ministry of Justice website setting out the issues and timetable for consultation.