My Lords, the Justice Secretary considered all the material that was before the Parole Board panel. This included details of Mr Biggs’s index offence; his previous offending history; his escape from Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth in 1965; the many years which he subsequently spent evading extradition and recapture; his progress in custody after he returned to the United Kingdom in 2001; the reports prepared by staff in NOMS; the written representations of his legal representative; and the Parole Board’s recommendation. After careful consideration, the Justice Secretary determined that the risk of harm presented by Mr Biggs was such that it might not be safely managed in the community.
My Lords, while not for a moment condoning the crime that Mr Biggs originally committed, would my noble friend confirm that Mr Biggs is old, very ill, most unlikely to do any harm to anybody and no danger to society and that the public would not protest at his early release, particularly if under supervision? What is the purpose of keeping people like him in our overcrowded jails?
My Lords, of course I can confirm that Mr Biggs is elderly and not in good health. However, I should remind my noble friend that the Parole Board said:
“What has quite plainly reduced enormously is his capacity to reoffend; the medical evidence indicates overwhelmingly that his own ability to commit further acts of violence has reduced to an extremely low level. The Panel is not persuaded that risk arising from association with criminal peers and consequent indirect involvement in offending is necessarily equally low”.
Forgive the pun, my Lords. More seriously, the significance the Parole Board made of that risk is a matter of judgment. It decided to make its recommendation. My right honourable friend the Justice Secretary considered the significance of the last part of the passage I read out to be of considerable importance when coming to his decision.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will recall that the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Stafford said that the Parole Board should have the power to direct release if continued detention was not necessary. The Government carried the effect of that decision in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Is it not extremely unfortunate that the Justice Secretary should now bring back into the political arena a decision that should have been made by the Parole Board, and would have been made by the Parole Board, to release Mr Biggs, regardless of what he has done? Is it not simply a populist move that we should deplore?
My Lords, it is not a populist move. I reject that utterly. As I think the noble Lord will know, the law as far as this is concerned is in rather a particular position at the moment. Under existing legislation, it is for the Secretary of State for Justice to determine whether an offender sentenced to 15 years or more and whose release is subject to the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 might be released early on parole. For all other types of prisoners—for example, those with indeterminate sentences—it is a matter for the Parole Board. I am glad to be able to say that the noble Lord will able to support the Government when we come to Clause 129 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will change the law in this regard.
My Lords, it is right to say that he returned voluntarily—some 36 years after he committed the offence of escaping from Her Majesty’s Prison Wandsworth. Why he returned voluntarily has been a matter of some comment in the media, and I will not repeat it. The noble Lord is strictly right that Mr Biggs returned voluntarily, but if he had not escaped he would have finished his sentence a long time ago.
My Lords, I do not know the number of prisoners over 75, but I will find out and write to the noble Lord. Of course it is important that the right people are in prison at the right time; prisoners can be released if their health is in such a state and they can apply to the Justice Secretary for release on those grounds. We are talking about a decision which my right honourable friend took in a quasi-judicial role, having considered all the evidence before him.