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Prisoners: Indeterminate Sentences

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further steps they will take to release prisoners serving indeterminate sentences for the protection of the public in the light of the recent decision of the European Court of Human Rights in James, Wells and Lee v UK.

My Lords, the European Court’s judgment did not find sentences of imprisonment for public protection to be unlawful. Therefore, it remains for the Parole Board to determine whether to direct the release of an IPP prisoner once he has completed his tariff. The National Offender Management Service continues to improve opportunities for IPP prisoners to progress towards release.

The noble Lord will know that currently more than 3,500 IPP prisoners have passed their tariff date and are waiting to come before the Parole Board. Does he accept that, at the current rate of release on licence, which is running at about 400 a year, it will be nearly nine years before the backlog is cleared? If so, is there not an overwhelming case for the Lord Chancellor to exercise the powers he was given under Section 128 of the 2012 Act to vary the release test to make it easier for these prisoners to satisfy the Parole Board?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord’s figure on the release of IPP prisoners is roughly correct; I do not think it is until Thursday that we release the full figures, but his estimate is not far out. That compares with 300 releases in 2011, 97 in 2010 and 53 in 2009. I hope he will acknowledge that the abolition of IPPs in LASPO and the greater flexibility that we are now employing in trying to manage the IPP sentences are going in the right direction. I acknowledge that it is a slow process. I will take back to my right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor the noble and learned Lord’s point about the power that was given in the LASPO Act, but even if that power were exercised the Parole Board would have to take public safety into account in making its decisions.

My Lords, at its conference in 2012 the Prison Governors Association passed a motion overwhelmingly welcoming the ending of what it described as the “iniquitous” IPP system. It also said that unless some action is taken either to resource appropriate interventions to reduce perceived risk or to review the Parole Board criteria on what constitutes risk to the public, existing prisoners will face disproportionately long sentences. What action have the Government taken?

My Lords, I think the key word is “risk”. The fact that these prisoners were given IPP sentences indicates that it must have been in the mind of the judge imposing the sentence that they posed a significant risk to society that had to be dealt with before they could be considered for release. That was the intention behind IPPs and that must remain uppermost in our minds when deciding the future of these prisoners. However, we are bringing in accredited courses, which may help to make the point that they are available for these prisoners. Other interventions such as work, education and employment may also provide evidence of reduced risk. NOMS is investing in interventions that have the most beneficial impact in reducing risk, and priority for those programmes is given to IPP prisoners.

Does the Minister accept that these prisoners are in a totally invidious position, a Catch-22 position, in that they have to undergo rehabilitative courses in order to be considered for eligibility for parole, yet the vast majority of them have not been offered such courses? Does what he said a moment ago about new courses mean that a substantial number of these prisoners will now be offered them?

My Lords, within the constraints that we are having to operate in we are trying to introduce new courses. I fully accept that one of the reasons we abolished IPP is that it contained that Catch-22 whereby you had to fulfil certain courses, which may not be available, to qualify for release. I believe that NOMS is doing its best to bring in new systems and that there is greater flexibility in qualifying for release. However, I go back to the point that we are dealing with men who were sent to prison because the judge who sentenced them judged that they posed a serious risk.

My Lords, one of the problems is that when a prisoner is transferred to another prison, they find that there is no accredited course in that prison. Who has the specific responsibility for ensuring that when a prisoner is transferred, there is an accredited course in the prison to which that prisoner is transferred?

I understand that almost all IPP prisoners now have a managed programme to help them prepare for release. That should be part of sentence planning. But, again, I freely acknowledge that in some cases prisoners have been moved for other reasons and then find that they cannot complete the relevant courses. We are trying as best we can to iron out of the system what the noble Lord referred to as a Catch-22 situation so that prisoners can qualify, but to leave with the Parole Board the overriding assessment of whether they are suitable for release or whether a risk remains.

My Lords, what is the Government’s estimate of the number of prisoners to whom the judgment in the European Court of Human Rights case of James, Wells and Lee v UK applies? Have the Government estimated the cost of providing sufficient resources to comply with the requirement to ensure that prisoners have an opportunity to progress and to be properly assessed for release on licence?

I am not sure of the number of prisoners to whom the judgment applies, but cases are being taken. It may be of interest to hear that two of the three prisoners involved in that case are now back in prison due to breaching their terms. We are being very careful to make sure that the system is flexible enough and effective enough to allow prisoners to earn—that is the reality of it—their release. However, we have to consider this issue in the context of prisoners who were given this sentence, when it existed, because they posed a threat to the community. It is for the Parole Board to assess whether they are fit for release.