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Public Protection Sentences

Volume 757: debated on Wednesday 3 December 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recent decision of the High Court in Fletcher and others v Governor of HMP Whatton and the Secretary of State for Justice that the Secretary of State is in breach of his public law duty in relation to the continued detention of prisoners detained under imprisonment for public protection sentences.

My Lords, the court did not find any breach of public law duty with respect to the continued detention of those serving imprisonment for public protection—IPP—sentences. The court did, however, find that the Secretary of State was in breach of his public law duty in relation to the provision of resources for the Healthy Sex Programme, a course designed for certain serious sex offenders. The Secretary of State has committed the additional funding necessary to remove the current backlog for places on the Healthy Sex Programme.

My Lords, the only defence to these proceedings was that the Lord Chancellor could not provide the courses that these prisoners needed to go on in order to come before the Parole Board because he did not have enough money. Does the Minister agree that if the Lord Chancellor were to exercise the power that he already possesses to change the release test for these prisoners, he could release forthwith up to 650 prisoners who were given tariff sentences of less than two years—some as little as three months—eight years ago, thereby saving £24 million a year that could then be spent on providing courses for the other prisoners who are waiting to go on them? Why has he not exercised that power?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord has asked me this question before and I congratulate him on his tenacity. There are no current plans to review the release test. The release test is determined by the Parole Board. It decides when someone is safe to release. Attendance on courses can be evidence of their suitability for release. They can be released without attendance on the courses and attendance on the courses does not necessarily qualify them for release.

My Lords, is it not totally unacceptable that 600 people should be in for eight years when they might have expected to be out after two years; that, had this happened before IPP came in, they would not be in these circumstances; and that, if their cases were to arise today, they would not be in these circumstances? It is totally invidious that they should be locked up in this way and that the Government should allow this to happen.

That ignores the particular judgment exercised by a judge when sentencing an individual. We do not know precisely what the sentence would have been with the current sentencing powers. Of course, the party opposite introduced IPP sentences. There are now different sentences. These individuals were sentenced to IPP sentences because the judges considered that they represented a potential danger to the public. The Government have to bear that in mind.

My Lords, the Government’s response to the judgment is welcome in that they are now providing resources for sex offenders, but what has happened in relation to other offenders for whom courses have also been unavailable? How many such prisoners are awaiting courses? What would be the cost of dealing with the backlog and what is the cost of failing to do so in terms of having to continue to house these people in Her Majesty’s prisons?

The Government have increased the number of commissioned completions of courses in relation to the core sexual offenders course and in relation to the healthy sex course. The party opposite has adopted a surprising posture. We are doing our best to clear up some of the mess caused by the IPP sentence. We are clearing it up in a responsible way. We are making sure that courses are made available where they can be, where there are suitably qualified people to provide them, but not releasing dangerous prisoners into the population.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Mr Justice Dingemans, sitting a month ago in the Queen’s Bench Division in this case, made it clear that he found that the Lord Chancellor had deliberately abandoned—indeed reneged upon—his obligation in relation to providing courses and that it was not a matter of whether the resources were available but of whether a reasonable level of resources was provided for these courses, which were part and parcel of the judgment in relation to an indeterminate sentence? Furthermore, he found that the Lord Chancellor had habitually ignored his obligation over the years. Lastly, in adjourning the issue of relief for the claimants, he said that he would adjourn the matter in order to see what the attitude of the Lord Chancellor would be towards his duties. Can the Minister tell us what the Lord Chancellor’s reply is going to be?

The Answer I gave to the first Question was that the Secretary of State has committed the additional funding necessary to remove the current backlog for this programme. The noble Lord’s interpretation of the judgment of Mr Justice Dingemans, which he has in front of him, is one which he might arrive at. The judge decided that the Secretary of State should have provided these courses. It has to be said that all those individuals had already been on a core offending course. The noble Lord will have read the history of these offenders and will realise that the Parole Board would have been extremely concerned before releasing any of them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that since the abolition of IPP sentences nearly three years ago Her Majesty’s Government have a particular responsibility to these prisoners, especially when their tariff is now well past, in order to reduce the risk of reoffending? Can Her Majesty’s Government assure us that there are sufficient specialist resources for prisoners who are not necessarily able to go on some of the courses because of particular needs, such as learning difficulties or perhaps because they have English as a second language? Will these people be given the help that they need so that they can be released and returned to society to make a contribution for the general good?

We are aware of our obligation. NOMS has invested a considerable amount in a number of interventions. We are doing our best to provide a variety of courses in order to ensure that they have the opportunity of showing that they are ready for release.

My Lords, this Government abolished new IPPs and at the same time introduced a power for the Secretary of State to change the release test. This matter has been raised endlessly in debate and in Questions. Can my noble friend now try to provide some justification for not implementing the power so as to ensure that prisoners whose release would be safer are released quickly?