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Prisoners: Indeterminate Terms

Volume 776: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the concerns raised by the Chief Inspector of Prisons over the number of prisoners still serving indeterminate terms under the now abolished Imprisonment for Public Protection system, whether they are planning to reduce the number affected; and if so, when.

My Lords, this report rightly highlights concerns about the management of IPP prisoners. We are committed to helping the progression of IPP prisoners without compromising either the integrity of the parole process or, importantly, the assessment of risk. We are setting up a central unit to speed up the process, and we are working with the Parole Board to process cases as efficiently as possible.

My Lords, the issue of imprisonment for public protection has been frequently raised in this House, notably by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. This unfortunate legacy of the Labour Government leaves almost 4,000 prisoners—4.5% of our overcrowded prison population—remaining in prison after serving their prescribed sentence; 40% of them have served five or more years over their tariff. The Chief Inspector of Prisons, the chairman of the Parole Board and Michael Gove have all called for action. What steps are the Government taking, and with what resources, as part of the promised IPP review, and what is the projected date for issuing a report? Or does IPP stand for “inordinately protracted policy-making” at a time of unprecedented problems of violence, disorder and self-harm across our massively overcrowded and understaffed prisons?

I thank the noble Lord for acknowledging the genesis of the problem. No one is disputing that the sentencing system introduced back in 2003 was defective. It is a matter for commendation that that system has now been abolished. However, that does not help us in discussing how best to advance the position of the prisoners within that cohort now affected by that former sentencing system. The noble Lord asked what we are doing: I gently point out to him that the figures are encouraging. He will be aware that the number of releases is increasing and, thankfully, the population within this cohort is diminishing. Those are exactly the trajectories we want to see. He will also be aware that the Government, in conjunction with the Parole Board and the National Offender Management Service, have an action plan that has greatly assisted in mitigating the problem. I remind the noble Lord, however, that we should not lose sight of the context in which people are placed in prison. These prisoners were put there at the decree of the original sentencing court by a judge familiar with the circumstances of the case and of the accused. It is very important that we do not forget the obligation of public safety and that we are clear that any releases must be consistent with a robust risk assessment.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the report shows that more than 80% of IPP prisoners were beyond their tariff expiry date, and that three-quarters of these were category C and D prisoners, some of whom were held in local prisons where offending courses are just not available? Will the Government accept the report’s leading recommendation that IPP prisoners should be held in prisons appropriate to their security classification, with facility to support risk reduction and rehabilitation?

I am not unsympathetic to the general point advanced by the noble Lord. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, improvements are under way. I do not dispute for one moment that there have been delays in the system—everyone acknowledges that—but it is also important to acknowledge the positive steps taken by the Government, the independent Parole Board and the National Offender Management Service. Indications are that improvements are being effected. For example, with effect from today we have revised the statutory Parole Board Rules so that parole panels can release IPP prisoners without progressing to an oral hearing. That is one of a number of measures intended to ensure that prisoners who apply for parole get a proper opportunity for a hearing and a proper assessment of their circumstances. As I said earlier, the overriding consideration must be risk assessment and what is safe for the public.

My Lords, the Minister once again emphasises public protection. Is she aware that all the people advocating a change in the system are equally determined to protect the public? Will she confirm that all the measures she announced today will probably still leave more than 2,000 IPP prisoners in custody well into the next decade? Will she acknowledge that this continuation is not only unfair to the individuals but doing real damage to the reputation of our criminal justice system? That is the problem—no one is blaming the Ministers now. I ask her to refer this matter to the Justice Select Committee, to call for evidence that could perhaps get us out of this situation. What she announced today will not.

I say to the noble Lord—and perhaps with greater brevity than his question—that he will be aware that the cohort of prisoners coming within this category have committed serious offences by any definition. He will also be aware that what I described earlier to the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord Wigley, was just one of a number of measures. Many measures have already been taken, including increased resource. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We are seeing a welcome lowering of the trajectory for those detained in prisons, and an increase in the trajectory for those being released. That is the direction of travel we want.