To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the recommendation of Michael Gove, the former Secretary of State for Justice, in his November 2016 Longford Lecture that the approximately 500 Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) prisoners “who have been in jail for far longer than the tariff for their offence” should be released.
My Lords, we estimate that there are approximately 200 IPP prisoners who have served longer than the maximum term available for their offence. Release of IPP prisoners is a decision for the Parole Board, made on the balance of risks the offender poses to the public. To improve the efficiency with which IPP cases pass through the parole system, a new unit has been established within the Ministry of Justice, working closely with the Parole Board.
That is a disappointing if unsurprising Answer, and apparently an answer to an earlier question of mine about prisoners who had served beyond the maximum term. This refers to those who have served way beyond their tariff term. Would not the Minister agree that there comes a point in the life of an IPP prisoner, even if he cannot persuade the Parole Board that he will never reoffend, when he has served so many years—seven, eight, nine, 10—beyond his tariff term that simple justice demands his immediate release?
The noble and learned Lord raises a complex and difficult problem. It was said previously that this sentencing policy was the legacy of a Labour Government. That is unfair. It was a wrong turning in sentencing policy undertaken with the best of intentions which fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. Successive Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments have wrestled with a simple solution to a complex question. If we were going to resolve this matter as simply as the noble and learned Lord suggests, we would not start from where are at present.
My Lords, is it the lack of political will that is virtually interning these prisoners or the lack of resources of the Parole Board? If it is resources, will the Minister seek the help of the Treasury in carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of the cost of incarcerating these prisoners?
The noble and learned Lord raises a good point. The gateway for these prisoners is the Parole Board and, for the particular reason that we need to deal with this cohort of prisoners, we have provided further additional resources to the Parole Board. As a result, its numbers have increased recently by 49 members and the outstanding cases in this regard listed before it have reduced by about 40% in the period from January 2015 to December 2016.
My Lords, the Minister knows from this and questions from other noble and learned Lords that he has no sympathy from former judges in this House on this issue, and virtually none from the judiciary at large. He often says that sentencing is for the judges. Will the Government now listen to the judges on this, change the release test for the Parole Board, as he has power to do under the LASPO Act, and work to free the 3,000-plus IPP prisoners who have already served their tariff, thus both reducing the prison population by 4% and removing a manifest injustice?
I note what the noble Lord says. Clearly we have a duty of care to this cohort of prisoners, who are deemed to be at high risk of committing further serious violent or sexual offences. That is one of the issues we have to deal with. However, our duty of care extends beyond this cohort of prisoners. It is also owed to those members of the public who would potentially be the victims of these persons if they were simply released without adequate determination and supervision.
My Lords, as an alternative, will the Government consider releasing those inmates on indeterminate sentences, a provision that no longer applies, if they have served longer than a determinate sentence for the same offence? The backlog has to be tackled in some form.
I am obliged to the right reverend Prelate but I would point out that the backlog is being tackled and the rate of release of these prisoners is increasing all the time. The number of IPP prisoners is now at an all-time low, but we have to remember that these are individuals who for a variety of reasons pose a very serious threat to members of the public. Indeed, a recent analysis of IPP prisoners still in custody whose tariff was originally less than two years indicates that 88% were assessed as posing a high or very high risk of causing further serious harm.
My Lords, I think my noble and learned friend the Minister has suggested that 200 hundred prisoners come within the cohort that is the subject of the Question. Can he reassure the House that, as regards those prisoners, there will have been at least one determination by the Parole Board as to whether it is safe to release them? Can he also reassure the House that, if necessary, further determinations will be made or hearings held to reconsider whether it may be safe to release them?
I am obliged to my noble friend. These prisoners have been the subject of assessment by the Parole Board and, where they have failed to satisfy the board that they cannot be released without a risk of serious harm to the public, further provisions have been put in place for psychological assessment and assistance. Where before there were long backlogs, various courses are now available to help these prisoners towards an open system of supervision.
My Lords, last September the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that there were 3,200 prisoners over tariff, 42% of whom—1,400—were five years or more over their tariff. The chief inspector called for decisive action to,
“ensure adequate resources and timely support are available to work with IPP prisoners to reduce their risk of harm to others and to help them progress through the custodial system towards consideration for release”.
How many of those 1,400 prisoners have since been released and what is the likelihood that they will be released over the next year or two?
As regards the figures, the maximum term of imprisonment available to the courts for the offences that the vast majority of IPP prisoners were convicted for was and remains life imprisonment. Therefore the significant majority of IPP prisoners will never reach the point of serving more than the statutorily available maximum penalty. I do not know how many of the 1,400 cited by the noble Lord have been released but I will undertake to write to him if those figures are available. Their prospects for release must depend on an assessment by the Parole Board, but I would add that the ministry is addressing the question of whether the onus that lies with regard to those Parole Board hearings should be reconsidered.