Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that the Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 introduce a “single view” procedure which (1) will prevent forensic psychologists, prison and probation officers, and other specialists working for or commissioned by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service from making recommendations to the Parole Board on the release or transfer of prisoners to open conditions, (2) has potentially profound implications for the sentence progression of individuals subject to Parole Board oversight, and (3) has been made by the made negative procedure, with no external consultation or parliamentary debate.
Relevant document: 10th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, I declare my interest as a former executive chairman of the Parole Board of England and Wales from 1997 to 2000. This regret Motion relates to a specific part of the statutory instrument which amends Part B of Schedule 1 to the Parole Board Rules 2019 to allow the Secretary of State to give a single view on suitability for release or transfer in certain cases. The introduction of the “single view” procedure forms part of a wider series of changes to the parole system introduced by the former Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab.
The first ground for regret is that the specific change implemented by the statutory instrument—preventing forensic psychologists, prison and probation officers and other specialists working for or commissioned by His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service making recommendations to the Parole Board—was introduced without consultation. This meant that those with experience of the parole system had no input into the new statutory instrument. Such radical changes to how the parole system works should have been implemented only after those who work in it were consulted. The manner in which these changes were introduced, with no consultation even with the Parole Board, undermines confidence in the professionals and the system.
The second ground for regret is that the Government have simply failed to establish that there is a problem which justifies the package of changes made. In other words, there is no evidence of the problem the changes purport to solve. These changes may well result in increased risk to the public, as the Parole Board is denied the benefit of expert opinion and the opportunity to see how prisoners respond in conditions of lower security. As we know, having the benefit of expert opinion and proper risk assessment is important to ensure that prisoners are prepared for reintegration into society.
The reason for introducing the “single view” procedure was to respond to recent cases in which expert witnesses employed by the Secretary of State took a different view from that of the Minister. Parole panels hear different opinions and, after consideration, reach their own conclusions. The Secretary of State may disagree and can now insist on a reconsideration. This provides an adequate remedy in such situations. Therefore, excluding the input from expert witnesses appears extreme and ill judged.
The department expects the “single view” procedure to operate rarely, in perhaps 150 cases out of over 3,000 annually, but the rule changes go much further. They prevent witnesses employed or commissioned by the Secretary of State providing a recommendation to any parole hearing either in writing or orally. This represents a major interference with the Parole Board’s ability to operate independently and undercuts the independence of a court-like body. It also undermines the professional standing of witnesses, for whom risk assessment is a core skill.
The “single view” procedure is currently subject to an ongoing judicial review in the case of Bailey v Secretary of State for Justice. In this case, the court has provided interim relief solely to the plaintiff on the basis that the parole panel should be free to ask any questions relevant to its task and expect the witness to answer them. This includes asking an expert witness for their recommendation. This judicial review is an important test of the “single view” procedure.
My third regret is the change in the criteria by which prisoners may move to open prison. These changes were expressly opposed by the Parole Board and the National Association of Probation Officers. As we know, the period spent in open conditions is a practical aid to resettlement in the community, and considered recommendations by the Parole Board, albeit subject to the Secretary of State’s approval, are crucial for public protection. These directions had three tests: that the prisoner is assessed as having a low risk of absconding; that a period in open conditions is considered essential to inform future decisions about release and to prepare for possible release on licence into the community; and that the transfer to open conditions would not undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system.
The second test is controversial as it sets the bar for open release very high and excludes prisoners who have progressed well and for whom a move might be considered beneficial, rather than essential. It prevents the decision-makers from considering whether a move to open prison might reduce risk and improve the prospect of safe release.
The third test—that the transfer to open prison would not undermine public confidence—is completely open-ended, and no guidance has been provided as to the circumstances in which it might apply. Now, only the Secretary of State considers the public confidence criteria, a task which essentially falls on officials. This has led to a dramatic reversal in the proportion of prisoners being approved for transfer to open conditions.
The Parole Board has estimated that the consequent delays may add 800 a year to the number requiring prison places. The Prison Reform Trust has recently received data from the Parole Board showing that, prior to these changes, 94% of recommendations for open conditions made by the Parole Board were accepted; since the change in criteria, and despite a falling number of recommendations, only 87% have been accepted.
Since the Worboys case in 2018, the parole system and the Parole Board have been subject to multiple reviews; some have been independent of the ministry, but the root-and-branch review prompted by the 2019 Conservative manifesto was conducted by unnamed officials within the department. Only aspects limited in scope were subject to public consultation, but change introduced by this statutory instrument formed no part of that review, and the Parole Board was given almost no notice of it, still less consulted.
The Parole Board has an enviable record; in recent cases only one in 200 releases resulted in a person being charged with a further serious offence. Every time a prisoner absconds, or a person released on parole commits a serious further offense, public concern is wholly understandable, but it is important that the response to these cases is proportionate. The Parole Board has co-operated in an exemplary way, with some radical changes in its operation. Its willingness to provide the public with reasons for decisions in individual cases, its adoption of a reconsideration process, and its skill in undertaking the complex challenge of holding some hearings in public all show that the Parole Board is open to new ideas. But some of what has been forced upon it in recent months has clearly been ill-thought through, and I hope that the Minister might now be open to a conversation on how these aspects of reform might be adjusted.
To conclude, I ask the Minister why the Secretary of State decided not to consult before introducing the statutory instrument, and if he will do so now. Given the dramatic reversal in the proportion of prisoners now being approved for transfer to open conditions, what is the Minister’s assessment of the probable delay before those prisoners may now be safely released from prison?
On the “single view” procedure, what is the Minister’s assessment of the impact of the new procedures on public protection, particularly in cases where decisions on release or transfer are complex, and where the Parole Board will not now have the benefit of clear recommendations from officials? I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. Because she set out the arguments so well and so fully, there is very little more that I need to say—save that, in standing, I want to demonstrate that this is not a party-political issue; this is a matter of constitutional propriety, and I think it is a matter of justice.
I suppose this is a smallish point, but I think that the negative procedure is the wrong way to deal with a statutory instrument of this nature. According to the notes attached to the statutory instrument, this regulation has been in law since the summer, and this is the first time that your Lordships’ House has had an opportunity to discuss it. As we have learned from the noble Baroness’s remarks, this statutory instrument carries with it matters of huge importance which should not just be lightly passed into law.
The second point I draw from her remarks is that, long ago, we got rid of political decision-making in the tariff-setting of life sentences for prisoners, and yet we are now introducing political input into questions which should be dealt with by the Parole Board by a “single view” of the Secretary of State. I suppose there was a time when the Secretary of State for Justice might be expected to know something about the law, but that is no longer the case. Therefore, it seems to me all the more extraordinary that a political Minister should have the power, passed by this little-discussed measure, to have a single view which trumps all others—indeed, shuts out all others.
In essence, I entirely support what the noble Baroness had to say, and I am reasonably certain that most other speakers will as well.
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and to reinforce her concerns about recent changes to the parole process.
When it considers a prisoner’s case, the Parole Board has two decisions to make: first, whether to direct the prisoner’s release; and, secondly, whether to recommend that the prisoner should be transferred from a closed prison to an open establishment. The board carries out these functions to an extremely high standard. Its members include current and former judges, police officers, Crown prosecutors, probation officers, psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and members of other professions.
All Parole Board members receive thorough training on risk assessment, which is regularly reinforced by risk-focused in-service training. In every case which goes to an oral hearing, the board assesses whether a specialist member—such as a psychiatrist, a psychologist or a member with particular training in terrorism issues—should be on the panel. As a result of this strong focus on effective risk assessment, the proportion of prisoners released on parole who commit a further serious offence is less than 0.5%, which is a remarkable record of the success of the Parole Board in its work. It is difficult to see how any system based on human judgment could produce a significantly better result.
An essential part of the parole process is the provision to the board of reports from specialists working for His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service—including prison staff, probation officers and psychologists—as well as other specialist reports commissioned by the service. These reports contain a detailed assessment of the prisoner’s risk. They include information about the prisoner’s progress in custody, their sentence plan, their risk of reoffending, their risk of serious harm and the arrangements and licence conditions which would be in place if they were released.
In the past, these reports also contained recommendations for or against release on parole and for or against a transfer to open conditions. The Parole Board was not bound to accept these recommendations, as it has a duty to make its own independent assessment of the prisoner’s suitability for release or open conditions. However, it was obviously helpful for the board to receive recommendations from professionals who had particular knowledge of the prisoner because they had worked with him or her on a regular basis during the prisoner’s sentence.
These recommendations have now been prohibited. This decision is totally illogical, since professionals who are commissioned by the prisoner’s legal representatives will not be prohibited from making recommendations. If a prison psychologist assesses the prisoner and believes that he or she is not safe to release, they are prohibited from saying so. However, if an independent psychologist is commissioned by the legal representative to assess the same prisoner and concludes that they are safe to release, they can make a recommendation for release to the Parole Board. In this case, the board would receive only one recommendation from a psychologist, a recommendation in favour of release, as even though the prison psychologist considers that the prisoner remains too dangerous to be released on licence, they are prohibited from saying so to the Parole Board.
This approach is patently nonsensical. It is difficult to see what it has to do with protecting the public or promoting sound decisions. The decision to prohibit these professionals from making recommendations seems to have arisen from the desire of the previous Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, to reject recommendations for open conditions in certain cases, specifically cases where he argued that a move to an open prison would
“undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system”.
This phrase seems to be shorthand for refusing recommendations in high-profile cases because of a fear of adverse media publicity, even when there is strong evidence of the prisoner’s suitability for open conditions.
The former Secretary of State may well have feared that it would look embarrassing if he refused a recommendation for open conditions when his own professional employees in the Prison and Probation Service recommended this. This does not seem to be a very grown-up way of making decisions. ln any organisation, senior leaders are entitled to overrule the recommendations of subordinates if they consider that there is a good reason for doing so. But no sensible leader would prohibit their staff from making recommendations in the first place in areas where the subordinate has particular knowledge and expertise.
The Secretary of State has always been able to reject recommendations for open conditions made by the Parole Board. But it makes no sense for him or his officials and the Parole Board itself to make their decisions in the absence of recommendations from those who have close knowledge of the prisoner. The new Secretary of State should review this change in the parole procedure and reverse it. This would be by far the least of the U-turns which the Government have undertaken in the last few weeks. None of us would be inclined to crow over a sensible reversal of policy of this kind. On the contrary, we would welcome a readiness to change direction after considering reasoned arguments from those with knowledge and experience of the parole system.
I believe strongly that future parole decisions should continue to be based on the accumulated experience and expertise of the Parole Board, informed by reports and recommendations from professionals with close knowledge.
I apologise for intervening. I forgot to refer to my interests in the register. I am a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust and am connected to a number of other prison welfare bodies.
My Lords, I speak in support of my noble friend’s regret Motion, which she moved with such clarity. She speaks with great experience and authority, as she told us at the beginning of her speech.
These regulations, already in force, feel like an attack on the Parole Board. I have been knocking around the legal system for decades, and I know many people who have been, and some who are, judicial members of the Parole Board. I think I reflect their feeling of the Parole Board being under attack from the Government, so I want to start by praising the Parole Board: for its fastidious care over the evidence in cases for which it is responsible; for its determined and proper independence, which is key; and, indeed, for its accepting the increased judicialisation that has made its processes more transparent and public. The Parole Board has moved with the times, and it perfectly understands its responsibilities.
Like others, I want to focus on paragraph (22), which provides that:
“Where considered appropriate, the Secretary of State will present a single view on the prisoner’s suitability for release.”
Even by statutory instrument standards, those are words of breathtaking vagueness. I suggest that this provision is a very unwise and unwelcome change for the following reasons. First, it is nothing less than an unwarranted interference by Ministers with what is clearly, now at least, a judicial process. Nobody can deny that the Parole Board is a judicial process; the issue goes, therefore, to the heart of the separation of powers. The previous Lord Chancellor knew perfectly well that he was attacking the separation of powers. I have, sneakingly, more confidence in his successor, who in my view has operated with some skill in bringing to an end quickly the justified strike by criminal barristers.
As I said a moment ago, the provision is vague. What are the terms of reference that would make it appropriate for a ministerial single view to be given? What does a “single view” mean in this context? Who is actually going to make these decisions? Who is going to prepare the papers to be put in the Minister’s red box? This is such an unclear procedure as to be wholly unacceptable.
Why on earth are report writers such as psychologists, an example already given, those with real knowledge of the prisoner concerned and, by definition, experts themselves to be banned from expressing a written opinion, which, of course, is not more than that—an opinion, not a decision, on the outcome of the case? This seems to me to presage a political reaction to media stories in an attempt to influence the Parole Board. That can have no legitimacy.
Furthermore, these ministerial decisions or recommendations are apparently not binding. What do they really mean? Well, they obviously mean that the Minister does not trust the tribunal, or at least he does not trust the media’s reaction to a decision that may be made by the Parole Board as a tribunal. But it certainly puts unacceptable pressure on the Parole Board.
With those comments in mind, please will the Minister tell us whether the Parole Board was consulted and, if so, whether the Parole Board welcomed these proposals and in what terms? Indeed, I think that we are entitled to know who else was consulted. What did they say? Did anyone support these proposals? If so, who were they and what reasons did they give?
Also, please will the Minister tell us how many cases this is expected to apply to? Is he, as a very experienced and eminent lawyer, comfortable with these changes? Do they accord with the ethical principles that separate Ministers from the courts and tribunals? He should be clear, when he answers, that most responsible commentators and respected NGOs see this as a slippery-slope provision to be deprecated.
My Lords, I shall speak extremely briefly. I declare my interest as a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust. I fully support the views expressed in the excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, in introducing this regret Motion.
I want to ask the Minister one question. Has guidance now been issued on the interpretation of the public confidence test and if not, when will it be issued? Who will be consulted on it, so that there is absolute clarity as to what public confidence means?
My Lords, I rise somewhat nervously to speak, because I am not an expert in this field. I am not a lawyer. There are clearly many noble Lords in your Lordships’ Chamber tonight who are experts. Unlike some of my dafter colleagues in another place, I rather value experts. I listen carefully to what they have to say.
Whatever disagreements there may be tonight, I think we can all agree that public service on the Parole Board is one of the most challenging tasks imaginable: balancing the paramount need for public safety with the hopes of eventual reform and re-entry into society for some offenders.
It is often said that nothing seems to work in the UK criminal justice system. I do not think this is right. It is a mistake. An awful lot works pretty well. The record shows that this most specialised part of the criminal justice system, in respect of which I am an amateur—a layman is perhaps a better way of putting it—generally works quite well. But because of human nature, it does not work all the time, alas; sometimes it fails, whatever the statistics show.
While I agree with noble Lords that a bit more consultation in drawing up these regulations would not be a bad thing, I must respectfully disagree with the regret Motion, for two reasons. First, the Secretary of State, like Parole Boards, has a very challenging task regarding public safety. On reflection—again, I stress, I speak as a layman—it is surely right that he or she should be able to produce a single view in a small number of the most serious cases. In all other cases, whole dossiers of reports can be obtained from those who are experts—psychologists, psychiatrists and, of course, lawyers. I am content with that, and I want my noble friend the Minister to know that I strongly support it.
Secondly and lastly, I strongly support our manifesto commitment to have more public hearings, where possible, at the request of victims and their families, the media and the general public. This is to the public good. As a layman, I feel strongly that the parole system must be as open and transparent as possible—not some experts’ secret garden where the generality of the public should not go. As I said before, I do greatly value expertise.
It is interesting to see what happens in other jurisdictions, which are not often spoken of well in this country, such as the United States. In some states, though not all, the system is very open indeed. Some have parole boards on which ex-convicts, as they call them, serve as full members. We must not shut our eyes to trying to make our system as transparent as possible. This is a second reason why I strongly support our manifesto commitment being followed up.
My Lords, I am here listening because I may shortly be on the Woolsack—although hopefully not—after my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes. However, I declare an interest. I am a victim, and so are my daughters, of the murder of my late husband, Garry Newlove. Having listened to Members, and with no disrespect, I cannot agree with this regret Motion.
For the last 15 years, I have attended every parole hearing and tariff review hearing and, in my role as Victims Commissioner, I have shadowed parole hearings. I also worked on the review of the Worboys case. Although an appeal system is in place, the bar is so high that it feels like a waste of time. I have been through an appeal. I have been through exactly what anybody else would have to go through, with no favours. That appeal route is not easy. You must explain why you want to do this and why you disagree with the result of the parole hearing. My appeal was sent to the then Secretary of State, Robert Buckland. His team looked at it and worked on it without knowing any of my views, except for what I had written through my victim liaison officer. His office then recommended that it be reviewed.
I want to draw the Chamber’s attention to the information victims receive. In bold letters, the Parole Board says that no matter what goes through, it does not change its mind. For a victim, it is absolutely appalling to see that in bold, even though there is a process for victims to go through. This is not to be disrespectful to the qualified people in this room, but I am speaking up for the many victims who go through a system that says one thing and delivers another. I speak as the mother of three daughters, who witnessed every kick and punch to their father, when I say that the system is broken. I totally agree that the public has no confidence in the criminal justice system where victims are concerned. I am very grateful that the media pick up these stories, because that means that I find out more information about my case than I would have been told personally by the system.
I disagree with this regret Motion. The system needs a good overhaul, and we need transparency. I hear from Parole Board members that it is a courtroom. Well, if it is a courtroom then there should be transparency, so that victims can fully understand why the decision was made. In one of the parole hearings, the Parole Board disagreed with a psychologist from the prison, a representative who knew the situation and went against that decision.
I welcome that we are discussing this, but I cannot agree with the regret Motion. We need transparency and we need public confidence. Victims have a right to know, to understand and to be treated with dignity, as I have for 15 years. They have a right to understand, to be there, to listen. More importantly, this is an opportunity to ask my noble friend the Minister: when will a draft victims Bill be presented, so that our voices can be listened to?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for tabling this regret Motion, which I support. She made a powerful case. I will not repeat the points she made but, in opening, I put six questions to the Minister.
First, why was removing probation recommendations not included in the root and branch review and why was there no prior consultation with all the stakeholders before the changes were implemented? Secondly, on the removal of probation recommendations, what impact assessments have been carried out regarding black, Asian and minority ethnic prisoners and IPP prisoners?
Thirdly, the National Association of Probation Officers is concerned that removing professional recommendations in parole will lead to inappropriate releases and the non-release of those who otherwise may have been granted parole. Therefore, what impact assessment has been carried out on this issue, and did the Government seek the views of the Parole Board itself about having to make release decisions without expert witness recommendations?
Fourthly, under the changes, what protections are in place for probation staff who are required to attend a public parole hearing? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, and the noble Baroness that these hearings should be public, but the question is specifically about the protection of parole officers—and, potentially, expert witnesses—when they are taking part in these hearings.
Fifthly, how many responses were there to the root-and-branch review, and how many of those were in favour of the public parole hearings? I echo the question of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, about whether anyone at all supported the Government’s proposals.
Sixthly, will the Government withdraw these changes if the judicial review finds against them?
In July’s Justice Questions in the other place, Kate Green MP challenged Dominic Raab on the proposed changes. He argued that
“there is a risk that separate reports, whether from psychiatrists or probation officers and those who manage risk, may give conflicting recommendations.”—[Official Report, Commons, 5/7/22; col. 711.]
Sonia Flynn, the chief probation officer, added in September’s committee session that differing recommendations would seem
“quite confusing, given that we are one HMPPS”,
and that the new change
“kind of tidies”
that up. That was the justification.
I must say that I find that explanation very surprising. I am absolutely sure that Parole Board members are well used to assessing conflicting sources of information; it is what people who sit as judges, or in a quasi-judicial capacity, do all the time. In other contexts, such as criminal courts or family courts, it is absolutely routine to get recommendations from probation officers—or in the context of family courts, recommendations from experts—which can indeed be contradictory. That is what the judges or magistrates do when they decide the merits of a case.
I hope that the Minister, who is exceptionally experienced, will bring an open mind to this situation. There have been a lot of changes on the Government and Treasury Benches over the last few months—or days. He is in a position where he can bring an open mind to this, and I hope that he will respond to the noble Baroness’s regret Motion in that spirit.
My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, and in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, for tabling this regret Motion.
The principal concern is that the recent changes to the Parole Board Rules prevent prison and probation staff making specific recommendations in the reports that they give the Parole Board. It is said that this has implications for the sentence progression of individuals subject to parole review, and complaint is made that this was done through the negative procedure without consultation. What we are not considering today are other changes, such as changes relating to the move from closed to open prisons, which are, strictly speaking, not the subject of today’s regret Motion.
I will provide some background. The Parole Board of England and Wales is an arm’s-length body which, as has been pointed out, performs a judicial, or at least quasi-judicial, function. It is required by statute to decide whether prisoners serving eligible sentences can be safely released into the community—that is the board’s decision. The statutory test requires that the board must direct release if it is
“satisfied that it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the person should be confined.”
As is well known, the Secretary of State is required to refer eligible prisoners to the Parole Board once they have completed the relevant period of their custodial sentence. When a reference is made, the Prison and Probation Service—HMPPS—provides a comprehensive dossier of evidence, which includes information about the offence, risk assessments and information from those who have worked closely with the prisoner during their time in custody. Those reports, including those from psychologists, may be anywhere between 150 and, in some complex cases, up to 1,000 pages. Essentially, that procedure and process will continue.
I simply point out that the change that we are talking about is quite limited. It is concerned with the removal of the previous requirement that written evidence submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State must include a recommendation. The previous legislation said that the staff reports must include a recommendation, and that provision is no longer in force. In other words, the reports continue as they did before, but there is no final conclusion that says, “I therefore recommend” whatever the recommendation is.
Is it still open for any expert to give a recommendation if they so choose?
My understanding is that they are not to make recommendations. They can make their risk assessments and say whether there is a valid release plan; they can do all of those things. They can say this man or woman poses no risk to the public, or does pose a risk, or whatever it is, but they cannot express an opinion on the very question that the Parole Board is required to answer: whether the prisoner should be released. This is essentially a change that brings the decision on release back to where it belongs: the Parole Board, not the expert.
Is not the noble and learned Lord confusing two quite different things? The expert does not give an opinion on whether the person should be released, as the noble and learned Lord suggested has been the case; the expert gives his opinion on whether it is safe for the person to be released. That is quite different. Can the noble and learned Lord, with all of his expertise, think of another form of expert evidence in which the expert is not permitted to give his opinion on the key matter under consideration?
My Lords, I respectfully submit that we are dealing with angels dancing on pins here. What is intended by this change is to make it clear that the responsibility for the decision rests squarely with the Parole Board, and to avoid the risk, however remote, that the expert report tends to usurp the role of the decision-maker, running the risk of them delegating their decision to the expert. This amendment brings the Parole Board process in line with the rest of the justice system. I respectfully refer your Lordships to the evidence of Professor Stephen Shute to the Science and Technology Committee of the other place on 7 September. He made this very point, saying that it is for the Parole Board to make the decision, rather than run the risk of the matter being left in the hands of the expert.
Analogy has been rightly drawn with what happens elsewhere in the justice system; for example, in relation to pre-sentence reports in the criminal process. One does not find the probation officer saying that the court should impose a community sentence. One asks the probation officer to assess whether the offender is suitable for a community sentence. This change will align the practice of the Parole Board more closely with the rest of the justice system.
Not realising that this was a high tea, rather than a dinner break, I confess that much to my regret I was not here at the start of the debate. Why, if this is designed to stop these individual experts pre-empting the Parole Board’s decision, is it left to the Secretary of State to be allowed to do so with his single view?
If I may respectfully point this out to the noble and learned Lord, the Secretary of State with his single view does not pre-empt the decision of the Parole Board. He presents a single view to the Parole Board.
Why is that any different from the same operation being done by those who have been contributing to the background?
In a sense, this is an inter partes procedure, with the Secretary of State on one hand and the prisoner on the other. The Secretary of State, like a party, is putting his view to the board. That is the single view that, in my submission, he is entitled to put.
While I am on the single view, this is likely to refer simply to the very top tier of cases, probably 150 to 200 cases a year out of the many thousands that the Parole Board deals with. It refers to very dangerous, highly sensitive cases of prisoners involving murder, serious violence and so forth. In those cases, it is thought right that the Secretary of State, through his representative before the Parole Board, should be able to present a single overarching view. That is a sensible approach which avoids confusion and uncertainty.
Nothing in any of these reforms prevents or limits the ability of the Parole Board to make the right decision or the ability of the relevant members of staff, whether psychologists, probation officers or whatever, to make the risk assessments or to put in whatever observations they wish within the assessment that they are required to make, except to make the relevant recommendation.
It is not a change that should in any way undermine the system. HMPPS staff will continue to provide reports to the Parole Board. Their reports will still contain the same detailed evidence and assessment of risk as before. The only omission will be a recommendation on what decision the report writer thinks the Parole Board should make. Far from undermining the Parole Board, the intention of these reforms is to draw a sharp distinction between the roles of those who provide evidence and those whose duty it is to assess the evidence and reach a decision. That is the essential background.
Does my noble and learned friend think it appropriate that a political Minister should be the conveyor of a single view—the only view—on a matter for quasi-judicial discussion?
The Secretary of State has an overriding duty to protect the public. In that context, as the guardian of the safety of the public, he is entitled to present his view to the Parole Board, which then decides.
On the second point made by the noble Baroness in relation to the implications for the progression of offenders, the Government’s position is that there is no change. The rules by which prisoners progress through the system and their opportunity for release will continue to be assessed by the Parole Board, as they are at the moment.
On this occasion, I will not go into the open prison/closed prison issue, because that is not the subject of what we are discussing today. On the point we are discussing, this change in the rules about the recommendations, it is a very limited change and is fully in accordance with general principle. HMPPS will continue to provide comprehensive evidence to the Parole Board and factual evidence for the assessment of risk, as before.
I am really rather surprised at what the Minister says. I have sat in courts for many years. To suggest that an expert cannot give an opinion as to what should be the outcome is something I find contrary to everything I remember from my experience, which admittedly was a long time ago.
My Lords, with respect, I have always understood it to be the case—I hope I have not got this wrong—that an expert should not normally give his opinion on the very issue on which the court is required to decide. The scope of the expert’s opinion is to provide the court with the factual details. It is the duty of the expert not to say whether X or Y is guilty or not guilty but to provide the court with the facts on which that decision is taken. At least, that is common practice.
In the jurisdiction in which the Minister is so expert, namely competition law—as he knows, I have sat with him in the Competition Appeal Tribunal—economists and other experts giving evidence before the Competition Appeal Tribunal do give an opinion as to whether the practice under consideration is competitive or anti-competitive.
I pull the Minister back to a previous point. Time and again, those of us who have been in criminal courts for a long time have heard judges say to a probation officer, for example, “If I pass a non-custodial sentence, do you think he would comply with orders A, B and C?”. That is an opinion on exactly the issue under consideration. I am completely befuddled by that part of the argument and so, I think, are many noble friends and colleagues.
Perhaps I ought to try to bring this somewhat tetchy debate to a close. The Parole Board is required to decide that it should direct release if it is satisfied that the detention is no longer necessary for the protection of the public. The provision we are discussing makes it clear that the expert should not pronounce on the prisoner’s suitability for release. In other words, the expert should not pronounce on the principal matter on which the Parole Board is being asked to decide. Subject to that, all the other material that was there before will continue to be there.
I am not in a position to answer all the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, was kind enough to ask; I think there were six and maybe several sub-questions within the six. I will have a look at the transcript, if I may, and answer what I can in due course as with other questions asked by noble Lords this evening. There was no consultation in this case. This is within the legislation; that is the procedure that is normally adopted for amendments to these rules. I am perfectly happy on behalf of the Government to say that we will keep this issue under review and see how it works out. There is a case in the High Court, which I cannot comment on, which may affect the outcome. The essential point is that these rule changes in no way undervalue the importance of the reports or the assessments that will continue to be provided by prison and probation staff and psychologists. Those will remain vital. In closing, I pay tribute to all the staff in the service who provide those reports and reassure them that their role will continue to be vital, as heretofore.
My Lords, I know that time is rushing on and the Front Bench is keen to close the debate. I first want to thank all the colleagues who have contributed to this debate and say that I respect the alternative views expressed by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove.
I found the Minister’s response rather confusing. He was trying to justify the unjustifiable. If I wanted to refute every point, it would take me about half an hour, which I do not have. This really highlights why it is important to have a consultation—a proper debate—so we are not eroding the fundamental principles on which the Parole Board actually operates. At the outset he said it was an arm’s-length body and should be respected as such. Also, if may say so, experts can give their opinion but from my experience the Parole Board hears different, conflicting views and it makes up its own mind. It does a risk assessment, which it is good at. Its record shows that.
I ask the Minister, having listened to this debate and felt the unease round the House, whether the Government will be willing to meet to see how some of these things are going to be discussed. We need clarity about what actually is intended. I am leaving this debate more confused than enlightened. But I thank the Minister for the response and everybody else for their contributions. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.