To ask His Majesty’s Government what proportion of Parole Board recommendations for prisoners to be transferred to open conditions were accepted by the Secretary of State for Justice from January to March; and on what grounds such recommendations can be rejected.
My Lords, the Question refers to the transfer of a life or other indeterminate sentence prisoner to an open prison. That is an operational decision for the Secretary of State. He is not obliged to follow the Parole Board’s advice but will take it into account. From January to March 2023, the Secretary of State considered 90 recommendations by the Parole Board for a prisoner to be moved to open prison. The Secretary of State accepted 14 recommendations and rejected 76.
My Lords, it is an old saying in Parliament, “Never ask a question of a Minister unless you know the answer already”, and I read with interest the Minister’s response to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, on 27 April. The figure that the noble and learned Lord has quoted is less than one in six referrals from the Parole Board, and I cannot get my head around how small it is. The Minister outlines the criteria to be taken into consideration, but the Parole Board making the recommendation will surely know what criteria the Government are going on. What is the point in it keeping on making referrals if the Secretary of State is not going to listen?
My Lords, I think I should clarify that this particular advisory function of the Parole Board has no statutory basis. It dates historically to the time when the Parole Board was part of the Home Office. The Parole Board has no operational responsibility for the safety and security of the open estate, nor for the rehabilitation of prisoners, nor for the categorisation of which prisoners are suitable for which prisons. In June 2022, the Secretary of State adopted new criteria for the transfer of prisoners to open prisons and unfortunately, in the Secretary of State’s view, those criteria have not been fully followed by the Parole Board’s advice. Those decisions by the Secretary of State can of course be challenged in the courts.
My Lords, in the first quarter of last year, 88 references were made from the Parole Board, and 80 were accepted. The change over the past year can have nothing to do with whether the Parole Board is following the Ministry of Justice criteria, which say
“the prisoner is assessed as low risk of abscond; and … a period in open conditions is considered essential to inform future decisions about release”.
The Parole Board is following the criteria laid down by the MoJ, but the MoJ is following a different route, and the question is: why?
My Lords, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who has enormous experience and expertise in this area, the Secretary of State’s view is that the Parole Board is not entirely following the change in criteria that was adopted in June 2022, particularly in regard to the essential nature of the move to open conditions to inform future decisions about release. There is indeed a further condition that the
“transfer to open conditions would not undermine public confidence in the Criminal Justice System”.
That is a matter for the Secretary of State.
My Lords, in March, the High Court held that the previous Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had acted unlawfully by instructing probation officers not to give the Parole Board their view of the risks of release of particular prisoners if that conflicted with his views. Can the Minister assure me that the new Secretary of State for Justice, Alex Chalk, who I warmly welcome to his post, has a better understanding of the importance of the independence of the Parole Board and its processes?
The Secretary of State will of course abide by the recent decision of the High Court and will entirely respect the constitutional position of the Parole Board. I should add that what we are talking about today in relation to the 76 decisions is 32 prisoners serving a mandatory life sentence for murder, 11 serving a discretionary life sentence for rape and various other sexual offences, eight on an IPP sentence for serious sexual offences and another 25 for serious offences, all involving violence against the person.
Does my noble and learned friend share my concern that too many people are going to prison? Has a recent assessment been made of the effects of community restorative justice, which I saw in Northern Ireland when I was chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in the other place and which was extremely effective?
My Lords, we long ago got rid of Home Office Ministers setting tariffs in life sentences because it permitted politics to become involved in the justice system. Can my noble and learned friend assure me that of the 76 decisions made by the Secretary of State rejecting a Parole Board recommendation, politics played no part whatever in any of them?
My Lords, those decisions were all taken on the merits. I repeat that it is an operational matter which prison the prisoner should be in. That is quite distinct from the question of whether a prisoner should be released, which is the primary role of the Parole Board.
My Lords, the principal reason that people are worried about this is because they believe that release straight from closed conditions and high security conditions increases the risk of reoffending and that a period in open conditions is very helpful in reducing that risk. Will the Minister return to the House at a future date to inform us of what has happened as a consequence of the decisions taken by the Secretary of State? Preventing a period in open conditions does not prevent release. All it does is prevent preparation for release.
My Lords, I am entirely happy to give the House whatever information it requires at any time, and I fully accept that a move to an open prison is potentially one aspect of a prisoner’s progression towards release, but in modern thinking, it is not the only route. A number of closed prisons operate prisoner progression programmes towards release direct from closed prisons, and those relatively new programmes are enjoying results. Several hundred prisoners are released every year from those closed conditions without, as far as I know, any evidence that that poses a risk to the community.
My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, does the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences tend to lead to very high reoffending rates and that prisoners often come out more criminal than they went in. If we can ensure that community sentences really address the underlying causes of criminality—and the Justice and Home Affairs Select Committee is looking at that—will the Minister accept that short-term prison sentences really should be abandoned in favour of community sentences?
My Lords, presumably the Secretary of State has access to all the information that the Parole Board has, and the Parole Board is well aware of all the relevant matters, so why the difference? Should the Secretary of State give reasons for rejecting the recommendations?
My Lords, has my noble and learned friend given consideration to what might be called the ripple effect of the change in criteria on Parole Board decisions, where the sentences are less than life sentences, where it is making other judgments about moving people from closed to open prison? I ask that because anecdotally one hears—and my noble and learned friend may be able to comment on this—that there are now spare places in open prisons that cannot be filled, while the closed prison estate comes under ever more pressure.
My Lords, the Secretary of State, when introducing these new rules in January 2022, prioritised the precautionary principle and the protection of the public. Despite enormous pressure on the closed estate, he took the view—in my view rightly—that public protection was more important than the short-term expedient of transferring prisoners who are not suitable for open conditions to open conditions simply to reduce pressures on the closed estate.
My Lords, is it not the case that the Government’s policy is being driven by dogma again? They are not looking at the evidence. Reoffending rates are still far too high, jails are full and yet Ministers are claiming that they are going to have longer and tougher sentences. Do the Government not need to revisit this and come up with a coherent plan to deal with the matter?
My Lords, as I have said on previous occasions, reoffending rates are slowly coming down, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the previous Secretary of State for his work on improved education in prison, employment opportunities, accommodation on release and other reforms which I am sure will bear good fruit in due time.