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Parole Board: Transparency and Victim Support

Volume 634: debated on Friday 19 January 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a further statement on the Parole Board’s decision to release John Worboys and the Government’s response to the issues raised by this case.

I know that the victims of these horrific crimes have suffered significant emotional trauma. The prospect of the release of this man is deeply concerning to them, to many Members and to the wider public. I owe it to those victims and to the public to consider all the options open to me as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. I therefore took the step of seeking legal advice from specialist leading counsel to establish whether there were grounds to challenge the decision in the courts and therefore to ask the court to stop the release of Worboys before the decision was reconsidered.

Let me set out my approach to judicial review in general. Whatever one’s personal feelings about a case, Ministers should not choose to bring a legal challenge that has no reasonable prospect of success, but it is right that public bodies can be held to account for their actions through due process of law and, specifically, judicial review. There has been significant public debate about the possible basis for a legal challenge in such a case. It has been speculated that there are two grounds open to me to challenge such a decision: that the decision was one that no board could reasonably have taken, or that there were significant procedural failings in the way that the decision was taken.

The bar for a judicial review to succeed is very high. The test for deciding whether a decision is unreasonable is not simply that the decision maker—in this case, the Parole Board—could have made an alternative decision, but that no reasonable person would have come to the same conclusion on the facts of the case. Similarly, on procedure, it would be necessary to identify a failure by the Parole Board to follow the process that would have had a material impact on the decision.

Having taken considered and expert legal advice, I have decided that it would not be appropriate for me, as Secretary of State, to proceed with such a case. Members will appreciate that I cannot go further and expose detail of the legal advice that I have been given. I know that will disappoint the victims in this case and Members. Given the crimes for which Worboys has been convicted, on a personal level, candidly, I share those concerns.

I have taken a close personal interest in this case since I assumed office as the Secretary of State for Justice. It is important that all the victims have clarity as soon as possible, which is why I am before the House today. I can reassure the House and the public that Worboys will not be released until his licence conditions have been finalised. I understand that contact and meetings with victims who have chosen to receive the services of the probation victim contact scheme have taken place this week, and further meetings in respect of his release will take place next week. That will give those victims the opportunity to make representations to the Parole Board on the conditions to which Worboys should be subject on release.

Let me be absolutely clear: Worboys will not be released until the victims’ representations have been properly considered and his licence conditions are in place. Indeed, last week, I asked for assurances that the views of victims were being taken into account and that robust licensing conditions would be put in place to manage his risk.

I am aware that some third parties have indicated that they are seeking to bring legal proceedings themselves and that correspondence has been served on me, as Secretary of State, as a potential interested party to any litigation. I fully support the right of victims to take their own legal advice and to challenge the decision. The approach I am taking does not mean that others, who may have significant interest in the case, are precluded from taking action. Each case depends on the circumstances of each individual bringing a claim. That is one of the reasons why I do not intend to say more on this matter. I would not want to prejudice any legal challenges by commenting further on the facts of this case or the legal advice I have received. I will be taking advice on how my Department should consequently engage in any proceedings, but it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.

It is vital that the public and victims have confidence in the justice system, which is there to serve them. This case has exposed some issues with the parole process as a whole. I have already indicated that aspects of the parole process more generally should be examined. In my statement on 9 January, I said that my Department would review the case for transparency in the parole-decision process, how victims are communicated with and how they are appropriately engaged in that process. I now believe that that review should go further, so I have expanded its terms of reference to include consideration of the law, policy, guidance and practice relating to challenges to Parole Board decision making. I have published them today and placed a copy in the Library.

In particular, I have expanded the review to include consideration of whether there should be a mechanism to allow parole decisions to be reconsidered and how that might be best achieved, while retaining the independence of the decision-making process. The review remains a priority for me and for the Government, and despite the significant expansion of the terms of reference, I intend to complete it before Easter.

I acknowledge the concerns that the victim contact scheme, which is operated by the National Probation Service, may not have worked as well as it should have in this case. It is right that, as well as looking at the process around parole decisions for all cases, we consider whether existing processes were followed in this instance. I have therefore asked Dame Glenys Stacey, Her Majesty’s chief inspector of probation, to conduct a rapid fact-finding exercise to confirm whether the legislative provisions, existing policy and processes relating to victims were adequately followed by the National Probation Service in this case. Her findings will inform the wider review.

As I have said, I know that Members are concerned about this case and about how we deal with the release of offenders. I hope that this statement has reassured them of the thorough and careful consideration that I have given to this difficult case and that we are now giving serious and urgent consideration to ways in which the process can be improved to reassure not only victims of these terrible crimes but the wider public.

I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement.

Two weeks ago, it was announced that John Worboys would be released from prison. In those two weeks, it has been absolutely clear that the victims of his vile crimes feel that our criminal justice system has let them down. The criminal justice system must ensure that it has the victims of crime at its core. When it fails in that, it not only affects the direct victims themselves but risks undermining wider public trust in our justice system.

As Labour has reiterated since John Worboys’s release was announced, it is important that the Secretary of State does everything in his power to ensure that the victims of Worboys’s crimes, as well as the wider public, have faith in our justice system. Many will be disappointed by today’s news. It is understood that legal advice cannot be shared and that the Secretary of State does not want to prejudice other cases, but today’s news makes the need for changes in the Parole Board even more pressing.

The existing rules permit either the Secretary of State or victims to seek judicial review. Many will have seen that some victims are doing just that, and they have attracted much public support for their fundraising efforts. Judicial review is a key tool for every citizen to be able to challenge unjust or unlawful decisions by the state or other public bodies. Deep cuts to legal aid have undermined the ability of many to pursue judicial review. Will the Government commit today to using their review of legal aid to look again at how it can support judicial reviews?

Any judicial review would look at whether the Parole Board’s decision was taken properly. If it was not, the case would go back to the Parole Board for it to look at again. As it stands, though, the existing rules mean that we still would not know the reasons for any subsequent Parole Board decision.

As the Opposition have said repeatedly both here and elsewhere, there is no need for the review of Parole Board transparency to debate the case for greater transparency. It should be a practical review of how to ensure the public are informed of the reasons behind decisions. Just as the public are clear about court judgments, they must be clear about Parole Board decisions. Greater transparency has widespread support. We therefore welcome the widening of the review announced today, especially the idea of a mechanism to allow Parole Board decisions to be reconsidered, while retaining its independence. People were shocked that some victims found out about the decision to release Mr Worboys through the media.

Labour has said from the outset that it is totally unacceptable and very concerning that some were not given the opportunity to participate in the Parole Board hearing, as was their right. The victim contact scheme is responsible for informing victims of significant changes in a case, including Parole Board hearings. This service is managed by the National Probation Service, which has experienced significant difficulties, especially case overload, since the Government’s reforms to probation services in 2014. Labour has called in the House on the Government to look into the failings in the NPS and victim contact scheme, so it is a step forward that the Secretary of State has now asked Dame Glenys Stacey to conduct a rapid fact-finding exercise into the role of the NPS. He needs to ensure that this answers the question whether his Government’s wholly negative changes to the probation service contributed to any failings in this case and how he plans to address them.

I have listened to the statements of Mr Worboys’s victims in recent weeks, and it is clear that their concerns are not limited to the decisions or functioning of the Parole Board. Labour has repeatedly stated that the Worboys case raises so many serious questions that anything less than an independent end-to-end review into the handling of the case, from the first report to the police of an attack through to the Parole Board hearing, would let down the victims and wider public. Labour has repeatedly called for this wider inquiry, but it is not clear why the Secretary of State has repeatedly refused it. It is a reasonable and rational request and would help to rebuild public trust. I hope that he will take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will undertake this end-to-end review.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. In the context of wanting to support the victims, he was right to focus on the areas that he did, and I am grateful to him for not pressing me further on either the facts or the legal advice.

It is right that the victims be treated with concern and sympathy and that all due processes be followed. We need to understand precisely what happened in this case and whether support was provided as it should have been, which is why I am pleased that Dame Glenys Stacey is undertaking that role. I share the hon. Gentleman’s instincts for greater transparency in Parole Board decisions. It frustrates victims that they do not get to know what is happening or the reasons for a decision. Equally, it can be frustrating for the Parole Board, too, if it cannot articulate its reasons. We need to look carefully at this, but we also need to move swiftly, which is exactly what I intend to do.

On an end-to-end review, my focus has been on transparency and victim support, which are the immediate issues in front of us. I recognise that there is a debate about the original investigation and how these indeterminate sentences for public protection, which we have now abolished, operated, but it is right at this point that our reviews focus on transparency and the victims and that they continue as a priority to look at how these matters are dealt with.

Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.

It is clear that my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has applied himself to what is a very serious and troubling case with the greatest scrupulousness and care. He is to be commended for having applied a difficult legal test to what is ultimately a legal decision, and I welcome his extension of the review into the operation of these matters. Does he agree that one political and policy decision we could make as soon as possible would be to change the Parole Board rules to permit Parole Board panels to give reasons for their decisions. It would likely command support across the House and, as he rightly observes, have the support of the Parole Board itself. It would also be of great reassurance to the public.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We understand the full implications of greater transparency in Parole Board decisions and what those implications might involve. It is not my desire that as a matter of course offenders should take cases where, for example, Parole Board panels have taken the firm line, based on the evidence in front of them, that they should not be released. We need to understand the full implications, but there is clearly a case for much greater transparency.

I welcome the statement and the Lord Chancellor’s decision to widen the review’s remit. That will command support on both sides of the House. Has he been informed whether the Crown Prosecution Service and police are reviewing the many other serious allegations against Worboys and whether there is any chance of further charges being brought against him before he is released? This is the question that many of the victims really want answered.

I can well understand why the right hon. Gentleman raises this issue. It is a matter for the CPS and Metropolitan police, however, and there is nothing I can say to inform the House this morning on that point.

I should declare that during my 17 years in the Treasury solicitors department I frequently acted for both the Secretary of State and the Parole Board and sometimes for both together.

I commend the Secretary of State for his detailed work on this case. Can he reassure us that the views not only of the statutory victims but of the wider group of victims known to the authorities will be taken into account?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. There are different systems in place for the statutory victims versus others, but sometimes, as in this case, there will be many people who essentially are victims but not in respect of any convictions—in this case, Worboys’s convictions—and we need to ensure that the system works for them as well.

Following the Secretary of State’s previous statement earlier this month, I raised the importance of confidence in our justice system, and my fear is that the decision not to judicially review the Worboys decision will not reassure the public. He has talked about greater transparency, but I want to press him on the point that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) made. Will the Secretary of State commit to changing the statutory rules, so that Parole Board decisions are open not just in the Worboys case but in future cases as well?

The intention is to look at what can be done to increase transparency, and I will, of course, come back to the House with more detailed proposals once the review has been completed.

May I urge the Lord Chancellor to write to the CPS and ask it to undertake a review? It might well be that the public interest test was not satisfied because an indeterminate sentence had been given, and the change in circumstances may mean that that test is now satisfied in respect of victims whose cases were not prosecuted. Will he give that undertaking to the House today?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, accountability for decisions on prosecutions is not an area that falls within my responsibilities. However, I very much understand and sympathise with her point, and I know that this is an issue on which the Attorney General is very focused.

Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), will the Minister be looking at how the CPS and the police deal with cases where it comes to light that, in cases of serious offences such as this, there are further victims? John Worboys was convicted of the rape of and sexual assault against 12 women, but more than 85 others came forward after the event, and that needs to be looked at in case similar such events occur.

The hon. Gentleman has put his point, which is a very fair one, on the record. To some extent, I refer to my earlier answer, but clearly with regard to whether there is a public interest case in bringing further prosecutions, that is no doubt something that both the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service will want to consider.

It is essential that we not only recognise and respect the independence of our legal system, but recognise that the public are disappointed and angry with the Parole Board’s decision. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by opening up the Parole Board’s decisions and making them more transparent, the public may still disagree with the decision, but they will have an understanding of how that decision was reached?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a very good point. As a society, the direction that we have gone in more generally has been towards greater transparency. As Professor Nick Hardwick was one of the first to make that point, there is clearly a case in this context for the Parole Board as well.

Although all of us understand the desire not to prejudice any possible action by the victims, a letter from the Secretary of State’s predecessor on 8 January—it is a public letter open to MPs—states that the victims were not contacted until October, having last had contact in 2009. He knows the concern that it is not just about updating victims, but about involving them in Parole Board decisions. Can he give an assurance that the involvement and participation of victims will be looked at and that he will publish the date in October when contact was made with the Warboys’s victims so that we can understand the process used?

With regard to the facts of a particular case, that is exactly what Dame Glenys Stacey will be investigating. I have no doubt that she will make public her conclusions. It is very important that victims are involved. I know that in this case they are involved, as I said earlier, in making representations in terms of licensing conditions. It is right that due and appropriate weight is given to those representations when it comes to determining the licensing conditions.

My constituents in Kettering believe that the best way to protect the public is for violent offenders to be kept behind bars, and they take the straightforward and honourable view that if an offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the offender should serve that sentence in prison in full before being released. Given that this is a statement about the transparency of Parole Board decisions, who is held to account in the Parole Board, and how, if those released early reoffend?

The numbers of reoffences are put into the public domain. Clearly, that is one of the tests of the effectiveness of the Parole Board. It is clearly a matter of priority for all of us that people who are dangerous are not released. The test for a Parole Board panel in the context of one of these IPP prisoners is an assessment of their risk to the public, and that is what the Parole Board must determine in these circumstances.

My hon. Friend the shadow Minister is absolutely right that this case raises wider issues about the rights of victims in our criminal justice system, right through from the offence being committed, through the process and to parole. Will the Secretary of State tell us when he will bring forward the victims’ Bill that was promised in 2015?

All I can say is that since being newly appointed, I am receiving advice on what we can do to make progress on this matter. I hope to be able to update the House in due course, but I do agree with the hon. Lady that the victims are vital in the system.

I thank the Lord Chancellor for the detailed explanation for his decision, and I welcome his comments on further transparency, which will of course increase public confidence and, importantly, victims’ confidence in the system. He says that he wants these changes to happen quickly—how soon does he anticipate that changes can be made to the system?

Well, even though the review has been broadened, and even though we are looking more widely not just at transparency but at whether there should be an opportunity for the Parole Board to look again at decisions, that review will report by Easter. Obviously, the timing will depend on precisely what it recommends, but I am keen to make progress as quickly as possible.

May I too welcome the extension of the review that has been announced today? However, there are serious questions to be answered about the way that the police and the CPS operated in this case. I do not think that it is satisfactory just to leave it to the Metropolitan police and the CPS. I want to know what the Home Office—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), is sitting next to the Secretary of State—and the Attorney General’s Office are doing to look at what happened in those early stages and whether this man should have been charged with further offences.

I know that both the Home Secretary and the Attorney General have been very focused on this case. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand that my focus has been on the immediate issues, which relate not only to the consideration of judicial review but to the issues of transparency and support for victims. Of course there are questions that probably do need to be asked about how the IPP system, which this Government have abolished, operated in terms of whether it met the test of honesty in sentencing, but perhaps that is a debate for another day.

Recognising the importance of the independence of the judiciary, but considering in this case the crimes, the victims and the level of public concern, can my right hon. Friend assure me that he has sincerely looked into all the options in this case?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Without dwelling on the details of the reasons that I have already set out, I have given very long, close and serious consideration to my options.

The Secretary of State has quite rightly concentrated on the victims and the issue of transparency in his remarks, but he also referred to the fact that there are some victims who are crowdfunding to bring potential legal proceedings. That is because civil legal aid has been severely restricted for judicial review cases by the previous coalition Government. Will he please look again at the availability of civil legal aid for judicial review?

In the context of legal aid generally, the hon. Lady will be aware that there is currently a review of that. I do not intend to say any more on that until that review has been completed.

It is very reassuring that despite having been in post for only a short time, the Lord Chancellor has sought to get behind the victims of this terrible, terrible case. May I press him on the point that has just been made about legal aid? He has mentioned that he supports the rights of the victims potentially to pursue their own cases. Will there be discretion from the Legal Aid Agency perhaps to provide funding for those victims to do so?

In terms of the action that may be brought by victims on this, I do want to be very careful in my remarks. As I have said, just because I am not taking action does not mean that others cannot, because these legal cases can depend precisely on the position that they are in. It is the case that legal aid generally remains available for advice, assistance and representation in relation to judicial review of an enactment decision, act or omission, and that would include decisions of the Parole Board where there is sufficient benefit to the individuals in bringing judicial review.

All of us in this House respect the independence of the judiciary, but transparency needs to come with that independence—hence sentences are given in open court and judgments are available for all to read. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the outcome of this review must be greater transparency in Parole Board decisions, which are such a key part of our criminal justice system?

Yes, clearly the direction we are moving in is towards greater transparency. There are some details that we need to master and fully understand, but the direction of travel is clear.

I welcome the extended review that the Justice Secretary announced. Will he confirm to the House that it will include a very detailed assessment of the decision-making processes that the Parole Board goes through, particularly in reference to expert reports from, for example, Dr Jackie Craissati in this case, that are at the heart of such decisions, in order to ensure that those experts are suitable to give the expert advice that they provide?

This is clearly going to be a broad review of how the Parole Board works, and the importance of particular expert evidence will be part of the process of considering how it operates.

I too welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement and the decision to expand the review. However, he will be aware that this is not the first such case. Mubarek Ali, a serial child sex exploitation offender, was released only five years after his trial, having been given a 20-year sentence. His victims felt that the victim contact scheme let them down. Will the Secretary of State consider this case as part of his expanded review?

I would certainly be interested to receive more information from my hon. Friend when looking at how the victim contact scheme works. If there are other examples where questions have been raised, the review will clearly need to take them into account.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s measured approach to this sensitive and emotive issue. The matter highlights the importance of care and support for victims, and the need to listen to them. It also brings into focus the victim contact scheme. Will the Secretary of State give assurances that it will be looked into? Is it fit for purpose, and was the process adequately followed by the Parole Board?

Frankly, different views have been put to me on how the victim contact scheme worked in this particular case. There is conflicting evidence. It is absolutely right that we have the review by Dame Glenys Stacey so that we can properly understand what happened and what lessons can be learned.

I welcome the Justice Secretary’s commitment to a broader review and appreciate that he has set himself a pretty aggressive timeline. If the end result is generally going to be a better reflection of victims’ views, can he assure me that the review will engage the victims?

I think that all hon. Members across the House recognise and appreciate my right hon. Friend’s candidness with the House. But, for the sake of all victims, will he ensure that all appropriate and measured steps are taken to ensure that he is never put in this position again?

The most important thing is not my position, but the position of victims. We clearly need to ensure that victims have a system in which they have faith. When there are large numbers of victims in particular, it can sometimes be a difficult challenge to make sure that their voices are properly heard. Victims are entitled to have their voices heard and we need to ensure that we have a system that works for them.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State and colleagues for the statement and the exchanges on it.