End of Custody Licence Scheme

Oral Answers to Questions — Justice – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 28th October 2008.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire 2:30 pm, 28th October 2008

What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the operation of the end of custody licence scheme.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

The end of custody licence scheme was necessary when it was introduced, but, as I made clear to the House, I intend to phase it out as soon as there is sufficient prison capacity to do so. So far this year, about 2,500 additional places have been provided ahead of target.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Since the scheme was introduced, some 34,000 prisoners have been released early: 6,500 were violent and 650 have reoffended. When does the Secretary of State believe that he can end the scheme? It will not even be reviewed until the end of next year, by which time it is estimated that some 70,000 prisoners—many of them violent—will have been released on to our streets.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

It is important to recall that we are considering release in the last 18 days—two and a half weeks—of a sentence. It is important to put that in perspective. There are a great many exclusions from the scheme, including serious violent and sexual offenders. It is not the case that we will review the scheme only at the end of next year. I keep it constantly under review and I understand the House's concern, which I share—18 days is still 18 days. I do not dispute the public concern about the scheme, which we keep constantly under review. As soon as I judge that there is sufficient capacity in the system, I will phase it out.

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

In a written answer published late last night, the Government reveal that three alleged murders were committed by prisoners while released early under the end of custody licence scheme. How can the Secretary of State have the front to talk about punishing offenders and being on the side of victims when his policy—under which more than 36,000 prisoners, including 7,000 violent criminals, have been released early—so clearly puts the public at risk?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Of course, I understand the concern. I gave the figures to the hon. Gentleman, and I was concerned to ensure that he got them and that they were comprehensive. There are three cases, out of the thousands of prisoners who have been released early, in which allegations of murder have been made. In one case the proceedings are continuing, and I cannot comment on it. In the second case, the alleged perpetrator subsequently killed himself. When the third case came before the court last December, Mrs. Justice Swift stated in her sentencing remarks:

"The fact that you were released early cannot, in my view, be said to have been causative of what happened thereafter"— that is, the murder. She continued:

"It is highly likely that the events that took place would have occurred whenever you were released."

Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice)

I find that answer astonishingly complacent. It appears that three additional murders may have been committed by offenders who were released 18 days early. We already know that one prisoner who was released early was convicted of a murder when he should have been safely behind bars. Last night the Ministry of Justice claimed that the scheme was working well. What is working well about a scheme that releases early offenders who go on to commit such serious crimes? The Ministry said that it would scrap early release when it was safe to do so. Is it not obvious to everyone, except the Government, that the policy is unsafe now, and should be scrapped immediately?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

I have given the answer about the three murder allegations. I simply repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the remarks about whether that particular terrible event would have taken place in any event were made not by me but by the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, and she was very clear about it—sufficiently clear to put it on record in the sentencing remarks. In a circumstance in which I regret the scheme, I emphasise that the reoffending rate is 1 per cent., which is low, and that breaches are tackled quickly.

Since the hon. Gentleman takes the matter to a party political level, let me say that he got surprisingly little coverage for a speech that he made to the Prison Governors Association on 8 October. It requires a wider audience, because he claimed:

"we are the only major political party that is now talking about reducing the prison population".

If that is the Opposition's policy, they will have serious difficulties in cutting out end of custody licence release.