Queen’s Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 1st June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 4:13 pm, 1st June 2015

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, on his distinguished maiden speech and look forward to the two further maiden speeches that we shall shortly hear.

The gracious Speech promises us new legislation that will, among other things,

“improve the law on policing and criminal justice”.

That is obviously a good idea. Indeed, quite a lot in the Government’s manifesto commitments seems to me to be sensible. However, I confess to a little unease at the commitment to “increasing sentence lengths” and, more generally, to “toughen sentencing”. I find positively disturbing the commitment to,

“continue to review our legal aid systems so that they continue to provide access to justice in an efficient way”.

Surely that is a euphemism for slashing the legal aid budget still further, if the past is anything to go by.

I say nothing today on human rights, although I cannot promise to be so forbearing in the future, and that ought not to be taken as any encouragement to the Government to go ahead with their tentative plans.

Nowhere in the manifesto commitments is to be found—it is this that I want to focus on exclusively today—any hint of a suggestion that now, at long last, the Government propose to deal with an ever-worsening stain on the criminal justice system in this country: the continuing incarceration of IPP prisoners; that is, prisoners subject to an indeterminate sentence for the protection of the public. They are detained under the long-discredited scheme, which was abolished three years ago, that had been introduced by the Labour Government with effect from April 2005.

As many of your Lordships will know, the cause of such prisoners has been championed over many years by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who, alas, has just retired from the House. It is imperative that the sorry tale of those prisoners should not now be forgotten, and I want to remind the House today of the vice of leaving the many remaining IPP prisoners indefinitely detained.

It is not even as if primary legislation is necessary to secure their release. In the LASPO Act 2012, the legislation that finally abolished the whole scheme for such indeterminate sentences, express provision was made in Section 128 for the release of existing prisoners. The Lord Chancellor was given explicit power to amend the release test, but, regrettably, the last Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, consistently refused to exercise it. It is my fervent hope that the new Lord Chancellor will speedily come to recognise that justice cries out now for him to do so. I should briefly explain the basic scheme and the injustices which arise, particularly acute in the case of those who were sentenced in the first three years of the scheme before it came to be marginally improved in 2008 for its final four years.

As originally enacted, the scheme placed a duty on the court to impose this form of sentence on any offender convicted of a violent or sexual offence—and no fewer than 153 different offences were deemed to fall into that category—who had previously been convicted of a similar such offence. The judge had effectively no discretion whatever in the matter: he was bound to assume that the offender posed a risk of committing a further such offence in future. A prisoner then serving such a sentence could not be released until he later came to satisfy the Parole Board that his detention was no longer necessary for the protection of the public.

At the same time as imposing the IPP sentence, the judge was obliged to state what is called the tariff sentence; that is, the minimum term to be served before the prisoner could in any event be released, the tariff usually being one half of the determinate term judged appropriate as the sentence required to punish him for his wrongdoing. In the first three years of the scheme, the tariff could be, and frequently was, as little as just a very few months.

As I have indicated, in 2008 the scheme was modified in two relevant respects. First, an IPP could not thereafter be imposed except in the case of someone whose tariff term was more than two years. Secondly, the judge was no longer required to assume that the offender posed a risk of future such offending and was allowed to form his own judgment as to that.

Even thus modified, however, the scheme was rightly recognised by the Conservative Government in 2012 to be unfair and unworkable. It had caused thousands of offenders to be given what were effectively life sentences and it was then abolished. However, there remained and there still remain a large number of IPP prisoners, some of whom have now served up to 10 years’ incarceration for offences that in themselves may have deserved—and one sees it from their tariffs—a punishment of only a few months. There still remain more than 500 IPP prisoners, detained during the first three years of the scheme, with tariff sentences of under two years, and there are roughly 5,000 such prisoners left in the system as a whole.

This is nothing short of a form of preventive detention or internment, wholly alien and inimical to our entire system and sense of justice and tradition. It is imprisonment not as punishment but purely to protect against the risk that the prisoner may offend again. No doubt if the release test is softened—for example, if the Lord Chancellor were to specify as a new test that these prisoners must be released unless the Parole Board is satisfied that they represent a serious risk of grave offending—some would indeed, on release, then commit further offences. But that, I suggest, is a price we must be prepared to pay to restore a sense of basic justice to the criminal justice system. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, whose return we all so greatly welcome, whether he will at least agree to bring this question—this scandal, as frankly it is—urgently to the attention of the new Lord Chancellor.