Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:02 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct 12:02 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, as Jane Austen once so nearly said, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a new Lord Chancellor in possession of a marked inclination towards prison reform must be in want of a curable injustice. One such plain injustice, together with the means to cure it, lies immediately to hand: the ever-increasing plight of those still incarcerated under the IPP regime, the scheme for the indefinite detention of certain prisoners for the protection of the public, who are often comparatively minor offenders. It is a wholly discredited system which was finally abolished in 2012 through LASPO, but there still remain some 4,500 such prisoners, of whom around 3,500 have served longer than their tariff terms; that is, longer than the terms judged appropriate as punishment for their wrongdoing. Indeed, 392 prisoners have served more than five times their tariff terms, as this House was told in answer to an Oral Question of mine last November.

It is not every day of the week that one is able, as I was last week, to plead personally to a Justice Minister the existence of a deep and systemic injustice in the criminal justice system flanked, as I was, by two former Lord Chief Justices, the noble and learned Lords, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers and Lord Judge, and for good measure by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. None of them is an enthusiast for putting the public needlessly at risk but all, thankfully, are champions of justice and for change. I am hugely indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, and, indeed, to the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, for having held a meeting and for the characteristically thoughtful and sympathetic hearing we were given.

There is no time today to outline even the rudiments of the case for the release of these post-tariff prisoners, but I will take the opportunity to put before the House some of the facts as set out in an article in the Times—again that newspaper—of December last. The article was written by three of the Lord Chancellor’s highly respected erstwhile leader-writing colleagues, Rachel Sylvester, Alice Thomson and Richard Ford. They record that 740 IPP prisoners have served between two and four years beyond the tariff; a further 587 between four and six years post-tariff; 136 between six and eight years longer; and three are still in jail more than eight years longer than the tariff.

What is the solution? Surely it must be to make use of Section 128 of LASPO, the Act that abolished this regime, custom-built as that provision was, specifically to cater to the needs of the backlog of these prisoners still in jail—namely, by changing the test whereby they can finally regain their liberty. At the moment, they have to satisfy the Parole Board that they can safely be released; the Parole Board, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a defensive and risk-averse mindset, conscious that it might be blamed if people then reoffend. But the plight of these IPP prisoners, particularly those who have long since served terms for their punishment—in the early years of the scheme, these were often terms of only a few months—who are now being detained purely preventively, surely calls for a very different approach. If their continued internment is to be justified, it should now be for the authorities to establish a positive likelihood that, if released, they would pose a real, immediate and serious threat to life or limb.

Of course, some of those released would reoffend, but that is the price that we must pay to end this ever-growing stain on our justice system. We must consider the prizes to be won. Besides ending the basic injustice of internment, we would end the nightmare of uncertainty and hopelessness suffered not just by these prisoners—many of whom over the years, alas, have committed suicide—but their families, too. We would free up places in our already grossly overcrowded prisons and save countless millions of pounds which could then be devoted instead to some of the many other calls for prison reform which have been canvassed in today’s debate.