Imprisonment for Public Protection - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:47 pm on 16 January 2024.

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Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 2:47, 16 January 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reply to the letter addressed to them on 17 August 2023 by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and others, concerning imprisonment for public protection.

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government are grateful for the UN special rapporteur’s interest in this important matter and have considered her letter carefully. A response was sent on 19 December 2023 and published on the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights website at www.ohchr.org. The IPP action plan aims to promote sentence progression for all those serving IPP sentences, and provisions in the Victims and Prisoners Bill will reduce the number subject to that sentence over time.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend and apologise that my Question was tabled, quite by coincidence, on the day that the Government issued their response to the letter. Does he accept the evidence submitted to the Justice Select Committee in the other place, and referred to by the special rapporteur—that the mental health problems caused by the IPP sentence itself multiply the difficulties that the prisoners face in obtaining release, and that therefore the Government would be wholly justified in considering any legislation in treating them as a special case with particular needs and trying to assist them to obtain discharge of the sentence?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the Government accept that there are certain special mental health issues for a number of these prisoners. They are being tackled, as far as we can do so, within the existing system. The action plan to which I referred contains provisions in that regard, particularly on improving psychological services and providing better support for prisoners on licence to avoid later recall. I do not accept the second part of my noble friend’s question that it follows that we need special legislation to deal with this.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, we must all be so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, for his continued campaigning on this issue, and we are grateful to the Government for responding at such length to the rapporteur. If everything in the IPP garden is so rosy in relation to indeterminately detained people, some of whom would have got a sentence of only months for their actual crime, why did the Government abolish this sentence in the first place, and why did the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, as late as 2016 call the threshold that prisoners have to meet to secure their release both ridiculous and absurd?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I do not assert that everything in the garden is rosy. This area is one of the acute—perhaps the most acute—dilemmas faced by the Ministry of Justice. Your Lordships will be aware that the subject of IPP prisoners is being addressed in Part 4 of the Victims and Prisoners Bill currently before Parliament, which we will shortly discuss in detail in Committee, and I am meeting noble Lords on Thursday to take that discussion further.

Photo of Lord Clarke of Nottingham Lord Clarke of Nottingham Conservative

My Lords, this is not just a major problem in the system; it is a major disgrace to the British justice system that these thousands of people are being kept in this way. When I persuaded my then Cabinet colleagues to abolish the IPP system because it was working so badly, unfortunately I was unable to persuade them to change the application of the licensing system in the ordinary way to these prisoners. I am glad that the Government are now contemplating action. I look forward to the legislation, but it has taken years. Will they consider something drastic, such as that, when prisoners are released on licence, the licence period should be for a much shorter period than usual, because at the moment people are being returned for quite minor breaches of licence, to the disproportionate consequence of an indeterminate sentence that may keep them in prison for life? Why cannot they be released on licence for 12 months and thereafter be subject to the usual criminal law for the protection of the public? Will the Minister consider that, and every other suggestion flowing to him from the campaigners?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, the House will be aware that the Victims and Prisoners Bill reduces the qualifying licence period from 10 years to three, with the presumption of termination at that point, and automatic termination two years thereafter if there is no recall in the meantime. A recent report by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation found that in none of the cases examined was the recall inappropriate but that, in some cases, further additional support in the community might have avoided the need for recall. That has led to a number of recommendations, all of which the Government have accepted.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, when I served on the Justice Committee in the Scottish Parliament, I recall that Scotland chose a different path from England and Wales when the sentences were introduced by the Labour Government in 2005, and it was right that they were abolished in 2012. The UN rapporteur’s figures make very sobering reading, stating that 97% of those still imprisoned are now two years beyond the tariff and 46% are 10 years beyond the tariff, with rehabilitation having been designed as an integral part of the sentencing. What are the obstacles for the Government in implementing the recommendations of the Justice Committee in the Commons, endorsed by the UN rapporteur, for resentencing and rehabilitation now being put forward? What are the obstacles to this happening, so we can finally put to bed what has been a very sorry exercise?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, I think I have explained this matter several times before to your Lordships but, in brief, the situation is this. We have 1,200 prisoners who have never been released. Almost all of those have come several times before the Parole Board, which each time has decided that they are not safe to release. Any resentencing exercise would inevitably either aim at or result in possibly a thousand persons being released who are not safe to release. The cohort includes many violent and sexual offenders, who are particularly difficult to manage in the community. The Government feel that they cannot take that risk and should not raise expectations but manage the situation by preparing the remaining prisoners for safe release.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My Lords, when IPP sentences were in place, the offender received a minimum tariff. When the offender went to prison, an offender manager, who is a probation officer, wrote a sentence plan. That same probation officer would also review that plan. Can the Minister say with confidence that all the elements of the sentence plans which are currently in place can be completed, and in a reasonable time?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, it is a very good question. A strengthened action plan—a strengthened sentence plan for each IPP prisoner—is an essential part of the wider IPP action plan. That is currently being worked on so that each IPP prisoner still in custody will have a personalised, updated and—we hope—effective sentence plan eventually leading to their release if that is at all possible. The newly established IPP progression board dealing with this matter now includes stakeholder representatives, who met in September and just before Christmas and will meet again in March, when we will report a full update on how the action plan is progressing.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My Lords, I reinforce the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Clarke. Has the time not come to provide a presumption that all IPP prisoners who have served the tariff should be released unless there is robust evidence tendered to the Parole Board that they are unsafe to be released?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

My Lords, that is, in effect, the present position. The Government have no interest in holding these prisoners, especially given the pressure on the prison system generally. The Government’s fear, worry and concern is public protection, for the reasons I have given.

Photo of Lord Woodley Lord Woodley Labour

My Lords, the special rapporteur, Dr Alice Edwards, whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting last month with the Justice Unions Parliamentary Group, stated forcefully that:

The UK, as a society with a strong rule of law tradition, has measures in place to protect the community after individuals are released”.

Why then does the Minister think that these measures will be ineffective in the case of IPP prisoners?

Photo of Lord Bellamy Lord Bellamy The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

The Government replied in detail to the learned special rapporteur with a letter of over 13 pages on 23 December, to which I refer your Lordships. I look forward to further debate and discussion on this matter when we are dealing with the Victims and Prisoners Bill.