Role of the Parole Board

Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 7th July 2020.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must make an oral statement to the House of Commons on the effects of the provisions of this Act on the functions of the Parole Board.

(2) That statement must be made before the provisions relating to—

(a) life or indeterminate sentences for serious terrorism offences, and

(b) removal or restriction of early release for terrorist prisoners come into force.

(3) The statement must explain—

(a) the intended role for the Parole Board in the release of prisoners affected by the matters in subsection (2);

(b) what, if any, expert assessment of such prisoners will be undertaken before they are released;

(c) who will carry out any such expert assessments;

(d) whether any steps will be taken to compensate for any loss of intelligence gathering from a reduction in Parole Board interviews.”.—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause asks for an oral statement, not a review. The Minister is probably relieved that he would not have to carry out yet another review, but on the basis that he is not carrying out any, I do not know why it has proven a problem to him.

The new clause would require the Secretary of State to make an oral statement to the House of Commons on the effects of the provisions of the Bill on the functions of the Parole Board. The statement must be made before the provisions come into force relating to the life or indeterminate sentences for serious terrorism offences and the removal or restriction of early release for terrorist prisoners. It must also explain the intended role for the Parole Board in the release of prisoners affected by the matters in subsection (2); what, if any, expert assessment of such prisoners will be undertaken before they are released; who will carry out any such expert assessments; and whether any steps will be taken to compensate for the loss of intelligence gathering from a reduction in Parole Board interviews.

The Minister may well say that there is no need for such a report or statement, most likely because he has sacked the board from its role in relation to offenders given indeterminate sentences. That would be sad, and I hope the Minister will take some time between now and Report in a couple of weeks’ time to reflect on how the Parole Board’s expertise could have a role in the assessment and rehabilitation of this particular group. The Parole Board has an unparalleled wealth of experience in managing offenders and assessing risk. We must ensure that experience is used, rather than abandoned.

As well as being asked to assess risk, the Parole Board plays a vital role in providing an incentive for prisoners to reform, and to respect each other as well as prison officers. It also provides intelligence vital to the work of the police and security agencies. I know that the prospect of early release is a key tool—probably the key tool—in the work of the Parole Board, but that is not a good enough single reason to turn our backs on it. The Bill intends to do away entirely with the Parole Board for those convicted of serious terrorist offences, yet we have been given no specifics as to what will replace its role. The Ministry of Justice assures us that no prisoner will be released back into the public realm without being risk-assessed, but we have heard no further detail as to how those assessments will take place, who will carry them out, or how frequently they will be conducted. Quite simply, the Bill removes a vital piece of the rehabilitation and monitoring of prisoners, and nothing has been offered to replace it.

Those who work for the Parole Board are experts in their field, and there is huge concern among Opposition Members that no assessor will be able to meet the standard of scrutiny currently offered by the Board. Ad hoc assessments conducted by unknown persons using unknown methods is just not good enough, and risks leaving us with prisoners released into communities under the supervision of services that will not have the benefit of the expertise that Parole Board members bring. That is an unacceptable risk, and we need assurances from the Government about what their plan is. Can the Minister explain what these assessments will look like, what qualifications the assessor will have, and how they will be appointed? Can he also explain the rationale for removing the Parole Board’s role, and why he thinks this new system that has yet to be clearly defined is better placed to carry out those assessments? Parliament deserves to understand the rationale behind these Government plans.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The changes we made back in February, through the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Act 2020, extend the remit of the Parole Board. Previously, terrorist offenders who were released early at the half-way point when serving standard determinate sentences would have been released with no prior consideration by the Parole Board. Now, the Parole Board will consider them prior to release at the two-thirds point, or subsequently if not referred at that point, so those changes dramatically expanded the Parole Board’s involvement with terrorist prisoners. Secondly, the Parole Board will of course still be involved with terrorist prisoners serving indeterminate sentences.

There is one remaining cohort: the very small minority of serious terrorist offenders who we have been debating during consideration of this Bill, those who will serve their full sentence in prison and will not be considered by the Parole Board prior to their release. The shadow Minister asked about the process that will take place in relation to that small minority of prisoners. As we touched on while taking evidence, a whole range of measures are taken to make sure those prisoners are properly managed and risk-assessed. The existing multi-agency public protection arrangements are at the core of that: they have been well-documented and well-reviewed, including by Jonathan Hall, so we know exactly what they are. Those measures also include the work done by the Prison and Probation Service, both in prison and afterwards on release, and work done in conjunction with CT policing.

Where the Parole Board will not be involved in a prisoner’s release decision, all those agencies will continue to be heavily involved in their risk assessment, working with the prisoners on deradicalisation where that is possible and managing them in prison and then in the community afterwards where it is not possible. I think we asked one of our witnesses, although I forget which one, whether they had confidence in those arrangements—MAPPA, the prison service, the probation service and the police—and the witness was very clear that they did. I have confidence in them as well.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice) 3:15 pm, 7th July 2020

I am grateful to the Minister for reminding us about those different cohorts and how they have been dealt with. Of course, the Opposition very much supported the provisions that were introduced earlier this year. As for this particular cohort, although I still think it is regrettable that there is no role for the Parole Board in working with some of our most dangerous offenders, I see no sense in pressing the clause to a vote. I therefore beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.