Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Prisoner Release Decisions

– in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 20th October 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe 10:59 am, 20th October 2009

This Adjournment debate is something of an experiment. Traditionally in Adjournment debates, as colleagues know, Members seek to press a particular viewpoint and persuade colleagues and the Government to change policy in the direction that they favour. What I shall try to do with this debate is discuss a process that the political system as a whole demonstrably does not handle very well. I apologise to those who may have come here on the assumption that I would speak about prisoner release in general. The specific issue that I wish to deal with is the release of prisoners who have developed serious illnesses, in particular fatal illnesses.

Hon. Members will be familiar with the cases that arose in the summer of the Libyan bomber Megrahi and Ronnie Biggs. Both attracted considerable controversy, and I do not think they showed any of the parties in an ideal light. Rather than a serious and compassionate analysis of the situation as it affected the prisoners and the victims of their crimes, what we got was a good deal of manoeuvring for position between political parties, a good deal of feverish media speculation on what the real motives were and all the usual stuff that we associate with everyday party politics.

That situation seems unfortunate, not just in those cases but more generally. If someone has committed a serious crime and been convicted-we have to work on the assumption that they were guilty-we owe it to the victims, the justice system and the individuals concerned to treat their case rationally and to try to apply consistent principles that stand up in difficult cases.

One of the fundamental questions I would like to raise is whether it is appropriate that such decisions be taken by a politician in the first place. In many other sensitive areas, Parliament sets up guidelines for how a decision ought to be taken, but the final decision does not actually rest with the senior Minister responsible, whether in Westminster or a devolved Government. We are all familiar with cases where a constituent wants treatment that has not yet been authorised by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, and which is remarkably expensive. It might extend their life-such cases are very emotional. They are not decided by the Secretary of State for Health but by the primary care trust, occasionally with the involvement of the law.

I would like to put forward for consideration the proposal that such decisions should ultimately be made by a High Court judge. They should be based on criteria set down by Parliament but should not involve ultimate referral either to the Home Secretary, in the case of Westminster, or to his counterparts in the devolved Governments.

What might such criteria look like? I consulted constituents on that last week and heard a wide range of views. A significant minority simply say that if somebody has been sentenced to life imprisonment, it needs to mean life, and, if they are dying, that is part of life. Basically, prisoners should be kept in prison until they are dead. The argument is that life imprisonment itself is a compromise, that we have abolished hanging for the reasons that we all know but if, in addition, we were to water down life imprisonment so that it did not really mean life, we would send a signal to potential offenders that they will not actually face the threat that they would appear on paper to face. However, if, even in hard cases, we say that a prisoner has to stay in prison for the rest of their days, that sends a strong message.

The counter to that, which, again, a significant minority of my constituents argued, is that no useful purpose is served by keeping somebody in prison at considerable public expense-the average prison place costs around £36,000 a year-when they obviously pose no further threat to society. We can think of cases where that was provable beyond reasonable doubt. There has been some discussion in the cases of Megrahi and Biggs about how firm the medical opinions were and so on, but I do not want to get bogged down in those cases.

Let us assume that we have a case involving a serious offence, and the perpetrator is now bedridden with cancer and expected to die within weeks. It is obvious that if we release him he will not start rushing around and committing more crimes, so the immediate concern is probably not applicable, and few people would think of his position as enviable. Very few would say "Life imprisonment is not really for life" if a prisoner who is bedridden and about to die is let out. They would not feel that that was so bad.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 deals with the power of the Secretary of State to release on grounds of compassion a prisoner who is suffering from a terminal illness and likely to be dead within three months, but do not some of my hon. Friend's constituents have reasonable cause to point to past cases? The case of Ernest Saunders is not directly parallel, but all those years ago he was supposed to be suffering from dementia but suddenly recovered as soon as he was released from the court process. There were suggestions that Ronnie Biggs would be out celebrating in the pub within a few days, although he was not, but how can people be reassured?

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. The intervention has been well made.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It anticipates another point, which several of my constituents made, about the possibility of recall. We do not want to swarm like vultures around someone who is released on the basis that he or she is fatally ill, checking every moment that they are really dying, but there is appropriate public outrage if there is a miraculous recovery. An argument that several constituents made, with which I agree, is that if we are going to do this, one of the conditions should be that the person remain in the jurisdiction of the British Government, or whichever Government have made the decision, so that if they prove not to be nearly as ill as they appeared to be, they can be returned to prison. In effect, the reason for their release would have been proved to be invalid.

The parallel is people who are released on probation on the basis that they are thought no longer to be a threat. As my hon. Friend knows, if they were to commit a further crime, they would be sent back to prison to serve not only the sentence for the new crime but the rest of the sentence for the old crime.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

My hon. Friend has not as yet mentioned the victim or the victim's family. I always think that the greatest hurt when early release takes place is caused by a lack of communication with those affected. If that were got right, matters would become much easier. Too often, the last people to hear about what is happening are the victim or their family. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a great weakness of the present scheme?

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Yes, I strongly agree. I, too, have come across cases where the victim of individual violence-not in high-profile cases like Megrahi-has only been informed at the very last moment, if at all, and then feels under immediate threat.

More generally, the feelings of the victims are clearly relevant. A number of judicial authorities have said that the judicial process is not about the victim but fair justice. However, when we talk about compassion we are talking about representing the feelings of the general public and the values of society. It is appropriate for the victims of the crime to be consulted before the decision. It was noticeable that, in the Megrahi case, victims' families had mixed feelings. Some felt strongly that he ought to continue to be detained; some felt that, yes, it was reasonable to release him to show that our values were better than his; and some said that they wanted to move on and did not want to express an opinion either way. In such cases, before making a decision it is appropriate for the victims, in so far as they can be identified, and their families to be informed that the matter is under consideration, so they have the opportunity to make representations.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the thoughtful, measured way in which he is approaching this matter. He has spoken about compassion and justice. May I put it to him that compassion is just one element in justice? If justice serves any purpose, it is surely about the reconciliation of offenders and victims. Does he not think that that is the yardstick we should use when measuring the impact of these decisions and deciding whether what we have got, at the end of the day, is justice?

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Ideally, yes, there would be reconciliation. Realistically, there will be cases where that is not going to be practical. If someone blew up a relative of mine, I might, if they were dying in prison, say, "Yeah, okay. I won't insist that they stay in prison till their dying day." But I would not want to meet them and make friends. We cannot make the process entirely contingent on that. If we can do it in a way that encourages that, that would be great. If, as in the Megrahi case, some of the victims' families are in favour of a release, and if the offender is willing to acknowledge that and express some gratitude for it, we have made a step forward in terms of civilization.

There is a parallel here with the Brighton bombing, where the perpetrator has, as I understand it, expressed regret for what he did. He is now a free man. Some of the victims feel that they accept the process and some, perfectly understandably, do not. But the fact that we get such a dialogue going is a step forward. I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I should like colleagues to consider a number of criteria that we might use for such cases. The first is the gravity of the offence. If somebody is in prison for burglary and dying of cancer, for example, it is probably inappropriate, even if they have a relatively short sentence, that we keep them in prison till their dying day. In a serious case, we are more likely to feel that, at least for the deterrent effect, we will want to keep them in prison.

We should consider the question of how long the prisoner has already served. We are all aware of cases where apparently pretty serious offenders have been released after 10 or 15 years on the basis that they are no longer a threat to the public, and that would apply with additional force if the person concerned is dying.

Another point, which relates to what my hon. Friends have said today, is that we should consider how soon a prisoner is expected to die. Medical science is not exact, so a doctor will never say, "He's going to die in two months and seven days", although they may say, "He's not going to last more than another 48 hours." However, if we are talking about three months, as my hon. Friend David Taylor mentioned, we have to allow for the possibility that it is going to be three months and three days or slightly less. We do not need be too finicky about the precise number of days, but we need to be clear that the position is as described, which means that in any such case at least two doctors with absolutely no connection to the prisoner need to give a concurring opinion.

How confident can we be that the offender will not offend again? Someone's having a fatal illness does not necessarily prevent them from committing certain types of crime. For instance, a gang leader who is resentful about the person who got them into prison might feel that revenge should be one of their dying acts-one of their last acts on earth. They might feel that they could do that better outside prison. Issues such as that need to be considered. We need to consider whether a person is safe to be released, regardless of the other considerations.

Does the prisoner show remorse? There is a general problem in the justice system that hon. Members will be familiar with, which is that if someone denies that they committed an offence they are treated as not showing remorse, because they say they have not done it. There will be cases, given that everything is fallible, including the justice system, where people really have not committed an offence. We probably do not want to make a decision dependent entirely on the prisoner's confessing and showing remorse, but it is obviously helpful if the person involved says, "Yes, I did it. It was right that I was imprisoned for it. I'm grateful for any compassion shown, but I appreciate that it was right to sentence me." Personally, I would be inclined to count that in his favour, without completely ruling out a release if he says, "No, it's all unfair. I didn't do it."

We need to consider whether the prisoner has family nearby who are able to take care of him. There is a simple cost issue, which I mentioned briefly earlier-keeping someone in a high-security prison is expensive-but I am not sure that releasing him from prison straight into hospital, especially if there is no family to look after him, would achieve a great deal. It is more helpful if family are available and it somewhat strengthens the case, because the family are not guilty parties, generally speaking, and they might feel that, whatever the prisoner has done, they would like to spend a little time with him before he dies. That is a relevant consideration and something to think about.

The issue underlying all this is the difficult question of what the justice system is for. I mention this because I am a member of the Justice Committee, and we grapple with this issue when considering alternative forms of punishment. Mr. Carmichael said that reconciliation is an important objective. Many of our constituents believe that retribution is part of prison's purpose, and that to some extent society is entitled to believe that if someone commits a terrible crime they will face a penalty. That penalty need not be sadistic, but it should be a penalty nevertheless so that as we go through life we are aware that if we do something wrong, there will be consequences. Rehabilitation in the context that I am discussing is relatively irrelevant if the offender is about to die, although it is obviously relevant in a wider sphere.

More broadly, society's values are reflected by the judicial system. We tend to believe that whatever our current values, they are superior to any others. We express abhorrence at the practice in some countries of cutting off the hand of people who have committed theft, which slightly skates over the fact that we used to hang people for stealing horses. We should not assume that our system reflects the ideal society. One may be too misty-eyed about such matters, because we are generally dealing with people who are not deserving of great sympathy, although elements of their background may have made them what they are today. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a judicial system that reflects a humanitarian ethos-I am not suggesting a Christian ethos, although it could include that-and that anyone may be forgiven at some point, such as at the end of their life.

The issue is difficult, and the political system does not handle it very well. I hope that my debate has encouraged sensible and non-partisan discussion that might move matters forward.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice) 11:22 am, 20th October 2009

I congratulate Dr. Palmer on raising this important issue, on his measured approach and on the questions he raised, which were relevant and pertinent.

It will probably not surprise you, Mr. Olner, that I shall deal almost exclusively with probably the biggest prisoner release decision in recent times-the Scottish Government's decision to release the Lockerbie terrorist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds a few short months ago. I shall try to explain some of the conditions of that release and the process that was followed in reaching it.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. That is fine, but we are discussing prisoner release decisions-the release of prisoners anywhere on compassionate grounds.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I shall try to follow your advice strictly, Mr. Olner, but I am sure that you appreciate that the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was a big one and has attracted a lot of attention in the past few months. I believe profoundly that my colleagues in the Scottish Government were absolutely right to release him on compassionate grounds. It was totally consistent with the principles of Scots law and Scottish values of compassion.

Dr. Palmer mentioned victims, who are absolutely important when considering release, in particular compassionate release. We all identify with the suffering of the families of victims, and no family would want to endure such an experience, but I am sure that you will recognise, Mr. Olner, that the prisoner release decision related to something that happened on Scottish soil and that Scottish victims were involved. We know what it feels like to be violated by those who kill and maim indiscriminately for the darkest possible reasons.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

Was the hon. Gentleman as dismayed as I was by the routine and opportunistic way in which Opposition parties north and south of the border jumped in with big boots with relation to the al-Megrahi decision, to gain political advantage irrespective of the case?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I am grateful for that good intervention. Yes, I was disappointed by the response from other political parties in the light of the decision. We still do not know the UK Government's view. We know the view of the Labour party in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, but we do not know the UK Government's view. Some of the interventions from political parties stank of the worst type of political opportunism and short-termism, which was disappointing.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

The hon. Gentleman said that the British Government's view is not known, but we made it clear that the matter was for the Scottish Justice Minister and the Scottish Government. That is the British Government's position.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I am grateful to the Minister for stating that. Of course, the Scottish Government's view is that it is their job to make such decisions. We know that. That is what this is all about, so we do not need the Minister to tell us that. What we do not know is whether the UK Government believe that the decision to release al-Megrahi was right. Everyone else has a view on that. The hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) have a view. I have a view. The leader of the Labour party in Scotland has a view. We just do not know what the UK Government's view is.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that it would be appropriate for UK Justice Ministers to express a view on a particular case that was devolved to the Scottish Justice Minister when the decision was entirely within his personal remit, as he said? Does he believe that would be an appropriate use of UK Ministers' time?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

If that were consistently the case, it would be okay, but unfortunately it is not. The Foreign Secretary recently said that the Lockerbie bomber should not die in a Scottish prison. Other Cabinet Ministers have said something different. The UK Government's response is all over the place. If it were a matter of remaining silent and repeating and parroting the line that it is a matter for the Scottish Government, that would be okay, but there has been no consistency. If there had been consistency, that would be fine.

That big prisoner release decision probably attracted more attention than any other issue during the summer, with international ramifications and much debate. We know the Scottish Government's position, but we are still finding out the UK Government's position. My Scottish Government colleagues always knew that the decision would be painful. It was not one that any colleague in the Scottish Government sought to make, but they solemnly met their obligations and responsibilities to consider that prisoner release decision in the best interests of Scots law. I am immensely proud of how Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, made that difficult decision. He knew that it would not be popular in all quarters, and that there would be political opposition to whatever decision he took, but he defiantly defended his quasi-judicial role and was not prepared to be influenced by external political pressures-rightly so.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

In view of the pressures described by the hon. Gentleman, and the intense political controversy, does he believe that it is desirable for a politician, however honourable, to make that final decision?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I was just coming to that point. I noted that the hon. Gentleman said in his speech that such decisions should be taken out of the hands of politicians. We all have a certain sympathy with that position, but that is not where we were when the decision was made. It was solely and exclusively for the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Parliament, as laid down in statute. It was his decision alone, and he made it not on economic, diplomatic or trade issues, but solely in the interests of Scots law and the best values of Scottish compassion.

When an approach is made for a release on compassionate grounds, regardless of where that is in the UK and regardless of which case it is, the Justice Secretary in Scotland or the Cabinet Secretary in this House has no option but to consider that request and to make a decision based on all the available evidence presented by the statutory bodies involved. In Scotland, in the case that I have been discussing, Kenny MacAskill followed due process, including all the procedures laid down in the prisoner transfer agreement and in the Scottish Prison Service guidance on compassionate release.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

I am interested to explore with the hon. Gentleman the question of what he calls due process. Does he not accept that this is one of those occasions on which the decision that is made is perhaps of equal importance to the way in which it is made? On reflection and in the spirit of the candid and objective analysis that we have undertaken this morning, does he not think that it was regrettable that so much of the decision-making process was carried out in the public eye? I am thinking of the visit to Barlinnie and the constant stream of briefing. That was inevitably going to result in the scenes, which everybody deplored, of Megrahi's return to Tripoli.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. Before I call Pete Wishart to respond, I remind hon. Members of the strictures that I tried to place on the debate. This is a general debate about prisoner release decisions on compassionate grounds. I would not want the whole debate to centre on something that was not the decision of the British Government.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

Thank you, Mr. Olner; I obviously take your remarks very seriously.

Any Minister, when they make decisions regarding a compassionate release, whether in the UK or in Scotland, has to consider all the available evidence. The Scottish Government have to follow a particular Act, and I hope that this will answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, if that is allowed, Mr. Olner. The Scottish Justice Secretary has the power to make decisions on a compassionate basis because of section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993. That Act requires that there be solid evidence that a compassionate release should be made. The grounds for compassionate release are given in the Scottish Prison Service guidance about how such releases should be made. I am sure that the situation is very much the same for UK Ministers in this House and that they must consider all the available evidence when they come to make releases on compassionate grounds.

Consideration has to be given to the recommendations from the prison governor and the Parole Board, and all the medical evidence that is provided to support any compassionate release has to be considered. In terms of the guidance in the UK but particularly in Scotland, there are no fixed time limits, but life expectancy of about three months may be considered an appropriate period. The guidance makes it clear that all prisoners, irrespective of sentence length, are eligible to be considered for compassionate release.

In all the cases in which there has been compassionate release, but particularly in the case of the most important prisoner release decision that we have had, all the necessary criteria for consideration of release were met. It is also important to say that very few appeals for compassionate release are turned down. Most are fulfilled. According to the figures that are available, since 1999-2000 all the applications for compassionate release in Scotland have been met. It would have been extraordinary, therefore-

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I am sorry to say to the Minister that I do not know what that figure is, but I am sure that she will tell hon. Members when she has an opportunity to do so.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I am grateful to learn that particular fact from the Minister. In Scotland, all applications that have met the criteria have been fulfilled, so it would have been an astonishing precedent for the Scottish Secretary to refuse the application in the case that we have been discussing, given that the criteria were met. He could have been accused of making a political decision, given that the criteria were met on all those considerations and conditions.

The decision was taken because of the best interests of Scots law. Due process was absolutely followed in the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. No political factors influenced it. No decisions about trade or whatever influenced the decision by the Scottish Justice Secretary. The other point is that it was made possible because Scots law is different from that in the rest of the UK, and it is right that it is different. Our Justice Secretary made the right decision for the right reasons to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and Scotland has been shown in a good light in terms of the way in which we have been able to respond to that issue and the actions that we took.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West 11:35 am, 20th October 2009

I do not intend to make a long contribution-although it seems to get longer every time I write a note. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer on securing this important debate. Anybody who knows me knows that in all my time in Parliament and before that, I have always tried to voice my backing for the victim of any form of injury and for the family of any victim who is killed. I was sorry that Pete Wishart spent so long talking about the Megrahi case. Suffice it to say that I disagree with everything that he said. I feel that the 270 people who were killed on that day and their families deserve a bit more than somebody being released.

Part of the criteria-this applies on both sides of the border-is that the person who is released can receive better treatment somewhere else. I would argue that the treatment in Scotland would be a lot better than the treatment that Megrahi would receive in Libya. Therefore, under that criterion alone, he should not have been released. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the families in America and I can assure hon. Members that their feelings are completely different from those expressed by Mr. MacAskill when he made his decision.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Does my hon. Friend agree that one difficulty about the decision was that Mr. Megrahi was released outside Scottish jurisdiction and the miraculous recovery scenario worries people? If he proves to be in better health than was thought, there will be absolutely nothing that the Scottish Government can do about that.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

My hon. Friend is right. We are two months down the line of what was basically a three-month death sentence, according to the medical expertise. That said, the medical expertise was given before 20 August, when Megrahi was released, so we are not quite sure how far down the road we are in terms of the three months. However, whether he dies before three months have elapsed or after, that is not really the argument. I believe that he should not have been released. That is a personal belief. It is not a political belief. I have just always felt that victims and victims' families must be protected.

Let me talk about compassionate release in general. I do have some figures and they disagree with those given by both my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. According to my figures, in Scotland there have been 31 applications since 2000, from which 24 prisoners have been released on medical grounds, with seven requests denied-only one of those involved a murder. In England and Wales, 48 people have been granted permanent early release in the past five years, but there are no figures for the number of applications rejected, so I shall have to accept my hon. Friend's 28 per cent. Of those 48 people, 14 were serving life sentences, so I have to ask my hon. Friend what about their victims' families? Who was thinking of them when those people were being released?

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

It is fascinating that we are kicking around these figures once again, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us something for the sake of clarity. Of the seven applications that were rejected in Scotland, how many did not meet the full criteria?

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

The hon. Gentleman talks about full criteria, and of course the full criteria would apply to anybody who was released. If somebody was not released-I talked about whether somebody would receive better medical attention within the prison system or without it-he would say that they did not meet the criteria. I would be more inclined to ask whether they had the criteria to make the application. If that were the case, my figures would be right and his figures would be wrong. It is an argument that we could go to and fro with, which in the end would mean absolutely nothing.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. We will not go through that argument in the debate today.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I apologise, Mr. Olner, and will continue with my figures.

In Northern Ireland 248 prisoners have to date been released under the Good Friday agreement. Of those, 78 were convicted of murder, 76 received life sentences and two were detained at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. None was held solely on a discretionary life sentence, and eight were serving sentences for offences that they had committed in England. I wonder who talked to the victims' families about why those people should be released.

Could what I am concerned about happen more often? The Prison Reform Trust warns that the number of prisoners over the age of 60 tripled between 1996 and 2008, to make up about 4,000 of the 84,150 people in prison in England and Wales. The trust states that that is due to harsher sentencing, and to DNA testing enabling convictions to be obtained years after crimes. Well, well. Now we are complaining about how many people are to be sentenced for crimes. I do not have a problem with 84,150 people being in prison. If they have been convicted of crimes they should be in prison. If we must build more prisons I do not have a problem with that.

We talked about the al-Megrahi case, but I shall pass over it as I know, Mr. Olner, that you do not like us to talk about it; it does not really matter.

Photo of Bill Olner Bill Olner Labour, Nuneaton

Order. It is not a matter of my not wanting to hear the case discussed; I said only that it should be put in perspective. It was not in the jurisdiction of this Parliament, and the Scottish Executive made the decision.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I apologise, Mr. Olner. I was totally in error in what I said, but people will get the gist of what I am trying to say.

A constituent of mine has a daughter who is in prison abroad, who is not, unfortunately, being dealt with using the same criteria as we use in this country. She has been convicted on the ground not of having committed a crime, but of being associated with the person who committed a crime. We have seen how in this country-I am referring to the al-Megrahi case because it is the one that has had all the coverage-someone receives the best of attention and help from solicitors and advocates, and generally from the Scottish judicial system. It would have been the same if the crime had been committed in England or Wales. Unfortunately, I cannot get the same treatment for the daughter of my constituent, who is in prison in the Dominican Republic.

We must look at such things in the round. We are in effect releasing people who have committed murder-in one case 270 murders-but my constituent's daughter is guilty only by association. I say that not because I know the judicial system in the Dominican Republic but because it was written on the court record when she was sentenced to eight years. I do not think that is fair, but we are more than a little fair to people in this country-we allow them to be released if they are not well and are going to die.

I worry that if, as the Prison Reform Trust has said, more and more people are living longer and getting to an age where they have no quality of life, we shall allow them to go free. If my wife had been in the aeroplane in question and had been killed I should be very unhappy if a prisoner were to be released because he was going to die in a certain space of time, and was in effect to be given some luxury and help. We saw the television scenes when Mr. al-Megrahi arrived in Libya, and that was probably what got the Scottish public going. I do not think that it was really the fact that he was let loose; it was more to do with the way it was portrayed in the media. It was a disgraceful situation, and we need to examine that.

I have said what I wanted to say. It is important that Members of Parliament should understand what is going on. I agree to some extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe that we must consider the question of who makes the decisions. He seemed to think that judges could do it, but the judges are the problem in some cases, not the solution. I hope that I do not come before one now that I have said that, but I have never had great faith in our judicial system, and what I have seen recently backs up my feelings. I do not think that the decision should be down to one individual. Kenny MacAskill has been vilified, rightly or wrongly, depending on what side of the political divide we are on. He had to make the decision, but it was not fair that he should do so. There must be a better way to ensure that victims' families are listened to, and are part of the process. If someone has been found guilty and granted an appeal, and is still found guilty, I believe that he probably is guilty. If his case goes to another appeal we should not drag it out, but should allow it to happen quickly. Perhaps that was the problem with the al-Megrahi case. If the second appeal had happened more quickly perhaps we would not be having this debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe for securing the debate, and I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Olner.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland) 11:45 am, 20th October 2009

I commend Dr. Palmer for bringing the debate, and for the way he framed its terms. Some massive issues are involved. People who have spent their whole lives as jurists have struggled with the question of the purpose of the criminal justice system, so to expect a handful of MPs to come up with the answer after a 90-minute debate is a tall order; but it is a worthy debate, none the less.

The matter is of some public interest at the moment, as a consequence of the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and, earlier in the year, Ronnie Biggs. We can tease issues from those cases that are of broader application and might assist us in establishing the criteria that the hon. Member for Broxtowe rightly said were needed. I shall from time to time refer to those cases, but in a way that I hope does not fall foul of your earlier stricture, Mr. Olner. It is helpful to take lessons from the practical for more general application.

The debate is timely because the consequence of the Biggs and al-Megrahi cases is that there is now a lively public debate. It is of supreme importance that there should be public confidence in the justice system. The maintenance and restoration of public confidence requires a clear set of guidelines-protocol, perhaps-for Ministers to apply when considering such cases. It also requires that any such guidelines and protocols should be put in the public domain. It is important that the public should see that there is a robust procedure that balances the often competing and occasionally contradictory interests that the Minister must take into account when making the relevant decisions. The public should have confidence that that is done in a proper manner.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Broxtowe to say that the purpose of justice is to effect reconciliation, I should have explained a little more. That purpose is the nirvana, which we may never reach, but we should still have it very much in mind when we approach the entire subject. It is not relevant just in questions of early release. The interest of the victims, about which John Robertson spoke, should be uppermost for every party in the criminal justice system, whether police, prosecutor, Minister, defence solicitor or advocate, or even the prison authorities.

We are not concerned only about difficult early release cases; there are many routine early release cases. We do not, in any jurisdiction in this country, impose life without parole. Therefore we accept in principle that no matter what a person has done, at some point the day can come when someone will turn the key in the door and they will walk free.

As a former criminal justice practitioner, my concern is that we do not deal well with the victims, whose interests are not always easy to identify and certainly not easy to pursue. We should not-I offer this as a gentle stricture to the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West-confuse pursuing victims' interests with giving victims everything that they want. The symbol of justice is the set of scales held up by Justicia, and she is blindfolded because justice, we are told, is blind. That is an important metaphor for us to bear in mind, because justice often requires us not fully to meet the different competing interests.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

The issue is complicated enough, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also the possibility of collective reconciliation, as we have seen in Northern Ireland? The figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West gave for the number of convicted murderers who have been released in Northern Ireland would be pretty unthinkable had it not been for the Northern Ireland peace process. There will be situations where a collective decision is made to move forward, and the victims might have greater understanding for the releases that take place than they would if an individual murderer were released.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

The question of collective reconciliation is very interesting and runs to the heart of much of what criminal justice is about. However, we can achieve collective reconciliation only if the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. For whatever reason-there is no single reason, but a whole amalgam of them-too many of our constituents do not have confidence in the system as it operates today.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe outlined a number of criteria, and I want briefly to explore a few of them. One was the possibility of recall, which is important. With respect to Pete Wishart, the issue was not fully taken into account in the decision on Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. If any of the outlandish possibilities that have been discussed ever became a reality, that man would be completely outwith the jurisdiction of the Scottish Justice Minister. One option that could have been considered, and which should perhaps have been considered with more care and force, was release, but not release from Scotland. That is important because we are talking about release from prison, not the end of the criminal justice process, and that is as true for people who are released on compassionate grounds as it is for those who are released on licence in the normal course of things-it is not the end of the story, as the hon. Member for Broxtowe said.

Photo of Pete Wishart Pete Wishart Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment about someone from a third-party country remaining in the home country. Is he aware that in response to the suggestion that al-Megrahi could have been placed in a hospice or in his former home at Newton Mearns, the deputy chief constable of Strathclyde police said that the burden on the police would have been disproportionate and that 48 police officers would have been required just to police that one man in that one setting?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

Again, we are in the realms of competing interests. Many people might feel that would have been a price worth paying, given the damage to Scotland's reputation when people saw flags flying on the tarmac in Libya when al-Megrahi was returned. Although the people we are talking about should be released from prison, it is important that there is no question of their being at the end of their involvement with the criminal justice system.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe suggested that the gravity of the offence and the length of time that has been served should be taken into account. Although those are clearly considerations, I must gently tell him that I am not persuaded that they should be primary considerations. I come back to the first principle that I elucidated-that we accept that everybody who is to be imprisoned can be released at some point. Our focus should be on the substance of the application for early release. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, we should consider whether we have robust, independently obtained medical evidence about the prisoner's condition. Thereafter, we should consider how we give effect to any decision, while respecting the feelings of the victims and families.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Just to test what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he agree that the length of sentence is pretty important, certainly in extreme cases? Let us imagine that I was suffering from terminal cancer and assassinated Mr. Olner. If I then applied for immediate release on compassionate grounds, would there not be something a bit inappropriate about it?

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland)

The assassination of our Chairman would certainly be a lot more than inappropriate. Evidence that pre-existing illness was a determining factor in the commission of the crime and, in fact, part of the mens rea would be a highly relevant consideration. However, I come back to the point that we cannot go beyond the general principle.

My other point, to return to something that I said earlier, is that it is not just the decision that is important, but how we reach it. My concern about the al-Megrahi decision is that it has left a significant number of the Lockerbie families feeling more alienated than ever from the justice system. In that sense, the decision is regrettable. I have many friends in Lockerbie. In fact, I have friends who were living in a house on Sherwood crescent when Pan Am flight 103 came down. It had a severe impact on their lives, the lives of their children and the lives of people in the surrounding area. Many of the victims have been left feeling alienated.

My concern, which I would like to be central in any protocol that is constructed, is that the decisions that we are discussing, being quasi-judicial, should be taken in a quasi-judicial way, by which I mean that they should be taken beyond the public gaze. Judges do not send out press officers to address the press when they make their decisions. We do not see pictures of judges' cars going into Barlinnie prison when judges go to interview prisoners. It was wrong and inappropriate that others should have done such things. If the Minister is to construct a protocol, that is the sort of thing that she should be at pains to exclude. Such exclusions are necessary here and in Edinburgh to restore public confidence in our system.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice) 11:58 am, 20th October 2009

It is a pleasure to take part in this timely debate. I congratulate Dr. Palmer on introducing this issue, which it is important for Parliament to deal with. I also congratulate him on not being unduly drawn into the high-profile al-Megrahi case, which is plainly not within the jurisdiction of this Parliament or the Government.

It is important to focus, as the hon. Gentleman did, on early release on compassionate grounds, and that is what I shall do.

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Given the title of the debate, however, it is important to make some general comments about Government policy on prisoner release, which needs to be criticised. It is important, although it has not yet been done, to clarify the position in relation to release on compassionate grounds, because that can easily be distorted in debate, although I do not accuse the hon. Member for Broxtowe of doing so. However, because it often comes to light in the public domain in relation to high-profile cases, whether Ronnie Biggs or, in another jurisdiction, al-Megrahi, it is easy to lose sight of the reality.

We have already heard that 48 prisoners have been released on compassionate grounds over five years, and that only 28 per cent. of applications have been granted. As for the timing of those releases, I understand that those prisoners who are terminally ill are likely to be released with no more than a day or two to live, unlike those high-profile cases of which we heard. We should recognise that the context is important.

Compassion was mentioned throughout the debate, and it is a key element of the criminal justice system. However, it is important that it is applied properly, given the other factors and principles of the system that need to be taken into account. We must also consider the fact that the concerns of administration and cost can in many ways replace that important principle. In the debate arising from the high-profile cases, one concern is that many of those 48 prisoners were released ultimately for the benefit of administration, given the cost of keeping them in prison with a terminal illness, as opposed to the cost of their being released and dying in a hospice or somewhere else with their families, a factor that the hon. Member for Broxtowe prayed in aid. It is important to know whether those decisions were based primarily on compassion.

We must also consider the criteria that are used. The hon. Gentleman sought to submit new criteria, but the present criteria seem to be little different. I shall briefly go through the criteria in Prison Service Order 6000, to which reference has already been made. It outlines the circumstances in which, in cases where the prisoner is terminally ill, bedridden or severely incapacitated, early release on compassionate grounds may be appropriate. In instances of terminal illness, there are no specified time scales, something to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but the PSO suggests that release may be appropriate where life expectancy is three months or less. It specifically states:

"Early release may be considered where a prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and death is likely to occur soon. There are no set time limits, but three months may be considered to be an appropriate period. It is therefore essential to try to obtain a clear medical opinion on the likely life expectancy."

I note the hon. Gentleman's reference to the fact that there should be two opinions; will the Minister confirm whether, to accord with the PSO guidelines, such a medical opinion would require two medical reports?

The PSO continues:

"The Secretary of State will also need to be satisfied that the risk of re-offending is past and that there are adequate arrangements for the prisoner's care and treatment outside prison. Early release may also be considered where the prisoner is bedridden or severely incapacitated. This might include those confined to wheelchairs, paralysed or severe stroke victims. Applications may also be considered if further imprisonment would endanger the prisoner's life or reduce his or her life expectancy. Conditions which are self-induced, for example following a hunger strike, would not normally qualify a prisoner for release."

Further detailed criteria are given in the appendix to the PSO. Reference is made to various factors, including the prisoner's health, the benefits or hardships to him and his family, the risk of reoffending, the length of the sentence remaining-a point that was made during the debate-and any remarks made by the trial judge.

Another factor mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxtowe and by others is the views of the victim of the crime for which the prisoner is serving a sentence. However, the criteria make no specific reference to that factor. The Minister may wish to comment on that aspect of the criteria, which it could be argued is missing, and say whether it should be included.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Would the hon. Gentleman agree with my hon. Friend David Taylor that it is important that the victims are informed at least that the process is under way? It does not always happen, with the result that those who might be perceived as a threat by the victim, regardless of whether it is an accurate perception, are released at what the victim will see as fairly short notice.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

That is a good point, particularly in connection with early release on compassionate grounds.

In relation to the Parole Board's consideration of such matters, I understand that a protocol was published last month specifically to clarify victim participation in hearings. The victims can thus be clear about their expectations, knowing that their voice can be heard through statements to be considered by the panel. It also clarifies their ability to apply to attend and present their statement in person. The protocol is welcome; it has been a long time coming, but it clarifies matters and provides a greater opportunity for the victim's voice to be heard. So far, whether in parole hearings or elsewhere in the criminal justice system, the victim's voice has not been heard properly; indeed, they are often the last to hear information that they should be the first to hear. That needs to change, so the protocol is welcome.

My party has yet to be convinced that change is needed. We recognise the significant role of the Parole Board, and it is important that its recommendations are respected. However, in exceptional cases-those that involve the most serious of crimes-the Secretary of State should have discretion, and there should be proper accountability so that he can make difficult decisions on individual cases. I disagree with the hon. Member for Broxtowe on the question of equating decisions by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on health matters with those that involve serious crime. It is surely for the Secretary of State to take the onerous decision on whether to release someone early.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the parallel that I made was not between general sickness and crime, but between the political process that we all accept is associated with jockeying for position, point scoring and so on, and the rational process that we hope is made in all such situations? Does he not agree that the furore about the Megrahi case was slightly unedifying, and that few felt that the outcome was entirely unrelated to political considerations?

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

I hear the point that is being made-that we can characterise the political process as jockeying and point scoring. It does happen, but one cannot apply that caricature wholly to political decisions made about release on compassionate grounds. I agree that such things must be dealt with in a clear and rational manner. I would want to scrutinise those decisions to ensure that they had been made rationally and clearly, particularly in high-profile cases, and not as a result of pressure from the media. They should be decided on the compassionate grounds and the other factors given in the PSO. However, as I said earlier, I do not wish to be drawn into the al-Megrahi case, as it does not come within the provenance of this debate.

The Secretary of State's decisions and the principles behind them must be governed and prescribed by case law, including recent judgments by the House of Lords and by the European Court of Human Rights, which restrict his decisions to being proportional, reasonable and fair. Therefore, taking all those factors into account, I suggest that the discretion of the Secretary of State should remain. However, it must be applied properly in all cases-high profile or not.

I wish to make some more general comments about the issue of prisoner release in relation to Government policy on prisons. I am sure that we all agree that when a decision is made to release a prisoner, public safety must be the primary consideration. However, prison overcrowding has reached a crisis point. The number of prisoners has reached an all-time high of 84,702, which is an increase of 25,000 since 1997, and is a problem of the Government's own making. Prison releases, beyond the specific case of compassionate release, are too often motivated by consideration of prison capacity, rather than a prisoner's capacity not to reoffend. As I said in my opening comments, it is important that we do not simply deal with principles of administration, cost and capacity and lose sight of the principles of compassion and, more fundamentally, of justice. Concern was also expressed about prisoners being released early without the victims knowing about it, which leads to a loss of confidence in the whole system.

It is important that we restore honesty to sentencing and that offenders are properly punished for their crimes. Moreover, sentencing must be properly understandable, both to the victims and to the public, and must ensure that reparation and rehabilitation take place properly as well as fulfilling the important need for the prisoner to serve their crime. The Labour Government's failure properly to plan and provide sufficient prison places has forced them into a policy of releasing prisoners early and inappropriately. If we look at the current estate, which is at about 112 per cent. of capacity, with some prisons at as much as 150 per cent., with 25 per cent. of prisoners doubled or trebled up in cells, we can see that decisions are increasingly based on capacity and administration rather than on justice.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we have seen an estimated 20,000 prisoners released automatically halfway through their sentence. Some 70,000 prisoners have been released early on home detention curfews, 4,000 of whom have gone on to reoffend. In the press, we have seen magistrates' concerns about short sentences. Someone in Essex could be sentenced to 42 days on a Friday, but after the sentence is automatically halved with the provisions for home detention curfew and the problems of housing a prisoner over a weekend, they end up being released, turned round and given a grant for good measure, which undermines the confidence of both the magistrates and the public.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow North West

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I do not necessarily disagree with him, but such a problem has happened to successive Governments. Is it not a fact that we are convicting more people because we are catching them? Nowadays with the use of DNA testing, it is easier to catch people. Is the hon. Gentleman against that? Does he feel that people who are convicted should go to prison or be let out?

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Shadow Minister (Justice)

As time is running short, I do not want to get into a long debate about the Government's policy in relation to DNA and such like. There are more prisoners on the imprisonment for public protection level who are serving sentences, thus putting pressure on the estate. The Government could have planned for that. The Prime Minister was given the information back in 2002 and could have signed the cheque for more prison places. He took the decision not to do so, and now we are all regretting it.

Finally, let me briefly mention the Parole Board, which has not been given enough attention in this debate. It plays a key role, but it, too, has suffered from the Government's failed policy on prisons. Capacity challenges affect it, and as a result, its case load has almost doubled since 2002. In March, the National Audit Office reported problems of hearings being delayed and prisoner risk assessments arriving late. It is important to take note of the concerns of the Parole Board's chief executive. The board has been concerned for some time about the timing and quality of the information on which it has to base its decisions and about the rate of deferrals in some cases.

As the Parole Board makes important decisions on prisoner releases, it must have the proper information. As I mentioned earlier, it is important, too, to inform the victims and involve them in appropriate representations, so we must address the issue of capacity. We must ensure that we have enough prison places to deal with those who commit crime. It is important to have honesty in sentencing and a system of minimum and maximum sentencing. The courts must know the minimum time that will be served up to the maximum time, and the effect of earned release with appropriate conditions. We must ensure that prison governors have the powers to make those initial decisions on prisoner suitability for earned release. Finally, we want to see prisons that have the purpose of real work and rehabilitation so that prisoners are ready to lead constructive, law-abiding lives and not reoffend. It is important that when prisoners are released, they have not been set up to fail so that they end up coming back, having created more victims of crime.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice) 12:15 pm, 20th October 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr. Palmer on securing this important debate. He said at the beginning of his remarks that it was an experimental debate. His own speech was extremely thoughtful and non-partisan, which is what he said he wanted the debate to be. I have listened with interest to the contributions from hon. Members. It comes as no surprise that there are strong views about early release of whatever kind. As various hon. Members have said, there have been some controversial cases recently in various jurisdictions of early release on compassionate grounds, which led people to consider the issue of when and under what circumstances that should be done. My hon. Friend discovered as much when he consulted his own constituents and set out his suggestions for criteria upon which such releases should be made.

Let me assist the Chamber by explaining the legislation under which prisoners may be released on compassionate grounds. Mr. Burrowes, in the less partisan first half of his speech, which I enjoyed a great deal-I did not think much of the second half of his speech-said that there is a Prison Service Order and that there are criteria, which is correct. There is also legislation. It might help the debate if I set out what that is. My remarks relate purely and simply to the jurisdiction for which I speak, which is England and Wales, but not Scotland. There are some similarities with the rules and practice in Scotland, but they are not identical and I do not purport to speak for the Scottish Justice Minister in any way.

Moreover, I will address some of the points that have been made and describe how the power has been used in practice. As a general principle, it is right that there should be a power to enable the release of certain prisoners in the most exceptional and compassionate circumstances, such as if a prisoner is about to die. A number of Members have read out the existing criteria. It should be possible for that person to be released early to be with his family and to receive the appropriate care at home or in a hospital or hospice during his final days. In practice, that often relates to removing the handcuffs and taking away the guards from the hospital room in which the individual is going through the final part of his life. That is what that kind of release often means. The statutory authority itself is broad and simply provides that the Secretary of State may, at any time, release a prisoner on licence if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist that justify the prisoner's release on compassionate grounds. However, for prisoners serving a determinate sentence, the power is contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 or in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, depending on the dates of their offences and which of those Acts govern their release. For prisoners serving life or other indeterminate sentences, the power is provided by section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. I can assure hon. Members that a great deal of care is taken with every application for compassionate release. However, the primary consideration is, and will always be-and this comes on to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made about the criteria-that it will not put the public at risk.

The authority in this area is conferred on the Secretary of State by Parliament, and therefore it is the Secretary of State who determines the policy and criteria that should be adopted as to how they will exercise that power in practice. There has been a bit of a debate about whether or not politicians should do that; there has been a suggestion that it might be better if judges did it, but there has been some disagreement with that suggestion. I do not think that there is any obvious or easy answer. However, on the question of specific prisoner releases on compassionate grounds, which are sometimes controversial, as the debate today has indicated, there is an argument that the Secretary of State, who is accountable to the House and responsible for taking these decisions, should do so in a quasi-judicial way.

Generally, that system has worked well, although I accept the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has made about the recent controversial cases. Most releases on compassionate grounds are not as controversial as those recent cases that have appeared in the newspapers. Of course, such releases can be upsetting to victims, which was the point that my hon. Friend John Robertson made. Even release at the end of sentence, which is not made on compassionate grounds, can be very difficult, both for victims who have suffered at the hands of particular individuals and for those victims' families. I agree with Mr. Carmichael that, although the views and sensitivities of victims must be taken into account and must be in the mix, they cannot be an overriding consideration.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her thoughtful response to the debate. On the issue of reoffending, one problem, which was not raised with me during my preparation for this debate, is that people released on compassionate grounds commonly go on to commit other offences. Does she agree that, in practice, it is very rare that such reoffending happens, because we are talking about people who are probably staying in hospital or who are too ill even to contemplate carrying out other offences?

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Minister of State (Ministry of Justice) (also in Government Equalities Office), Minister of State (Government Equalities Office) (also in the Ministry of Justice)

My hon. Friend is right. I think that the existing criteria are applied properly, and I know that a great deal of care is taken to ensure that they are being properly applied in our jurisdiction. Many applications that are made for release on compassionate grounds do not meet the criteria sufficiently and are not granted; only 28 per cent. of such applications are granted in England and Wales. Furthermore, prisoners who are released on compassionate grounds go on to die; that is what they go on to do, generally. So, as I have said, my hon. Friend is correct.

There is a further back-up, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made reference. Even when prisoners are released on compassionate grounds, they are released on licence, so that if there is any subsequent doubt or concern about them they can be recalled. To respond to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, they cannot be recalled if their medical condition improves suddenly; that is not a reason for recall. In practice, however, that does not occur in respect of this type of cases; it has certainly not occurred in the past few years. Nevertheless, if such prisoners present any risk to the public or if it starts to become clear that they are doing some of the things that my hon. Friend suggested as examples of what they might do-plotting a revenge killing, or harassing a victim-they can be recalled. There is absolutely no reason why, in those circumstances, they cannot be recalled to prison, because they are out on licence.

Reference has already been made to the strict criteria that we have adopted in medical cases. In such cases, the criteria are that the prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and that death is likely to occur soon, which is normally taken to be within three months, although, in respect of the cases that I have dealt with in the Department, death is likely to be much sooner than that. Alternatively, the prisoner is bedridden or severely incapacitated, for example by a severe stroke.

For prisoners serving a determinate sentence, the policy allows for compassionate release where there are tragic family circumstances. In practice, however, such a release hardly ever happens. Only 10 per cent. of applications for release on compassionate grounds are made on the basis of tragic family circumstances. Release in those circumstances would be granted only in extremely rare situations, which do not apply in the type of cases that we have been discussing. Furthermore, the Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that any such release would not put the public at risk.

Prisoners serving an indeterminate sentence may be released on compassionate grounds only for medical reasons. They may not be released for tragic family reasons. For such prisoners, in addition to meeting the criteria of being terminally ill, bedridden or incapacitated, it is also necessary to establish that the risk of their reoffending is minimal, that there are adequate arrangements for their care and treatment outside prison and that their early release will bring some significant benefit to themselves or to their family. The figures for recent years for such releases were correctly referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West in his remarks.

For prisoners serving an indeterminate sentence, the Secretary of State is required by the relevant legislation to consult the Parole Board, unless circumstances make that impractical. The Parole Board is usually asked to provide a risk assessment before the Secretary of State makes a decision on release. That assessment will be taken into account, along with all the other relevant material and reports from medical practitioners, and from prison and probation staff.

There has been some discussion today about whether or not one doctor's opinion is enough. It is usually the treating physician, who is in a good position to know what the situation is, who gives an opinion. In addition, there are often prison physicians, as well as physicians from outside the prison who give an opinion. Without conducting some kind of investigation, I could not tell my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe whether one or two medical opinions are usually given, but my suspicion is that usually more than one opinion is given; the report that is issued is usually the product of more than one doctor's opinion. Having said that, however, the opinion of more than one doctor is not required under the existing criteria.

There are also general principles that must be satisfied by any application for release on compassionate grounds. No prisoner may be released early if that would put the public at risk. Furthermore, a decision to release would not normally be made on the basis of facts of which the sentencing court was aware at the time of sentencing. There has to be a development after sentencing that leads to a subsequent illness. If the sentencing court was aware of a person's medical condition, it is fair to assume that that condition was taken into account in the original sentencing. Therefore, that condition is not something that can be considered later, by way of some type of pseudo-appeal to the Secretary of State.

I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe that there are criteria that must be met for release on compassionate grounds. It may be the case that they are not generally known to the public; there is certainly some truth to that. It may well be that, in the party political furore and game that occasionally accompanies one or two of these types of decisions, the criteria upon which the relevant Justice Minister makes their decision are not at the forefront of the headlines that one reads in the ravenous media that report these things. However, that is not to say that Justice Ministers in whatever jurisdiction they are responsible for do not follow those criteria very carefully. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said very clearly-and I agree with him-that there are other arrangements that bind the decisions that Ministers make, which are there to check that Ministers are making those decisions in a rational way and according to the criteria that are set out and according to the statute as it is set out. Of course, those decisions, like any other decision that a Minister makes, are bound by those general considerations of rationality and fairness.

Generally speaking, we have had an excellent debate. I do not know if my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe considers that his experiment with regard to this debate has succeeded. Nevertheless, I think that all the criteria that he has set out for considering release on compassionate grounds have something to be said for them. Some of them are already part of the current criteria that must be met for compassionate release. I think that those criteria can be established if anyone seeks to do so. Individual cases are assessed according to those criteria, and in my experience those criteria are assessed very carefully and on a case-by-case basis; there can be no general arrangement that would meet all situations.

I shall end by expressing some regret about the contribution by Pete Wishart, which I thought was an unfortunate and partisan rant that sought to score political points. It did not really succeed in its aim, because my impression, as I sat and listened to it, was that he was protesting a little bit too much. He is not himself the Justice Minister of Scotland. It is my observation that Mr. MacAskill, who is the Justice Minister of Scotland, made it clear that he made the decision about al-Megrahi himself and did so alone. Mr. MacAskill can defend himself, and has done so in the relevant parts of his jurisdiction where he needs to do so-in the Scottish Parliament and in the court of Scottish public opinion. Mr. MacAskill hardly needs what I consider to be the somewhat dubious assistance of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, which, on the basis of his speech today, has not exactly been helpful to Mr. MacAskill's cause.