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Prisoner Release Decisions

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 20th October 2009.

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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.