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Prisoner Release Decisions

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:15 pm on 20th October 2009.

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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

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.