Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. This afternoon we are considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on parole. The witnesses are Sir David Omand, Permanent Under Secretary from the Home Office, Mr Martin Narey, the Director General of the Prison Service and Mr Jon Casey, the Chief Executive of the Parole Board, which is an executive non-departmental public body sponsored by the Prison Service. Mr Casey, welcome to you, this is your first time in front of the Committee. Normally I try to give you an indication of the question and the paragraph in the report that I am talking to you about. It gives you, at least, a bit of a start on finding your way around. Welcome to you, Sir David, and Mr Narey as well. Let us start with a question for Sir David, the paragraphs relating to this are paragraphs 2.33 and 2.36. Ensuring that prisoners' applications for parole are considered in a proper and timely manner requires close co-operation between the Prison Service, the Parole Board and other agencies. Paragraph 2.33, refers to serious difficulties in delays obtaining the relevant reports from the police and the courts and 2.36 details similar problems with getting reports for the Probation Service. What are you doing to improve what is now known as joined-up working and performances on parole across the Government departments?

  (Sir David Omand) We are pursuing the agenda we outlined in the Committee when you took evidence on the criminal justice system. I take the improving performance in this area as evidence that we are on the right track in the steps we have taken to bring together the partners in the criminal justice system. We are now meeting regularly at national level and, importantly, also at local level in order to identify blockages in the passage of information and advice, and to remove those. As I say, I think the evidence is that this is beginning to pay handsomely in terms of improved performance in the area of parole.

  2. Very good. I am sure others will want to elaborate on that. My next question relates to paragraph 11 of Appendix 4, that tells us that in 1998 your colleagues in the Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate commissioned Professor Hood and Dr Stephen Shute to carry out a study of parole, including the Parole Board's decisions in respect of the determination of sentence for prisoners. What have the study's findings revealed in terms of striking a balance between an assessment of the risk to the public and the rehabilitative benefits to be obtained from early release?
  (Sir David Omand) My colleagues may wish to comment on that. I brought with me the summary of the Report which was published by Hood and Shute on their research. I read this as endorsing the procedures that were in place within the Parole Board, but raising questions which have policy implications on the way that the risk assessment was applied when compared with actuarial calculations of risk in the population as a whole. If I can elaborate on that point, I think it is an important one. The statistics are available showing measures of risk in the population of ex-offenders for re-conviction. What the Parole Board has to do is take a judgment on whether an individual represents a risk. The fact that Hood and Shute point out that we may know that for a certain category of offending there is an actuarial risk of re-offending of X per cent still leaves the question: does this individual fall into the X per cent or should an exception be made? What their research tended to show was that the Board was erring on the cautious side, and that is where ministers would want them to be.

  3. I suspect we would most want them to be. Let me move on to Mr Narey and Mr Casey. Welcome, Mr Narey, you had a difficult week, I gather. I promise we are nicer than Mr Corbett, There are cries of, "Speak for yourself", from my Committee colleagues. In paragraph 2.10 it says there has been a serious problem in processing parole applications on time, with the result, as 2.10 points out, some parolees remain in custody longer than necessary which increases the cost to the taxpayer. As the Home Secretary has pointed out there has been a welcome improvement recently. What assurances, Mr Narey, can you give us on behalf of Prison Service that this improvement will be maintained and that it will be quite exceptional in the future for a parolee not to be released on time?
  (Mr Narey) I am happy to report that there has been a further improvement since the publication of the Report. In terms of decisions that are relayed two weeks before the PED, that should have now reached more than 91 per cent. I realise, as in many things, sometimes making the improvement is the easy bit, maintaining the improvement is sometimes the difficult thing. Certainly in the Prison Service different priorities occur. There are a number of things we are doing, we have area managers, the people who manage groups of prisoners and they are firmly involved in this and for the past year or so they get dependable monthly performance dates produced by headquarters. We have a central help desk running now and we have initiated a quarterly newsletter for all those involved in parole, annual conferences, and most of all we have very recently introduced a very rigorous internal audit process called "standards audit", and they are reviewing, on each and every prison visit, the standards that we require of parole, most particularly getting dossiers from our prisons to the Parole Board on time and those dossiers being fully complete and not having to be sent back. They have done seven of those this year and every prison has passed on those.


  4. Mr Casey, do you have anything to add to that?
  (Mr Casey) On our own target for completing the consideration of cases within 7 weeks of receiving the dossier for delegated cases, we have achieved 97 per cent on that over the last 12 months. We have our process well honed and we certainly expect to maintain that level. Our performance on the interviewing of prisoners has also improved considerably over the last year. Certainly, at every stage we are involved in the process, and we believe we will maintain that.

  5. We will be looking at that again, I am sure, so I hope you are right. There appears to be a particular problem in processing applications on time for the parole for prisoners subject to deportation, and removing them promptly from this country when they are paroled. This is paragraph 2.55 and figure 15. Paragraph 2.55 shows that only 27 per cent of the results of deportees' parole applications were notified on time in 1998/1999 and that around 8 per cent of parolees spent an additional 100 days in custody. There was an improvement in 1999/2000, but even so, only 43 per cent of parolees were notified on time. This is an area where there is a cost to our tax-payer, but no reduction in risk. What is the position there? What are you doing to tackle it?
  (Mr Narey) I can ascertain a guess, Mr Chairman, that I do not think we have paid as much attention to this as we should, but we have begun to do so, and you mentioned that the performance has increased in 1999/2000 to 43 per cent. It is now up to 59 per cent. That is still some way behind our general performance on other cases. There are a couple of things I need to volunteer, the first is that where prisons have been slow to inform the Immigration Department of the reception of foreign nationals as sentenced prisoners, it does not give the Immigration Department time to make the arrangements for deportation if the first they find out about it is when the parole application is under way. I will be reminding my governors that they need to do that. The instruction was last issued in about 1986. Secondly, I think we need to bring greater focus to that and in my Sentence Enforcement Unit we have just put together a specialist deport section to try further to drive up the improved performance, and I accept that it needs to be much better than 60 per cent, even though that is a considerable improvement.
  (Sir David Omand) May I add to that on behalf of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate? As the Report correctly identifies, the disruption in the casework in the past of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has affected their performance. I am pleased that they are now recovered from that. Last week saw, for the first time ever, more that 3,000 asylum decisions being taken in a single week. The Committee will remember that at the worst depths of the winter of 1998 we were down to 200 a week. We now have over 3,000 a week. The IND now has the capacity to link into what Martin Narey has described as the "special deport unit." Many of them will still require, many of them, special treatment with the negotiations with the countries concerned to obtain new nationality documents and authority to deport them. They still, of course, have the right to claim asylum, and they have the right to appeal against the country to which they are being sent. There is still quite a lot of process and this part of it will never be quite as swift and slick as the normal United Kingdom based—

  6. You surprise me. I must admit it had not occurred to me that somebody being thrown out of the country direct from prison would have the right to claim asylum, presumably against the country you are deporting him to?
  (Sir David Omand) Correct.

  7. Is it a big number?
  (Sir David Omand) No, it is a very small number. The overall number caught by these provisions is quite small.

  8. If it is a small number, perhaps we should not publicise the option.

  (Sir David Omand) Circumstances can change during the course of a long sentence. We are talking here about prisoners who have been sentenced to four years or more. In that period they can maintain that circumstances back home have changed. We do have such cases and they do have to be processed. 9. I will press on. The first one is figure 8 and paragraph 2.14. The figure shows that very few prisoners serving life sentences are released on the expiry of their tariff, the minimum sentence they must serve to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. Paragraph 2.14 outlines changes made by the Home Secretary to reduce delays and enable lifers to be released on the expiry of their tariff, or shortly afterwards where they are assessed as safe to be released. What impact have those changes had?
  (Mr Narey) First of all, the impact has had two stages. The process for lifers in category C likely to be getting a positive result begins half a year earlier. Similarly, the review for lifers in open prison conditions starts at 18 months rather than two years after transfer. That can mean for some lifers bringing the second consideration by the Parole Board forward by one year. That means that of the 58 per cent who were not released at the time of expiry date, only around 20 per cent of them were considered as `safe' lifers. It does mean that I think that we will be able to further erode that number. It should be the case, I hope, in a relatively short space of time, that all safe lifers that fall into those conditions will be released within three months of tariff expiry.

  10. Do you monitor the performance or re-offending of lifers who have been released as safe?
  (Mr Narey) Yes, we do. Re-offending rates for released lifers are very low indeed.

  11. Paragraph 3.3 and paragraph 3.5. Less than four in every 10 applicants for parole are successful and applicants who have completed appropriate offending behaviour courses are more than twice as likely to be successful as those who have not. In light of these findings, what plans do you have to ensure that places on offending behaviour courses are available to all those who would benefit from them?
  (Mr Narey) Offending behaviour courses are still quite new. They might be the most important thing that we have discovered in the Prison Service in terms of treating serious offenders and were imported from work in Canada in the early 1990s. They are very slow to get going; they have to be meticulously presented; they have to be very intensive, so, therefore, they are very expensive and they need a lot of specialist support. We only completed 1,300 of these in 1996-1997. By next year we will be completing more than 6,000 per year throughout. In fact, it will be considerably more than that. So we are catching up on the shortage very quickly, but we are not there yet. If I were to try to make an approximate guess at how many completed programmes we would need to be delivering every year to meet the full demand, it would be about 9,000, but we are moving as fast as we can while we maintain the courses, courses which are showing, I might add, some very, very encouraging results in terms of re-conviction rate.

  12. You can take it as read that I am not encouraging you to go any faster than is necessary. Would I be right in summarising the philosophy of dealing with prisoners as being to ensure that those prisoners who are model prisoners, who admit to their offence, who do not appear to be a threat to society should be released early after serving the appropriate sentence and that those who show no inclination to conform to the system, to admit to their problems, to atone for it in any way should be kept in later. Is that what the Parole Board is looking at?
  (Mr Narey) Can I just qualify that? Remorse is certainly important. I think we need to be very careful when we talk about the significance of individuals being model prisoners. My experience, not just in this job, but working in prisons some years ago, is some of the most well behaved, reasonable prisoners can nevertheless be extremely dangerous. Sometimes we as a service confuse the two and we have moved people rather too rapidly to release on the basis of this behaviour and they can still be extremely dangerous.

  13. Which of the 20 reports pick that out? We are told that up to 20 reports are required to be assessed.
  (Mr Narey) In terms of the reports produced by my Service the most important one of those is probably by the seconded probation officer who works within the prison who will look directly at the prisoner's performance in terms of addressing guilt, remorse, what is done in terms of offending behaviour programmes, and so forth. To an extent the prison officer's report will do that, although I do not think the prison officer's report is very much quality or very much help to the Parole Board. The outside probation officer's report is the second most important one, which will look at behaviour in prison and remorse and dangerousness aligned to plans and support that would be available on release to that particular individual.
  (Mr Casey) If I can just add to that, you mentioned admitting guilt for the offence, that is not necessarily a pre-condition of getting parole.

  14. I would not want to dwell on that. How long has the parole system been running in this country?
  (Mr Casey) It was introduced in the Criminal Justice Act of 1967.

  15. There has been a long time, 33 years, or so, for it to bed down?
  (Mr Casey) I should qualify that, the current system was considerably changed by the Criminal Justice Act of 1991.

  16. By and large there have been three decades of experience of it. We have the latest performance against key targets in 1996-97 in the supplemented document. It shows that the percentage of parole dossiers arriving at Parole Board on time has jumped from 40 per cent to 72 per cent, the percentage of Parole Board decisions by the due date from 43 per cent to 84 per cent. That is a dramatic and welcomed increase. Why on earth, given the system had been running for some years, even after the new system came in, was that achievement not sorted out and accomplished?
  (Sir David Omand) What we had before was an administrative process rather than a managed process. The requirements of the Parole Board were clear, over what had to go into the dossier, the elements were assembled and the process was administered. What we are now seeing is a properly managed process where each of the participants has feedback on how well they are doing.

  17. Is that not a chronic problem in Whitehall?
  (Sir David Omand) It is. This is a very good example, I think, of how you can get quite dramatic improvements by introducing sound management, but it does cross a number of boundaries.

  18. Returning to my first question, clearly it is important for a prisoner setting out on his sentence to know what proper behaviour is and what is expected of a prisoner to obtain parole. This Report is actually damming about this, 3.10 says that they found little evidence—which you have signed up to—of the requirements of parole being clearly spelt out in the requirements of what prisoners need to achieve to have a reasonable expectation of obtaining parole. Is that not an almost unbelievable statement in the year 2000?
  (Mr Narey) It is unbelievable, but I believe it is true. It is certainly the case that prisoners do not have a full understanding of what they need to do to get parole, in part because the Parole Board has become much more risk focused. Prisoners, particularly prisoners who have been in before, do believe all they have to do is work well when watched, as it were, and they will get a parole recommendation. We have tried to do something about that. We have just received the proofs of a very helpful document produced with the Prison Reform Trust, which we will issue to prisoners early next year, which will give them a better understanding of what they need to do to make themselves reasonable candidates.

  19. Do you not think that your staff need that before the prisoners?
  (Mr Narey) Some staff do. It will be available to staff as well.

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