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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I apologise if the noble Lord did not receive a copy of the letter. I know that a letter was written to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross. I shall check whether the noble Lord was also sent a copy. If not, I give him a fulsome apology for that neglect. I do not have a copy to hand, so I cannot check, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, is not in his place. Perhaps the noble Lord will accept my abject apology.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, it is too early; I am not that efficient, so I may have received it and not read it. But I have checked with the Bill team, and they have no record of my being sent a letter.
I reassure the House that we fully respect the independent status of the Parole Board. It has the unique responsibility for determining the early release of prisoners. Therefore it is essential that it can perform its decision-making duties free from political interference. The board itself would be the first to point out that it is allowed to conduct its business without interference. When recently giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee, the board's chairman, Mr David Hatch, was at pains to stress during his term that the board had never once come under,
With Mr Hatch's comments in mind, I turn first to the provision enabling the Home Secretary to set down directions, which is being carried forward from the Criminal Justice Act 1991. As I have already said, this is not about interference, but about accountability. The Home Secretary is responsible for criminal justice policy and is accountable to Parliament for all aspects of that policy. He is also ultimately responsible for the supervision of all offenders on licence and again is answerable to Parliament in respect of their release arrangements. It is therefore wholly reasonable that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary should be able to set down the considerations to be taken into account when determining whether to grant early release and held to account by Parliament if these considerations are felt to be in any way ill advised.
Having said that, that does not give my right honourable friend the Home Secretary unfettered discretion to set down excessive or unreasonable criteria to be met before release can be granted. I must also point out that the board is always fully consulted on the drafting of directions and any amendments it might suggest are always given due consideration. As far as concerns the rules, they have no influence on the determination, as noble Lords will appreciate, of applications for early release. They offer a transparent and fair procedural framework for the Parole Board to operate when it is sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity. Although the rules are drawn up by the Home Office, the Parole Board is fully consulted. In fact, a working party is currently reviewing the existing rules and I can report that the board is represented on that working group and is playing a full and active part.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, indeed, I have a copy of a letter dated 28th October that was directed to the noble Viscount, Lord Colville, that deals with several matters, including the Parole Board rules. It was copied to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who handed it to me, to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who did not contribute on this topic, to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and to the noble Lord, Lord Hyltonbut not to me. That is why I accept the apology that was so freely offered earlier. It is important, because it was my point and my experience that I was relying upon.
I made the point in the course of argument. I thought that knocking out subsections (5) and (6) would automatically remove the exception from Clause 306, but it does not. It still remains. At Third Reading, I shall table an amendment, and I imagine that, in the absence of a full and satisfactory
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this group of amendments deal with foreign national prisoners who make up a rising proportion of the prison population. About 800 foreign national prisoners are deported or otherwise removed each year. Those liable to deportation at the end of the custodial portion of their prison sentences are currently ineligible for the early release arrangements available to other prisoners.
The purpose of these amendments is therefore to introduce an early removal scheme for this group of prisoners. Eligible prisoners will be deported up to a maximum of 135 days early, depending on sentence length. The scheme will save a small number of prison places. But, as importantly, it will provide fairer release and removal arrangements for prisoners who are ineligible for the early release provisions available to other prisoners.
At present prisoners serving sentences of less than four years are automatically released at the half-way point of their sentence. Those liable to removal may be detained under immigration powers until they are removed. In practice, many prisoners are held in Prison Service establishments until they are removed. Prisoners serving determinate sentences of four years or more are considered for early release at the half-way point in their sentence. However, the decision to release is made by the Secretary of State rather than the Parole Board. If not released earlier, prisoners will be released after having served two-thirds of their sentence. If they are liable for removal, they may remain detained under immigration law until they are finally removed from the United Kingdom.
The amendments create two versions of the scheme. The first is set out in Amendments Nos. 220M and 220N, which will apply to prisoners sentenced under the new sentencing arrangements proposed in this Bill. The second version is set out in Amendments Nos. 220P and 225A, which will apply to those sentenced under the Criminal Justice Act 1991. The latter version will come into force early in 2004. Both versions of the scheme will have the same effect.
The maximum period for early removal will be tapered according to length of sentence. Prisoners serving extended sentences for certain violent and sexual offences will be statutorily excluded, as will sexual offenders, subject to the notification requirements of Part 2 of the Sexual Offences Bill. These will replace the notification requirements set out in the Sexual Offences Act 1997.
Early removal under the scheme will be discretionary. Prisoners who are statutorily eligible will be required to pass a risk assessment. Prisoners serving a sentence of four years or more for a sexual or violent offence, but one which does not statutorily exclude them for consideration, will be subject to an enhanced risk assessment. Those considered to present an unacceptable risk to public safety in their home countries will not be approved for early removal.
The provisions will also ensure that an offender cannot avoid serving his sentence while he is in the United Kingdom by claiming asylum at the last minute. They will also provide that if the prisoner returns prior to the date that the sentence expires he or she will become liable to be detained again in pursuance of the sentence. The provisions include an affirmative order-making powerI hope that will please the noble Baroness, Lady Anelaywhich will enable changes to be made to the requisite period to be served before early removal, so that it can be reduced or increased as appropriate to circumstances prevailing at the time. I beg to move.
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