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Mr. Ronald Cannon

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Sackville.]

1.11 am

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster) rose--

Hon. Members : Hear, hear.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : That was a very nice welcome from my colleagues, and I thank them.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the case of Mr. Ronald Cannon, a constituent of mine who is currently serving a prison sentence of four years at Swaleside prison, Kent. Mr. Cannon is a reformed heroin addict, and like most people who have had that unfortunate experience he found it difficult to break free from the circumstances of his addiction and those who surrounded him. As a result, in October 1988 he was sentenced to prison for conspiring to supply controlled drugs.

On the face of it, that would not appear to be anything other than a straightforward case, with which I would not have bothered this House. However, three facts surround the circumstances in which Mr. Cannon is being held in prison. They should be brought to the attention of the House, and they are the subject of the debate. There are three reasons for my concern. First, through incompetent administration by those responsible for keeping Mr. Cannon's records, he has been deprived of the opportunity that he should have been given to seek a second review of his suitability for parole. Because of that, he has been deprived of the chance of obtaining his freedom and is now languishing in jail. I am not concerned with the merits of whether that parole should be granted, only with the circumstances by which he has been denied the opportunity to put his case. Secondly, it has been brought to my attention, from two separate sources-- Mr. Cannon and his prison visitor--that my intervention in an attempt to expedite his case has in fact had the reverse effect. The House will no doubt agree with me that should that prove to be the case, it would be extremely serious ; no Member of Parliament could properly represent his constituents if he thought that the result of his doing so would be to prejudice that constituent's circumstances. Thirdly, during my investigations into what has happened to Mr. Cannon, I discovered that his case is representative of a great many of those who are seeking parole and that the whole system of parole has broken down. I shall ask the Minister to do the root and branch reform of the system of parole and remission suggested in 1988 by my noble Friend Lord Carlisle of Bucklow and his review committee on the parole system in England and Wales.

I shall deal first with the matter of Mr. Cannon's freedom, because that is probably the most important of the three points that I shall deal with. I can do no better in an effort to explain the circumstances than to read the letter which I received from Mr. Jennings, the prison visitor to whom I referred. Mr. Jennings wrote to me in a letter of 4 October in respect of my constituent. The letter states :

"I write as a member of the Board of Visitors at Swaleside Prison in Kent, a member of the Parole Review Committee and a Magistrate.

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Over many months, I have been trying to assist Mr. Cannon in connection with his second parole review.

Unfortunately, when he was sentenced no-one noticed that he had already served 15/16 months on Remand in Custody. As a result, all his dates were wrongly calculated, and entered in his records--it took many months for this to be put right, and by this time he was already overdue for his first Parole Review. This was eventually completed, and not surprisingly, he was unsuccessful--The committee no doubt thinking that he would have another opportunity at his second review."

My involvement in this arose when I wrote to the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Minister on 7 June and asked him to look into the circumstances whereby Mr. Cannon had been kept waiting for the result of the Parole Board sitting that had occurred in February. Mr. Cannon had been waiting for about four months and I therefore wrote to the Minister asking when he would be given the result of the Parole Board decision. He received it four days later, but I did not know that because I received no reply to my letter until the end of August, by which time I had written a second letter to the Minister. In the considerable correspondence that I have had with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and his predecessor, no one mentioned to me that Mr. Cannon's period on remand in custody had not been taken into account when dealing with the date of his parole review. It is dreadful that he has not been granted a second parole review. The reason for that is set out in the latest letter which I received from my hon. Friend the Minister :

"Mr. Cannon does not qualify for another parole review as, under Rule 6(6) of the Local Review Committee Rules 1967, a prisoner is not eligible for a further statutory parole review unless there is a period of 16 months or more between the previous review and the earliest date of release. In Mr. Cannon's case this period amounts to less than 14 months ; he must therefore I am afraid, serve to his earliest date of release which is currently 2 April 1990." That does not take into account the fact that the date of Mr. Cannon's first parole review was wrong, and was heard too late. Therefore, he should have had the opportunity of two parole reviews. That is why I say that he has been deprived of the opportunity to argue again for freedom earlier than he can now expect.

The second question that I wish to raise is whether my intervention has helped or hindered Mr. Cannon's case. My attention was drawn to the danger that he might have been prejudiced by my intervention by a letter that he wrote to me at the end of August. The letter states : "Today I have seen one of the prison governors to get them to expedite my answer."

By that he meant the answer to a petition that he had sent to the Home Office immediately upon receiving the refusal of his first parole review in June. The letter continues :

"I have just been told that because I wrote to you voicing my disappointment with the parole decision my petition was withdrawn and not even looked at. But today it has gone back into the pending tray. Four months I have been waiting for an answer."

As a result of that letter, I wrote on 7 September to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State :

"I am concerned that the fact that Mr. Cannon wrote to me may have jeopardized his position, and I find it hard to see why someone who is a prison trusty', allowed out on home leave, should be found unsuitable for parole.

I would much appreciate it if you would satisfy yourself that my intervention has not had an adverse effect on Mr. Cannon's position."

I did not receive an answer to that letter until 17 October and in that letter, my hon. Friend says :

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"Finally, I should add that a reply to Mr. Cannon's petition was forwarded to the prison on 12 September and reassure you that your intervention in Mr. Cannon's cases did not adversely affect consideration of it.

Unfortunately, I cannot entirely accept that answer as being accurate, because in the letter that I received from Mr. Jennings, and that I was quoting earlier, Mr. Jennings also has something to say about the circumstances in which Mr. Cannon was prejudiced by my intervention.

He continues in his letter of 4 October as follows :

"He has tried every avenue open to him without success and the last time I telephoned London"--

by London he meant the Parole Board in London, as I confirmed on the telephone to him--

"about his case I was told Unfortunately, Cannon has involved a Member of Parliament and this will cause further delay.'" I cannot accept that my intervention on 7 June should still be causing further delay by the time that Mr. Jennings was talking to the parole board in London. I cannot accept that my intervention, in any circumstances, considering that it was by making a specific request that review of the case be expedited, should have caused delay in reviewing his case.

I wish my hon. Friend to investigate who made that comment to Mr. Jennings. Unfortunately, he was not able to say who had said it to him. Secondly, will he find the person who told Mr. Cannon that my intervention had caused his petition to be put aside. Thirdly, are these facts accurate? Fourthly, will he take whatever necessary action is due to be taken, either in regard to why that information was wrongly given to Mr. Cannon and Mr. Jennings, or why that delay took place? The latter would be a much more serious event than if the former had proved to have been made inaccurately, by an employee in the Home Office or in the Parole Board offices.

My last point concerns parole generally. Having made some inquiries as a result of being alarmed by the way in which Mr. Cannon had been treated, I discovered that the parole system is largely breaking down. Mr. Jennings told me that he has at least 10 cases a week about which he is deeply concerned and in which parole is failing to come up accurately or in time. He told me that in some instances, he even has cases where the parole review decision is not announced until the prisoner concerned has already been released on remission, and sometimes months later.

My hon. Friend is aware of what Lord Carlisle proposes in his review. In paragraph 299, Lord Carlisle recommends a root-and-branch reform of the parole and remission systems. I warmly endorse the proposals made in that report, and urge my hon. Friend to implement them as soon as possible. The parole system is ineffective. It is dealing with 26,000 cases a year, when it was set up and structured to deal with only 4,000 or 5,000. The projections are that, if trends continue, by the early 1990s, it will deal with 33,000. Such an escalation of the number of people being investigated for parole would make this system inoperable, and unless the Government take action, we shall shortly have a chaotic and appalling situation. I ask my hon. Friend to do that, and to see to it that Mr. Cannon, notwithstanding the general rule, gets a further opportunity to apply for parole, because as I understand it, and as Mr. Jennings has been told, that second review should be granted if his first review had been properly

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carried out in terms of his early imprisonment on remand awaiting trial. Will he also undertake the investigations that I have asked for?

1.25 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Sir N. Bonsor) for raising the case of Mr. Cannon and providing me with an opportunity to address the House on the important subjects of parole and Mr. Cannon's particular circumstances. My hon. Friend has raised especially Mr. Jennings's letter this evening, and it is the first time that I have heard of it. According I shall not comment on its contents, which I have not seen. However, my hon. Friend has asked me to investigate its contents, and I shall do so. I shall take extremely seriously anything written to a colleague or to myself from a member of a board of prison visitors. I have no reason to believe that my hon. Friend's intervention, as I stated when I wrote to him, had any effect on the outcome of the parole consideration, nor on the dates.

Perhaps it would be useful if I gave some background both to the parole system, as my hon. Friend made a number of remarks on the way that it is working now, and on Mr. Cannon's case. All prisoners serving determinate sentences of more than a year are eligible for parole. Their parole eligibility date marks the earliest date on which they can be released on licence if the parole board so recommends. It is important to remember that no one may be released early on licence without a positive rcommendation either from the local review committee acting on behalf of the Parole Board, or from the Parole Board itself. A prisoner becomes eligible for parole either when he has served one third of his sentence--taking into account any time spent on remand--or six months after the sentence has been passed, whichever is later. That is, I think, an essential part of the misunderstanding which clearly exists in this case. Mr. Cannon was remanded by Havering magistrates court on 5 August 1987 ; committed by it on 10 November 1987 ; and tried at the Central Criminial court and sentenced on 26 October 1988 to four years' imprisonment for conspiracy to supply class A controlled drugs. Mr. Cannon's parole eligibility date was calculated to be 26 April 1989. As hon. Members will readily calculate, this means that in Mr. Cannon's case, his PED was six months after the start of his sentence, rather than one third the way through.

All cases are considered first by the local review committee or LRC as it is commonly called, at the prison where the inmate is held. The timing of the LRC meeting depends on the length of the sentence. Generally, for sentences of up to two years, the LRC will consider the case about eight weeks before PED. For longer sentence cases--and Mr. Cannon's case falls in this class--the review is generally held three and a half to four months before that date.

There are two objectives to these timing arrangements. First, to maximise the time available for observation and reporting in the establishment before the parole review. Perhaps I could remind my hon. Friend that parole review is definitely not re-sentencing. The parole selection procedure is based not merely on the evidence and reports available to the judge at the time of sentencing. In

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addition, a large number of reports on the prisoner drawn from a number of sources are prepared--from prison officers in various parts of the prison who may come into contact with the prisoner in his daily life ; prison governing staff ; prison medical staff ; chaplains ; prison probation staff ; and importantly, a home circumstance report prepared by a probation officer from the probation service which would offer supervision in the event of early release on licence. These reports take some time to prepare and it is only fair that they are based on a reasonable period of observation. It is for this reason that we allow six months as a very minimum time in which to prepare and consider the reports.

The second objective is to allow sufficient time for the rest of the selection procedure to be followed and for the establishment to be notified of the parole decision in sufficient time for the inmate to be released on the parole eligibility date, or its anniversary, if parole is granted. In Mr. Cannon's case, the LRC at Wandsworth considered the reports on 9 February 1989, just over 11 weeks before his PED.

Mr. Cannon's offence did not fall in those categories of cases which can be decided on the advice of the local review committee alone. It was therefore referred to the Parole Board for a further review. Mr. Cannon's case was considered by the board on 2 June 1989. As my hon. Friend will know, the Parole Board did not find Mr. Cannon suitable for early release on licence ; and accordingly the Home Secretary had no power to grant parole. Notification of this decision was sent to Swaleside prison where Mr. Cannon was then located on 12 June ; and he was informed accordingly.

Naturally, Mr. Cannon was disappointed with the outcome of this parole review. He has drawn to my hon. Friend's attention the fact that he is a "prison trusty" allowed out on home leave and yet denied parole. Hon. Members will be aware that although an inmate's behaviour in prison is one of the factors considered by the Parole Board, other aspects are also reviewed. The Parole Board regularly publishes its criteria for parole selection in its annual report. It considers each case carefully under six headings. The first is the nature of the offence. The Parole Board has due regard to the public's concern about early release of inmates already convicted of offences of violence or those which jeopardise public safety. Although each case is considered individually, cases involving trafficking in drugs such as heroin are bound to cause concern. The second heading relates to an inmate's criminal and other history. The incidence and frequency of previous offending, having regard to the nature of offences, is used as a guide to the probability of reoffending. Obviously, many previous convictions indicate, in the absence of other factors, a high probability of reoffending. Other indicators of this are persistent offending since an early age, short intervals at liberty between convictions and a record of employment which is poor in terms of the quality of the jobs and the lengths of continuous employment. If an inmate has previously been under the supervision of the probation service, his response to that may be relevant to his likely response to parole supervision. I have no doubt that the Parole Board will have reviewed Mr. Cannon particularly carefully under this heading.

The third category is prison behaviour and response to treatment. As I have said, the main bulk of the dossier will consist of reports by various prison officials who know the prisoner well. These reports build up a picture of what the

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prisoner has done and in what light he has shown himself since his conviction. In general, bad conduct in prison is a factor against parole and good conduct a favourable factor. But many recidivists are well experienced at playing the system, so prison behaviour --which may have little bearing on behaviour outside the prison walls--has to be regarded in light of other factors.

The fourth heading is medical considerations. In this case, where Mr. Cannon's offence involved drugs, medical reports will be of crucial importance as regards the chances of the prisoner reoffending and the possible gravity of further offences.

Fifthly, the inmate's home circumstances and employment prospects on release are considered. Home circumstances and employment prospects can be critical for success on parole. A good home, a job to go to and the absence of the circumstances and temptations which led to the earlier crime are factors favourable to parole. The sixth and final heading is co-operation with parole supervision. The supervision of a parolee by a probation officer during the parole period is an essential part of the parole scheme. It is always difficult to be sure about this. However, a previous failure on parole or a failure on probation may make co-operation doubtful.

Each case is carefully considered against these criteria. For this reason there is no mileage in comparing Mr. Cannon's case with those of any co- defendants. The Parole Board will consider each individual's circumstances. Mr. Cannon has drawn my hon. Friend's attention to his good prisoner behaviour. I am sure that the Parole Board will have taken that into account. It will also have taken into account his criminal record--and I should have liked to have given the House an account of that--

Sir Nicholas Bonsor : I accept what my hon. Friend is saying but as I said at the outset, I am not arguing that he should have been given parole at that review. The point that I was making--and the point that Mr. Jennings made strongly to me in the letter from which I quoted--was that one reason why the parole review board might have turned down his original application was on the understanding that he could have another. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would address that point.

Mr. Lloyd : I have partly addressed that point and will return to it. As this is part of a continuing exchange, it is worth making it clear that the Parole Board makes its own decisions, which the Home Secretary and myself can in no way alter. If the circumstances of which my hon. Friend's constituent has complained are such that he is surprised at the result, that must be part of my reply.

It is an important part of my reply to show that on the information that is available to me the result is not at all surprising. However, I accept what my hon. Friend says and I hope that he will accept that there is nothing about the background of the case that makes the Parole Board's decision in the least bit surprising.

I am satisfied that Mr. Cannon's case was considered thoroughly and carefully by the Parole Board, and, alas, he must serve until his earliest date of release, which at present is 2 April 1990, as my hon. Friend said.

But although Mr. Cannon is serving a four-year sentence, during which he might normally have expected a second review, he does not qualify for a further review.

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The local review committee rules provide that an inmate is not eligible for a further statutory parole review unless there is a period of 16 months or more between the previous local review committee review and the earliest date of release.

In Mr. Cannon's case, owing to the time that he spent on remand from 10 November 1987 to 25 October 1988, he was required to serve the full six months minimum qualifying period before his parole eligibility date. That was the point that I made at the beginning of my remarks and where the root of the misunderstanding probably lies. The local review committee review may take place only up to four months earlier than that date. For Mr. Cannon, that meant that the very first date on which his case might have been eligible for local review committee consideration would have been 26 December 1988. Even at this relatively late hour, those hon. Members who are present will readily be able to appreciate that Boxing day 1988 was less than 16 months before the earliest date of release of 2 April 1990. I recognise that it falls short by a mere three weeks, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will appreciate that the line must be drawn somewhere. Mr. Cannon's local review committee review actually took place on 9 February, just under 14 months before his earliest date of release. But if it had happened at the earliest point that it could have done, he would still not have been eligible for a second one. I am aware that fine footwork is involved in the timing of parole reviews, and decisions about the eligibility of second and subsequent reviews are not an easy matter to understand, particularly at this time of night. I appreciate how difficult it must be for Mr. Cannon and his family and my hon. Friend to accept the Parole Board's decision and to know that because of the time that he spent on remand he is not eligible for a further review.

I am also sorry that it should have take so long to complete the first review. Here I come to one of my hon. Friend's major points. The delays that have plagued the parole system are a sad reflection on the increasing number of cases and, until recently, the inability of the Home Office parole unit to keep pace. But I reject my hon. Friend's suggestion that the system is breaking down. It is plagued by heavy delays, but within those delays it works effectively. Parole delays cause unnecessary anxiety to inmates and their families and lead to problems for the staff in the prisons. They are unacceptable and we have taken some firm steps to eliminate them. We have reorganised the parole unit, streamlined procedures and authorised and recruited additional staff. The Home Secretary has appointed additional members to the Parole Board and the board is considering additional cases at each panel sitting. We took those measures several months ago, but already they are beginning to bear fruit. We are now seeing the first signs of real improvement and there are no longer any significant delays on cases that do not go the Parole Board but stay with the local review committees, but there are still some delays with the Parole Board. I am sure that the worst of the delays are now being eliminated and we are considering what further changes and reforms are needed to reduce those delays still further and then eliminate them altogether. I am sure that that will be achieved, if not this year, certainly during the first half of next year. That is our intention.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this difficult case. I shall look at the letter from Mr. Jennings, to which he referred, and follow it back to its source. But on the

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timing of the review and on the decision that there is no opportunity under the rules for a second review, the letters that I and my predecessor have sent to my hon. Friend are correct. But I realise that the situation is complex.

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Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Two o'clock.

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