Previous Section Index Home Page

25 July 2007 : Column 305WH—continued

Baroness Kennedy, who sits on the Government Benches in another place, described the situation as a “national disgrace”. Adrian Grounds, senior lecturer in forensic psychiatry at Cambridge university’s institute of criminology, is an authority on this issue. He has found that the wrongly convicted and their families commonly face psychological difficulties and problems of adjustment that are severe, bewildering and unexpected. For years, the wrongly convicted fight for freedom, but when it comes they are ill prepared. The outside world does not stop going round the sun while they are in prison. Parents, relatives and friends die—children grow up, people move on. To us, that sense of loss is often subtle, but to them it is shattering.
25 July 2007 : Column 306WH

Victims often find it difficult to cope with day-to-day tasks such as sharing a home, shopping and even crossing the road. They feel stigmatised by neighbours and police. Even though they have been released, they are often regarded with suspicion. They feel bitterness at the fact that those who originally condemned them are now their neighbours. Their families feel it too; they become accustomed to the battle to release their loved ones, but after years without them they find it difficult to adjust to having them back in what has become their own home. The emotional experience of release is too much for many families—in fact, it is overwhelming. The families and victims feel that they are strangers to one another.

Adrian Grounds’s study of the victims of miscarriages of justice found that psychiatric and psychological problems were common among them. Many of the wrongly convicted were described by friends and families as changed in personality. They became more withdrawn, mistrustful and estranged, and difficult to live with. Some had post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms such as nightmares and anxiety attacks relating to their prison experiences. Long-standing depression was common among them, and some used alcohol or drugs to try to reduce their feelings of distress.

Often the enormity of their personal losses was impossible to face and bear. In addition, some were consumed by anger and bitterness because it was impossible to accept the legitimacy of what had happened. There had usually been no apology, and those at fault in the prosecution had not been brought to justice. Dr. Grounds has examined Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four and four members of the Birmingham Six. He found that they were suffering from persistent and disabling post-traumatic stress syndromes. They had irreversibly changed, and their difficulties in coping were similar to those described in clinical studies of war veterans. I am grateful for the work of Dr. Grounds and others; they have provided a great service to such victims—and also to the country, as it seeks an appropriate form of justice and support.

What form of support should be provided? I have four suggestions. First, before victims are released, they need information about the typical emotional and practical problems that can arise and about sources of advice and support.

Secondly, we need to set up a retreat, which victims could immediately access on release to give them time to acclimatise, obtain practical and professional help, and make arrangements for housing, health care and benefits. Owing to the relatively small numbers involved in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, perhaps there is an opportunity for the devolved Administrations and the UK Government to come together to fund such a place. In Scotland, the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, or MOJO, has been campaigning to establish such a retreat to provide a residential base, when needed, for released, wrongfully convicted prisoners.

Thirdly, in the medium to long term the victims need ongoing support. Most professionals working in mental health services have little or no experience of work with wrongly convicted people and may therefore have difficulty in recognising and properly appreciating their complex problems. Furthermore, those who have
25 July 2007 : Column 307WH
been wrongly convicted may have had bad experiences of psychiatric and psychological professionals in prison, and are likely to be generally mistrustful of the state authorities that have let them down. They may be particularly sensitive to any indication by a clinician that their experience is not understood. Those seeking help from doctors and local mental health services quickly become disillusioned because they feel that they have been patronised, or treated dismissively or inappropriately.

We need a UK-wide network of psychiatric specialists who are able to focus on the needs of that small but significant group of people. Such specialists must be fully funded and connected with local health and mental health professionals so that their service can be easily accessed. I suppose that it would be a bit like a managed clinical network, but it would need adequate funding to ensure that no barriers were put in the way of providing the service to victims, and that it did not rely only on the good will of those health professionals.

Fourthly, we need support for the families of the victims, as they often end up supporting many of the victims and having to cope with the new circumstance. In many ways, they will be the carers. They will need support to develop coping and caring mechanisms.

At this point, I want to praise the work of MOJO and MOJO Scotland, which I have already mentioned. They are passionate and caring. MOJO Scotland receives about £50,000 a year from the Scottish Executive to establish a helpline. I acknowledge that the Home Office also funds a small service run by the royal courts of justice citizens advice bureau in London to provide initial help and advice about housing and benefits after release. That is very welcome, but it is simply insufficient. The UK Government and the devolved Administrations should be joining forces to fund a retreat. The effort by MOJO Scotland to set up such a retreat is supported by a range of well-respected lawyers who have directly helped miscarriage of justice victims. Baroness Kennedy said:

Gareth Pierce wrote:

Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman started by saying that his remarks were not applicable equally across the whole UK, because it was the Scottish experience that he was talking about. Can he tell me whether things are happening in England to support victims that are better than in Scotland, and vice versa?

Willie Rennie: I have no evidence to suggest that things are any different north and south of the border. I actually think that the situation in Scotland is replicated elsewhere. Scotland has its own helpline, as does London, but I do not believe that there are any significant differences in the support provided for victims of miscarriages of justice, and that is what I want the Minister to address.


25 July 2007 : Column 308WH

Michael Mansfield, QC, said that the fundraising scheme for the retreat was essential and Dr. Adrian Grounds, whom I referred to earlier, has also written to MOJO to give his support.

Throughout the UK, guilty inmates undergo a programme that includes phased release, counselling and assistance with employment, housing and benefits. Other than that provided by MOJO Scotland and the royal courts of justice citizens advice bureau, there is no other support for miscarriage of justice victims. The guilty often get better treatment than the innocent. So what has been the Government’s response?

In 1998, the Home Secretary at the time, now the Secretary of State for Justice, rejected a call from the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, for special measures to assist in the care of released miscarriage of justice victims. In his reply, the then Home Secretary said that medical or psychiatric care of any released prisoner was a matter for the NHS. He added:

Last week, the Prime Minister wrote to me after my question in the main Chamber. He explained about the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 and that that

He went on to outline the Scottish Executive’s financial support for MOJO Scotland, for which it is grateful. However, all that is simply inadequate. We need more than “advice, guidance and assistance” and 12 months is far too long to wait.

I have explained Dr. Grounds’ view that these individuals suffer a complexity of difficulties that in practice are not well met by mental health services. It is his view, and that of many others, that specialist support is required for that special group of prisoners. To expect them neatly to fit into the norms of society when they have been wrongly cooped up in prison for years is naive. Contrary to what the then Home Secretary said nine years ago, it is increasingly clear now, if it was not then, that we need a separate system of care and support.

There are parallels with the armed forces for establishing separate systems. For instance, at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham there is a military-managed ward. In the Priory and Combat Stress, we have mental health support for servicemen and ex-servicemen suffering mental health difficulties. I believe that there is evidence to support the case for having a specialist system of support for miscarriage of justice victims. I believe the Government have a moral responsibility financially to support such a development.

Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, summed up the situation in his customary brutal manner:


25 July 2007 : Column 309WH

No one can doubt Paddy’s commitment to the cause. He is a leading member of MOJO Scotland and provides direct help to victims when they are released from prison. In fact, he has collected numerous people from the prison gates and put them up in his own home. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude, even more so because that should be responsibility of the state. The state has a moral obligation to establish the services that I have detailed this afternoon. Even though he cares passionately, it should not be up to Paddy Hill. No matter how much he knows about how to treat victims on release, he is not trained—he is not a psychiatrist. This is the responsibility of government. The state should clear up its own mess.

4.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) on securing today’s debate on an important subject. He is aware—he made reference to this fact—that I cannot deal with matters of criminal justice north of the border up in Scotland. That is not my remit and is, as everyone in the Chamber knows, a devolved matter. I do not begin to explain or accept any responsibility for the rightful responsibility of the Scottish Executive and Scottish Parliament. However, he said correctly that there are some similarities between services that are available north and south of the border for the small number of people who, like some of the individuals whom he has mentioned, have been victims of miscarriages of justice.

Some of the people, individuals and cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred have been at the extreme end. They have spent many years wrongfully in prison. I accept that those who are found not to have committed the offences for which they were convicted and imprisoned, sometimes many years down the line, are, first and foremost, victims. It is as much a denial of justice when someone is locked up for something that they did not do as when someone is not locked up for something that they did do. Both are a matter of regret in respect of the operation of the criminal justice system, and I acknowledge that.

I agree that we must do all we can to ensure that victims of miscarriages of justice are supported. The hon. Gentleman used quotations from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice that go back nine years, and more recently there has been movement in what I hope that he would accept is the right direction. I detected a certain amount of acceptance that some developing services are available. The hon. Gentleman mentioned MOJO and arrangements north of the border. I heard what he said, but, of course, I am not responsible for what goes on in Scotland. There is a slightly different configuration of services in England and Wales that are covered by my Department. The hon. Gentleman made reference to, and quoted extensively from, the work of Adrian Grounds, who is recognised as an expert in this field.

We have a miscarriages of justice support service that operates in England and Wales, and Adrian Grounds is on the steering group to give his expert advice and support to us to ensure that we can fund a service that provides appropriate services for people who have suffered miscarriages of justice. Although I
25 July 2007 : Column 310WH
accept that there are miscarriages of justice, thankfully, in the vast majority of cases, the courts get it right. We are talking about a small number of cases, and some of those to which the hon. Gentleman referred are at the extreme end of the scale. They have spent many years in prison and, one might assume, are even more affected by their experience, as are their families, than those who have not spent so long there. A miscarriage of justice is a miscarriage of justice, but one might expect that things get worse the longer it goes on.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there are arrangements through the courts and the Criminal Cases Review Commission to put right the wrong that is done, but he has concentrated much more on the impact on individuals and their families and friends of being released after having been locked up for all that time for something that they did not do.

I should like to say a little about the miscarriages of justice support service before moving on to address the points that the hon. Gentleman made. There was concern about the lack of support for appellants to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and in January 2003 we established a pilot advisory service in the royal courts of justice, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It covers England and Wales and is at arm’s length from the Government, for obvious reasons. One would not wish it to be too close, given that it is the state that puts the people affected in the position that they find themselves in. It is, of course, funded with money from my Department, but it was set up at arm’s length to assure those who might benefit from its services that the advice and support that they would get would have no implications for their cases, and would not be intended to prevent them from getting compensation or pursuing their cases in any way that they wished.

In January 2005, in light of the experience of that scheme, it was extended for three years. A contract to provide the service was awarded to the royal courts of justice’s citizens advice bureau. There is provision in the current arrangements to extend it for a further two years by mutual agreement. In total the service covering England and Wales costs in the region of £133,000 a year. It helps appellants across England and Wales whose cases are referred by the CCRC or who are pursuing their own out-of-time appeals. It is aimed at the people whom the hon. Gentleman identified—the victims of big miscarriages of justice.

As he acknowledged, the number of people involved is small. In general terms, the service aims to ensure that victims of miscarriages of justice receive appropriate advice, guidance and support to move forward with their lives. Advice and support is offered at every stage of the process—from the pre-appeal hearing to the appeal itself and then afterwards, including as someone comes out of prison if their appeal succeeds.

There can be assistance with finding accommodation; establishing income; making claims for benefits; applying for national insurance credit; registering with a GP; accessing appropriate health care and counselling; opening a bank account and budgeting; family and relationship issues; employment and training needs; and finding a solicitor to deal with compensation claims. The hon. Gentleman mentioned specific cases from some years ago to explain the gap
25 July 2007 : Column 311WH
that existed, and the service offered by the miscarriages of justice support service down at the royal courts is intended to plug that gap.

The service can also supply more specialist support, and so far this year seven clients have received assessments by a consultant forensic psychiatrist. The hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out the difficult mental health issues that can arise from miscarriages of justice, and he compared the problems experienced to trauma experienced by members of the armed services. The service has so far supported more than 100 people, and in the past 12 months 25 new cases have been taken on in the England and Wales service. In the three months between January and March, there were 51 active cases and 10 were closed, the work that was mutually decided on having been completed.

In recognition of some of the hon. Gentleman’s points, I say that there is more support now than there used to be. He made a number of broad points, one of which was that before people come out of prison, having been locked up wrongly for a long time, it would be sensible for them to have information and guidance about the typical problems that they are likely to encounter and sources of support. We try to ensure in England and Wales, through the service that I have described, that such support is available both before an appeal is heard and after someone comes out of prison. Things are better now than they were back in 1998, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice was Home Secretary and answered the question that the hon. Gentleman quoted.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the residential retreat, as he called it. There is currently no residential base in the UK specifically for the purpose. I also hear what he says about MOJO and other organisations that focus on the matter and their campaigns to obtain such a base. At present I know of no plans for any such arrangements, but I am certainly willing to listen to any arguments from him, MOJO or anyone else.

In England and Wales, the miscarriages of justice support service will reopen cases if problems re-emerge. If somebody stops getting assistance from it and then runs into problems, their case can be reopened and further support made available. The hon. Gentleman made the point that ongoing support was important, and one can see how that may well be the case. He also
25 July 2007 : Column 312WH
called for a UK-wide network of psychiatric experts, and the support service’s steering group for England and Wales is considering what can be done to ensure proper availability of the level of psychiatric and forensic psychiatric help that victims of miscarriages of justice need. We are certainly considering the matter, but I can say no more about it at present because no decisions have been made. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about funding.

On support for families, it is clearly important, when somebody has been separated from their family for so long, that that is an aspect of any support offered. Again in the context of England and Wales, the support service tries to provide support to rebuild family relationships when necessary. It often obtains forensic psychiatric support and an investigation of an individual’s circumstances, gets recommendations about the support and perhaps family therapy that is needed and tries to ensure that it is available.

There is also indirect support to families via the support service, which does not just relate to the people who have been the direct victims of miscarriages of justice. If necessary, there is the possibility of referral to other support services in the communities where affected families live.

I heard what the hon. Gentleman said in praise of the work of MOJO, and I am happy to endorse it. I have not met MOJO, but I am sure that it does extremely valuable work in Scotland. I also heard what he said about the support that some well-known victims of miscarriages of justice have been providing and the work that they do. I am happy to say how important that is and congratulate those people, who have themselves suffered so much from miscarriages of justice.

I shall end by saying that I will be happy to consider the matter further with the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to write to me. I fully understand and support his argument for support services being available to the small number of people who suffer so much from miscarriages of justice as a result of the state intervening and the criminal justice system, for whatever reason, not working. I do not think that he and I are far apart in our analyses of the issue, so I hope that he will feel that the debate has been worth while. I am happy to consider any further points that he wishes to write to me on.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.


    Index Home Page