Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)|
RT HON JACK STRAW MP
9 OCTOBER 2008
Q60 David Howarth: Their crime rate
seems to be moving parallel to that of Canada which has a much
lower prison population.
Mr Straw: They gaol 2.2 million
people; they have 5% of the world's population and 23% of the
world's prisoners. One in 135 of the population is in gaol. For
the relevant group of young males, mainly of black and ethnic
minorities, in some cities the figure comes down to one in two
or one in three in prison or on parole. That is quite an extraordinary
figure which in my view is building up huge long-term social and
economic problems. We are all agreed that we do not want to get
anywhere near that. We must also acknowledge that we are at the
top end of the European league table for incarceration rates.
Because we are in social terms partly influenced by Europe but
significantly influenced in cultural terms also by the Commonwealth
and the United States I am not so concerned about that. I want
to see all the people who ought to be gaoled incarcerated and
I do not want to see one person gaoled who can be dealt with and
corrected outside in the community. If you ask me whether we have
a set figureshould it be 95,000 rather than 100,000the
answer is no. Should we have a policy which year by year seeks
to ensure that supply and demand are in better balance? Yes. If
one does not have these two factors in balance it is more difficult
to make effective use of prisons, for the very obvious reason
that if prisons are severely overcrowded it is more difficult
to run regimes.
Q61 Chairman: On your present projections
you cannot balance without seeking to bear down on the increasing
rate of imprisonment?
Mr Straw: I understand that. Obviously,
Lord Carter of Coles is looking at the question of how one achieves
at any level of prison places a better equilibrium.
Q62 Robert Neill: From what you say,
the Carter findings cannot sensibly be incorporated by amendments
to the current Bill, or do you think that is possible?
Mr Straw: The answer is that they
may be. I have not had any submission or suggestions emerging
from Lord Carter's review which could translate into amendments
to the current Bill, but I do not rule it out.
Q63 Robert Neill: You are open-minded
on the point?
Mr Straw: Yes. If there are suggestions
that can make a difference and represent significant improvements
in the sentencing regime and we can sensibly get them into the
Bill I will do it. There will be the usual interesting discussion
with business managers.
Q64 Robert Neill: Before we move
on to the IPP in detail perhaps I may return to one other interesting
point. You talked about procedural delay for tariff-expired IPP
prisoners. I just flag up one issue which is sometimes raised
with me by both practitioners and sentencers. Sometimes there
is a risk of not just procedural delay but also, before that,
delay in getting reports and access to all those courses particularly
for short-tariff prisoners. Is that something that you think should
be looked at?
Mr Straw: Yes. I am concerned
about the operation of IPPs. Lord Carter is looking at that and
I am sure this Committee will have a view about it. I am open-minded,
but there appears to be some agreement that for longer-tariff
prisoners IPP is a sensible form of public protection and a way
to encourage these prisoners to mend their ways. There is wider
concern about the availability of IPP for shorter tariff prisoners
because of the difficulty of getting courses for them and an apparent
paradox between a very short tariff, along with a declaration
by virtue of the sentence, that these people represent a longer-term
threat. The shortest tariff has been 28 days and I do not think
that was appealed, but there have been quite a number of tariffs
up to two years which cause me concern.
Q65 Chairman: You mentioned earlier
the effect of IPP on numbers. Have you quantified the current
Mr Straw: I can tell you that
of the current number of tariff-expired prisoners, who by definition
are the ones serving short tariffsit came in only in 2005392
are tariff-expired and are still in prison and 11 have been released
at tariff. I do not regard that as satisfactory.
Q66 Chairman: Are any of those who
have been released people who have been risk-assessed?
Mr Straw: I think they have. I
was told at a briefing just before this session that two have
been returned. I have no further details about those. I can give
you the total number of prisoners on IPP in a second.
Q67 Chairman: I should like to know
to what extent you can blame the present situation on the IPP
problem or how much you gain once you have solved it?
Mr Straw: IPP is predicated on
the assumption that by no means all IPP prisoners will be released
at tariff; otherwise it would render the whole purpose of the
indefinite sentence nugatory, but I think there should be a higher
level of release at or close to tariff than there is at the moment.
Part of the problem is that within the period of the tariff it
is very difficult to make available all the courses which the
Parole Board, quite understandably, say are indicators, not guarantees,
of a prisoner's likelihood of not re-offending when released.
We have also put some extra money into speeding all that up, but
obviously the shorter the tariff the more difficult it is. There
were 3,019 prisoners at the end of July who had been awarded an
IPP. The average minimum tariff is 38 months and the shortest
tariff awarded is 28 days.
Q68 Chairman: Did you say "average
minimum"? Do you mean the minimum tariff?
Mr Straw: The average tariff is
38 months and the tariff minimum term is the same thing.
Q69 Chairman: Clearly, a lot of this
problem is to do with the impossibility of processing by the Parole
Board. There is the issue of courses. Do you agree with the suggestion
of Sir Igor Judge that 100 judges might be needed by the Parole
Board to deal with the backlog and meet the number coming through?
Mr Straw: I have not had that
specific discussion with Sir Igor or any of his colleagues. What
I do accept is that we have to take some pretty urgent action
to get these people through the system. It is not right to have
people incarcerated if there is no necessity for them to be there.
Q70 Chairman: Here is a system where
there is a large number of people who may be wrongly imprisoned
because nobody has assessed themthis is what the court
cases are aboutand at the same time your only short-term
solution to that appears to be to release people without having
had the assessment which would be the best solution?
Mr Straw: It is not a situation
which anybody in my position would have wished on their worst
enemies, still less on themselves, but here we are. I am trying
to work through it as quickly as I can.
Q71 Chairman: Have you assessed the
financial implications? The deputy head of the Public Protection
Unit, Antony Robson, is alleged to have said that it would cost
the Government £10 million to fix the problem of delay.
Mr Straw: We have already put
£3 million into trying to fix the delay in terms of making
available more courses and so on. If we have to put more in I
shall consider that. Obviously, it depends, as is said famously,
on the availability of resources, but I hope you have gathered
that I am as concerned about it as this Committee and am determined
to see some improvements.
Q72 Chairman: There is the issue
of the status of the Parole Board itself. What thought have you
given to that, since you are obliged to do so by a court decision?
Mr Straw: It is the subject of
a recent court decision. I want to make clear that I do not comment
on the terms of any appeal that are entered, but I have no ideological
view about the structure and form of the Parole Board. I certainly
think that it should be independent and seen to be independent.
In many ways the more independent it is the more it can be confident
about its own decisions. I am looking at that actively. I know
that one of the criticisms made is that members of the Parole
Board are appointed on a three-year plus three-year basis which
appears to be rather short. I think it has been accepted that
although that process of appointment is open to criticism there
has been no suggestion of any kind of improper attempt to influence
members of the board either in the instant case or more widely.
There must be some connection between the Parole Board and Ministers
because under the current law it is hard to see how one can get
away from it. For example, in respect of mandatory lifers it is
the Parole Board which makes a recommendation for release from
category C to category D, but it is formally the Secretary of
Stateliterally mewho makes the decision as to whether
or not to accept the recommendation of the board. There are some
quite good arguments for that. If you are to keep good order in
a prison categorisation of prisoners must ultimately be a matter
for the Prison Service, but I am also ready to look at how that
discretion is exercised. In my view, in principle what Ministers
should do is set policy and standards and check on delivery, not
make decisions in individual cases.
Q73 Chairman: Have you considered
the idea of making it part of or attached to the Courts Service?
Mr Straw: I am ready to look at
that or the idea of attaching it to the Tribunal Service. If you
are taking evidence on that I shall be interested to see to what
conclusion you come. I do not feel in the least proprietorial
about the Parole Board. The idea is that it can operate only if
it is at arm's length from Ministers.
Q74 Mr Tyrie: I would like to ask
you about the POA industrial action that took place. Talks have
been going on, have there not? There was an initial round of talks
in late August and another in mid-September. What is the outcome
of those talks?
Mr Straw: They continue. I am
hoping to see the POA again quite shortly, and it has been invited
to a further meeting. A number of strands of discussion are taking
place at the moment. One has been about pay which is settled through
a pay review mechanism, which I established as Home Secretary
in 2000. That is now a statute-based mechanism. I am quite clear
that a pay review body is a better mechanism. This is the evidence-receiving
season for the pay review body, so the Prison Service is about
to publish our evidence to the pay review body and then it will
be for the POA to make its representations on it. Another strand
of work is being led by Mr Ed Sweeney on behalf of the TUC which
looks at wider industrial relations machinery for prison officers
and whether or not there can be a successor to the joint voluntary
agreement known as JIRPA. A third strand of work is about modernisation.
Q75 Mr Tyrie: Is that the joint industrial
relations procedure agreement?
Mr Straw: That is right.
Q76 Mr Tyrie: Do you think you will
be able to offer us a guarantee that there will not be a repetition
Mr Straw: You will have to ask
the POA that question. The POA has refused to offer a guarantee
that it will not take industrial action. It needs to be borne
in mind that the industrial action which it took was unlawful
on two counts: first, in terms of breach of the voluntary agreement
which remains in force until 8 May; second, it was unlawful in
terms of its failure to follow general employment law in respect
of the ballot it held which did not give it proper authority.
Q77 Mr Tyrie: In response to what
you have just said, do you not think it may be worth considering
a statutory ban?
Mr Straw: Yes, and that is under
Q78 Mr Tyrie: When might that come
Mr Straw: I am considering it
at the moment and I do not rule it out. Section 127 of the Criminal
Justice Act 1994 made prison officers constables and subject to
the same legislation as police officers and therefore made it
unlawful for them to take industrial action. When the predecessor
Home Secretary, or the person in my seat, arranged for the repeal
of that measure by order under the Regulatory Reform Act, Lord
Bassam, Home Office Minister, said in the House of Lords that
he wanted to make clear that if the voluntary agreement which
was a replacement for the power in section 127 was abrogated the
Government reserved the right to introduce legislation. That is
what is being considered.
Q79 Mr Tyrie: What proportion of
prison officers are members of the POA?
Mr Straw: It is very high.