Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60-79)


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 figure—should it be 95,000 rather than 100,000—the 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 position?

  Mr Straw: I can tell you that of the current number of tariff-expired prisoners, who by definition are the ones serving short tariffs—it came in only in 2005—392 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 them—this is what the court cases are about—and 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 State—literally me—who 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 of strikes?

  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 active consideration.

  Q78  Mr Tyrie: When might that come forward?

  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.

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