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20 Oct 2009 : Column 210WH—continued


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John Robertson: I apologise, Mr. Olner. I was totally in error in what I said, but people will get the gist of what I am trying to say.

A constituent of mine has a daughter who is in prison abroad, who is not, unfortunately, being dealt with using the same criteria as we use in this country. She has been convicted on the ground not of having committed a crime, but of being associated with the person who committed a crime. We have seen how in this country-I am referring to the al-Megrahi case because it is the one that has had all the coverage-someone receives the best of attention and help from solicitors and advocates, and generally from the Scottish judicial system. It would have been the same if the crime had been committed in England or Wales. Unfortunately, I cannot get the same treatment for the daughter of my constituent, who is in prison in the Dominican Republic.

We must look at such things in the round. We are in effect releasing people who have committed murder-in one case 270 murders-but my constituent's daughter is guilty only by association. I say that not because I know the judicial system in the Dominican Republic but because it was written on the court record when she was sentenced to eight years. I do not think that is fair, but we are more than a little fair to people in this country-we allow them to be released if they are not well and are going to die.

I worry that if, as the Prison Reform Trust has said, more and more people are living longer and getting to an age where they have no quality of life, we shall allow them to go free. If my wife had been in the aeroplane in question and had been killed I should be very unhappy if a prisoner were to be released because he was going to die in a certain space of time, and was in effect to be given some luxury and help. We saw the television scenes when Mr. al-Megrahi arrived in Libya, and that was probably what got the Scottish public going. I do not think that it was really the fact that he was let loose; it was more to do with the way it was portrayed in the media. It was a disgraceful situation, and we need to examine that.

I have said what I wanted to say. It is important that Members of Parliament should understand what is going on. I agree to some extent with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe that we must consider the question of who makes the decisions. He seemed to think that judges could do it, but the judges are the problem in some cases, not the solution. I hope that I do not come before one now that I have said that, but I have never had great faith in our judicial system, and what I have seen recently backs up my feelings. I do not think that the decision should be down to one individual. Kenny MacAskill has been vilified, rightly or wrongly, depending on what side of the political divide we are on. He had to make the decision, but it was not fair that he should do so. There must be a better way to ensure that victims' families are listened to, and are part of the process. If someone has been found guilty and granted an appeal, and is still found guilty, I believe that he probably is guilty. If his case goes to another appeal we should not drag it out, but should allow it to happen quickly. Perhaps that was the problem with the al-Megrahi case. If the second appeal had happened more quickly perhaps we would not be having this debate.


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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe for securing the debate, and I thank you for your indulgence, Mr. Olner.

11.45 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I commend the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) for bringing the debate, and for the way he framed its terms. Some massive issues are involved. People who have spent their whole lives as jurists have struggled with the question of the purpose of the criminal justice system, so to expect a handful of MPs to come up with the answer after a 90-minute debate is a tall order; but it is a worthy debate, none the less.

The matter is of some public interest at the moment, as a consequence of the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and, earlier in the year, Ronnie Biggs. We can tease issues from those cases that are of broader application and might assist us in establishing the criteria that the hon. Member for Broxtowe rightly said were needed. I shall from time to time refer to those cases, but in a way that I hope does not fall foul of your earlier stricture, Mr. Olner. It is helpful to take lessons from the practical for more general application.

The debate is timely because the consequence of the Biggs and al-Megrahi cases is that there is now a lively public debate. It is of supreme importance that there should be public confidence in the justice system. The maintenance and restoration of public confidence requires a clear set of guidelines-protocol, perhaps-for Ministers to apply when considering such cases. It also requires that any such guidelines and protocols should be put in the public domain. It is important that the public should see that there is a robust procedure that balances the often competing and occasionally contradictory interests that the Minister must take into account when making the relevant decisions. The public should have confidence that that is done in a proper manner.

When I intervened on the hon. Member for Broxtowe to say that the purpose of justice is to effect reconciliation, I should have explained a little more. That purpose is the nirvana, which we may never reach, but we should still have it very much in mind when we approach the entire subject. It is not relevant just in questions of early release. The interest of the victims, about which the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) spoke, should be uppermost for every party in the criminal justice system, whether police, prosecutor, Minister, defence solicitor or advocate, or even the prison authorities.

We are not concerned only about difficult early release cases; there are many routine early release cases. We do not, in any jurisdiction in this country, impose life without parole. Therefore we accept in principle that no matter what a person has done, at some point the day can come when someone will turn the key in the door and they will walk free.

As a former criminal justice practitioner, my concern is that we do not deal well with the victims, whose interests are not always easy to identify and certainly not easy to pursue. We should not-I offer this as a gentle stricture to the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West-confuse pursuing victims' interests with giving victims everything that they want. The symbol of justice is the set of scales held up by Justicia, and she is blindfolded because justice, we are told, is blind. That is
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an important metaphor for us to bear in mind, because justice often requires us not fully to meet the different competing interests.

Dr. Palmer: The issue is complicated enough, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also the possibility of collective reconciliation, as we have seen in Northern Ireland? The figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West gave for the number of convicted murderers who have been released in Northern Ireland would be pretty unthinkable had it not been for the Northern Ireland peace process. There will be situations where a collective decision is made to move forward, and the victims might have greater understanding for the releases that take place than they would if an individual murderer were released.

Mr. Carmichael: The question of collective reconciliation is very interesting and runs to the heart of much of what criminal justice is about. However, we can achieve collective reconciliation only if the public have confidence in the criminal justice system. For whatever reason-there is no single reason, but a whole amalgam of them-too many of our constituents do not have confidence in the system as it operates today.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe outlined a number of criteria, and I want briefly to explore a few of them. One was the possibility of recall, which is important. With respect to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the issue was not fully taken into account in the decision on Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. If any of the outlandish possibilities that have been discussed ever became a reality, that man would be completely outwith the jurisdiction of the Scottish Justice Minister. One option that could have been considered, and which should perhaps have been considered with more care and force, was release, but not release from Scotland. That is important because we are talking about release from prison, not the end of the criminal justice process, and that is as true for people who are released on compassionate grounds as it is for those who are released on licence in the normal course of things-it is not the end of the story, as the hon. Member for Broxtowe said.

Pete Wishart: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment about someone from a third-party country remaining in the home country. Is he aware that in response to the suggestion that al-Megrahi could have been placed in a hospice or in his former home at Newton Mearns, the deputy chief constable of Strathclyde police said that the burden on the police would have been disproportionate and that 48 police officers would have been required just to police that one man in that one setting?

Mr. Carmichael: Again, we are in the realms of competing interests. Many people might feel that would have been a price worth paying, given the damage to Scotland's reputation when people saw flags flying on the tarmac in Libya when al-Megrahi was returned. Although the people we are talking about should be released from prison, it is important that there is no question of their being at the end of their involvement with the criminal justice system.


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The hon. Member for Broxtowe suggested that the gravity of the offence and the length of time that has been served should be taken into account. Although those are clearly considerations, I must gently tell him that I am not persuaded that they should be primary considerations. I come back to the first principle that I elucidated-that we accept that everybody who is to be imprisoned can be released at some point. Our focus should be on the substance of the application for early release. As the hon. Gentleman suggested, we should consider whether we have robust, independently obtained medical evidence about the prisoner's condition. Thereafter, we should consider how we give effect to any decision, while respecting the feelings of the victims and families.

Dr. Palmer: Just to test what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he agree that the length of sentence is pretty important, certainly in extreme cases? Let us imagine that I was suffering from terminal cancer and assassinated Mr. Olner. If I then applied for immediate release on compassionate grounds, would there not be something a bit inappropriate about it?

Mr. Carmichael: The assassination of our Chairman would certainly be a lot more than inappropriate. Evidence that pre-existing illness was a determining factor in the commission of the crime and, in fact, part of the mens rea would be a highly relevant consideration. However, I come back to the point that we cannot go beyond the general principle.

My other point, to return to something that I said earlier, is that it is not just the decision that is important, but how we reach it. My concern about the al-Megrahi decision is that it has left a significant number of the Lockerbie families feeling more alienated than ever from the justice system. In that sense, the decision is regrettable. I have many friends in Lockerbie. In fact, I have friends who were living in a house on Sherwood crescent when Pan Am flight 103 came down. It had a severe impact on their lives, the lives of their children and the lives of people in the surrounding area. Many of the victims have been left feeling alienated.

My concern, which I would like to be central in any protocol that is constructed, is that the decisions that we are discussing, being quasi-judicial, should be taken in a quasi-judicial way, by which I mean that they should be taken beyond the public gaze. Judges do not send out press officers to address the press when they make their decisions. We do not see pictures of judges' cars going into Barlinnie prison when judges go to interview prisoners. It was wrong and inappropriate that others should have done such things. If the Minister is to construct a protocol, that is the sort of thing that she should be at pains to exclude. Such exclusions are necessary here and in Edinburgh to restore public confidence in our system.

11.58 am

Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): It is a pleasure to take part in this timely debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on introducing this issue, which it is important for Parliament to deal with. I also congratulate him on not being unduly drawn into the high-profile al-Megrahi case, which is plainly not within the jurisdiction of this Parliament or the Government.


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It is important to focus, as the hon. Gentleman did, on early release on compassionate grounds, and that is what I shall do.

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

Given the title of the debate, however, it is important to make some general comments about Government policy on prisoner release, which needs to be criticised. It is important, although it has not yet been done, to clarify the position in relation to release on compassionate grounds, because that can easily be distorted in debate, although I do not accuse the hon. Member for Broxtowe of doing so. However, because it often comes to light in the public domain in relation to high-profile cases, whether Ronnie Biggs or, in another jurisdiction, al-Megrahi, it is easy to lose sight of the reality.

We have already heard that 48 prisoners have been released on compassionate grounds over five years, and that only 28 per cent. of applications have been granted. As for the timing of those releases, I understand that those prisoners who are terminally ill are likely to be released with no more than a day or two to live, unlike those high-profile cases of which we heard. We should recognise that the context is important.

Compassion was mentioned throughout the debate, and it is a key element of the criminal justice system. However, it is important that it is applied properly, given the other factors and principles of the system that need to be taken into account. We must also consider the fact that the concerns of administration and cost can in many ways replace that important principle. In the debate arising from the high-profile cases, one concern is that many of those 48 prisoners were released ultimately for the benefit of administration, given the cost of keeping them in prison with a terminal illness, as opposed to the cost of their being released and dying in a hospice or somewhere else with their families, a factor that the hon. Member for Broxtowe prayed in aid. It is important to know whether those decisions were based primarily on compassion.

We must also consider the criteria that are used. The hon. Gentleman sought to submit new criteria, but the present criteria seem to be little different. I shall briefly go through the criteria in Prison Service Order 6000, to which reference has already been made. It outlines the circumstances in which, in cases where the prisoner is terminally ill, bedridden or severely incapacitated, early release on compassionate grounds may be appropriate. In instances of terminal illness, there are no specified time scales, something to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but the PSO suggests that release may be appropriate where life expectancy is three months or less. It specifically states:

I note the hon. Gentleman's reference to the fact that there should be two opinions; will the Minister confirm whether, to accord with the PSO guidelines, such a medical opinion would require two medical reports?

The PSO continues:

Further detailed criteria are given in the appendix to the PSO. Reference is made to various factors, including the prisoner's health, the benefits or hardships to him and his family, the risk of reoffending, the length of the sentence remaining-a point that was made during the debate-and any remarks made by the trial judge.

Another factor mentioned by the hon. Member for Broxtowe and by others is the views of the victim of the crime for which the prisoner is serving a sentence. However, the criteria make no specific reference to that factor. The Minister may wish to comment on that aspect of the criteria, which it could be argued is missing, and say whether it should be included.

Dr. Palmer: Would the hon. Gentleman agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) that it is important that the victims are informed at least that the process is under way? It does not always happen, with the result that those who might be perceived as a threat by the victim, regardless of whether it is an accurate perception, are released at what the victim will see as fairly short notice.

Mr. Burrowes: That is a good point, particularly in connection with early release on compassionate grounds.

In relation to the Parole Board's consideration of such matters, I understand that a protocol was published last month specifically to clarify victim participation in hearings. The victims can thus be clear about their expectations, knowing that their voice can be heard through statements to be considered by the panel. It also clarifies their ability to apply to attend and present their statement in person. The protocol is welcome; it has been a long time coming, but it clarifies matters and provides a greater opportunity for the victim's voice to be heard. So far, whether in parole hearings or elsewhere in the criminal justice system, the victim's voice has not been heard properly; indeed, they are often the last to hear information that they should be the first to hear. That needs to change, so the protocol is welcome.

My party has yet to be convinced that change is needed. We recognise the significant role of the Parole Board, and it is important that its recommendations are respected. However, in exceptional cases-those that involve the most serious of crimes-the Secretary of State should have discretion, and there should be proper accountability so that he can make difficult decisions on individual cases. I disagree with the hon. Member for Broxtowe on the question of equating decisions by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on health matters with those that involve serious crime. It is surely for the Secretary of State to take the onerous decision on whether to release someone early.


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