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20 Oct 2009 : Column 216WH—continued

Dr. Palmer: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the parallel that I made was not between general sickness and crime, but between the political process that we all accept is associated with jockeying for position, point
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scoring and so on, and the rational process that we hope is made in all such situations? Does he not agree that the furore about the Megrahi case was slightly unedifying, and that few felt that the outcome was entirely unrelated to political considerations?

Mr. Burrowes: I hear the point that is being made-that we can characterise the political process as jockeying and point scoring. It does happen, but one cannot apply that caricature wholly to political decisions made about release on compassionate grounds. I agree that such things must be dealt with in a clear and rational manner. I would want to scrutinise those decisions to ensure that they had been made rationally and clearly, particularly in high-profile cases, and not as a result of pressure from the media. They should be decided on the compassionate grounds and the other factors given in the PSO. However, as I said earlier, I do not wish to be drawn into the al-Megrahi case, as it does not come within the provenance of this debate.

The Secretary of State's decisions and the principles behind them must be governed and prescribed by case law, including recent judgments by the House of Lords and by the European Court of Human Rights, which restrict his decisions to being proportional, reasonable and fair. Therefore, taking all those factors into account, I suggest that the discretion of the Secretary of State should remain. However, it must be applied properly in all cases-high profile or not.

I wish to make some more general comments about the issue of prisoner release in relation to Government policy on prisons. I am sure that we all agree that when a decision is made to release a prisoner, public safety must be the primary consideration. However, prison overcrowding has reached a crisis point. The number of prisoners has reached an all-time high of 84,702, which is an increase of 25,000 since 1997, and is a problem of the Government's own making. Prison releases, beyond the specific case of compassionate release, are too often motivated by consideration of prison capacity, rather than a prisoner's capacity not to reoffend. As I said in my opening comments, it is important that we do not simply deal with principles of administration, cost and capacity and lose sight of the principles of compassion and, more fundamentally, of justice. Concern was also expressed about prisoners being released early without the victims knowing about it, which leads to a loss of confidence in the whole system.

It is important that we restore honesty to sentencing and that offenders are properly punished for their crimes. Moreover, sentencing must be properly understandable, both to the victims and to the public, and must ensure that reparation and rehabilitation take place properly as well as fulfilling the important need for the prisoner to serve their crime. The Labour Government's failure properly to plan and provide sufficient prison places has forced them into a policy of releasing prisoners early and inappropriately. If we look at the current estate, which is at about 112 per cent. of capacity, with some prisons at as much as 150 per cent., with 25 per cent. of prisoners doubled or trebled up in cells, we can see that decisions are increasingly based on capacity and administration rather than on justice.

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Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, we have seen an estimated 20,000 prisoners released automatically halfway through their sentence. Some 70,000 prisoners have been released early on home detention curfews, 4,000 of whom have gone on to reoffend. In the press, we have seen magistrates' concerns about short sentences. Someone in Essex could be sentenced to 42 days on a Friday, but after the sentence is automatically halved with the provisions for home detention curfew and the problems of housing a prisoner over a weekend, they end up being released, turned round and given a grant for good measure, which undermines the confidence of both the magistrates and the public.

John Robertson: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I do not necessarily disagree with him, but such a problem has happened to successive Governments. Is it not a fact that we are convicting more people because we are catching them? Nowadays with the use of DNA testing, it is easier to catch people. Is the hon. Gentleman against that? Does he feel that people who are convicted should go to prison or be let out?

Mr. Burrowes: As time is running short, I do not want to get into a long debate about the Government's policy in relation to DNA and such like. There are more prisoners on the imprisonment for public protection level who are serving sentences, thus putting pressure on the estate. The Government could have planned for that. The Prime Minister was given the information back in 2002 and could have signed the cheque for more prison places. He took the decision not to do so, and now we are all regretting it.

Finally, let me briefly mention the Parole Board, which has not been given enough attention in this debate. It plays a key role, but it, too, has suffered from the Government's failed policy on prisons. Capacity challenges affect it, and as a result, its case load has almost doubled since 2002. In March, the National Audit Office reported problems of hearings being delayed and prisoner risk assessments arriving late. It is important to take note of the concerns of the Parole Board's chief executive. The board has been concerned for some time about the timing and quality of the information on which it has to base its decisions and about the rate of deferrals in some cases.

As the Parole Board makes important decisions on prisoner releases, it must have the proper information. As I mentioned earlier, it is important, too, to inform the victims and involve them in appropriate representations, so we must address the issue of capacity. We must ensure that we have enough prison places to deal with those who commit crime. It is important to have honesty in sentencing and a system of minimum and maximum sentencing. The courts must know the minimum time that will be served up to the maximum time, and the effect of earned release with appropriate conditions. We must ensure that prison governors have the powers to make those initial decisions on prisoner suitability for earned release. Finally, we want to see prisons that have the purpose of real work and rehabilitation so that prisoners are ready to lead constructive, law-abiding lives and not reoffend. It is important that when prisoners are released, they have not been set up to fail so that they end up coming back, having created more victims of crime.

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12.15 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on securing this important debate. He said at the beginning of his remarks that it was an experimental debate. His own speech was extremely thoughtful and non-partisan, which is what he said he wanted the debate to be. I have listened with interest to the contributions from hon. Members. It comes as no surprise that there are strong views about early release of whatever kind. As various hon. Members have said, there have been some controversial cases recently in various jurisdictions of early release on compassionate grounds, which led people to consider the issue of when and under what circumstances that should be done. My hon. Friend discovered as much when he consulted his own constituents and set out his suggestions for criteria upon which such releases should be made.

Let me assist the Chamber by explaining the legislation under which prisoners may be released on compassionate grounds. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), in the less partisan first half of his speech, which I enjoyed a great deal-I did not think much of the second half of his speech-said that there is a Prison Service Order and that there are criteria, which is correct. There is also legislation. It might help the debate if I set out what that is. My remarks relate purely and simply to the jurisdiction for which I speak, which is England and Wales, but not Scotland. There are some similarities with the rules and practice in Scotland, but they are not identical and I do not purport to speak for the Scottish Justice Minister in any way.

Moreover, I will address some of the points that have been made and describe how the power has been used in practice. As a general principle, it is right that there should be a power to enable the release of certain prisoners in the most exceptional and compassionate circumstances, such as if a prisoner is about to die. A number of Members have read out the existing criteria. It should be possible for that person to be released early to be with his family and to receive the appropriate care at home or in a hospital or hospice during his final days. In practice, that often relates to removing the handcuffs and taking away the guards from the hospital room in which the individual is going through the final part of his life. That is what that kind of release often means. The statutory authority itself is broad and simply provides that the Secretary of State may, at any time, release a prisoner on licence if he is satisfied that exceptional circumstances exist that justify the prisoner's release on compassionate grounds. However, for prisoners serving a determinate sentence, the power is contained in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 or in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, depending on the dates of their offences and which of those Acts govern their release. For prisoners serving life or other indeterminate sentences, the power is provided by section 30 of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997. I can assure hon. Members that a great deal of care is taken with every application for compassionate release. However, the primary consideration is, and will always be-and this comes on to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe made about the criteria-that it will not put the public at risk.

The authority in this area is conferred on the Secretary of State by Parliament, and therefore it is the Secretary of State who determines the policy and criteria that
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should be adopted as to how they will exercise that power in practice. There has been a bit of a debate about whether or not politicians should do that; there has been a suggestion that it might be better if judges did it, but there has been some disagreement with that suggestion. I do not think that there is any obvious or easy answer. However, on the question of specific prisoner releases on compassionate grounds, which are sometimes controversial, as the debate today has indicated, there is an argument that the Secretary of State, who is accountable to the House and responsible for taking these decisions, should do so in a quasi-judicial way.

Generally, that system has worked well, although I accept the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe has made about the recent controversial cases. Most releases on compassionate grounds are not as controversial as those recent cases that have appeared in the newspapers. Of course, such releases can be upsetting to victims, which was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) made. Even release at the end of sentence, which is not made on compassionate grounds, can be very difficult, both for victims who have suffered at the hands of particular individuals and for those victims' families. I agree with the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) that, although the views and sensitivities of victims must be taken into account and must be in the mix, they cannot be an overriding consideration.

Dr. Palmer: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for her thoughtful response to the debate. On the issue of reoffending, one problem, which was not raised with me during my preparation for this debate, is that people released on compassionate grounds commonly go on to commit other offences. Does she agree that, in practice, it is very rare that such reoffending happens, because we are talking about people who are probably staying in hospital or who are too ill even to contemplate carrying out other offences?

Maria Eagle: My hon. Friend is right. I think that the existing criteria are applied properly, and I know that a great deal of care is taken to ensure that they are being properly applied in our jurisdiction. Many applications that are made for release on compassionate grounds do not meet the criteria sufficiently and are not granted; only 28 per cent. of such applications are granted in England and Wales. Furthermore, prisoners who are released on compassionate grounds go on to die; that is what they go on to do, generally. So, as I have said, my hon. Friend is correct.

There is a further back-up, to which the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made reference. Even when prisoners are released on compassionate grounds, they are released on licence, so that if there is any subsequent doubt or concern about them they can be recalled. To respond to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, they cannot be recalled if their medical condition improves suddenly; that is not a reason for recall. In practice, however, that does not occur in respect of this type of cases; it has certainly not occurred in the past few years. Nevertheless, if such prisoners present any risk to the public or if it starts to become clear that they are doing some of the things that my hon. Friend suggested as examples of what they might do-plotting a revenge killing, or harassing a victim-they
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can be recalled. There is absolutely no reason why, in those circumstances, they cannot be recalled to prison, because they are out on licence.

Reference has already been made to the strict criteria that we have adopted in medical cases. In such cases, the criteria are that the prisoner is suffering from a terminal illness and that death is likely to occur soon, which is normally taken to be within three months, although, in respect of the cases that I have dealt with in the Department, death is likely to be much sooner than that. Alternatively, the prisoner is bedridden or severely incapacitated, for example by a severe stroke.

For prisoners serving a determinate sentence, the policy allows for compassionate release where there are tragic family circumstances. In practice, however, such a release hardly ever happens. Only 10 per cent. of applications for release on compassionate grounds are made on the basis of tragic family circumstances. Release in those circumstances would be granted only in extremely rare situations, which do not apply in the type of cases that we have been discussing. Furthermore, the Secretary of State would have to be satisfied that any such release would not put the public at risk.

Prisoners serving an indeterminate sentence may be released on compassionate grounds only for medical reasons. They may not be released for tragic family reasons. For such prisoners, in addition to meeting the criteria of being terminally ill, bedridden or incapacitated, it is also necessary to establish that the risk of their reoffending is minimal, that there are adequate arrangements for their care and treatment outside prison and that their early release will bring some significant benefit to themselves or to their family. The figures for recent years for such releases were correctly referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West in his remarks.

For prisoners serving an indeterminate sentence, the Secretary of State is required by the relevant legislation to consult the Parole Board, unless circumstances make that impractical. The Parole Board is usually asked to provide a risk assessment before the Secretary of State makes a decision on release. That assessment will be taken into account, along with all the other relevant material and reports from medical practitioners, and from prison and probation staff.

There has been some discussion today about whether or not one doctor's opinion is enough. It is usually the treating physician, who is in a good position to know what the situation is, who gives an opinion. In addition, there are often prison physicians, as well as physicians from outside the prison who give an opinion. Without conducting some kind of investigation, I could not tell my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe whether one or two medical opinions are usually given, but my suspicion is that usually more than one opinion is given; the report that is issued is usually the product of more than one doctor's opinion. Having said that, however, the opinion of more than one doctor is not required under the existing criteria.

There are also general principles that must be satisfied by any application for release on compassionate grounds. No prisoner may be released early if that would put the
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public at risk. Furthermore, a decision to release would not normally be made on the basis of facts of which the sentencing court was aware at the time of sentencing. There has to be a development after sentencing that leads to a subsequent illness. If the sentencing court was aware of a person's medical condition, it is fair to assume that that condition was taken into account in the original sentencing. Therefore, that condition is not something that can be considered later, by way of some type of pseudo-appeal to the Secretary of State.

I therefore say to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe that there are criteria that must be met for release on compassionate grounds. It may be the case that they are not generally known to the public; there is certainly some truth to that. It may well be that, in the party political furore and game that occasionally accompanies one or two of these types of decisions, the criteria upon which the relevant Justice Minister makes their decision are not at the forefront of the headlines that one reads in the ravenous media that report these things. However, that is not to say that Justice Ministers in whatever jurisdiction they are responsible for do not follow those criteria very carefully. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said very clearly-and I agree with him-that there are other arrangements that bind the decisions that Ministers make, which are there to check that Ministers are making those decisions in a rational way and according to the criteria that are set out and according to the statute as it is set out. Of course, those decisions, like any other decision that a Minister makes, are bound by those general considerations of rationality and fairness.

Generally speaking, we have had an excellent debate. I do not know if my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe considers that his experiment with regard to this debate has succeeded. Nevertheless, I think that all the criteria that he has set out for considering release on compassionate grounds have something to be said for them. Some of them are already part of the current criteria that must be met for compassionate release. I think that those criteria can be established if anyone seeks to do so. Individual cases are assessed according to those criteria, and in my experience those criteria are assessed very carefully and on a case-by-case basis; there can be no general arrangement that would meet all situations.

I shall end by expressing some regret about the contribution by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), which I thought was an unfortunate and partisan rant that sought to score political points. It did not really succeed in its aim, because my impression, as I sat and listened to it, was that he was protesting a little bit too much. He is not himself the Justice Minister of Scotland. It is my observation that Mr. MacAskill, who is the Justice Minister of Scotland, made it clear that he made the decision about al-Megrahi himself and did so alone. Mr. MacAskill can defend himself, and has done so in the relevant parts of his jurisdiction where he needs to do so-in the Scottish Parliament and in the court of Scottish public opinion. Mr. MacAskill hardly needs what I consider to be the somewhat dubious assistance of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, which, on the basis of his speech today, has not exactly been helpful to Mr. MacAskill's cause.

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Mental Health Services (New Forest)

12.30 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Speaking in debates in the House of Commons is always a slightly tense occupation, but Westminster Hall is normally a more relaxed environment. Today, however, for the first time in Westminster Hall, I feel nervous. I know that on the outcome of this debate depends the future and fate of some of the most vulnerable members of my community.

I am pleased that my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker), both of whom have an interest in the subject of mental health, have taken the unusual step of coming along to such a short debate. It is a measure of the concern felt in the community about the closure-allegedly a temporary one, for four months-of a psychiatric intensive care unit, or PICU, at Woodhaven hospital in my constituency.

This is not the first time I have operated outside my comfort zone of defence and security concerns. Back in 1997, when I was a brand-new Member of the House, I came second in the private Member's Bill ballot. We all know what happened to the person who came first: he chose the important subject of banning fox hunting, a decision with which I happen to disagree. On the Friday when that important Bill was debated, the Chamber was packed. A week or two later came my Bill, the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, to improve conditions for people suffering catastrophic mental breakdown and needing a safe and secure in-patient environment in which to recover. Needless to say, because the debate concerned desperately ill people rather than foxes, attendance was down to the usual dozen or two hon. Members.

One person who gave me invaluable support in preparing for that debate, which involved an issue in which I have no specialist expertise, was Dr. Adrian Yonace, an independent consultant psychiatrist and fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Since then, he has become a personal friend. He is well acquainted with Woodhaven, the marvellous modern mental hospital built and opened in my constituency, much to my delight, only five years ago.

Woodhaven has two wards: a 24-bed acute ward, containing a mixture of people who have voluntarily admitted themselves and people who have been sectioned; and a six-bed PICU where the most seriously ill, difficult and challenging people are confined in a locked and regimented environment. Dr. Yonace describes Woodhaven as an excellent local psychiatric service, with a PICU alongside the acute ward so there is always the potential for interchange between the two units. I will have more to say about that later if I have time.

Dr. Yonace says that the closure of the psychiatric intensive care unit will put great pressure on other PICUs, which are already bulging at the seams. He describes the intensive care ward team under Dr. Guy Powell as widely known for its excellence in the care of the most acutely mentally ill, particularly helping those who live in close proximity and their relatives.

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