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House of Lords

Monday, 4th December 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Chancellor.

Life Prisoners: Home Leave

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

    On whose authority convicted persons serving life sentences are temporarily released on home leave, and for what reason or reasons such persons are so released.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, under the new system of release on temporary licence, eligible life sentenced prisoners in open conditions who satisfy the mandatory risk assessment may be released on resettlement licence to maintain their family ties and links with the community. A decision to grant an initial period of resettlement licence is made on the authority of the Secretary of State by Prison Service headquarters. Subsequent grants are made by the governor of the prison in which the prisoner is held.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, is it not a fact that the deterrent effect of a life sentence is very much undermined by the frequent habit of releasing people during the running of it? Equally, is it not a fact that on quite a number of occasions persons serving life sentences released on home leave then commit further offences?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend can be comforted by some of the changes that have been made. It is now the case that life sentenced prisoners do not qualify for release on temporary licence until they have moved to open conditions. They cannot be moved to open conditions until they are within three years of their service. If there is any risk assessment to public safety, open conditions will not be granted and therefore early release does not apply.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, may or may not be comforted by the Minister's second answer. However, were not his first, and indeed his second questions, based on a considerable misunderstanding? As I understand it, all but 15 of prisoners who have mandatory life sentences may expect under the terms of their tariff period to be released into the community at some stage. Are not home leave and release under licence, which are intended to help them to get back into the community, as important for them as for other prisoners?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, first, the Question relates to anyone serving a life sentence and therefore

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it will include discretionary as well as mandatory life sentences. If there is any assessment of risk to public safety, temporary release can be withheld and the prisoner can serve his whole sentence in custody. The noble Lord makes an important point that resettlement leave is a structured part of helping people to move from custody into open conditions and then out into the community.

Baroness Seear: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the anxiety which lies behind this Question is evidence of the folly in rejecting the removal of the mandatory life sentence for murder because that means, does it not?, that people who are to leave prison relatively soon and who no doubt have committed different sorts of offences will be treated in the same way as serious offenders?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I do not believe that this matter undermines that provision in any way. The paramount consideration in all of this is the safety of the public, whether someone is serving a mandatory life sentence or a discretionary life sentence. For the mandatory life sentence the period to be served is, of course, the tariff period. It is only within three years of the tariff period that consideration is even given for open prison conditions. If concern remains about public safety, open conditions will not be granted.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, when someone has been convicted of an offence committed while on home leave, he will never receive home leave again?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is true that such a person would be unlikely ever to receive home leave again. An additional offence has been created for anyone who does not return from home leave. That new offence was created under the previous criminal justice Bill.

Lord Hayter: My Lords, will the Minister explain to the House under what order or what Act of Parliament this release is being governed?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the recent changes to home leave conditions did not require primary legislation. That is a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who has made changes to the way in which the system works. He has tightened it up in response to the anxiety on the part of the public, which is, I believe, underpinned by my noble friend's Question. The public were concerned about people who committed crimes while on early release.

Student Loans Company

2.42 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are satisfied with the performance of the Student Loans Company.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley): My Lords, yes.

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The National Audit Office report published on 24th November this year showed that, following certain difficulties last year, the company is now operating well.

Lord Castle of Castle Morris: My Lords, I am obliged to the Minister for that brief Answer. Is he aware that Sir Eric Ash, to whom most of the credit for rescuing the Student Loans Company must go, believes, and has stated, that the biggest problem with student loans is their repayment mechanism? That is also the opinion of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the Higher Education Careers Service Unit and the students. Why, then, do the Government do nothing about repayment but bring forward a Bill to extend nothing but choice, which nobody wants?

Lord Henley: My Lords, the Bill that we shall be bringing forward is another matter, but that will extend choice, diversity and competition and bring gains for the students accordingly. I reject the noble Lord's accusation that we do nothing about repayments. The Student Loans Company has collected some 95 per cent. of all the moneys due, and I believe that is a very creditable performance.

Lord Beloff: My Lords, does my noble friend recollect that when the student loans scheme first came before your Lordships' House in 1988, those of us with close connections with universities urged the Government to replace it by a scheme in which repayment would come through taxation, as in Australia? That scheme works. This scheme clearly causes hardship. When we have a Commonwealth, why do we not take advantage of the experience of countries in the Commonwealth which make experiments we might well follow?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not accept my noble friend's accusation that the scheme is not working. It would be possible to look at alternative schemes and, as my noble friend suggests, one could look at schemes which use either the tax or national insurance system. However, I have to say to my noble friend that I believe that would impose extra and unnecessary burdens on employers and would introduce unnecessary complication. It also possibly goes against the general principle that the tax and national insurance systems should not be used for debt collecting.

Baroness David: My Lords, in its report of 24th November the National Audit Office says that one in eight students with a government loan is unlikely ever to repay it, and that £1.3 billion is now outstanding. Why is that so, and what steps do the Government propose to take to recover the £142 million which the National Audit Office says will not be repaid? We were told when the 1990 Bill was before us that we would see the start of savings in the year 2015. Is that in any way a realistic date since, as of last March, 45 per cent. of all borrowers had had their grants deferred?

Lord Henley: My Lords, it was never the Government's intention that we should recover every last penny of money paid out in loans. It was our

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intention that the money should be recovered only from those whose incomes reached at least 85 per cent. of national average income. There will always be some who do not reach that figure or who die before the 25 years expire. We shall continue to try to reclaim those moneys which are due to us. As I made clear in my original Answer, we believe that the performance of the Student Loans Company so far has been very creditable. It has reclaimed some 95 per cent. of the moneys that are now due to it.

Baroness Perry of Southwark: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, after its initial difficulties, the loan scheme is now deeply appreciated by responsible students, who have every intention of repaying their loans? Is he also aware that students from other countries who see the service we offer to students here in the United Kingdom regard it as a Rolls-Royce opportunity and are deeply envious of the opportunities that we give?

Lord Henley: My Lords, I am most grateful for my noble friend's comments. My noble friend is quite right to underline the success of the scheme. The success of the scheme is one of the factors which has allowed us to expand higher education to its highest ever level. Now one in three of all students go on to higher education. Those who oppose the scheme or other such schemes have to address the question of just how higher education is to be funded. We believe it is right that those who are the direct and principal beneficiaries of higher education should also make some contribution to it.

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