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I turn to the amendments. I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation. However, we feel that it did not address the point that I sought to make, which is of a general reduction in prison sentences. In view of the fact that this is contrary to what was said by the previous Home Secretary, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
The noble Lord said: Government Amendments Nos. 201 and 202 rectify minor technical inaccuracies with the Parole Board provisions in Part 6. The functions of the Parole Board under Part 12 ought, for consistency with other provisions, to be references to functions under Chapter 6 of that part. I hope that that is clear. That explains why the government amendments are necessary. I beg to move.
As part of its constitution the Parole Board has a person who has held high judicial office and a psychiatrist. However, in practice, when reviewing licences it is my experience that a number of members who are not identified meet on a daily basis without either a legally or medically-qualified member. It appears to follow a procedure which is opaque, to say the least.
I declare an interest: I was involved in a case fortunately it is over so I can refer to itin which the Secretary of State was subject to judicial review. We discovered that it was impossible to find out what were the rules of the Parole Board in reviewing a licence. There is nothing on the web. So far as we could find out, nothing is published and there is a total lack of transparency.
The hearings depend upon written reports, which are not disclosed to the person on licence. He has no right to be present or to be represented. In the specific case with which I was concerned a person on licence was arrested and charged with three offences. As a result, the Parole Board revoked his licence and returned him to prison. One of the charges was dropped. He was acquitted on the second charge and the third charge was due to be heard the day after the Parole Board was to determine his appeal against the revocation of his licence.
Naturally, his solicitor asked the Parole Board to adjourn so that the result of the third offence could be determined. The Parole Board refused that request. The board sat the day before his final hearing and turned him down so that he remained in prison. He was acquitted the following day so all three charges were disposed of. The solicitor went back to the Parole
Through that experience I discovered that it was impossible to find out how many members of the Parole Board were sitting, who they were, why they took this extraordinary decision to refuse an adjournment and why they refused to rehear the matter when all the matters at issue had been resolved. With that experience in mind I came to look at Clause 230(5) and (6).
Viscount Colville of Culross: Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may add a word to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. I am glad to say that it is no longer my job to defend decisions of the Parole Board. However, there is a point on rules and directions on which he has rightly focused.
The last time this situation arose was after the United Kingdom lost a case at Strasbourg about discretionary life sentences. It was held that it was no longer acceptable for the Home Secretary to decide when such people should be released. Therefore, the Parole Board was turned into a tribunal in order to make that decision in lieu of the Home Secretary. For that purpose there had to be rules. They were the same sort of rules to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred, but they were eventually made.
Can the Minister ensure that we do not have a repetition of what happened on that occasion? The Act was to come into force at the beginning of October. The Parole Board asked the Home Office, "Where are the rules?" Nothing happened. We did not ask just out
So in the end, a group of my colleagues and I sat down and wrote down the rules ourselves. We sent them to the Home Office and said, "This is the best we can do. We will have to train the members of the Parole Board on the basis of these rules because you will not produce any". That is what we did. In the end, some time in the middle of September, the rules were produced and bore a marked similarity to the draft that we sent to the Home Office. I believe they have worked perfectly well since, but they are not a statutory instrument.
Not only are there more rules here, we have directions. I can tell the Committee that to ensure that such things are properly understood by members of the Parole Board and of panels who have to sit on cases such as those to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, has referred, one needs time in advance to train people so that they can consider the implications. It is no use leaving it until the last minute. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, to ensure that on this occasion there is plenty of lead time. Otherwise it will simply not work. There is now a great deal to build on. There are the discretionary lifer ruleswhich, I think, would be a useful starting point.
However, my main point is that we must not have a repetition of what happened before: all those provisions must be put in placeit would be much better if they were transparentmuch sooner than happened last time. I shall forgive the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, if he cannot say anything about the matter today, because I gave notice of it only about 25 minutes ago; but perhaps he can consider it and let me know what is the situation.
Lord Filkin: In responding to extremely interesting speeches to Amendment No. 202A, which was debated in another place and which would remove the Secretary of State's power to make rules and directions concerning the operation of the Parole Board, let me first make some general remarks before turning to more specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross.
Having said that, that does not give the Home Secretary unfettered discretion to set down excessive or unreasonable criteria to be met before release can be granted. All directions must be compliant with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The rules have no influence on the determination of applications for early release. Instead, they offer a procedural framework for the Parole Board when sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity in the form of an oral hearing. The Parole Board is always fully consulted in drawing up such rules.
Of course, that was not the thrust of the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford. In shorthe will bear with me if I slightly oversimplify itit was that, given that it is operating in a quasi-judicial capacity, one would expect the Parole Board's rules to be known and apparent. He is right on that. I am advised that they are published, but we shall clearly need to consider how they are published and whether they are sufficiently transparent and accessible. If there is a need for greater transparency, we undertake to put that in place.
Turning to the powerful points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Colville: yes, we will ensure that we will make the rules in time; that training is provided for their implementation; and that we consult the Parole Board. I am told that that is already under way. The noble Viscount is absolutely right: the issues affect people's liberty and they have every right to expect that the processes by which decisions are made are comprehensible and open to account.
Having made those two general commitments and, aware that I amhow shall I put it?speaking on another's Bill, it is better that I put in writing to those Members of the Committee and others any further points on those issues that go to the heart of what they have raised, so that we provide as much clarity as possible before Report. At this point, I suggest that the opposition amendments are not pressed.