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October 2021 - Parole Board

Minutes of the Virtual Round Table Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 19 October 2021

Guest speakers

Caroline Corby, Chair
Martin Jones, Chief Executive
Jawaid Akhtar, Parole Board Member

Present

Paul Maynard MP (in the Chair)
Lord Carlile QC CBE
Baroness Healy
Baroness Ludford

Paul Maynard MP opened the meeting by welcoming all participants. He described himself as a former justice minister and also a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT).  This would be a slightly different APPG meeting, only for parliamentarians and the Parole Board, to enable a better understanding of how the Parole Board functioned. He then introduced the three speakers, and explained the routine for asking questions via the chat function. He invited parliamentarians to introduce themselves.

Lord Carlile said that he had been a QC for over 35 years and a part time judge for 28 years. He had also been the independent reviewer of terrorist legislation. His interest in the Parole Board was in two areas: one was whether the Parole Board had fully conveyed what it did, to members of both Houses, so that they really understood what its role was, given the changes towards the ‘judicialisation’ of its activities. Secondly, his interests related to the current controversies concerning the sentencing and detention of terrorists.

There being no other parliamentarians present at that time, Paul Maynard invited Caroline Corby, the Parole Board Chair, to speak first.

Caroline Corby thanked the meeting for its invitation. She would start by giving an introduction to the Parole Board’s work, Martin Jones would give some more information about the organisation and its performance, and Jawaid Akhtar would conclude by talking about being a Parole Board member, and the sorts of things members took into consideration when making their decisions.

As I am sure you all know, the Parole Board is an independent body which carries out a risk assessment on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely managed in the community.  Prisoners are referred to the Parole Board once their punishment period, set by the judge, is served. Just to be clear about that, if a prisoner is sentenced let’s say to a life sentence for murder with a 20-year tariff, which is the punishment element of that sentence, they will only be referred to the Parole Board to consider release when the 20 year period has been served.  I am emphasising that point because there is often a misunderstanding, that somehow the parole process is a way of getting out early. That is absolutely not the case.  Nobody comes to us to be considered for release until the punishment period has been served.

Another misunderstanding which I want to clear up right at the start is that the Parole Board can somehow determine at which point we review a prisoner. That is again not true.  The process is that a judge will set the sentence for the prisoner, within guidelines which are set by the framework determined by Parliament. A prisoner will only be referred to us once the punishment period is over.  That referral is automatic.  You will sometimes see in the newspapers that a prisoner has ‘applied’ for parole. That is a misuse of terminology because nobody “applies”.  It’s an automatic process. If somebody is directed to be released then of course they are released, but if they are not, they will automatically be re-referred to the Parole Board thereafter, normally at intervals of around eighteen months.

A third thing I really want to clear up is that the Parole Board has no role in determining whether somebody has been sufficiently punished. As I said earlier, that is determined by the judge when the prisoner is sentenced.  As Jawaid will tell you, when he is undertaking his work he is not thinking ‘Well you did a ghastly thing and I think you should stay in for longer.’  That is no part of his consideration.  What he is looking at, in his narrow but important role, is whether the risk of that prisoner can be safely managed in the community.

Every year we decide around 13,000 cases and we release around 3,000 prisoners each year, so if you do the maths very quickly you can see that less than one in four prisoners meet the stringent release test set by Parliament.  Lord Carlile picked this up earlier: is this well understood? In truth I think not, despite Martin’s and my best efforts.  Everywhere we go we reinforce these figures.  I think the reason there is quite a bit of misunderstanding on this is that for reasons which we can all understand the media are much more interested in reporting on release decisions than they are in reporting on decisions where we have turned somebody down.  So the impression can be given that we release a much higher proportion of prisoners than we actually do.  We are always doing our best to correct this misunderstanding. The actual figures are one in four and it has been that way for many years.  Covid has not changed that, and Martin will talk about that a bit more in a moment.

We have a strong record on public protection and this is something that we keep a very close eye on given the very sensitive nature of the work we do.  The overwhelming majority of prisoners released by the Parole Board are safely managed in the community. Our serious further offence rate – the proportion of people convicted of a serious further offence after a Parole Board release has been at or below 0.5% for many years.  Again that is another figure that often surprises people, and that Martin and I share wherever we go.

So although we do recognise that we are a service that can cause some public anxiety given the nature of the work that we do and the sort of prisoners we deal with and the offences that they have committed, we actually have a very strong record on public protection.  Public protection is always our number one priority.  I’ll hand over to Martin at this stage.

Martin Jones: I am just going to give some reflections, based on what Caroline has said and also the remarks from Lord Carlile about the work of the Board as it is today. The Parole Board’s job is to determine whether a prisoner’s detention remains necessary for the protection of the public.  Members will make those decisions having read hundreds of pages of information about the prisoner, about the offences they have committed, and about how they have been doing since they have been in prison.  They will also often hear, in many cases, hours of oral evidence about the case.  It is interesting to compare where we are now with where we were when we were created, in 1967, under the Criminal Justice Act of that year.   We were there as an advisory body, and we never actually saw any prisoners, which seems pretty extraordinary today.  The final decision rested with ministers, and of course the danger in that was that ministers might be influenced by factors other than the risk that the prisoner may be presenting.

We are now in law making final judicial decisions on release, and last year the Parole Board held over 9,200 oral hearings.  If you look back 20 years, the Parole Board held just over 200 hearings. There has been more than a 30-fold increase over the last 20 years – an extraordinary rise that not many people understand, and it is really crucial to the quality of our decision-making.

Parole Board members are public appointees.  They are appointed by the Secretary of State for Justice, and of course they are making judicial decisions independent of government.  Our members come from a range of diverse backgrounds.  We have many retired judges, we have psychologists, psychiatrists, and also independent members who come from a range of backgrounds.  Many of those people will have a background in the criminal justice system, so ex-police officers, ex-probation officers and senior lawyers.  Again that is really important for our decision-making to ensure that those are people who can make decisions based on the evidence, not on other factors. Many of the people that we see as the Parole Board of course will have committed extremely serious offences that would have caused huge harm to victims. Parole Board members are acutely aware of that, not least because they will often be reading or hearing a statement from a victim about the continuing impact that a serious crime will have on them, particularly if that, for example, involves the loss of a child or a mum, or a brother or a sister.  Clearly nothing can put right the harm that has been caused, but the job of the Parole Board is to decide whether that individual still represents a significant risk to the public.

Most people under the sentencing framework that has been set are released from prison each year without any involvement with the Parole Board.  The latest figures show that over 90% of prisoners released each year are released automatically, ordinarily at the halfway point of the sentence, without Parole Board involvement. Our main focus is on the most serious and dangerous offenders.  The staple diet of a Parole Board member will be people serving life sentences, people serving IPP (Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection) sentences, people recalled to custody because of concerns about their behaviour in the community, and then more recently terrorist offenders who now come within the ambit of the parole system, following the changes that were made in the Counter Terrorism and Sentencing Act last year.

The other thing that Caroline also mentioned was the Covid response of the Parole Board.  I have to say that if you’d asked me eighteen months ago how the Parole Board would be able to react to moving from a system of more than 9,000 hearings taking place physically in prisons in offices that were not terribly large places, not very well ventilated, I would probably have predicted that you would have seen backlogs of the size that we have seen growing in the Crown Court in particular. In actual fact the Parole Board has done rather better than we expected.  A huge number of our hearings have been able to take place remotely. In fact the Parole Board has held more than 14,000 remote parole hearings over the past eighteen months.  I think that is a really important point.  We have managed to keep the system moving. Indeed the number of people waiting for a parole hearing is actually down 25% on the numbers that were waiting at the point at which the pandemic hit.

As to the release rate, we have monitored that quite carefully, to see whether there was a danger that release rates would dip dramatically, or change dramatically.  It has almost remained exactly the same, at about 25%, which I am actually encouraged by, to see that our decision making has remained broadly constant. One of the things that has helped of course is that we do ask members to make decisions based on the evidence that they read and hear, rather than other factors.  We will continue monitor this, but we do think that is encouraging.  We think virtual hearings are probably the future in relation to how we work.  We have gone from a position where 97-98% of our hearings were taking place in person to a position where at the moment 99% of the hearings that have taken place have been conducted remotely via video or telephone.  We have only a small number of the most sensitive cases, ordinarily involving the vulnerability of the prisoner, taking place physically in prisons. Whilst once the controls on prisons are released we expect to return to face to face hearings for the cases that really need it, we think we’ve probably, as Caroline would put it, jumped ten years ahead of what the plan would otherwise have been.  We think a significant proportion will continue to take place remotely – if nothing else because there are huge benefits from the system. In particular, if I put a psychiatrist for example on a case in Dartmoor tomorrow morning, I can’t get them to go to another prison that afternoon, but of course I can, under the video hearings model, put them into a prison in Northumbria.  I think that’s a huge advantage that we have, provided of course that it’s appropriate for the case.

Again, Caroline has mentioned the serious further offending rate: we have seen no sign of that changing during the pandemic, but we monitor it extremely carefully. It is also important to be clear that, although the numbers are very small of course, if there has been a serious further offence it is a tragedy that will affect the individuals concerned and also those affected by the original crime. So we thoroughly review the circumstances of any serious further offence, to ensure that we look at the decision-making, the evidence members received, whether they could have asked different questions, and to see whether there was anything more that could have been done.  I have to say that, if you look internationally, look at the evidence of the other parole systems that are in existence elsewhere – in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – our rate is comparable to any other system in the world.  Unless we can develop a crystal ball, I think it’s probably about as good as you get, given the fact that you are making decisions with human beings and not robots. I think we probably manage to keep that risk as low as we possibly can, although of course we always aspire to be as good as we possibly can.

Finally I just want to say something about the role of victims in the parole system. As I’ve said, they can make a victim personal statement to the Parole Board.  Interestingly, since we’ve moved to video hearings, we are actually seeing an increase in the number of victims making their statements.  That was always allowed under the old system, but actually with everybody giving evidence remotely we have seen more victims participating. Maybe part of that – Lord Carlile will be aware of this – is how difficult victims find coming to a crown court to read out a victim personal statement and sitting through a trial.  I can’t imagine anything worse than, maybe 20 years after going through that process, you are asked to go to a prison, go through the security checks, go through all the anxiety of walking through the prison and into the bowels of the prison, where you are then reading out a statement to a parole panel that’s looking at the release of somebody.  Many victims find that, unsurprisingly, an incredibly difficult and emotional experience, and providing that in a way that potentially provides greater safeguards, less travel and less stress, is certainly a way forward.

The other really important change that has been made is providing summaries of our decisions to victims as well.  Again, if you look back three years ago we were not allowed by law to tell victims why we made the decisions that we did.  That is extraordinary to me, particularly with the benefit of hindsight. We have now provided more than 6,000 summaries of our decisions to victims upon request.  They are also helpfully provided to the media, so that if they do decide to report on a parole decision, as Caroline has said perhaps only in the most high-profile of cases, at least they do quote from the reasons the Parole Board provides for its decisions.  We also now publish the reasons when a case is subject to reconsideration, to ensure there is absolute transparency as to why we make our decisions, and why we think legally that those decisions are robust; and of course that provides a way to challenge them.  I’m now going to hand over to Jawaid.

Paul Maynard MP said that he might shortly be called to vote.  He also welcomed Baronesses Ludford and Healy who had joined the call.  He then introduced the next speaker.

Jawaid Akhtar: I have been a member of the Parole Board for just over twelve months so I have experienced everything through the remote and virtual world. I have only actually met three or four members of the Board in person.  I think I have met as many prisoners as I have Parole Board members. In terms of my background, I am a former chief police officer. I did 31 years with the West Yorkshire Police.  I held a number of portfolios including the serious and organised crime one, which included having responsibility for the North East Counter Terrorism Unit.  I remember meeting Lord Carlile a couple of times in our professional lives, in his role as the reviewer of terrorism legislation and my role as the lead for the terrorism unit in the North East.  So I am used to managing and dealing with risk. 

After I left the police service, having done my bit, I wanted to keep active and I felt I could make a contribution to what the Parole Board does.  I felt I had the skills, I was used to looking at and assessing evidence, making decisions, and taking responsibility for what you do.   Having been a police officer I had a pretty good view, I think, of crime and criminals which I could then use looking at things from the other end of the telescope so to speak.  Some might view that as poacher turned game keeper but I don’t see it in those terms.  I was a police officer then and now I’m a member of the Parole Board: the roles are very different.  Last but not least, and it sounds cheesy, that sense of public service: having done it for 31 years, this was another part of public service I felt I could contribute to.

The remit of the Parole Board is in some ways very simple, but actually carrying it out is very complex.  It is to make decisions solely focused on risk, and whether a prisoner can be released and their risk managed in the community.  The legal test that the panel applies is whether it is still necessary for the offender to be confined in order to protect the public from serious harm.  That harm can be both physical and psychological.  If they don’t meet that test, they don’t get released.  It sounds simple but actually carrying that out is complex, as one can imagine.

So what is the process – the route map as it were? Cases are referred to the Parole Board by the Secretary of State, and as has been said before it is not the Parole Board or the panel which decides whether they are going to review a case. Once a case arrives at the Parole Board it is assessed by a single member usually, with all the evidence provided by the Secretary of State, to decide how that case should go forward.  That single member can make a decision, depending on the nature of the case and the sentence that individual is serving, which can be to release that individual, or to knock them back – that is, not to release them – or to direct them to an oral hearing.  That single member can, in certain circumstances, seek advice and guidance from other members, for example a specialist member, a psychologist if there, is say evidence they are not quite sure of.  So they are not on their own: they can seek advice.  If they direct the case to an oral hearing, that’s where the panel is constituted and the member who has assessed the case will make directions in terms of number of members required on the panel, whether it requires a specialist member, and other logistics.  A bit of case management in fact, as the name suggests.

Most hearings, on the basis of my experience, are between three and five hours. Panels are usually hearing one or two cases, depending on their complexity and the number of witnesses.  Remote hearings, as has been said, has meant that panels can be more easily constituted and witness needs can be more easily accommodated.  So I have often sat with people from Cornwall and the North East in the morning, and with the same panel but in a different prison in the afternoon, which clearly would not be possible if we were doing face to face hearings in prisons.  In terms of what the panel actually does, we have a discussion before the case, to see what we consider are the issues in the case and who’s going to lead on the questioning of the witnesses.  It’s not a tactical meeting, it’s to discuss the issues and see how we are going to take that forward.  The victims can provide personal statements which can be extremely powerful.  But in my experience it is still fairly rare that we get victims wanting to read their statements personally, although occasionally they will ask for their statements to be read. The prisoner is usually questioned in detail at the hearing, although they are the only one at the hearing who are not obliged to give evidence.  The other professionals at the hearing – probation officers, prison officers, psychologists etcetera – are required to give evidence as part of their roles but the prisoner is not.  I have yet to come across a case, however, where the prisoner does not, because it is obviously in their interest to give evidence to try and convince the panel that they are safe to be released.  It is not going to look good, and we want to have that information, if they decide not to give evidence because we cannot take into account what we do not know.  So they almost always do.

Having heard the evidence, the two things that we are focused on are: is the legal test met? Can the risk be managed in the community? What does the risk management plan look like? The risk management plan will look at things like: where are they going to live when they are released? What support will they have available, from agencies and from family? And what license conditions can be put in place to monitor and control the offender’s behaviour as part of that overall risk management plan? License conditions can be things like curfews, non-contact with the victim or other co-defendants, or some other people, for example other criminal associates, particularly in the case of gang affiliations, and conditions such as providing samples so they can be drug tested. There are other conditions such as exclusion zones – whatever is appropriate to the case, that can be included in the licence.  It’s not a case of one size fits all. We look at the particular circumstances, to see what is needed to manage the risk in the community.

On the conclusion of the hearing, having taken the oral evidence, the panel will meet again to discuss the evidence, and those discussions are quite robust and always challenging.  I won’t say that people fall out but there can be quite strong disagreements about how people see things.  We will see the evidence in different ways, we will see the context in different ways, but we don’t try and persuade each other, we challenge each other on why we see things in a particular way.  But at the end of the day we have to come to a decision. And whilst the decision, when it is issued out, goes as the panel decision, I have been on panels (although very rare) where it’s not that all the panel members have agreed on a decision.  That’s just the way the system works.

The sense of responsibility - and I speak for myself now, but I think it is the same for my colleagues on the Parole Board - weighs heavily, as it should.  We are releasing somebody into the community, quite often people who have committed the most heinous crimes, murder, rape and everything that follows on from that, and you are always thinking ‘Have I got this right?’ There will always be some situations where you have a question mark in your mind. But that is not sufficient to say ‘I’m not sure’ as a decision has been made one way or the other.  We are judging it on the evidence but with all the failings of a human being and I am only human so I will get things wrong.  But that is easy when looking back with the benefit of hindsight. However, I believe I can explain my decisions and that’s the important bit I think.

The reconsideration mechanism has been mentioned, and in my twelve months I have actually had two.  When you are informed that one of your decisions is subject to a reconsideration you can feel: well, have I got this wrong? Are they challenging what I did?  But then you have to sit back and say: it is only right that people can challenge the decision that you’ve made, whether it’s the Secretary of State, or the victim via the Secretary of State, or whether it is the prisoner. In a sense that is absolutely essential.  The little bit of comfort that you get is that you did get it right in both of those cases the decision that the panel had made was upheld by the person making the reconsideration decision.  It is not about saying: hey, we got it right.  It is saying that it was examined by another and they considered that the decision that we had reached was right in those circumstances.

Once people are released they can be recalled to prison if they breach their license conditions and their risk is deemed to no longer be manageable in the community, or capable of being managed, in the community.  It is important to remember that the Parole Board has no role in the recall decision whatsoever.  That is a decision made by the probation service and we see that individual when they have been recalled and when the Secretary of State refers them to the Parole Board.  In my short service I have had one case that I have sat on: we released the prisoner, and then I was on the panel again after that person was recalled and I sat there thinking: obviously I got that wrong, didn’t I, the first time?  But of course that’s not the case.  If that was the way of approaching it then you would say, of every recalled prisoner, that was a decision that was wrong. But that’s not the case.  People will get recalled for all kinds of reasons.  I think that’s all from me.

Paul Maynard MP thanked all the speakers and said that he had found their presentations useful, illuminating and thought-provoking. He noted that Lord Carlile had a question, so he invited him to speak first.

Lord Carlile QC wanted first to ask a question about risk.  He said that risk was not a monochrome concept. There was the risk of the offender committing another offence in the future, and there was also the risk to the victims, of the offender committing further offences.  He was thinking of a particular case which had been brought into sharp relief by recent events.  If somebody committed a murder in the presence of a third party who was injured but not killed, and then the offender came before the Parole Board, it may be that the Board was satisfied that there was no serious risk of reoffending. But if the surviving victim was suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the first offence, this would be greatly exacerbated by this prisoner’s release.  How did the Parole Board balance risk to make a decision that was not monochrome?

Caroline Corby responded that when panel members were making decisions about prisoners they were risk-assessing whether that person could be safely managed in the community.  They recognised that victimisation could take many different forms, and that some victims could be made very anxious by the prospect of somebody being released, despite the fact that It was extremely rare that a released prisoner went after anybody in that way.  It was not a fair way of going about things, however, to say that therefore somebody could not be released, but panel members would look very carefully at license conditions to protect that victim: for example requiring the released person to keep away from, and not to contact, the victim.   She invited Jawaid to comment.

Jawaid Akhtar agreed that that would be the panel’s approach. He stressed the importance of victims staying engaged with the victim contact scheme, so that Parole Board members could be made aware of their anxieties and concerns.  This would enable members to reflect them in making their assessments and exploring how those risks could be mitigated, for example, by means of the license conditions to be imposed.  Members had to apply the law and the guidance as it stood, but it was very important to make sure that whatever could be done was done to meet the concerns of the victims, and that the professionals managing the offender were made aware of all the circumstances.

Martin Jones added that it was completely understandable that many of those who had been affected by the original crime would be very anxious about the offender’s release. The license conditions point was a powerful one, and it was worth adding that many of those subject to exclusion zones would also be subject to electronic monitoring to check their compliance.  That added an additional layer of reassurance for victims.  Also, in the case of a particularly vulnerable victim, if that had been correctly identified through the victim contact scheme, there would often be a MAPPA meeting to try to understand how that victim could best be supported in the community.  However it would result in fairly arbitrary detention if you said that this person had to remain in custody because their release would cause distress to Victim A, whilst someone else in the same position could be released because their victim was not subject to the same trauma. It had to be about the risk that that person presented to the community as it stood. But more needed to be done to ensure victims were properly supported.

Lord Carlile QC said that he was troubled by what he had heard. If a victim was suffering from genuine and severe PTSD as a result of a murder committed by the potential parolee, if that person was then released, there was an argument that many parliamentarians might adopt that said that that victim was being re-victimised.  He mentioned the case of Lord Jones of Cheltenham, which had been raised in recent days in relation to the murder of David Amess MP.  Lord Jones had said that since the release of the offender he had felt re-victimised.  It was very important that we got that balance right.

Caroline Corby said that no-one wished to give the impression that the parolee’s rights dominated everything.  The test was: can this person be safely managed in the community? Only one in four people met that test.  Public protection was at the heart of all their decisions.  As must also be the case in the courts, some victims took crimes much harder than others.  It was a very important part of the job to think about victims. They were focused on making the parole process as untraumatic as possible for victims.

Martin Jones noted that the test was set by Parliamentarians. There was a recent example of Parliament tweaking the process where the body of a murder victim was still missing.  This had created great trauma for their family.  The Parole Board was now obliged to take that into consideration when making their decision. He had met three families for whom this had been the case, and their stories were heart-breaking.  The difficulty lay in legally expressing that point.

Paul Maynard MP wanted to ask about the situation for vulnerable young people with learning difficulties, who may lack the skills to understand the conditions being placed upon them, and what that meant for how they should live their lives.

Jawaid Akhtar said that one of the questions they asked of the offender was whether they understood the conditions of their license, and whether those had been discussed with them to show that they fully understood them.  The Probation Service said that they could propose specific communication techniques for those with learning difficulties, and continuously reinforced what the conditions meant.  One example, related to cases of domestic violence, might involve a requirement for an offender to disclose any developing intimate relationships.  That could mean different things to different people.  That would be discussed with the offender by the community offender manager, to make sure that the offender really understood what was being asked of them.

Caroline Corby said panels were not trying to set people up to fail, but sometimes people did fall foul of license conditions and were recalled back to prison. In her view that showed the system working as intended.

Paul Maynard invited Lord Carlile to ask his second question.

Lord Carlile wanted to ask a question about terrorism and radicalisation.  First however he wanted to thank the Parole Board for the immense amount of excellent training that he knew had taken place so that members understood about terrorism and extremism related issues.  He wanted to ask whether the Parole Board was given its proper role by the Government in relation to people who had been radicalised, either before or whilst in prison.  In relation to people who had been convicted of terrorism offences, he questioned whether existing legislation was fit for purpose, to allow the Parole Board to carry out its role independent of the executive and on the basis of full empirical evidence.

Caroline Corby said that before the Terror Act (TACT), the Parole Board had dealt with about 50 TACT-related cases a year. As a consequence of that legislation, all TACT prisoners now came to the Parole Board and they dealt with around 250 cases a year – a substantial increase.  In response to the London Bridge atrocities, the whole criminal justice system looked at those cases, and reflected on how terrorist cases were dealt with. Even though that person was not dealt with by the Parole Board, we made a number of changes to make us a safer service.  There were now 50 members who deal with TACT cases.  They had all been vetted and specially trained, and she wanted to thank Lord Carlile who had been part of that.  Because of the growing workload they were recruiting additional TACT specialists who had particular expertise in this field. Not to be complacent, they had really made a big effort in this area. They had made strong links with the anti-terrorism police and the security services, because one of their concerns was whether members had access to all the information they needed to make safe decisions. Did those services feel confident to share that information with them at an early stage? And did they understand the parole process sufficiently in order to do that, because members could release people on the papers before they got to an oral hearing?  Obviously some information was so sensitive that it could not be shared with the prisoner or their representatives.  So they needed to get a process for special advocates, non-disclosure and so on.  She thought the Parole Board was in a much better position for dealing with TACT-related cases than they were eighteen months ago. 

Martin Jones agreed there was much better join-up and they were receiving much better evidence to make those decisions to ensure that dangerous people were kept inside.  Although a prisoner’s custodial behaviour may have been perfect, there could be other factors to give rise to concern.  No system could be fool-proof, but they were in a better place to make robust and fair decisions. In relation to Lord Carlile’s wider point, his strong view had always been that the focus of the parole system should be on the most serious and potentially dangerous offenders. This was an inquisitorial process: the Parole Board was there to ask difficult questions and test the evidence. As regards the changes of legislation coming before Parliament, his only plea was to ensure that the way cases were dealt with were fair to the prisoner, and that any changes should be based on strong evidence that somebody would be a risk to the public. If the Secretary of State had gained evidence that someone in for a robbery offence, for example, had been radicalised in prison and had plans to commit a terrorist offence, the Parole Board would want to test that evidence very carefully.  It was difficult retrospectively to change the operation of a sentence to ensure people remained in custody.  If Parliament brought in that legislation, he was confident that the Parole Board would do its job effectively, thanks to the special advocates who had been recruited.

Lord Carlile wanted to ask how many cases there had been so far involving special advocates.

Martin Jones said that all of those cases involved a judicial member, unsurprisingly, and so far the involvement of a special advocate had been directed in just three cases. They would be monitoring those cases as they came through and lessons learned from them.

Caroline Corby added that the National Probation Service had also set up a national security division.  Whereas previously the Parole Board had been getting recommendations from generalist probation officers, who have might have dealt very infrequently with terrorism cases, they were now receiving reports from specialists.  The Ministry of Justice, which dealt with compiling the dossiers, had also set up a specialist service, which was really helpful.

Peter Dawson asked about the number of reviews that had taken place, and particularly the root and branch review which had been scheduled to report in August. He wondered about its progress.

Caroline Corby said she had been chair of the Parole Board for about four years, and they had been subject to review the entire time. That was not intended as a complaint. Reviews led to change, and had led to some really positive things, such as the summary service, and the reconsideration mechanism, which had made their work more transparent. The reviews took time, but had been a positive process. A root and branch review had been a Conservative manifesto pledge in 2019.  It was different to previous reviews as it was a review of the whole parole system. One thing that had stood out was the number of adjournments and deferrals, at about 40%. Some were unavoidable, but others were the result of things that could be sorted out, if the system were better coordinated.  So the Parole Board welcomed this review. As regards timing, this was unclear. The change of Secretary of State was likely to have slowed things down, but she expected it relatively soon.

Paul Maynard MP suggested that the fact of being reviewed so frequently indicated the difficulty of reconciling the public, and hence political, desire for a punitive system with a desire for natural justice. He wondered how we could enhance the understanding of the Parole Board by the wider public, not just by politicians. A lot of the national media stories started in the local press, and whereas 25 years ago there may have been responsible reporting, nowadays local newspapers were less read, and such stories had migrated to virtual media, and tended to be sensationalised. He was sure that legal correspondents in the national press understood these things better, but what could be done to work with journalists in local media, who may understand less well?

Martin Jones responded that this was a very important point. One or two cases a year resulted in very negative criticism of the parole system, normally through no fault of the Parole Board. Sentencing had changed hugely over the past thirty years or so, and this was difficult to explain to the public. The Parole Board had been using social media and had more recently used members to speak to journalists about their work. There would be a BBC 2 documentary about the Parole Board’s work next year. Most of the people who committed crime, according to statistics across all jurisdictions, tended to be young men between the ages of 18 and 25.  Some of them may have been in prison for 20, 30 or 40 years.  When you saw them in their 50s or 60s, whatever they had done, they presented a lesser risk, a risk that could often be managed in the community.  Getting that across was tremendously important.   Nikki Peters, Head of Communications, had been doing tremendous work to get those messages across, and he was always willing to come to the House to talk to MPs if they had a particular interest in a case.  They kept on trying.

Caroline Corby endorsed the quality of Nikki Peters’ and her team’s work. They often knew if a case was likely to be high profile, and they could use that to get some messages across about how the system worked.  But it took time, because, for reasons everyone understood, people were anxious about the Parole Board’s work.

Paul Maynard MP thanked all the speakers for their illuminating contributions. He hoped that the next time there was a high profile case, his colleagues in the Lower House might take a more judicious approach.  He thanked everyone for attending. The next meeting of the APPG would revert to the more usual format, and Mark Day would circulate details in the normal way.