Justice Questions, October 2008

Nick debates with the Justice Secretary on the early release of prisoners

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In a written answer published late last night, the Government reveal that three alleged murders were committed by prisoners while released early under the end of custody licence scheme. How can the Secretary of State have the front to talk about punishing offenders and being on the side of victims when his policy-under which more than 36,000 prisoners, including 7,000 violent criminals, have been released early-so clearly puts the public at risk?

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): Of course, I understand the concern. I gave the figures to the hon. Gentleman, and I was concerned to ensure that he got them and that they were comprehensive. There are three cases, out of the thousands of prisoners who have been released early, in which allegations of murder have been made. In one case the proceedings are continuing, and I cannot comment on it. In the second case, the alleged perpetrator subsequently killed himself. When the third case came before the court last December, Mrs. Justice Swift stated in her sentencing remarks:

"The fact that you were released early cannot, in my view, be said to have been causative of what happened thereafter"-

that is, the murder. She continued:

"It is highly likely that the events that took place would have occurred whenever you were released."

Nick Herbert: I find that answer astonishingly complacent. It appears that three additional murders may have been committed by offenders who were released 18 days early. We already know that one prisoner who was released early was convicted of a murder when he should have been safely behind bars. Last night the Ministry of Justice claimed that the scheme was working well. What is working well about a scheme that releases early offenders who go on to commit such serious crimes? The Ministry said that it would scrap early release when it was safe to do so. Is it not obvious to everyone, except the Government, that the policy is unsafe now, and should be scrapped immediately?

Mr. Straw: I have given the answer about the three murder allegations. I simply repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the remarks about whether that particular terrible event would have taken place in any event were made not by me but by the honourable Mrs. Justice Swift, and she was very clear about it-sufficiently clear to put it on record in the sentencing remarks. In a circumstance in which I regret the scheme, I emphasise that the reoffending rate is 1 per cent., which is low, and that breaches are tackled quickly.

Since the hon. Gentleman takes the matter to a party political level, let me say that he got surprisingly little coverage for a speech that he made to the Prison Governors Association on 8 October. It requires a wider audience, because he claimed:

"we are the only major political party that is now talking about reducing the prison population".

If that is the Opposition's policy, they will have serious difficulties in cutting out end of custody licence release.

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28 October 2008

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