National Audit Office investigates
Last week (28 February 2017) the National Audit Office published its report on an investigation into the backlog of outstanding cases at the parole board.
The parole board has been in a mess for some time and last year (January 2016) Nick Hardwick, previously a much respected Chief Inspector of Prisons, was appointed its chair to try to unravel it. The graphic below from the NAO shows the extent of the backlog:
What is the parole board?
The parole board is an independent body which risk assesses prisoners to decide whether they can safely be released into the community. 115 staff plan and co-ordinate the activities of 215 independent parole board members. The decisions they make are obviously critical both to prisoners and their families and to victims and their families. Making safe parole decisions equally obviously has a significant impact on the numbers in prison.
Why is there such a backlog?
The parole board has had a backlog for many years but the situation was aggravated when the Board had to increase the number of oral hearings it must carry out following the Supreme Court’s Osborn, Booth and Reilly judgment in October 2013 (the Osborn ruling). This ruling followed appeals to the Court from three prisoners, each of whom had been refused oral hearings. It broadened the circumstances in which the law requires the Board to hold an oral hearing, with fairness to the prisoner being the overriding factor. The Board can no longer refuse to carry out an oral hearing because it considers that the hearing is unlikely to make a difference or in order to save time, trouble or expense. The number of outstanding cases increased by more than 140% following the Osborn ruling.
Another graphic from the NAO report shows the impact of the backlog:
In addition to the heartache and stress caused to prisoners spending longer in custody than they should, the parole board has paid out over £1 million since 2011 in compensation claims as a result of delayed hearings.
Tackling the backlog
As you can see from yet another graphic below (the NAO is rather good at them), the parole board has been working hard to try to tackle the backlog by introducing new governance and performance management arrangements as well as recruiting 104 new members:
The situation is aggravated by the ongoing debacle of the IPP situation – prisoners on indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection. Despite being abolished in 2012, 2t December 2016, there were 3,081 prisoners on IPP beyond their tariff expiry date. IPP prisoners can only be released if the Board considers that they are no longer a risk to the public, even if they have reached the end of their tariff. IPP prisoners have on average made up around half of the cases waiting more than 90 days for a hearing. Of the 3,683 IPP prisoners still in custody in December 2016, 84% (3,081) were beyond their tariff expiry date. Of these, 48% had been in prison five or more years beyond their tariff and 11% were eight years or more beyond their tariff.
In July 2016, the Board announced its intention to reduce the number of IPP prisoners in prison to 1,500 by 2020 which seems to me to be a rather pathetic target.
The NAO found that the parole board has been more efficient since 2013, now listing,conducting and completing a higher volume of oral hearings. It has also reduced the unit cost of oral hearings by 18%. However, it is clear that although the parole board may be improving its performance, it will take many years to clear the backlog.
As usual, the elephant in the room remains undiscussed. If we had not doubled our prison population over the last thirty years – at a time when recorded crime levels plunged – thousands of people would not even have been in prison in the first place, let alone languishing in prison for longer than the courts intended.
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