Parole data – a very odd response from the ministry
The last week brought both a very unusual response from the ministry and a very familiar one to our continuing quest to get information about parole changes into the public domain.
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, examines what the response does — and crucially doesn’t — tell us.
The decision to deny an indeterminate sentence prisoner access to open conditions is very likely to postpone their eventual release, possibly indefinitely. Decisions of that gravity, affecting a person’s liberty in such a profound way, are normally taken in a court with all the safeguards that involves.
The unusual thing about the response to my letter to the Permanent Secretary complaining about delay was that it produced almost immediate action. The head of the Public Protection Casework Section (PPCS) emailed me a letter saying that the matter would be investigated and I would receive a response within 20 days. The fact that the complaint is about the conduct of that section makes it slightly odd to have a letter from the person in charge of it, but we should reserve judgement, at least until we see what the investigation concludes.
The wholly familiar response, however, came in the form of a letter purporting to provide the information I asked for back in July. It is dated 25 November, but until we asked it was not sent electronically, and as of 12 December, no hard copy had arrived at our offices either. It ignores most of the questions that I had asked. Here’s what it does and doesn’t tell us.
I asked whether the ministry had made any estimate of the impact of the change in criteria for open conditions on the need for additional prison spaces.
The question is ignored — all that the ministry has said in public is that it expects the consequences to be “manageable”.
I asked if any pre-tariff sift applications had been delayed pending the implementation of new criteria on 6 June.
The question is ignored.
The response does tell us that of 69 pre-tariff sift applications considered under the new criteria, just eight have been referred to the Parole Board. We already know that is a dramatic reduction compared to practice under the previous criteria.
We know from the Parole Board that most recommendations are now being rejected where until 6 June recommendations were overwhelmingly accepted.
But now the response gets very strange indeed.
My letter to the minister back in July was very clear that we were seeking information about the way recommendations for transfer to open conditions were being handled and what outcomes were emerging. This response over four months later appears to take the obtuse interpretation that all I was interested in was the eight pre-tariff sift applications that have been referred to the Parole Board since 6 June. Unsurprisingly, none of those eight have yet been considered by either a minister or an official.
So we know nothing further from the ministry about how its practice has changed in considering recommendations from the Parole Board for moves to open conditions. We know from the Parole Board that most recommendations are now being rejected where until 6 June recommendations were overwhelmingly accepted. But we can’t say whether ministers are getting involved personally, or whether there is any monitoring of decision making with reference to protected characteristics, or whether the process is being completed in a timely way.
Rather more helpfully, the ministry did send us the equality analysis relevant to the 6 June changes. But it concludes that there is nothing to worry about, despite there being no data on which to assess whether practice either before or after 6 June shows any disproportionate impact in relation to any of the protected characteristics.
There is a reason we are working so hard to inject some openness and transparency into this process.
The decision to deny an indeterminate sentence prisoner access to open conditions is very likely to postpone their eventual release, possibly indefinitely. Decisions of that gravity, affecting a person’s liberty in such a profound way, are normally taken in a court with all the safeguards that involves. The impact on the individual is identical, but these decisions are being taken in circumstances where there is virtually no accountability and no public visibility. The very least we should expect is a willingness to answer questions in a prompt and straightforward way.
We will now submit fresh FOI requests in the hope of achieving that modest ambition.