“To be clear, you are working to the current policy, but with a more precautionary approach.”Note sent internally to staff responsible for considering open recommendations made by the Parole Board
On the central issue of what guidance officials were working to before the new rules came into force, it’s clear nothing was issued to caseworkers beyond the procedural note disclosed in this latest response. Instead, the ministry tells us in its covering note that “the change in approach was brought about through the intentions outlined by Government in the publication of the Root and Branch review“ (published on 30 March 2022). The relevant section of that document reads as follows:
110. As this review has set out, it is the perpetrators of the most serious offences which require greater scrutiny in the parole process. This applies not only to release decisions, but also on recommendation to transfer a prisoner to an open prison. Through reviewing the current process, it is the government’s view that any recommendations for moves to open conditions for indeterminate sentenced prisoners (explained in Annex B) in the following categories, should be subject to greater ministerial scrutiny. These categories are: cases where the offender has committed murder; other homicide; rape; serious sexual offences or cruelty against a child.
111. There will be direct ministerial oversight of decisions on whether to move offenders in the above categories to open conditions. This greater scrutiny will create a stronger parole system, further ensuring the public are protected.
Needless to say, nothing was issued to prisoners, the Parole Board or prison staff to explain what “greater scrutiny” or “direct ministerial oversight” would actually mean or when it might come into operation, but the response to our FOI request now shows that from 4 May last year, something curiously entitled a “slightly interim process” was brought into operation.
“The response doesn’t tell us who this all-powerful individual is, nor their job title or position in the ministry (or elsewhere in government). It certainly doesn’t tell us what qualifications or expertise they might have to overturn 19 out of 20 recommendations made by the Parole Board. And it doesn’t tell us what instructions or guidance they have been working to in doing so.”
We already know from the previous FOI response that no minister has been personally involved in any of these decisions so far. What the latest response shows is that “greater scrutiny” and “direct ministerial oversight” appear to have been delivered by requiring all decisions in the “upper cohort” (that is, for offences of murder, other homicide, rape, serious sexual offences and cruelty against a child) to be taken by a specific individual. This also appears to apply to any cases in the “lower cohort” (everyone else) where junior officials think it necessary to do so. There’s no guidance on when this would be, but it seems safe to assume that it might be if they were tempted to agree to a Parole Board recommendation.
The response doesn’t tell us who this all-powerful individual is, nor their job title or position in the ministry (or elsewhere in government). It certainly doesn’t tell us what qualifications or expertise they might have to overturn 19 out of 20 recommendations made by the Parole Board. And it doesn’t tell us what instructions or guidance they have been working to in doing so.
“Should we take this to mean that Dominic Raab is taking instruction from someone else…rather than giving that steer himself? That seems so unlikely that we assume this is a drafting mistake, but the recipients of the email or note within the ministry must have been a little confused too.”
The ministry tells us that there is an absolute exemption under the Freedom of Information Act from disclosing personal information, but the redaction of names from this document leaves a mystery about the chain of command as well as the identity of the person concerned. It is very strange that the document says that “the Secretary of State is clear xxx wants to take a more precautionary approach”. Should we take this to mean that Dominic Raab is taking instruction from someone else about the approach to be taken rather than giving that steer himself? That seems so unlikely that we assume this is a drafting mistake, but the recipients of the email or note within the ministry must have been a little confused too.
As for the policy to be applied, the document says to caseworkers making recommendations to the mystery decision maker that “To be clear, you are working to the current policy” (the ministry’s underlining), but immediately qualifies that by saying “but with a more precautionary approach”.
So it really matters that we try to clear up the confusion this latest FOI response leaves unresolved.
First, we need to know more about who the unidentified decision maker is. Are they appointed by the secretary of state, or, bizarrely, superior to him in some way?
We need to know if a “precautionary approach” amounts to anything more complicated than an instruction to “just say no”. Does the repeated assertion (in this and in a previous response) that officials should consider recommendations for open under the same policy as the Parole Board (i.e. the policy applying before new Rules came into force on 6 June) actually mean anything? On the face of it, the application of a “precautionary principle” appears in reality to represent a radically new policy, quite different from what the Parole Board was applying in those cases.
So we will start by asking for the job title and qualifications of the mystery decision maker, and what instruction or guidance they received from (or, improbably, gave to) the secretary of state.
The outcome of all this doublespeak has been anything but confusing: a 95% rejection rate of Parole Board recommendations. It doesn’t take much to predict what the impact of a similar “precautionary approach” procedure might be if the secretary of state is allowed by parliament to insert himself into decisions on release as well as transfers to open conditions.
Ministry of Justice FOI response
Formal response from the Ministry of Justice to the Prison Reform Trust’s FOI request
Interim process note—Open
Read a copy of the internal interim guidance sent to Public Protection Casework Section staff responsible for considering recommendations for transfer to open conditions made by the Parole Board, before new rules came into force on 6 June 2022.