John McDonnell MP
I just want to raise three simple points. First, I congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and the Select Committee overall on an immensely thorough report that deals with an issue that has hung over us for so long now that it is time to resolve it. I have the same optimism as him because of the change of personnel who will deal with this matter now. I think the Minister— I am about to flatter him, although he is not listening at the moment, so perhaps we can remind him of this later—will deal with this issue with an open mind, so there is a real opportunity here.
I also want to follow the Chair of the Select Committee in congratulating those who have campaigned over the years. Most of us can relate to this matter as a result of a constituent’s experience. All such cases are absolute tragedies. Many of these people accept they have committed a crime, and they accept the judge’s decision on the tariff as well, but they then get trapped in a Kafkaesque process of never knowing when they have met society’s requirements in terms of redressing what they have done. The result—we have seen all the evidence now—is the loss of life, which has been tragic. What is particularly moving is the fact that there have been suicides since the Government’s response. What this sentence has continuously done is create a sense of hopelessness among the individuals concerned, pushing many over the edge into mental health conditions, breakdowns and then suicide. The families serve the sentence as well, which has resulted in chronic tragedies among families too. It impacts on the parents, wives and children of those who have been sentenced in this way.
I have been in Parliament 25 years now, and I did not support the original indefinite sentencing proposals. I was on the Justice Committee a number of years ago, and in 2012, when it was agreed to abolish IPPs, I was elated. I actually thought justice would be served and that we would then rapidly find a mechanism for dealing with existing prisoners, because that was the spirit of the decision to abolish. That has not happened, and I think we have a duty—I do not place the onus only on the Government but on Parliament overall—to resolve the matter once and for all and to do so rapidly. The Minister was busy when I was talking, but we have a fresh chance now, with a new administration, effectively in the Department. With a new Minister and a new Secretary of State, there is the opportunity to go back, look at the response to the Select Committee report and engage again, and to do it rapidly.
I am a member of the justice unions parliamentary group, which represents the Prison Officers Association and Napo. I am an honorary life member of the POA. There is no financial relationship between the POA and the Labour party—the only benefit would be an extra pillow if I ever get sentenced. We have discussed the issue with the unions involved—these are the people who are dealing with it hands on. What the POA says very clearly is that it does not usually comment on sentencing policy, but it has made an exception in this case. It feels it has been given a task, in dealing with these prisoners, that is impossible. It is impossible to deal with the hopelessness felt by these prisoners. In many instances, because of the overcrowding and the lack of access to the programmes that are required to support them, it is also almost impossible to keep them safe. That is why we have had so many self-harm injuries and suicides.
The POA supports the proposal put forward by the Select Committee. The same goes for Napo, which has also pointed out that the Parole Board cannot deal with this serious matter as promptly as it should because of understaffing. Every expert opinion that the Select Committee has sought, whether it is the lawyers, the prisons officers or the probation officers, says there has to be some form of shift. The proposal from the Select Committee Opposition on ensuring that there is at least an exploration of the resentencing exercise is therefore one that any Government should seize with both hands. A group of experts who can go through in detail the processes that could be undertaken is the light that any Government would want to see at the end of the tunnel in terms of resolving this matter.
Concern has been expressed that this will create a problem of mass release, but the Select Committee has addressed that. The expert committee can advise on the timing, the way this is dealt with and how the whole issue can be properly resourced and timetabled to maximum effect, to the benefit of not only the prisoners currently serving indefinite sentences but the victims and the wider community. This is a way forward, and I hope the new administration and the new Minister can seize the opportunity; otherwise, we could be here in another 10 or 15 years’ time, and more prisoners will have lost their lives or suffered harm, and more families will have suffered.
On behalf of the constituents I have dealt with and all the professionals I link up with through the justice unions parliamentary group, I urge the Minister to see that now is the time to act. I believe that the Minister would have cross-party support in that; it would not be a political issue for banter or anything like that—it would fall into line with the cross-party approach that the Justice Committee has undertaken so successfully.