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Shake up needed on long-term sentences

Bob Neill MP
September 21, 2023

In a remarkable intervention earlier this month, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Dr Alice Edwards, urged the Government to conduct an urgent review on imprisonment for public protection (IPP), labelling the sentences “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Dr Edwards is neither alone nor the first in making this criticism, however.

Lord Blunkett, the Home Secretary who introduced IPP, has called them a disaster, while the late Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, a former Supreme Court judge, described them as “the greatest stain on our criminal justice system.” Long before them, campaign groups had been banging the drum for reform for years.

Although all of the above agree that IPP sentences are an anathema to justice, IPP continues to be a relative unknown to the vast majority of the wider public. It is, no doubt, one of the primary reasons why this problem has found itself firmly and perennially tacked on to successive governments’ too difficult pile. First, then, a bit of background.

The sentence of imprisonment for public protection was introduced in the midst of the Blair years as a new form of custodial sentence. Designed to appear tough on crime, they were indeterminate sentences which could be given to offenders who had committed violent or sexual offences and were deemed to pose a significant risk of causing harm to the public. Unlike a normal sentence, those given an IPP sentence would have to serve a minimum tariff in prison before being detained for an unlimited period until they were able to prove to the Parole Board that they were no longer a risk. Even when released, the individual would be done so under a life license whereby they could be returned to prison at any time if they breached the conditions of their parole, however minor the infringement (this element of in perpetuity could be cancelled ten years after their initial release, but that was never guaranteed).

The sentences caused both confusion and discrepancies and, inevitably, were reformed in 2008 before being scrapped in 2012. Their abolishment was not, though, applied retrospectively, meaning to date there remain just under 3,000 IPP prisoners within the prison estate, 97 per cent of whom have already served their tariff. Shockingly, 621 prisoners in this cohort have been detained at least ten years over their tariff, with 222 of those having received a tariff of less than two years.

the Home Secretary who introduced IPP has called them a disaster Quote

Before reading any further, it's worth letting those figures sink in. These particular individuals have been in prison five times longer than the judge who sentenced them thought appropriate for their offence, and for which someone who committed the same crime at the same time might have been sentenced. That is not justice.

The problems caused by this shambolic scheme have been multifaceted but clear to see. For one, the Sisyphean state of hopelessness created has led to appallingly high rates of self-harm and suicide, with IPP prisoners two-and-a-half times more likely to self-harm than the rest of the prison population. In fact, over 80 IPP prisoners have taken their lives since 2005 – 9 in 2022 alone. The sentences also create a complete lack of clarity and certainty for everyone involved, be it the offender, their families, or, for that matter, the victims of their crimes. From a more philosophical perspective, the sentences undermine some of the fundamental principles of the rule of law. The IPP sentences handed down were neither clear nor consistent, and they did not provide equality, at times leaning on the exercise of discretion over the application of the law.

It is why the Justice Committee, which I chair, launched a comprehensive inquiry in 2021 on IPP sentences, to which we received the largest number of submissions we have ever received for any work we’ve undertaken. We published a series of recommendations last year ranging from mental health support to parole and resentencing, ultimately concluding that an irredeemably flawed system could only be addressed through a resentencing exercise enacted by primary legislation. To my disappointment, the Ministry of Justice roundly rejected the vast majority of what we had proposed.

While I understand that this task may prove both politically and administratively difficult, that does not make it any less right or pressing. For that reason, I have tabled an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill, currently before the House of Commons, which would oblige the Government to conduct this resentencing exercise, making use of a time-limited small expert committee to advise on its practical implementation. It’s worth stressing that although this would preclude a court handing down a heavier sentence than was originally imposed, it would not mean the automatic or quick release of every IPP prisoner. Far from it. Importantly, it would, though, ensure a determinate sentence is given, providing finality and certainty, a basic fairness that is afforded to everybody else, offender and victim, in the criminal justice system.

It’s long overdue that the three branches of the State – the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary – grasp the nettle on this. If the Government will not move, Parliament must move for it. I sincerely hope ministers will see sense and that fairness and justice will prevail.

Bob neill

Sir Bob Neill is the Conservative MP for Bromley and Chislehurst and Chair of the Justice Select Committee.

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