Time’s up for ‘reckless and insulting’ Parole changes

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  • The decision by former Secretary of State Dominic Raab to strip probation officers of the right to make recommendations to the Parole Board endangers the public and further de-professionalises this vital public service.
  • Probation officers have serious concerns that allowing Parole hearings to take place in public at the request of prisoners will put them in danger due to the personal and detailed information they provide – or will have the effect of preventing them from speaking freely.
  • The Government now need to listen to the experts and reverse course or see the morale of the Probation Service workforce – still reeling from the reckless “Transforming Rehabilitation” failed privatisation experiment – sink even further.

Last year the Ministry of Justice embarked on a “Root and Branch Review of the Parole Board” in response to the highly publicised Warboys case. As a result, former Secretary of State Dominic Raab introduced changes this summer to how the parole system works, via the Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022 statutory instrument, which have a significant impact on the role of probation in the parole process. This briefing outlines Napo’s key concerns with the changes and subsequent consequences.

The most significant change to the parole system was the decision to remove the right of probation officers to give a view or recommendations on the release or recategorisation of prisoners. This change has wide-reaching consequences but was not included in the Root and Branch review – and as such has never been consulted on with probation or any other stakeholder. Napo members are utterly dismayed by this significant change, which in their view is yet another step to de-professionalising probation.

Previously, probation played a key role in the parole process, Probation officers holding parole-eligible cases are asked to write a parole report and give their view on whether a prisoner is suitable for either release or recategorisation (eg moving from a Category B to C). An oral hearing may also be held where all agencies are called to give additional evidence to the Parole Board. At these hearings, probation officers act as expert witnesses and are cross-examined by both the Parole Board and the prisoner’s legal representative. The officer is asked to explain, defend and evidence the reason for the recommendation.

Removing probation’s right to give a view has far-reaching consequences. Although the changes allow for the Secretary of State to make recommendations, this only happens in the most serious of cases, commonly referred to as the “critical few”. On average the Parole Board deals with 6,000 cases a year and, of those, only 150 are deemed the “critical few” and as such receive a view from the Secretary of State. The remaining cases will now no longer have any recommendation given and will be reliant solely on the view of the Parole Board. The changes also allow for the Secretary of State to block releases.

In July, Napo, Unison and GMB together wrote to the Secretary of State outlining the major concerns that unions have with these changes, explaining that the decision to prohibit probation staff from offering recommendations “severely endangers the ability of the Probation Service to protect victims of the most serious offences, and indeed the wider public, from the risk of serious harm posed by many individuals involved in the parole system”. The letter was highlighted by Rebecca Long Bailey at the Science and Technology Committee in September, with witness Dr Jo Farrar, CEO of HMPPS and MoJ Second Permanent Secretary, insisting that the change meant that “we are operating now in a similar way as we would in court” and that “we want to make sure that we act in a very similar way to how we would act in other judicial processes”. However, this argument makes no sense because probation officers do in fact make recommendations in court.

Even the Parole Board are worried, with one senior official telling Raab that “it is extremely difficult and very disappointing that the Parole Board is the last to hear about important decisions which strike at the very heart of the difficult decisions we are asked to make. It makes our members’ already difficult job close to impossible”. The changes were brought in so hastily that no guidance was issued to staff in advance. While subsequent consultation has been taking place with trade unions, it is unacceptable that such a fundamental change was not consulted on in advance.

There has been no impact assessment on this change and, as it was not consulted on, stakeholder concerns have not been heard. Napo has serious concerns that this change could have a disproportional and negative impact on prisoners from a black, Asian and minority-ethnic background and those serving Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences. We are also concerned that this change will create a risk-adverse environment where the Parole Board err on the side of caution and fewer prisoners will be granted parole as a result. It should be noted that the Criminal Bar Association were not informed about these changes either and only became aware of them as a result of contact from Napo. A judicial review has now been launched questioning whether the change is dangerous, and Napo has been listed as an interested party in this case.

In addition to the above, parole hearings can now be held “publicly” in that, at the request of a prisoner, the hearing can be shown to anyone with a legitimate interest in the case. Interested parties can request to attend a screening of the hearing at a designated Parole Board Hub. While this change was included in the Root and Branch consultation, to which Napo responded and raised our concerns, it is becoming more and more of an issue for our members as these requests increase.

As stated above, probation officers act as expert witnesses in oral hearings. Unlike their role in court sentencing, the information that they are required to give to the Parole Board is much more detailed, often including very personal details about the prisoner, their sentence and behaviour. Our members are deeply concerned about the impact these public hearings will have on their own safety – in particular if their evidence is negative about the prisoner and will become known to victims and families of prisoners. It is vital that probation officers are able to speak freely about their assessments and we are worried that public hearings may prevent them from feeling protected enough to do so.

Under the new arrangements, probation can challenge the request for a public hearing. However, we have yet to see how effective this will be. We have had an increasing number of members contact us regarding this issue and saying that they do not feel safe or protected enough by the process and are concerned about any potential consequences. Guidance for public hearings is currently under consultation. However, it is quite frankly appalling that these changes were introduced so hastily that this guidance was not in place from the outset. With a new Secretary of State in place, it is time to scrap these reckless, dangerous and insulting changes before they cause any more damage.

Suggested interventions for Baroness Prashar’s regret motion (Tuesday 18 October)

Supportive Peers are encouraged to consider backing Baroness Prashar’s motion to regret the Parole Board (Amendment) Rules 2022, which will be debated on Tuesday 18 October, and to consider making interventions along any of the following lines:

  • Why was removing probation recommendations not included in the Root and Branch review and why was there no prior consultation with all stakeholders before the changes were implemented?
  • In relation to the removal of probation recommendations, what impact assessments have been carried out with regards to black, Asian and minority-ethnic prisoners and IPP prisoners?
  • Probation union Napo are concerned that removing professional recommendations in parole will lead to inappropriate releases and also the non-release of those who otherwise may have been granted parole, so what impact assessment has been carried out on this issue – and did the Government seek the views of the Parole Board itself about having to make release decisions without expert-witness recommendations?
  • Under the changes, what protections are in place for probation staff who are required to attend a public parole hearing – in particular where there are concerns about significant risk of harm?
  • How many responses were there to the Root and Branch Review and how many of these were in favour of public parole hearings?
  • Will the Government withdraw these changes if the judicial review finds against them?

17 October 2022

Tania Bassett, Napo National Official for Press, Parliament and Campaigns