Monday, 30 November 2015

Christmas Starts Earlier Each Year

Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but it does seem that every year the Christmas season starts earlier and earlier. I was reminded of this when I saw a typical Christmas headline in the Sunday Express: Up to 100 killers serving life in prison allowed HOME for Christmas. All very festive.

You're early... it's only November
Last December I posted my reflections on the usual tabloid faux-outrage that tends to focus on ‘lags’ being served a Christmas meal (click here). Never mind that the seasonal fare typically consists of a slice of processed meat that bears no resemblance to actual turkey, a few lukewarm spuds and soggy veg. The very idea that prisoners are not mumping their slops while wearing shackles every day of the year seems to send a particular variety of sad sadist into paroxyms of impotent fury.

This year, however, the Express has latched onto the issue of a small number of prisoners – all already in open conditions – being granted the privilege of release on temporary licence (ROTL) over the Christmas holiday. In particular, the article focuses on “murderers, rapists and repeat violent offenders” being allowed back into the community before they have been granted parole or reached the end of their custodial sentences.

No tabloid twaddle of this sort would be complete without at least one swivel-eyed loon from the extreme right of the political spectrum being wheeled out to provide a few choice quotes. This year it fell to Tory MP Philip Davies to spout the venom. Of course, coming from a man aptly described as a ‘babbling brook of bullshit’ who can bore for Britain, his argument was facile to say the least. What is of far greater concern is that the MP for Shipley is a member of the Common’s Justice Committee which oversees the work of our criminal justice system.

According to the Sunday Express, Mr Davies “unearthed” the ROTL figures. This makes it sound like he has been digging deep to uncover some dark secrets in the basement of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). In reality, of course, these statistics are widely available since they are actually published by his own government. Surely a serving member of the Justice Committee should be expected to understand part of his or her own brief. 

Moreover, HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) has published an investigation into serious failure of ROTL in the recent past. This document (here), along with a very well-researched briefing paper on ROTL published in February this year by the Prison Reform Trust (here), provides fact-based information on the importance of temporary licence as part of the rehabilitation and resettlement process for prisoners ahead of release. 

Bundle of laughs: Philip Davies
Mr Davies is almost certainly aware of these two publications – or at least he should be, bearing in mind he sits on the Justice Committee. When offered the chance to comment for the Express article he had an opportunity to say something informative and constructive about the value of temporary licence for rehabilitation, but he didn’t. Instead, he chose – presumably to get his name in the tabloids – to promote a scare story among readers who probably have little or no knowledge of how the ROTL system actually works. 

While it is true that there has been a tiny number of serious ROTL failures since 2012, it is important to put those into context. Based on the PRT’s analysis, between October 2013 and September 2014 there was a total of 485,634 temporary licences granted. Of these, the failure rate was less than 0.06 percent. Of this minute proportion, only 6.1 percent of licence breaches actually involved an arrestable offence – the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 ROTLs issued.

Most ROTL ‘failures’ actually involve a prisoner reporting back late. In some cases this can be a matter of minutes as a result of delays on public transport, traffic problems or vehicle breakdowns. In such cases, the vast majority of prisoners out on licence phone ahead to let the gate staff know their situation. Risk to the general public: zero. A small number of prisoners also fail to return from ROTL because they are being bullied or assaulted by fellow cons, often as a result of getting into debt. However, overall the number of these cases is statistically small.

Overseeing the justice system
If any other government activity actually achieved a success rate of around 99.94 percent, you can bet that it would be headline news. Contrast that result with almost any other statistical outcome across the public sector and it will be right up there at the top. Instead, the MOJ tends to prefer to keep such positive successes pretty low key, at least until something goes badly wrong.

One of the more disingenuous comments attributed to Mr Davies in the Sunday Express article is “… I cannot understand why those who carried out the crime should be able to spend time with their families.” 

If this really represents Mr Davies’ honest opinion then it suggests that he knows absolutely nothing about the MoJ’s own published strategy for rehabilitation – nor the process through which the Parole Board makes its decisions to release on licence those prisoners who are serving indeterminate sentences – either lifers or those still on the old indeterminate sentences for public protection (IPP). I find that rather disturbing, given that he is a member of the Justice Committee.

Almost all lifers and IPPs who are scheduled to have a hearing before the Parole Board will be expected to be able to demonstrate manageable risk prior to being granted release on a parole licence. A major part of that process is being transferred to open conditions (Cat-D) and, after a period of assessment that now includes psychological reports, the granting of ROTL. Initially the prisoner is escorted on a visit to the local town by a prison officer wearing civilian clothing, then they might be permitted to access ROTL on their own or to meet up with their family members for a few hours (Resettlement Day Release).

Eventually – after a series of successful ROTLs – and interviews with staff, including appearing before the prison’s ROTL Board, a period of home leave (Resettlement Overnight Release) might be granted closely supervised by probation. In the vast majority of cases, lifers and IPPs are required to stay at night in a designated hostel close to their eventual area of release and all are subject to alcohol and drug testing. A report from the hostel manager forms part of the process.

The idea being promoted by Mr Davies in the Sunday Express seems to be that prisons just kick lifers and other prisoners deemed to be high risk out of the gate and let them go home to celebrate Christmas with their families. The reality is very different – ROTL is much more carefully assessed and controlled than the article would have us believe. In fact, last year just 93 lifers (which I assume includes IPPs) were granted Christmas ROTL. It is worth remembering that there are nearly 86,000 prisoners currently in the custody of HM Prison Service.

HMP Blantyre House
Inadvertently, the Express article also revealed that the open prison that had the highest number of lifers released for the holiday period was HMP Blantyre House – since temporarily closed – which managed just 13. In addition, of the total 1,347 prisoners who were allowed Christmas ROTL in 2014, less than 300 were actually inside for violent crimes. The largest single category of crime represented was drug offences (550), with burglars and robbers coming in at 202. Just nine of those granted ROTL had a history of sexual offending.

What is particularly worrying is that, despite his privileged position on the Justice Committee, Mr Davies seems to have little understanding of the vital role that maintaining family ties by prisoners plays in rehabilitation and successful resettlement upon release. This is well understood by both the MOJ and the Prison Service. Particularly for lifers – many of whom have already served 20 or more years in custody – the process of preparing for eventual release must be carefully planned and assessed throughout in order to reduce risk to the public. An opportunity to spend time with family members in a ‘normal’ environment can play a vital role in that preparation.

Andrew Selous MP
Ironically, it was left to Mr Davies’ senior colleague, the hapless Andrew Selous, as minister responsible for prisons, to defend the ROTL system and its importance to rehabilitation. I’m sure he was very grateful for the gratuitous scaremongering contained in the Express article. After all, there’s nothing like being stabbed in the back by one of your own MPs, especially one who seems to know so little about the subject in question.

In recent years – partly as a response to three particularly serious incidents where prisoners committed serious offences while on ROTL – the whole process has been tightened up even further following a review launched by the MOJ in 2013. The current Prison Service Instruction (PSI 13/2015), issued in March 2015, has substantially raised the bar for prisoners hoping to be granted temporary leave, particularly those deemed to be serious or high-risk offenders (now subject to what is called Restricted ROTL).  

Moreover, any prisoner who has a prior history of escape, absconding or a serious breach of ROTL licence can only be considered for transfer to open conditions or further ROTL in “exceptional circumstances”. The MOJ’s intention is to use electronic location monitoring for all others who are granted temporary release (although to date it seems that the necessary equipment to tag them has yet to be procured). Access to overnight ROTL (ROR) is now limited in most cases to the final nine months of a sentence and then only after exhaustive reports and risk assessments.

Even a cursory review of the latest PSI reveals that the granting of ROTL – especially overnight release – is not likely to be widespread. As the PSI itself observes, the numbers of temporary licences issued is likely to be much lower. I very much doubt that many lifers will be spending time with their families this Christmas. Perhaps the overall figure will end up being half of last year’s total or even less.

That is why Mr Davies’ lending credence to the Sunday Express prison scare story is so reprehensible. If he were merely some ignorant junior backbencher with no special responsibility for overseeing our justice system, including prisons and probation, his personal opinions on prison policy – however inaccurate and misguided – would count for little. However, unfortunately he is a serving member of the Justice Committee and should know much better than to offer aid and comfort to tabloids intent on misleading the general public. All in all a very poor show indeed. Ho, ho, ho. An early Merry Christmas Mr Davies!


  1. Philip Davies MP seems to have little concept of anything or knowledge of anything as every single one of his recent appearances in our media clearly shows. I am puzzled as to why the good folk of Shipley elected this sorry excuse of a human being as an MP. I wouldn't elect him to take out the rubbish. He needs a commemorative rubbish bin as much as Chris Grayling does

  2. thanks for providing an alternative view.

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