Lord Keen of Elie
I thank noble Lords and noble and learned Lords for their contribution to the debate prompted by these amendments. I begin with a number of general remarks which may well be familiar to noble and learned Lords, but perhaps not to everyone.
I believe there was a reference at one stage of the proceedings to early release, and I emphasise that we are not dealing here with any issue of early release. As I mentioned in response to observations from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, we are generally dealing with a life sentence or extended sentence, and when we come to look at that, we can identify two elements—in what I shall refer to as a life sentence. There is the punitive element, which is the tariff fixed by the court, and a preventive element, which is the issue addressed by the Parole Board in the context of public protection. The Parole Board’s role comes into play only at the end of the tariff—the punitive element of the sentence—at which point the Parole Board has to determine whether there should be a continuation of custody or a release under licence, having regard to the public protection test.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, was quite right in observing that in most, if not all, of these cases, the judge will have made findings in fact that will address, among other things, whether there has been disclosure of a victim’s whereabouts. If that becomes an issue, there is scope for what is termed a Newton hearing. But generally, the trial judge—whether after plea or after trial—will be in a position to make findings in fact on that issue, and to then reflect those findings in fact in the tariff he imposes upon the individual in question when applying the punitive element of the sentence. I emphasise that because the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, made the point that there should not be punishment again. That is quite right: it is not the role of the Parole Board to punish. The role of the Parole Board is to determine, by reference to the public protection test, whether at the expiry of the tariff it is appropriate for an individual to be released from custody, albeit under licence.
That takes me to an observation of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who asked whether the object of this legislation is to delay release as a punishment. The answer is clearly no. The issue being addressed is in the context of public protection, and whether the failure to disclose indicates to the Parole Board that there is a very real and material question about public protection, and whether someone should be retained in custody. Indeed, if the object of this legislation was to punish, it would potentially be in breach of both Article 5 and Article 7 of the European convention. I stress that this is not the object of this legislation at all.
I turn specifically to the amendments tabled—first, to those in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, which really have two limbs. The first is covered by Amendments 2, 7, 10, 13 and 16, and the second by Amendment 4 and subsequent amendments. The first limb would ensure that the Bill’s provisions apply only to prisoners who are “able” to disclose relevant information about the location of a victim’s remains but had not done so. The second limb would particularise a prisoner’s mental capacity as one of the possible reasons for non-disclosure.
The Bill in its current form affords the Parole Board a wide scope to subjectively consider the circumstances of a prisoner’s non-disclosure. The test is broadly drafted to give the Parole Board, an independent judicial body with experience of assessing risk and evidence, sufficient flexibility to take all circumstances into account when making a determination about non-disclosure, including the ability, whether mental or physical, of an offender to disclose.
The amendments as drafted would confine the operation of the provisions to prisoners deemed able to make such a disclosure but who had not done so. However, there may be cases where an offender has had ample opportunity to co-operate with the police or the authorities over many years to reveal a victim’s whereabouts but has refused to do so. If such an offender later became unable to disclose—by reason of age or mental illness, for example—the provision of these amendments would not apply to that offender and the board would be unable to consider a previous refusal to co-operate in its assessment of that prisoner’s risk, yet these previous persistent refusals may well be considered as reflecting quite materially on the risk that the prisoner posed to the public in the event of release on licence.
The current Bill avoids such difficulties by allowing the Parole Board to consider all possible reasons in its view to explain non-disclosure, including considering historical refusals. That flexible approach is underlined by Clause 1(3), which makes clear that the imposition of the statutory duty does not in any way limit other matters that the board must or may take into account when conducting such an assessment.
The existence of mental health difficulties or a lack of mental health capacity would doubtless be a relevant circumstance to be taken into account, but there would also be other relevant circumstances. By not specifically referring to particulars in the Bill, we are not giving some more significance than others; we are instead allowing the Parole Board to use its expertise in how it approaches such cases. It is therefore for the board itself to take a subjective view of what the reasons might be, and then it is for the board to decide what bearing that information may have on the subsequent assessment of suitability for release, which is the relevant test that the Parole Board has to address.
We have deliberately avoided any delineation in the Bill of what the reasons for non-disclosure may be, to preserve this flexible and subjective approach. Noble Lords have correctly identified that a prisoner’s mental state is likely to be a significant factor in assessing reasons for non-disclosure but there may also be other reasons, such as, as I mentioned, geographical change, mental impairment or issues of mental capacity that may not have occurred at an earlier point but will still be relevant to a current assessment. In these circumstances, I will be inviting the noble Baroness to withdraw this amendment.
I move on to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which specify that where a Newton hearing has been carried out to ascertain certain disputed facts—generally where there has been a guilty plea, but it may take place after a trial—that should be considered by the Parole Board. The short point that I would make is that these are matters that it will be within the competence of the Parole Board to consider, and the board can call for all material pertaining to sentencing, including the terms of any Newton hearing that may have taken place. I apprehend that what the noble Lord may have in mind is perhaps to encourage judicial activity when sentencing in these cases to ensure that they address the non-disclosure of the whereabouts of a victim. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, observed, that is something that will invariably be taken into account by a trial judge in fixing a tariff for the sentence that he is going to impose.