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Howard League’s blog · 19 Nov 2021

A debate on the IPP sentence that showed Parliament at its best

In Monday’s committee stage debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Members of the House of Lords discussed a series of amendments on the sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP).

The Bill has been rightly viewed as an example of penal policy at its worst – punitive, illiberal and unevidenced. In contrast, Monday’s debate showed Parliament at its best. The discussion of possible amendments was thoughtful and informed, reflecting a crossbench consensus that the injustices of the IPP sentence cannot be allowed to continue.

At committee stage, a committee of Members are selected to carry out detailed, line-by-line examination of a bill. Members can lay amendments – proposed changes to the bill – which are discussed by the Bill Committee and can be put to a vote. The bill then returns to the whole House for further consideration and amendments at report stage. Though the amendments on the IPP sentence were not pushed to a vote on Monday, they may well reappear at report stage.

The amendments are the latest phase of a battle that began more than a decade ago. In the foreword to a report published by the Howard League in 2007, Frances Crook foretold that the IPP sentence would create a “bureaucratic nightmare … one which will not simply haunt the current government, but also its successors”. During the debate on Monday, Lord Blunkett and other Peers paid tribute to Frances’s tireless work in service of penal reform. The debate also underlined that the “bureaucratic nightmare” which Frances warned about has come to pass – but that there is a cross-party willingness to finally put things right, as shown by the powerful contributions which Lords Garnier and Moylan made from the government benches.

Lord Blunkett, who oversaw the initial IPP legislation as Home Secretary, spoke frankly and movingly about the mistakes which he had made in introducing the sentence – and the dire situation in which people stuck in prison on IPPs now find themselves. As he concluded:

“We have to do something for the sake of the individuals and their families, and for the safety of the community, because the longer they are in prison on a suspended animation sentence or on licence, the more likely they are to find themselves unable to rehabilitate and live a normal life. When that happens, they are more likely to commit a crime. I got it wrong. The Government now have the chance to get it right.”

Peers recognised the bleak consequences of the IPP sentence: their speeches touched on the disrupted lives and psychological distress which the sentence has left in its wake, with the shadow of recall hanging over those who have been released and making it harder for them to ask for help when they need it most. Baroness Burt described the IPP sentence as “a form of modern-day torture, fuelled by a constant sense of anxiety, hopelessness and strong feelings of injustice and alienation from the state. You would feel like that too, wouldn’t you?”

The debate included two amendments supported by the Howard League, both of which offer practical solutions to the problem of IPP recalls.

Baroness Burt spoke about the case of “Ella”, a woman who had been sent to prison on an IPP sentence at the age of 25 and whose tariff (minimum prison term) had been three years. Ella was 39 years old by the time she was finally released, 11 years post-tariff. Shortly afterwards, she was recalled to prison for failing to attend her Approved Premises at the right time.

Three thousand people are currently in prison on an IPP sentence, around 1,400 of whom have been recalled to prison while on the indefinite IPP licence. Most recalls are for administrative breaches of licence conditions, and people can only be re-released once they have had another Parole Board hearing.

The debate included two amendments supported by the Howard League, both of which offer practical solutions to the problem of IPP recalls. The Howard League has published a briefing on the amendments.

The first would automatically end the IPP licence after two years in the community without recall, though the Secretary of State would have the option of applying to the Parole Board to extend the licence by an additional year. The second would create an additional power for the Secretary of State to re-release people who have been recalled to prison on an IPP sentence, preventing situations where someone is stuck in prison for months waiting for a parole hearing even though every professional involved believes that they should be released.

Peers debated the range of possible solutions supported by the Howard League, the Prison Reform Trust and the United Group for Reform of IPP in a constructive and collaborative way. Lord Wolfson’s response on behalf of the government recognised the need to reform the IPP sentence, as well as “the mood and the strength of feeling of the Committee”.

In withdrawing his amendments for the time being, Lord Blunkett expressed his hope that the government will bring forward its own proposals before report stage (which will be in early December). If this does not happen, the government is likely to face a formidable cross-party coalition which continues to make thoughtful, principled demands for change.

Andrea Coomber

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