Clarke accused of 'packing' the Parole Board

KENNETH CLARKE, the Home Secretary, has been accused of attempting to pack the Parole Board - which each year decides whether 24,000 prisoners should remain in jail - with government 'ciphers'.

Internal Home Office memoranda seen by the Independent on Sunday reveal that members of the board believe that Mr Clarke is threatening to 'dilute the independence' of the quasi-judicial body, which has become one of the most powerful institutions in the criminal justice system.

When challenged, the Home Office last week strongly defended its new policy, saying there was no political interference and that the public and prisoners had a right to expect consistent decision-making on when criminals should be released.

The passion on both sides is a sign that membership of the board - currently run by representatives of the 'great and the good' - has deep political resonance in the present highly charged debate about crime. Since October, the board has had the power to decide when offenders serving

between four and seven years and 'discretionary lifers' - criminals given life for crimes such as rape and grievous bodily harm - should be released. At stake is who should be in charge and, by extension, what the grounds for releasing the various offenders should be.

The row began three weeks ago when the Home Office told the 85 judges, psychiatrists, criminologists and lay members of the board, who take time off from their regular work to hear prisoners' cases every three weeks, that it wanted to appoint a small group of full-time professionals.

Under Mr Clarke's plan, membership of the board will probably be cut to about 50 and nearly every prisoner seeking parole would find one of the new group of five full-timers would be on the three- to five-member panel hearing his case.

Mr Clarke ordered the change after a Home Office management review decided that full-time board members would bring consistency to decision- making. Board members are appalled. 'We're talking about political placemen who would have their salaries paid by the Government and would find it very difficult to withstand political pressure,' said one leading member.

An internal board memorandum said that there was no evidence of inconsistencies in past rulings and demanded to know where the allegation of capriciousness had come from. If full-time members were appointed they would have to consider between 30 and 60 cases a week. The 'weight of documents' they would have to read would be on such a scale that they would inevitably be forced to reach arbitrary decisions. The pressure of work would 'soon turn them into ciphers'.

Meanwhile, the strength of the present system, that it could call on people from a wide variety of backgrounds to judge whether it was safe to release a criminal, would be lost. Judges, probation officers and other senior officials in the criminal justice system would not give up their careers to work full-time on the board. 'Professional members could be seen as

diluting the independence' of the board, the memorandum concluded.

But Home Office sources replied that, far from boosting Mr Clarke's power, the new system limited government involvement in judicial decisions and brought openness to the previously murky parole procedures.

Until last year the Parole Board was merely advisory, they said. Its members - who in any case have always been appointed by the Home Secretary - could recommend that a prisoner be released, but it was up to the Home Office to decide whether this was the right course.

Now the board was being given the power to decide when most prisoners should be released without reference to the Home Secretary, and as a result the number of Whitehall civil servants who could intervene on parole decisions was being cut from 90 to five.

Full-time board members would be 'well-qualified and independent people', probably with experience of the criminal justice system, they added, and there was no reason why high-fliers would not have a career break and take the job for a few years.

Canada has full-time officers deciding on parole without complaint from prisoners' rights and civil liberties groups, said one source. 'We're not trying to pack anything. We just want a balanced approach. At present we have 85 people spread all over the country and it is hard to develop consistent procedures.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border