Ronnie Biggs: No remorse, no freedom

The Great Train Robber will probably die in jail after Jack Straw's much-criticised decision. He is, though, just one of a growing number of elderly prisoners

He is, after the events of the past week, still the most famous elderly inmate in the British prison system, but Ronnie Biggs is far from the only one. The Great Train Robber's family made much of the fact that Biggs's age and ill health were significant factors in the case for his release. The Parole Board agreed but the Justice Secretary, unimpressed at the old lag's refusal to show remorse for his crime, is not listening.

Biggs is currently in a Norwich hospital being treated for a fractured hip, pelvis and spine, and pneumonia. While he recovers, his lawyers are taking their fight for his release further by launching criminal proceedings tomorrow against Jack Straw for "false imprisonment".

Biggs's legal team also claims that the Justice Secretary acted outside his powers in denying parole on the grounds that the Great Train Robber was "wholly unrepentant" about his actions and had "outrageously courted the media". The team argues that Mr Straw's decision rested on a law that had been repealed and on another overruled by the Law Lords in 2002.

Biggs's allies claim to detect more than a whiff of politics in Mr Straw's decision. It would have been difficult for Mr Straw to parole a self-confessed – although unrepentant – criminal on one day and then refuse to release the Liverpool fan Michael Shields, who denies attempting to murder a Bulgarian waiter in 2005, the next.

The Biggs team has already begun marshalling its forces as its steps up its battle to overturn the parole decision. The Labour MP Harry Cohen is expected to visit Biggs in hospital this week to verify his condition.

Biggs was one of a 15-strong gang who held up a London-to-Glasgow mail train, making off with £2.6m at a railway bridge in Buckinghamshire. Most of the cash was never recovered.

Although he claims to have played a minor role in the heist, he was jailed for 30 years in 1964. He escaped by scaling the wall of the prison and jumping on to the roof of a furniture van. Biggs fled to France, where he had plastic surgery, and Spain before heading to Australia and later on to Brazil.

Police followed him to Brazil in 1974 but by then Biggs had a son, Michael, with his Brazilian girlfriend, making him legally untouchable. He surrendered in 2001, saying he wanted to see Britain and enjoy a pint of beer by the seaside before he died. Since then, Michael Biggs has led the campaign for his father's release.

Michael Biggs yesterday revealed that the Ministry of Justice had written to him confirming the decision not to review his father's case. In an angry attack on Mr Straw, he accused the secretary of state of hyprocrisy: "This is the same man that allowed [General] Pinochet [the Chilean dictator] – a mass murderer and torturer – to live out his days in freedom instead of allowing him to be extradited to Spain."

He said that when given the news last week that he was to stay in jail, his father responded: "What did you expect from the Labour government? Humanity?"

Biggs is one of a growing number of elderly people in prison. There are now more than 2,200 people aged 60 or over in jails in England and Wales, compared with 837 in 1997. Indeed, he forms part of the fastest-growing age group in the prison population. More than 500 inmates are aged over 70.

Penal reform groups insist the elderly should not be incarcerated in such numbers. They warn that older prisoners are more likely to sink into isolation and ill health, and to experience discrimination and bullying, during their time behind bars.

The Prison Reform Trust says the dramatic increase is not a reflection of increased criminality among the older generation.

"Harsher sentencing policies... have resulted in the courts sending a larger proportion of offenders aged over 60 to prison to serve longer sentences, particularly for sex and drug trafficking offences," a trust spokesman said.

The charity Age Concern & Help the Aged has also voiced criticism of the inadequate services and support provided for older offenders, both in prison and on their release.

The Ministry of Justice yesterday insisted that Mr Straw had the power to reject Parole Board recommendations. "The Justice Secretary absolutely retains the right to veto Parole Board recommendations to release prisoners sentenced for a sexual or violent offence committed prior to April 2005 and who have been given a determinate sentence of 15 years or over," a spokesman said.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Wright and Bianca Miller in the final of The Apprentice
tvMark Wright and Bianca Miller fight for Lord Sugar's investment
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor winner Ben Haenow has scored his first Christmas number one
music
News
news
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
News
i100
Extras
indybest
News
peopleLiam Williams posted photo of himself dressed as Wilfried Bony
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice finalists Mark Wright and Bianca Miller
tvBut who should win The Apprentice?
News
The monkey made several attempts to revive his friend before he regained consciousness
video
Extras
indybest
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick