The National Audit Office has today published the findings from its investigation into the Parole Board (The Board). The Board is responsible for deciding whether prisoners can be safely released from prison and advising on movement between closed and open prisons across England and Wales. The NAO examined the Board in 2008 and made a number of recommendations to improve efficiency, in particular to address a backlog of outstanding cases. A Supreme Court ruling in 2013 (The Osborn ruling) broadened the circumstances in which the law requires the Board to hold an oral hearing. This led to an increase demand for oral hearings by the Board. The number of outstanding parole cases increased sharply, leading to increased delays and additional costs.
The key findings of the investigation are as follows:
- The Osborn ruling in October 2013 had an immediate impact on the demand for oral hearings conducted by the Board. There were 6,872 oral hearings conducted by the Board in 2014-15, an increase of 48% in comparison to 4,628 in 2012-13. Hearings increased to a high of 7,148 in 2015-16.
- The number of outstanding cases increased by more than 140% following the Osborn ruling. The Board had a backlog of cases for several years, but the number of outstanding cases increased by 143% from October 2013 to a peak of 3,163 in January 2015. Of the 2,117 oral cases outstanding in September 2016, 13% were more than a year past their target date for a hearing. A further 16% were more than six months past their target date.
- The Board’s ability to reduce the number of outstanding cases is limited by the number of cases it is able to list in any month. For example, the Board listed 701 cases for oral hearings in September 2016, while the queue of cases waiting for a hearing date was 1,257. Once listed, 34% oral hearings were deferred, and more than half of these (21%) were deferred or adjourned on the day of the hearing.
- The increase in demand for oral hearings has meant that older and more complex cases have been less likely to be heard. In 2015-16, 64% of cases were provided with an oral hearing date within 90 days of being ready to list, against a 90% target. The oldest of the outstanding cases in September 2016 had an original target date in 2009, with another 404 cases having target dates in 2015 or earlier.
- At December 2016, 3,081 prisoners on indeterminate sentences of imprisonment for public protection (IPPs) were in prison beyond their tariff expiry date. IPP prisoners make up around half of the cases waiting more than 90 days for a hearing. Of the 3,683 IPP prisoners still in custody in December 2016, 84% (3,081) were beyond their tariff expiry date. Of these, 48% had been in prison five or more years beyond their tariff and 11% were eight years or more beyond their tariff. In July 2016, the Board announced its intention to reduce the number of IPP prisoners in prison to 1,500 by 2020.
- The Board has paid £1.1 million in compensation claims to prisoners since 2011-12 as a result of delayed hearings, with £554,000 paid out in 2015-16. The backlog means some prisoners may have spent longer in prison than needed. Spending on member fees increased by 43% from £4.7 million in 2010-11 to £6.7 million in 2015-16.
- In October 2015, the Board set a target to reduce outstanding cases to 1,200 by April 2017, but this level of outstanding cases does not reflect efficiencies it has made since 2013. In June 2016, the Board moved the date to achieve this target to the end of 2017, and has so far not set out what it expects the level of outstanding cases to be after this.
- Under its new chair and chief executive, the Board launched a strategy to tackle the backlog in September 2016. The strategy includes aims to prioritise the safe release of IPP prisoners and to improve workflow by listing as many cases as possible and reducing unnecessary deferrals and adjournments.
- In 2016, the Ministry of Justice, on behalf of the Board, launched a major member recruitment exercise for the first time in four years. The Ministry did not recruit new members between 2012 and 2016, and member numbers fell 23% between 2010-11 (284) and 2015-16 (218). In 2016 it recruited 104 members, around half starting in 2016-17 and the remainder in 2017-18.
28 February 2017