MPs consider calls for greater transparency for parole board hearings

The chair of the Parole Board told the House of Commons’ justice committee that the public did not understand their decision making process properly because they ‘don’t explain it properly’. Professor Nick Hardwick, on Wednesday was grilled over the perceived lack of transparency in parole board decisions. Bob Neill, the barrister and Conservative MP, chaired the committee in the shadow of the controversy surrounding the board’s decision to release the so-called ‘Black Cab Rapist’ after only nine years.

Neill clarified that the committee was focused on the ways in which the board came to their decisions and whether transparency was an issue that needed addressing.

On the same day, the High Court ruled in favour of a challenge against the decision (here). A report into working of the victim contact scheme in the case of John Worboys was also published. Dame Glenys Stacey explained that the National Probation Service appeared ‘by and large’ to have complied with the relevant guidelines. But he also noted that the majority of victims who heard the news of Worboys’ release had not ‘felt prepared for this outcome’.

Martin Jones, CEO of the Parole Board, reflected on the improvements made from a time where decisions were completely secret, to a time where reasons were given to the prisoners themselves. But added that they wanted to go further with access to information.

Nick Hardwick told MPs that in order to provide a forum for candid expert evidence, as opposed to what the popular opinion was, privacy was important. ‘We need offenders to talk honestly to psychologists about their feelings and their case,’ he said. He cautioned unless it inhibited candour.

Hardwick added that some offenders may face the Parole Board every two years and victims would not want information about their case constantly being ‘rehashed’. Last month, Hardwick argued that it was right to resist ‘political interference’. ‘It would be a bad day for us all if people’s rightful abhorrence of Worboys’ crimes or even justified concern about a Parole Board decision allowed these basic principles of justice to be overturned,’ he said.

Concern was also expressed about which cases’ information would be publicly disclosed. Last year the board made 25,000 decisions and Hardwick indicated that in would be detrimental to only publicly report ‘notorious’ cases. Martin Jones stated further that in order to protect all interested parties, a good accurate summary would be needed. Owing to resource limitations this would be difficult, he explained.

In answer to a question about the rules limiting the parole boards ability to disclose reasons publicly, Hardwick demonstrated a frustration for victims who would in reality find licensing conditions ‘reassuring’. But this information is not currently open to the victims.

He cited another notorious case where public outcry at a decision to release an individual was not helped by the fact that nobody knew about ‘the frail old man [the parole board] were now releasing on a zimmer frame who would have struggled to get out of bed let alone do anybody harm’. He recognised that people may still have disagreed with the decision, but that the inability to give details did not assist in allaying victims’ fears.

Accepting that the Parole Board was analogous to a court of law, Nick Hardwick expressed a need for greater public understanding. He suggested journalistic access to decisions, videos explaining how they assess cases, or access for interested parties, a route taken by the Canadian system.

Ideas were floated in the committee that Hardwick believed were worth considering, such as creating a more adversarial scenario that sought to challenge expert evidence further. It became clear to all those in the committee that discussion is key in order to constantly improve. But discussion is only possible if people understand how the board works.

The public outcry following the decision to release John Worboys has instilled a determination to ‘do more’ in terms of transparency. Hardwick stated ‘let’s make big change – but let’s think it through’.

Author: Calum McCrae

Calum is a law graduate presently working as an intern at the University of Greenwich’s Innocence Project London. He volunteers as a Justice Gap reporter

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