Families beg for end to IPP scandal as Lords vote on indeterminate sentence reforms

The House of Lords is set to vote on a series of measures to help prisoners languishing in jail under “unjust” indeterminate sentences as families beg: “Put an end to this.”

Campaigners have warned that reforms are a matter of life and death for inmates trapped under imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentences, after almost 90 suicides.

Those include the tragic case – highlighted by The Independent – of Scott Rider, who was given a 23-month jail term and took his own life in despair after serving 17 years in prison.

A senior coroner blasted the sentence and “inhumane and indefensible” last month as he issued a warning to the government over the risk of further deaths.

On Tuesday, peers are set to debate a host of amendments to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to help IPP prisoners – but proposals fall short of a resentencing exercise called for by families and the justice committee.

The controversial sentences – in which offenders were handed minimum jail terms but no maximum – were scrapped in 2012 amid human rights concerns, but not for those already sentenced, leaving thousands languishing in jail for years beyond their original prison terms.

Of 2,796 IPP inmates currently incarcerated, 1,180 have never been released and 708 have served more than 10 years longer than their minimum tariff.

They include cases such as those of Wayne Bell, who has served more than 16 years for stealing a bike; Thomas White, who is still in prison 12 years after he stole a mobile phone; and Aaron Graham, who has served almost 20 years after he punched a man in a fight.

A coroner issued a Prevention of Future Deaths Notice following the death of IPP prisoner Scott Rider (Michelle Mahon)
A coroner issued a Prevention of Future Deaths Notice following the death of IPP prisoner Scott Rider (Michelle Mahon)

The government has agreed to reduce the licence period for IPP prisoners from 10 years to three but has so far refused to resentence prisoners still locked up, despite growing calls to address a penalty branded “an affront to basic decency and fairness” by the chair of the justice committee Sir Bob Neill.

Donna Mooney, of campaign group UNGRIPP, said the reforms are a matter of life or death for those in languishing prison as she urged parliamentarians to do the right thing.

She welcomed the government’s plans to reduce the licence period for released IPP prisoners and said proposals to change the parole test would be a step in the right direction. An amendment, tabled by Conservative peer Lord Moylan, would see the burden fall on the Parole Board to prove a prisoner is unsafe to be released, instead of the prisoner having to prove they are safe to be freed.

Ms Mooney, who lost her brother Tommy Nicol to suicide in 2015 while he was serving an indeterminate sentence for stealing a car, insisted that resentencing is the “only way” to address the IPP injustice.

“We are worried that a lot of these amendments will not impact people stuck in prison,” she said.

“We just really hope that the Lords and the government and all parties really understand that if they don’t put something through that’s going to help people in prison there is going to be an influx of suicides – and that is the reality.

“So we are really urging them to support amendments to help those people because otherwise they will feel more forgotten than they already do.

“They have had over a decade of living with no hope and waiting for something to happen.”

She added: “There is a lot of anxiety around this for people in prison, in the community and their families. They are hoping that the government will finally do the right thing and put an end to this.”

Lord David Blunkett admits he regrets introducing IPP sentences as Home Secretary in 2005 (Getty/iStockphoto/PA)
Lord David Blunkett admits he regrets introducing IPP sentences as Home Secretary in 2005 (Getty/iStockphoto/PA)

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, urged peers to back reforms and called for reparations for IPP inmates.

“It’s really important that this bill gets through because at least those small gains can be banked,” he told The Independent.

“People who have been subject to IPP have been subject to a state-imposed miscarriage of justice in a quite profound sense – subjected to a sentence event the UN special rapporteur on torture describes as a form of torture.

“Some form of reparation to IPP prisoners as a recognition of their suffering strike me as entirely appropriate.

“What you are effectively having is a life sentence for a couple of burglaries and getting in a fight. The distress and anger and despair that’s caused… is very profound.”

Lord David Blunkett, who admits he regrets introducing the sentence as home secretary under New Labour in 2005, is among a group of cross-party peers pushing for reform.

He said Lords had made “important progress” in negotiating with government ministers who have tabled some of their own amendments.

“This has already yielded substantial fruit, ranging from a further move to assist those sentenced as juveniles, the power of executive release, a strengthening of the action plan and all the monitoring issues required to make it work – including the progression board and independent scrutiny panel,” he said.

Baroness Fox called for the government to return the issue of resentencing as soon as possible (Supplied)
Baroness Fox called for the government to return the issue of resentencing as soon as possible (Supplied)

However, Baroness Fox, whose amendment calling for IPP prisoners to be resentenced was dropped due to lack of support from both Labour and Conservatives, called for the government to return to the issue of resentencing as soon as possible.

She told The Independent: “No government will be able to avoid dealing with this scandalous injustice.”

The life peer previously said the “egregious sentence is a matter of life and death” and suggested that politicians might well be guilty of “political cowardice” for failing to back resentencing to deal with the injustice “once and for all”.

She welcomed steps embraced by the government so far including shorter licence periods, an improved action plan and a power of executive release for recalled prisoners, but said they do little to help those who have never been freed.

She hopes, in Tuesday’s debate, Labour will support Lord Moylan’s amendment, reversing the burden of proof when applying for parole.

The Simon Brown memorial amendment is named after the late former Supreme Court Justice, who labelled IPP the “greatest single stain on the British justice system”.

Lord Moylan said the late Lord Brown was “committed to trying to correct the injustice of IPP” and he hopes, if passed, it will help to “nudge the dial” in the right direction for prisoners.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We have reduced the number of unreleased IPP prisoners by three-quarters since we scrapped the sentence in 2012, and continue to help those still in custody to progress towards release – including improving access to rehabilitation programmes and mental health support. The number of IPP prisoners in custody has fallen 12 per cent in the last year alone.

“Changing sentences retrospectively poses a risk to public safety because offenders who the Parole Board have deemed unsafe for release, many of whom have committed serious violent or sexual offences, could leave prison without probation supervision and support.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.