§ Mr. Stinchcombe
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he intends to make changes to the review procedures in cases of persons sentenced to life imprisonment. 
§ Mr. Straw
Under the present arrangements announced by previous Home Secretaries, most recently on 7 December 1994,Official Report, columns 234–35, by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the first Parole Board review in the case of a life sentenced prisoner begins three years before the expiry of tariff. The purpose of this review is normally to enable the prisoner to be assessed for, and, where appropriate, transferred to, open conditions (category D) where he or she may be tested in conditions of lower security, fully assessed by staff and prepared for release. A further Parole Board review is then held to determine whether the level of risk is low enough to enable the prisoner to be safely released on life licence. Where the level of risk is considered to be acceptable, the objective is to release the prisoner on or very shortly after tariff expiry.
The need for two or more reviews and the average time of eight and a half months to complete each one make it very difficult for this objective to be achieved. Of the 109 life sentenced prisoners who were released on life licence between April 1997 and March 1998, only one was released on tariff expiry. A further 31, who could have been safely released at or close to tariff expiry, were released within 12 months. I have therefore decided to make some adjustments to the review timetabling arrangements to reduce delays by enabling prisoners whom it is safe to release but who are currently being released within 12 months of tariff expiry to be released on tariff or shortly afterwards.
In future, the first Parole Board review for mandatory and discretionary life sentenced prisoners will be brought forward by six months to start three and a half years before tariff expiry, but normally only where the prisoner has been in category C prison conditions for 12 months or more at that point. Cases falling just outside the 12 month criterion, and cases where exceptional circumstances exist, will be considered for early review on their merits.
In addition, reviews for all mandatory life sentenced prisoners who are in open conditions will commence 18 months after arrival rather than after two years as is now the practice. I am satisfied that this will still allow ample time (at least two years) in open prison for the prisoner to be fully tested, assessed and prepared for release. This change will bring the timetable for the review of mandatory life sentenced prisoners into line with that for discretionary cases in which there is a statutory entitlement to a further review on the second anniversary of the conclusion of the previous one. In order to avoid disrupting the scheduled offending behaviour programmes and pre-release preparatory work for those already in open conditions, this new arrangement will apply to those transferring to open conditions from 1 August.
The statement of 7 December 1994 also announced the abolition in discretionary life sentence cases of the ten year Ministerial review to consider whether there were any grounds for bringing forward the date of the first 588W Parole Board review. The purpose of that review had been to identify any special circumstances or exceptional progress which might justify bringing forward the date of the first Parole Board review. I have decided that this review should also be abolished in mandatory life sentence cases. Those convicted of murder are now fully informed about the tariff-setting process and may make representations at any time about the length of their tariff. In addition, they may at any time make representations for their tariff to be reduced to take account of exceptional circumstances, including exceptional progress in prison. Those sentenced to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure have an annual review of tariff by officials and a Ministerial review at the halfway point. In these circumstances, the ten year review is now redundant.