Independent editor Trevor Baxter sits down with a Saddleworth-based former Parole Board member to discuss the issues faced by the under-fire service.
The decision – subsequently overturned – to release ‘Black Cab’ rapist John Worboys from jail placed the Parole Board under its greatest scrutiny since its inception 50 years ago.
The fallout from the Worboys case saw the resignation of Parole Board chief Nick Hardwick.
Justice Secretary David Gauke is to introduce a new system to allow victims the right to challenge parole decisions.
It will also scrap rules preventing the board revealing the basis for its decisions, and instead force it to disclose its reasoning.
Greenfield man Michael Fox was a member of the Parole Board from August 2010 until January 2018.
He contacted the Independent and, while understanding the outcry generated by the Worboys case, he believes the public are largely unaware of the work and commitment to ensuring justice is correctly served for offender and victim.
“The process is very thorough,” says Mr Fox, 61.
“The people who go into the parole board are 100 per-cent professional.
“They are very dedicated, hardworking people who receive lots of criticism in the media and very little support.
“They live in the community and are fully aware how dangerous people are that the Parole Board deals with and the consequences of those type of people walking round the community without proper supervision.
“If a Parole Board makes a decision to release it is because they are confident there is a very strong risk management plan in place.
“Someone is always released on licence with plenty of conditions attached.”
Mr Fox, a probation officer for 24 years prior to becoming a lay member of the Parole Board, says there has been a need for more general public understanding of how the Board works and what is required from the people who operate the process.
“I don’t want to make excuses but the system needs to be clearer and help people understand,” he confirmed.
“It is an intensive, thorough process. Things are not done superficially, things are done very carefully
“I am not saying the Parole Board is above criticism. Of course, it is not because it does have its problems.
“And at times it does need to be challenged on what people decide.
“I don’t think there is any member of the Parole Board, certainly not the people I have worked with, who would dispute that.
“But partly because of that and because people know how serious the work is, they really do ensure, as far as they can, they are making objective, reasoned, defensible decisions which will genuinely protect the public,” added the former Hulme Grammar pupil.
“The fact a case like the one involving Mr Worboys does come to the attention of the press does indicate it is an exception to the rule.
“People need to understand that in every case the role of a panel of the Parole Board is simply to answer the question: ‘is it necessary for the protection of the public that the person in front of us should stay in prison?’
“If the answer is ‘no’ then the Parole Board must release that person.
“The Parole Board concerns itself entirely with risk, not with questions of justice or right or wrong.
“Furthermore, the Parole Board will only release someone after they have served the minimum term set by a judge.’
“The Parole Board process is an art not a science. You can never be 100 per-cent sure.
“There are going to be people on occasions who do re-offend and re-offend seriously.
“We try to minimise that as much as we possibly can but sometimes – only rarely – it is going to happen.
“In any walk of life no matter how effective the safety systems are, they are going to break down at some time.
“What the general public, as a whole, thinks is that the parole process has got to be certain. But you can’t get certainty.
“You approach it as near as you can but you can’t actually reach it.”
Releasing a prisoner who could seriously re-offend creates its own pressure agrees Mr Fox.
“There is pressure and you have got to reconcile that. How do you live with it?” he said.
“You cannot forget a prisoner committed a serious crime and might do it again and that they may cause enormous suffering.
“But you have to move on. I have never felt frozen about making a decision.
“Infrequently I found it hard because the decision was finely balanced, but when that happens – if you have any doubt – you err on the side of protecting the public.”
After seven years, Mr Fox decided he had to leave the Parole Board.
“It was a very intensive, high pressure and very responsible job,” he said.
“But it was getting tedious and repetitive and I couldn’t square that.
“I couldn’t just give 90 per-cent. You have to perform to your maximum to do this work properly but eventually I had heard too much and seen too much.”
He also conceded in view of the furore over the Worboys case former colleagues were questioning their roles in the service.
“One person I really respect, above many others, and who is extremely competent and professional, was questioning whether she could do something else,” he said.
“And when someone like that considers leaving then it is a tragedy.”