Time to abolish Indeterminate Sentences (IPPs) [with 12 Oct update]

Last week I sent a letter about Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection to the Sunday Times.  I wrote:

Prison Overcrowding and Indeterminate Sentences
You report that the Justice Minister is pressing the Home Secretary to help reduce the cost and overcrowding of our huge prison population by releasing or deporting more than 600 foreigners who have served their sentences but are still locked up (“Clarke seethes at cost of foreigners in British prisons”, September 19).  Similarly, more than four times as many prisoners (some 2,500) have served the “punishment” part of their Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) but are still kept in jail indefinitely because of the inherent impossibility of proving that they won’t reoffend if released: and the number increases all the time. Releasing them forthwith, perhaps on licence, would remedy a grave injustice (especially if the whole pernicious IPP system were to be abolished at the same time) as well as saving a huge amount of taxpayers’ money and contributing significantly to the relief of the prison overcrowding that shames us all.
Brian Barder

I was glad that the Sunday Times duly published my letter — a version of it, anyway.  I can’t take a copy of the published version from the Sunday Times website, because Mr Murdoch has put it behind a paywall, and I’m not going to pay to see a newspaper website.  So here is a picture of my letter instead:IPPs: Sunday Times letter
I doubt if one in a hundred of the readers of the Sunday Times will have had the foggiest idea what I was on about, and even fewer of those paying to read it online will have had any clearer an idea.  So I decided to put it here instead.

It’s puzzling that the great injustice of IPPs has attracted so little attention or concern, certainly compared with other scandals such as control orders, abuse of stop-and-search powers, prolonged imprisonment without charge or trial, and sweeping powers to intercept our private correspondence.  How many British people know that we run a system of preventive detention in this country, under which thousands of men (and a very few women) are incarcerated in harsh penal conditions, indefinitely, not as punishment for anything they have done but because a few men in suits are scared that they might commit offences if they are released?  It’s surprising that neither the English courts nor the European Court of Human Rights have so far declared this pernicious system to be in contravention of the European Convention on Human RightsTom Bingham, thou shouldst be living (and still on the Bench) at this hour!

I have tried to make a tiny contribution to the effort to publicise the evils of IPPs by periodically posting pieces about them on my blog, such as here and here.  Some of these have attracted numerous ‘comments‘ from the families of people serving IPPs (almost as much victims of this cruel régime as the prisoners themselves) and from various experts in the field.  These exchanges of messages as blog comments have become a kind of clearing-house for advice and appeals by those most closely affected by IPPs. They make salutary reading by anyone who doubts the mental agony suffered by the wives, sisters and children of men who have been incarcerated for sometimes relatively minor offences, who have served the ‘punishment’ element of their sentences, but who can’t be released because they can’t prove that if released, they won’t offend again.  Many begin to fear that they will never, ever be released:  that they will grow old and die in prison, all for having had a tussle with a neighbour or some such offence.

Ministers at the Ministry of Justice have gone on record as recognising the injustice involved in IPPs.  All the major prison reform and civil liberties organisations have campaigned against them.  The Ministry is currently reviewing sentencing policy and will publish a green paper for discussion in November — just a few weeks’ time.  Is it too much to hope that the review will resist the temptation merely to recommend minor adjustments designed to make IPPs marginally less objectionable, and go instead for outright abolition of an inherently pernicious system?  If it does, what are the chances of even the most liberal of Conservative ministers facing down the hang-’em-and-flog-’em punishment freaks on the right wing of their party, and the screams of the tabloid hysterics, in order to sweep away this ugly legacy of a misguided Labour home secretary?

It’s a pity that my letter in the Sunday Times was so mangled that its point was largely lost.  Perhaps the responsible MoJ ministers might be shown this blog post by one of their Google-literate officials.  It might help a little to strengthen their resolve to defy the opposition of the know-nothing tendency, and to do what they already know urgently needs to be done.

Update, 12 Oct 2010:  I have put the following postscript on this post as now published in LabourList:

As a postscript to this post, I urge anyone interested to read the article in today’s Guardian at http://j.mp/cD6HbQ, reporting the forthcoming speech by no less an expert on prison policy than the president of the Prison Governors Association, who ‘will describe the situation of inmates serving a sentence of imprisonment for public protection (IPP) as “a blatant injustice”.’ Eoin McLennan-Murray will call for the “immediate release” of the 2,850 IPP prisoners ‘being held well beyond their “tariff point” – the minimum date after which the parole board can authorise their release.’ The Guardian notes that of the ‘6,130 serving indefinite IPP sentences, so far only 94 have been released.’
This is cast-iron evidence from the representative of those best placed to know what a ‘blatant injustice’ IPPs inflict on thousands of prisoners. All the penal reform and civil liberties organisations take the same view of IPPs. It’s really time to end this blot on our system of justice.


72 Responses

  1. Patricia O says:

    Hello Wendi, Brian, and all, Have just accessed the Times, (having paid for the priviledge!).  It says the Green Paper will be published ‘early next month’.  It will propose that the IPP will be given for offenders meriting a jail term of more than 10 years.  It says that ‘Prisoners can only be freed after serving a minimum term imposed by the courts but 3000 are held up waiting to go on a course to prove they are safe for release.  The Government will outline plans to speed up their release with only the most dangerous kept inside.’  Short sentences of up to 12 months, as promised by the Lib Dems at the election will not be scrapped.  The M of J is also to ‘reduce the numbers of offenders returned to jail for breaching terms of their sentence.  Recalls will no longer be allowed for technical reasons.’  These are the relevant points         here. 

  2. wendi says:

    Im very worried for my partner as i have already written he is up for parole in january (hopeful that parole board are still full of post xmas spirit)but we have just found out that they will be using reports from 12mths ago in which the probation has kindly forgotten to put on that he has completed the courses and that his risk has gone down, we have a good solicitor and have just applied for a good barrister that understands the IPP so i have all crossed that they will challenge the mess that the prison have made I just wish that I was there with him.

  3. Brian says:

    Interesting and disturbing figures on IPPs from the Justice Secretary (Kenneth Clarke) in answer to a parliamentary question on 23 November 2010:

    The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): On 17 November 2010, 14,680 prisoners were serving an indeterminate sentence of imprisonment for public protection, or a life sentence in prisons or secure hospitals. Of those, 6,320 are held beyond their tariff expiry date, excluding offenders who have been recalled to custody following release.

    In answer to further questions the Justice Secretary said:

    The indeterminate prison sentence has never worked as intended. The intention was that it would apply to a few hundred dangerous people who were not serving life sentences. The number is piling up, and more than 6,000 have gone beyond their tariff, but they will not simply be released. We will re-address the subject…   The Prison Reform Trust …  believes that those sentences should be scrapped entirely. It is critical of the way they work, and it is clear that they are not working as intended, but the Government are hoping to take a balanced view. We must obviously protect the public against dangerous people and the risk of serious offences being committed on release. On the other hand, about 10% of the entire prison population will be serving IPP sentences by 2015 at the present rate of progress, and we cannot keep piling up an ever-mounting number of people who are likely never to be released…


    Thanks to Charlotte Rowles for drawing attention to this.  The last seven words of the extract from Mr Clarke’s reply quoted above are pretty ominous, but perhaps should not be taken too literally.

    I have also been sent (by a different benefactor) the following extracts from a report in today’s (or yesterday’s?) Times:

    A radical overhaul of sentencing that will see thousands of offenders avoiding jail has been delayed amid fresh concerns that the Government will be accused of “going soft on crime”. The keenly awaited Green Paper — expected to be a major assault by Kenneth Clarke on the traditional Conservative policy of “prison works” — was due out next week. But the Ministry of Justice yesterday confirmed that the paper had been put back with no expected publication date. A Whitehall source said: “Number 10 is not happy about it.”….
    The Green Paper is expected to include scrapping indeterminate sentences for all but a handful of the most serious violent and sexual offenders, under which 6,000 offenders are currently held. [Emphasis added]

    Please also see http://www.barder.com/2986.


  4. wendi says:

    My god  this is so much worse than i thought 6,000 why have they been telling us that its around half that number something now has to be done  but what and how?

  5. Patricia Burke says:

    I truly thought we were all alone when my son recieved his 4 yr ipp, its heartbreaking to read some of these. Is there any way us families affected could pool our rescources in the way of petitions or letters to the appropriate officials to highlight the problem? I feel at the moment that my son will never get out there is no parole date to look forward to! I am so grateful for this site and for Brians advice and help that he tries to give everyone on here, it helps to feel we are not alone!

    Brian writes: Thank you, Patricia. Of course many others have been able to give much more useful advice and encouragement in their contributions to this blog than I can. I hope it has helped to spread awareness of the defects and injustice involved in IPPs.

  6. Brian says:

    Wendi, thank you: I absolutely agree that the latest figures are a major scandal. I hope and believe that the numbers involved are now so huge that the government will be forced to take some action. Patricia, you are certainly not alone, as the (literally) hundreds of comments contributed to this website show.
    The decision on whether to change the IPP system to make it less harsh, by removing some of the obstacles to the release of post-tariff prisoners who aren’t obviously dangerous, is now in the hands of the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, and of course the prime minister. I am sure that Mr Clarke and his ministerial colleagues and officials are fully aware of the deficiencies and injustices of IPPs: many civil liberties and prison reform bodies have published comprehensive analyses of the system that demonstrate its defects, and I would be surprised if some of the posts and comments on this website have not been drawn to the attention of Ministry of Justice officials and perhaps ministers. Then there have been the many letters and petitions pointing out the injustice of the way the system has been working.
    As you know both Kenneth Clarke and his junior minister have spoken in parliament about the unacceptable and unsustainable features of IPPs. I think we can assume that the Liberal Democratic minority in the coalition government would support any measures to reduce drastically the number of post-tariff IPP prisoners or even to abolish the whole system of indeterminate sentences (apart perhaps from life sentences). The issue now is whether the more right-wing Conservative ministers and MPs can be persuaded to accept a liberal reform of the system (which we know Mr Clarke will want) or whether their commitment to severe punishment, the protection of society and justice for the victims of crime will prevail over the case for reform.
    According to a report in today’s Times (quoted in a separate comment) the publication of Mr Clarke’s proposals on all aspects of sentencing policy, including IPPs, has been postponed because “No. 10” (i.e. Mr Cameron and his advisers) is unhappy with them. No. 10 will naturally want to avoid a split in the Conservative party or in the coalition government over this — not necessarily over IPPs specifically, but probably including them. I doubt if any number of new petitions or letters from families of IPP prisoners, however poignant, will affect this essentially political issue.
    Once the proposals of the Ministry of Justice have been published as a Green Paper for public discussion (i.e. once the MoJ has agreed them with No. 10), that will be the moment for letters, submissions and petitions from those affected by IPPs, supporting or challenging or seeking changes in the Green Paper. But we don’t yet know what will be in the Green Paper so more appeals and representations now would be premature.
    Of course that doesn’t mean that IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs should give up their efforts to get places on the relevant courses or transfers to prisons that can provide them, and to get a Parole Board hearing without unreasonable delay, to appeal against unfair reports by prison psychologists and against unfair reports on their performance on courses, and even in some cases to appeal against the original IPP itself or against the tariff imposed. For all these efforts the advice and experience of a good solicitor are, of course, essential. For some IPP prisoners there may unfortunately be no obvious grounds for any such appeals.

    Good luck!

  7. wendi says:

    Hi Brian
     I found your comments very interesting and thank god you have taken the time to understand the issues of the IPP sentence ( for which i once again thank you for )I just wish more people would understand and support the families of these prisoners  ie the government some of them really need to get their heads out of the sand and do something to sort this bloody mess out once and for all . Noboby that has son’s or partners with the IPP sentence have ever said that they should not have had a sentence , they have paid for what they have done, but to be so far over the tariff is just disgusting they have let other prisoners out early that in some cases have done far worse My partner has now got a parole date of the 14th Jan but still nobody is recommending Cat D or release  even though he has been in prison since the 4th Jan 2006. we are also trying to appeal his sentence as he was sentenced twice for the same offence his first sentence was 3 years in prison then 2 years on licence they sent him down 30 minutes later he was brought back up and sentenced to 18mths instead, he had no idea what was happening.
     I felt the same as you until i read the inside time and found Emmersons Solicitors and through their article i got on line to quite a few people in the same boat.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Wendi. There does seem to have been a terrible muddle in your partner’s case. It sounds as if an ordinary 3-year determinate sentence was passed in the first place (which would have meant release after 18 months) and then this was changed to an IPP with an 18-month tariff, which means only conditional eligibility to be considered for release after 18 months, which is far more severe. Good luck with the appeal.

  8. Sue A says:

    Here Here Wendi
    I too would like to thank you Brian

    Brian writes: Thank you, Sue. I’m glad that this blog is helpful sometimes.

  9. wendi says:

    Hi all
    If anybody is having big problems with the trainee forensic psychologists like we are I have managed to find out who to complain to : Miss Alex D  Johnson Qualifications officer

    The British Psychological Society
    St Andrews House
    48 Princess Road East
    LE1 7DR
    Direct line 0116 2529519

  10. Jo D. says:

    Thanks for the address Wendi, and good luck for January. Report writers can add addendums to their reports – I don’t know if yours has done that.
    We’ve heard nothing – everything seems to be at a standstill, I don’t know if they’re waiting to see what happens with the green paper – hopefully out next week but the date keeps changing.

    It is so wrong that they can be kept so long past their tariffs – not because they’re misbehaving, they’re doing everything they’ve been asked to do but the whole system is deliberately slow and full of obstacles which seem to be deliberately put in their way to stop them progressing.
    Maybe it’s not so bad if someone’s got a tariff of 10 years to work their way through it, but why should those who only have short tariffs – some only in months, have to spend the same time in prison as those given much longer tariffs for more serious offences just because of the inadequacies of the system which no one for the past 5 years has been bothered to do anything about. 

    Brian writes: Thank you, Jo. I well understand your sense of injustice, and share it. But the thing about IPPs of course is that once the prisoner has served his tariff, the timing of his release depends on a judgement about his future behaviour, not about the gravity of his past offence. Having completed his punishment (the tariff), he’s thereafter being held in preventive detention, to ‘protect society’ from him. But the conditions of the preventive detention are exactly the same as when he was being punished — so in effect he’s still being punished, but now for an offence in the future that he hasn’t yet committed (and might never commit, if released). That seems to me the fundamental sickness at the heart of IPPs. I think they may be made less harsh, and some good for some people may come of that, but I’m afraid that IPPs be with us for some time yet. I hope I’m wrong.

  11. wendi says:

    Hi Jo
    Yes I am aware that they can change reports but this the trainee  is refusing to point blank to do even though we have got this in black and white all she said was ” it will be fun at your parole hearing wont it” now nobody can tell me that she is acting in a professional manner can they!

  12. wendi says:

    Has anybody had chance to read this months inside time there are a couple of good articles about IPP’s one by a solicitor called Lisa Gianquitto and one in the mail bag by Michael Robinson of Emmersons solicitors ( these are also on facebook)

  13. wendi says:

    I wish somebody could explain to MP John Mann just what the IPP sentence is all about and explain that it affects prisoners with minor sentences as well .

  14. Jo D. says:

    Wendi, although she’s acting far from professionally, I tend to think the parole board decide what they’re going to do even before they’ve listened to anyone – I know that’s not a lot of help. My friend had all good positive things said about him but it was all ignored by the parole board who just came up with a lot of reasons that weren’t based on any evidence.

    When did John Mann speak and where is he MP for? When the green paper comes out I will write to my MP again, as it is supposed to be up for discussion, and ask him to get others to understand what this  sentence is really about.

    Brian, thanks for your comment which illustrates the whole nonsensical way of thinking this sentence was  based on. In any organisation outside of prison targets and objectives have to be achievable within the time frame given, anything else would be unethical. In prison targets and objectives are completely unachievable within the (short) time frame – through no fault of the prisoners, so their risk can’t be seen to be reduced through no fault of their own yet they’re the ones being punished for the lack of structure of this sentence.  

  15. wendi says:

    There is a partthat was written on The opinion site.org that states that doubts are setting in about the IPP. John Mann is MP for Retford near Nottingham. I also intend to write to my MP on this matter as I got a good response from her and Crispin Blunt.

  16. wendi says:

    Has anybody seen the article about IPP’s  in the news of the world page 33?

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Unfortunately the online version of this article is behind Mr Murdoch’s paywall, and paying money to Mr Murdoch is forbidden by my principles.

  17. Jo D. says:

    Wendi, would you mind just putting a quick summary of what News of the world says, like Brian I’ve found it’s inaccessible online, thanks.

  18. wendi says:

    It starts RAPISTS AND THUGS TO BE FREED EARLY by jamie lyons@notw.co.uk
    It statesthat thousands of dangerous criminals will be set free early under new prison plans.he goes on about sex offenders and violent lags will no longer be locked up indefinitely to cut jail population.prisoners must provethat they are no longer a risk,6,000 lagsare now held under the ipp but mr Clarke wants it scrapped all but a handful with a 10 yrs term. thousand of others will get fixed sentences meaning they go free after serving half their time.  Childrens champ  Sara Payne is angry at this. There is nothing said about them that are over their tariffs I wonder if he /she understands that.

    Brian writes: Thank you, Wendi, for this summary of the report in yesterday’s News of the World (5 Dec 2010). I’m afraid that it’s a good example of the ignorant, vindictive, populist garbage that will greet any proposals by the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, to reduce the bloated prison population significantly by releasing some at least of those who clearly don’t need to be there, hopefully including some IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs, although I think he has made it clear that any releases won’t be automatic and it seems unlikely that all IPP post-tariff prisoners will be released.

    There are rumours that (a) the Green Paper with Mr Clarke’s proposals has been delayed again, until January; and (b) that it’s to be published tomorrow (7 Dec). They can’t both be right, obviously.

    I doubt if Ms Payne has the faintest idea what an IPP is. If I’m wrong, I apologise. I’m absolutely sure that Mr Clarke knows all about IPPs, though.

  19. Jo D. says:

    Thanks for that Wendi, and Brian, thanks for your link to the green paper and explanation, I was struggling with it until I read your assessment. I will be writing to the addresses given – I hope everyone else will.
    I will also be writing to my MP so that he is aware that Ken Clarke has a clearer understanding of this sentence than Tory backbenchers and certain tabloids have.
    I hope everybody who is aware of the damage this sentence causes makes sure that any opinions similar to the News of the World are challenged.
    I agree, I don’t think Sarah Payne has any idea what sort of offences people are receiving this life sentence for or the way they are treated.

  20. Patricia O says:

    Dear Brian, thank you for your comments on the green paper.  I was also struggling with it, like Jo.  Yesterday, having skimmed through it,  I thought, here we go again ,just a lot of wind, without any positive action proposed.  However, today,  after reading your encouraging comments, I am more optimistic.  We must keep on writing to MPs etc, and contribute to the debate, as we really know how badly IPPs affect offenders and their families. 

  21. wendi says:

    I too would like to thank Brian for your comments on the green paper as in parts i was finding things hard to understand. I now have to try to explain all to my partner wish me luck . What i dont like to read about is the labelling Thugs , Rapists,  Sex offenders,  people dont understand that  this sentence was given out for other crimes as well, my partner got his IPP because of a verbal threat .

  22. Jo D. says:

    Thought you might be interested:
    Tom Brake (Lib-Dem MP), has asked questions in Parliament on 8th Dec 2010, relating to updated IPP figures.
    As I understand the figures, in brief :
    87 IPP’s were released on licence in 2010 compared to 54 in 2009.
    However, at the end of 2010 there are 3,173 past their tariff compared to 2,468 at the end of 2009.
    So with all the extra Parole Board members and ‘improved’ system for parole hearings they only released an extra 33, while those going past their tariff increased by an extra 705.   
    If  this is all that can be achieved by the Parole Board it gives an indication that under the current system, despite improvements, the situation is worsening.

    There have now been a total of 187 IPP’s released, 47 of which have been recalled since 2007 – although there’s no information as to whether these were technical breaches or they have committed further offences.
    Among the ones that have been released, there are some who were foreign nationals and are deported at the end of their tariff, – there are no up to date figures on these. 

    At the end of 2009 there had been 13 IPP’s who had committed suicide, again I haven’t seen any up to date figures.   
    In a much earlier post (which I can’t find at the moment), someone suggested that they would expect there to be a lot released very soon as all those sentenced to short tariffs early on, now should have completed all their courses and have done their statutory years at B,C & D cats, however this doesn’t seem to be the case as the Parole Boards are still maintaing the level of around 4% of IPP’s ever being on out on licence (or deported).   

    I hope Ken Clarke has also realises this.       

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Jo. The full reply by Crispin Blunt to Mr Brake’s written PQ, with a mass of statistics on IPPs as at 30 November 2010, is at

    Many of the figures are interesting and some are surprising. For example, on 30 November, of the 3,173 offenders who were past their tariff, 1,432 had a tariff of 730 days or less (approximately two years or less), 2,601 had a tariff of 1,095 days or less (approximately three years or less), and 3,080 had a tariff of 1,460 days or less (approximately four years or less). Under the Green Paper proposals presumably not one of these would have received an IPP sentence at all — and these are only the figures for IPP prisoners who are already past their tariffs. (Incidentally these figures are not easy to reconcile: they must be cumulative, i.e. the 3,080 must include the 2,601 which in turn must include the 1,432.) It’s also striking that of the total of 6,375 IPP prisoners, 165 are women, of whom 111 are past their tariff. 40 IPP prisoners are aged between 15 and 17, and 229 between 18 and 20 — all serving what could effectively be life sentences under current arrangements. Very, very disturbing. These and the other figures supplied by Mr Blunt (the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Justice, and Conservative MP for Reigate) deserve to be widely disseminated.

    The figures are issued by Kenneth Clarke’s own department, so it’s a fair bet that he has indeed seen them. I imagine that the MoJ probably arranged with Mr Brake that he would ask this question so that the figures could be published. They strengthen the case for the changes suggested in the Green Paper.

    PS: I am transferring this comment to the more recent blog post about IPPs, at http://www.barder.com/3013. Comments on this rather elderly post are now closed.