Steven Barrett

The Colin Pitchfork saga exposes the problem with the Parole Board

The Colin Pitchfork saga exposes the problem with the Parole Board
(Getty images)
Text settings

Colin Pitchfork, 61, was jailed for life for raping and murdering 15-year-olds Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth in Leicestershire in the 1980s. Now the Parole Board has said Pitchfork should be released.

The backlash from politicians has been swift. Local MP Alberto Costa said he was 'appalled' by the decision. 'It would be immoral, wrong and frankly dangerous to release this disgraceful murderer of two children,' he added. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, who is said to be exploring the use of the 'reconsideration mechanism' to reverse the decision, appears to agree with his Tory colleague.

But the reality is that Buckland – and Costa – have little power to stop Pitchfork's release. This is because of a view which took hold in the 1990s which suggested that political power cannot be trusted in the hands of your elected representatives. It has been a prevailing political view since then and has led to a great many ‘reforms’, where political decisions were placed in the hands of non-elected individuals. This was done on the political promise that it would make the world better.

But cases like this one – where the government can do little to stop a double child murderer from once again walking the streets – shows the problem with this way of thinking.

If Pitchfork is released, he will have the 2003 Criminal Justice Act to thank. It created the Parole Board as we know it. It gave them the power to make the political decision to release or not release a prisoner.

So who are they? The answer is not very clear, this is their webpage on the subject; we only know there are 246 of them. Which is more than the four set out in the Act itself. From the Act, we learn that one of them must be a sitting or ex judge, one a psychiatrist and one a probation officer (or equivalent).

At least one must be someone who has 'made a study of the causes of delinquency or the treatment of offenders'.

Other than that, we know very little, other than that the Parole Board has very broad powers. In contrast, the Minister in question can do almost nothing. 

This is now quite common; quite a lot of Acts like this exist, which take political decisions away from the elected and giving them to the non-elected.

Soon, Pitchfork will be free. And an obscure statutory body, deliberately set up to make political choices on your behalf, will be responsible for that decision. Is this really a good idea?

We know the Parole Board makes mistakes from cases like John Worboys. If the political power to release or not release was with a politician, no doubt he or she would also make mistakes. The difference is the illusion that the Board is not engaging in a political decision and the relatively high bar there is for determining what is or is not a ‘mistake’.

Taking the politician out of it also takes the public out of it. The pre-90s system made the minister the fall guy, so the public would know who had made the decision and could decide their fate. 

Whether you think that is right or wrong is your political view. But it’s not irrational to think that the growing distrust of experts may be linked to the political power they have been made to wield – even if some of them look on it as favourably as a gift of a uranium necklace.