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Imprisonment for Public Protection: No more kicking the can


With an election taking place during the Euros, it is almost too tempting to describe the Labour Party as running towards an open goal. A new government is almost seen as inevitable, with the real question being the size of its majority. Yet it remains unclear whether this change will embolden much-needed reform to the criminal justice system. For any future Justice Secretary, addressing the plight of those serving sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) must be at the top of their to-do list.

The IPP regime has been widely acknowledged as a failure and catastrophe that needs addressing. Despite sensible and considered proposals to fix the problem, there has been timid reform. The problem will not go away and indeed, will only become more difficult to resolve. A radical re-sentencing exercise needs to be undertaken. Recent efforts to remedy other historical injustices in the criminal justice system sets a helpful precedent.

IPP sentences – what are they?

The IPP was introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and came into force in April 2005. It mandated an indeterminate sentence for those who committed certain offences and presented “a significant risk to members of the public of serious harm occasioned by him of further specified offences” – or, in other words, found to be ‘dangerous’. A judge would set a tariff and to be eligible for release after that period, the Parole Board had to be satisfied that “it is no longer necessary for the protection of the public that the prisoner should be confined”.

There were tweaks to the regime while it was in operation, including the removal of the statutory presumption of dangerousness if a specified offence had been committed on an earlier occasion. But the imposition of IPP sentences continued at pace.  

If deemed safe and released, a person remained on licence. However a small indiscretion could see them going back behind bars for periods that far outweigh any punishment they would otherwise receive.

There was broad opposition to the IPP sentence due to the inconsistent and more frequent application of these sentences than was intended. IPPs were repealed in December 2012. However, the repeal of IPPs was not retrospective.

The “greatest stain on the criminal justice system”

When the government introduced IPPs, it estimated that there would be 900 prisoners. Within two years, there were 3000; 6,080 at its peak in 2012. By the time IPPs were abolished in 2012, 8,711 IPP sentences had been imposed by the courts. In spite of their abolition in 2012, 5% of the prison population were subject to an IPP in March 2016.

In March 2023, there were 1,355 offenders serving an IPP sentence who had never been released from prison. 98% percent of these prisoners had served their tariff. Of these, 641 people had been in prison for more than 10 years longer than their tariff, including 189 people whose original tariff was less than two years.

These numbers are grim. But they do not explain the individual stories of devastation these sentences have on offenders, and those closest to them. The fact that 6% of all self-inflicted prison deaths since April 2005 are by those subject to IPPs does.  As does the fact IPP prisoners are 70% more likely than the general population to self-harm.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently said:

For many these sentences have become cruel, inhuman and degrading. They have been acknowledged by successive UK Governments and even described as indefensible by a justice minister – yet they persist.  

Parole Board: the Problems 

The test applied by the Parole Board to assess the suitability of release is rigid. For example, it is not relaxed the longer an IPP prisoner is detained. Parliament recently considered reform of the test – reversing the burden of proving the issue of ‘dangerousness’ so it lay on probation to prove rather than a prisoner having to disprove. The Labour government abstained.

But perhaps the difficulty lies not just in the test, but the role of the Parole Board in being responsible for removing this stain. Hearings are being delayed due to insufficient time, incorrect or incomplete paperwork, and failures within the prison estate to prepare reports and sentencing plans. Of greater concern is the quality of the information. Reports are being drafted with limited or no contact between prisoner, probation and other professionals. A high turnover of key staff leads to stultified and inconsistent engagement and conclusions.

A 60% drop in the availability rehabilitative courses in the last 10 years and significant delays in effecting re-categorisation means that prisoners cannot properly evidence progress. Those with mental health or behavioural concerns face the additional hurdle of perceived unsuitability for courses. IPP prisoners often refuse needed medication or mental health support out of fear that doing so will impede their release from prison. The uncertainty of IPP sentences within and outside the prison estate have a destructive impact on prisoner well-being.


The House of Commons Justice Committee launched an inquiry in September 2021, with the aim of examining the issues surrounding IPP sentences, and to identify possible legislative and policy solutions. It released its report a year later, describing IPP sentences as “irredeemably flawed”. Most importantly, it called for a comprehensive re-sentencing programme:

“Our primary recommendation is that the Government brings forward legislation to enable a resentencing exercise in relation to all IPP sentenced individuals (except for those who have successfully had their licence terminated)”

Despite its ambitious proposal, the Justice Committee unhelpfully gave no further steer on the mechanics of re-sentencing – only to optimistically suggest the government set up a “time limited expert committee to advise on the practical implementation of the resentencing exercise”. The government baulked:

“Retrospective resentencing of IPP offenders could lead to the immediate release of many offenders who have been assessed as unsafe for release by the Parole Board, many with no period of supervision in the community. 

“The government’s long-held view is that this would give rise to an unacceptable risk to public protection and that the IPP action plan, suitably updated, remains the best option by which these offenders can progress towards safe release. As such, the government has no plans to conduct a resentencing exercise.”

It is the authors’ view that re-sentencing each IPP prisoner is the only possible fix. Contrary to the government’s misconception that re-sentencing will throw open the prison doors, a committed and focused re-sentencing exercise is the only way to right this historic wrong. We suggest there should be a dedicated IPP Sentencing Tribunal.

The following should be considered: 

  1. The tribunal would be a standalone tribunal convened by statute. It would focus exclusively on IPP prisoners, with specialist expertise in this area and remaining active until all prisoners had been released.
  2. Those who had been in custody the longest or who received the shortest tariffs and remained in custody would be prioritised.
  3. Similar to a Parole Board review, reports would be gathered from the prison offender manager and a prison forensic psychologist. 
  1. It would be presided over by dedicated judges – and avoid being tangled up in the challenges, politics and risk-averse culture that besets the Parole Board.Any challenge to the decision could only be brought on public law grounds. 
  2. All offenders would be assessed on their current risk. An initial assessment would be undertaken on the papers available to the judge:

a) For those who did not meet the dangerousness threshold, their sentences would automatically be deemed double their original tariff – the sentence a judge would have otherwise imposed but for meeting the IPP test.

b) For those who did meet the dangerous test the judge would provide detailed written reasons. That person would then be entitled-

    • on request to a hearing within a reasonable time to address those concerns with the assistance of legal representation; and in any event
    • be re-assessed on the papers within six months.

6. The release of IPP prisoners would have to go hand in hand with better resources on resettlement.In 2019, the then Justice Minister said that “the cohort we are now dealing with will probably be the tougher end of the spectrum”. Specialist Approved Premises and immediate access to services would need to be expanded.

This will not be not be a cheap fix. It will require a significant funding commitment to operate the tribunal, fund experts, provide for adequate representation and improve support in re-settlement. Inevitably it is difficult to justify to the tax payer that this is money well-spent. But when the prisons are now full to capacity and there has been a failure to find an alternative solution in over a decade since the abolition of IPP sentences, a constructive approach is essential. In the long term, the cost of housing a prisoner far exceeds the cost of resettling.

Political will

The current Conservative government has merely tinkered with the problem. Since the publication of the Justice Committee report, the only change to the IPP regime has been the proposed variation in the length of any licence period – but that is not yet on the statute book and will make no difference to those languishing in prison.

The government gave assurances that they would review the Justice Committee’s recommendations, but very little has meaningfully changed.

It is Parliament’s mistake and they need to find the political courage (and funding) to rectify it.  In 2021, Lord Blunkett, who introduced IPPs, told the government in unequivocal terms: “I got it wrong. The government now have the chance to get it right”.

Recent examples of righting wrongs within the justice system set a helpful precedent. Legislation overturning the Post Office convictions was an exceptional course. Similarly, redress for the victims of infected blood is now in place.   

Where Now?

None of the major parties address the issue of IPP sentence reform in their manifestos. Labour even points to a list of “Historical Injustices”, but fails to acknowledge perhaps the biggest stain on its own criminal justice record.  

In the recent Parliamentary debate, Labour’s Minister for Victims and Sentencing offered this contribution:

“Progress for those remaining on IPP sentences and on licence in the community is pivotal. We want to ensure that any solutions proposed are robust and assessed with public safety properly in mind […]. In government, Labour will work at pace to make progress and will consult widely to ensure that our actions for those on IPP sentences are effective, in their interest and based on the evidence in front of us.”

It has to be accepted that the plight of thousands of convicted criminals will not attract much sympathy. But it is a problem that will not evaporate over time and indeed will only get worse.  The criminal justice system has failed these individuals. Only political courage can make amends.



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