There were a series of exchanges this afternoon in House of Lords Question Time on the sequence of events in Northumberland following the release from prison of Raoul Moat on 1st July.

Baroness Patricia Scotland, the Shadow Attorney General, had tabled the follwoing “topical” question:

“To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps were taken by Northumbria Police when the recent warning from HM Prison Durham was received; and whether a multi-agency risk assessment conference was called to assess the risk faced by Samantha Stobbart.”

This elicited the following answer from Baroness Neville-Jones, the Home Office Minister of State:

“My Lords, Northumbria Police received information on Friday 2 July from Durham prison that Mr Moat had threatened to cause Ms Stobbart serious harm. The chief constable referred the handling of the information to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which will conduct an independent investigation to determine whether Northumbria Police responded adequately. I also understand that Northumbria Police did not conduct a multi-agency risk assessment conference to assess the risk faced by Ms Stobbart.”

Baroness Patricia Scotland tried again (and widened the question into the wider issue of whether the Coalition Government will continue to give the same priority as the previous Labour Government to protecting women at risk of serious domestic violence):

“My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer, but can I ask her why they did not? Bearing in mind that these events demonstrate clearly the need for a risk assessment in such circumstances, what steps will be put in place to make sure that multi-agency risk assessments are made? Can she give us an assurance that the Government will maintain the commitment made by the previous Government to hold the 80 remaining multi-agency risk assessment conferences, which are necessary to cover the whole of the country? They are the best way of saving lives and money.”

The Minister responded but was clearly vague on the wider issues:

“My Lords, we certainly agree that the multi-agency risk assessment process is valuable. I have not heard anything from my colleagues that would suggest that we have any intention of doing away with them. There are clearly a number of actions that the police could have taken. One of the reasons why the chief constable referred the actions of her force to the IPCC was to discover what appropriate action could have been taken.”

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner and former Northumberland Chief Constable reminded the House that there was an active police operation currently under way, which quite properly should not be underminded, and this produced the following exchanges:

Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington: My Lords, I declare an interest as a former chief constable of Northumbria. Would the Minister not agree that this is a time for supporting Northumbria Police in a most dangerous and difficult situation? This is not a time for apportioning blame in any way, shape or form. Would she also not agree that this will be fully investigated by an independent authority? Let us support the police in their difficult task.

Baroness Neville-Jones: I am sure the whole House, including me, share the sentiments that have just been expressed.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: Was the threat that was made of such a nature that it could have been interpreted as a threat to kill? Does the noble Baroness appreciate that, under the Criminal Law Act 1977, the threat to kill is a very serious offence that is punishable by 10 years’ imprisonment? Was any thought given to arresting this man before he left prison and with a view to prosecution, thus avoiding the possibility of further offences?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, it is absolutely right to say that such a threat would be very serious. My understanding is that the police force was not informed that there was such a threat to life.”

Labour’s Baroness Liz Symons then reverted to the failure to carry out a risk assessment and again the Minister couldn’t really answer:

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, will the Minister address the very specific Question put by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland—why was a multi-agency risk assessment not held?

Baroness Neville-Jones: Let me give the House the timelines. The prisoner was released on 1 July, the information about this man’s statements was given to the force on 2 July and the chief constable learnt of that information only on 4 July. She referred the matter to the IPCC the following morning; clearly she felt there was a need to do so. I cannot go beyond that at the moment because this matter is under investigation, so I cannot help the House further.”

Lord Brian Mackenzie and I then widened the issues by probing the impact of the Coalition’s policies on opposing police force mergers, on cuts in the policing and prison budgets and on the plans not to proceed with prison sentences of less than six months:

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, does the noble Baroness think that there is now a powerful case for looking at the size and number of police forces?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, the Northumbria Police are receiving mutual aid. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has been in touch with the force. If it needs any further assistance, it will certainly be given it. As for the noble Lord’s basic question of whether it is a good idea for forces to help each other, we as a party are in favour of forces joining together, or indeed merging if they wish, provided there is local support for such a move.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, while I am mindful of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington, given that there has been newspaper criticism of the efficiency of the Prison Service in issuing a warning and whatever response there may have been by Northumbria Police, what safety guarantees can the noble Baroness give on behalf of the coalition Government that in a few years’ time, with 25 per cent fewer prison officers and a 25 per cent reduction in police grant, which will no doubt impact disproportionately on specialist resources, this sort of event will not recur, or is the answer that Raoul Moat would not have been in prison at all because his sentence was only 18 weeks and, as far as the coalition is concerned, people like him should roam the country freely?

Baroness Neville-Jones: This individual was in for a short custodial sentence. Under the regime that prevails at the moment, half that sentence was served. As things stand, under legislation that was not passed by this Government, the governor has no discretion to do anything other than release the individual. He performed a duty in warning the police.”

This prompted a Tory backbencher to intervene – clearly unhappy with Coalition policy on not imprisoning people for less than six months:

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister understand the concern in this House about the release of potentially dangerous prisoners? Will she use this opportunity to revise, review, and preferably improve the method of screening prisoners before they are released in order to protect the public?

Baroness Neville-Jones: My Lords, my noble friend raises a very important issue. I understand that the IPCC will follow the investigation trail, so I think that we will get help in the form of its view about what happened immediately before the release. However, the issue that is raised is important and no doubt we will have to follow it.”

Not really surprising that the Minister looked so relieved that Question Time had finished.

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