Parole Board reviews of some terrorists have been delayed after coronavirus outbreaks in prisons hampered efforts to carry out hearings.
Some of the cases are deemed so serious that a meeting in person must take place to decide whether an inmate is safe to be freed from jail.
Rob McKeon, one of a handful of specialist Parole Board panel members who considers terror cases, said a small number had been affected due to difficulties in visiting locked-down prisons – where the hearings take place – but the delays were “necessary” to make “proper, fair and informed decisions” to protect the public.
Speaking exclusively to the PA news agency, the former magistrate and journalist who joined the Parole Board in 2012, said: “There’s been an impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and people being able to get into the prisons to be able to do that work.
“If it is necessary to go into a prison to properly consider that case, and we are unable to do so because of an outbreak of coronavirus in that particular establishment or the prisons are on lockdown, then… that’s a necessary delay because our job is to ensure public protection.
“Because if we get it wrong, the risk is tremendous, particularly in Terrorism Act offences you look at the risk of what could happen if you get that wrong.”
Hearings need to be a “full and fair assessment of risk”, Mr McKeon said, adding: “So there will be some delays in Terrorism Act cases. But we are hearing cases in prisons more now than we were before.”
The Parole Board has not amassed a backlog of cases during the pandemic because it has managed to carry out many reviews with hearings online or by looking at written evidence, where appropriate. But some face-to-face hearings are unavoidable.
In recent months Covid-19 outbreaks are understood to have taken hold in around 90 prisons in England and Wales. But the latest figures show this is falling, with positive cases now being recorded in around 40 jails.
In some cases evidence also took longer to reach the board, adding to delays.
As a result, some reviews may take place not long before an offender’s automatic release date at the end of their sentence.
Islamic extremist Abdalraouf Abdallah, who was twice visited in prison by Manchester Arena suicide bomber Salman Abedi, was never reviewed by the Parole Board before his release last year because of delays amid the pandemic.
He is understood to have since been recalled to prison for breaching licence conditions and will now have to face a parole review before he can be reconsidered for release.
But delays are only affecting a “handful” of cases, the average release rate is still around one in four offenders and less than 1% of prisoners go on to be accused of committing a serious further offence after the board clears them to leave prison, Mr McKeon said.
Although the Parole Board sits as a court and can direct information and witnesses to be produced, it lacks powers to enforce this when delays occur and should also be able to set dates for release to make sure plans for monitoring them afterwards are in place in time, he added.
Chief executive Martin Jones previously welcomed the idea of contempt of court-like powers for parole hearings, which typically cost the taxpayer £1,500 a time, in a bid to limit delays.
Mr McKeon said new legislation put a “spotlight” on terrorism cases, which make up a small number of more than 20,000 cases the board considers every year. But they can take longer to consider because they are complex and due to the “level of scrutiny” needed.
Emergency laws to block the early automatic release of terrorists from jail were passed in February last year after two attacks in three months were carried out by extremists released from prison.
Terror offenders must now serve two thirds of their sentence before being eligible for release – rather than the previous halfway mark – and first need to be reviewed by the Parole Board.
Around 50 terror cases are being handled by the Parole Board presently, including 22 referrals under the new laws.
Of these, 10 cases have been completed, two of which were directed for release. Seven were refused and remain in jail while one case was withdrawn as the offender faced deportation.
This is out of around 9,000 cases of all types that panels are considering at any one time.
Judges consider a range of material – from official reports, consulting experts, studying phone call transcripts, signs of radicalisation behind bars – to try and check whether terrorists have reformed.
At times they consider intelligence from the security services, some of which is so sensitive it has to be heard in secret – requiring the board members involved to have higher security vetting.