This week we’ve been treated to a real ‘blast from the past’ in the form of the impending release on parole licence of Harry Roberts, a lifer who has served 48 years in prison for the murder of two police officers in 1966. As with the release of any particularly notorious con, there has been a media feeding frenzy and – as you might expect – the Daily Mail has really milked the case for all it’s worth.
Mr Roberts is an ex-Borstal boy and former British soldier who, by his own admission during rare media interviews, opted for a life of crime when he returned to civvy street following his military service in Malaya during the period of the insurgency against the colonial power led by the Malayan Communist Party. His chosen ‘profession’ was as an armed robber, although to be honest not a very successful one.
In August 1966, three police officers, Sgt Christopher Head, DC David Wombwell and PC Geoffrey Fox, went to investigate what they thought, rightly, was a suspicious van in London’s Shepherd’s Bush in which there were three men, including Mr Roberts. He shot and killed two of them, another robber shot and murdered the third officer. Following this, Mr Roberts went of the run for three months, living rough in a forest in Hertfordshire, until his capture following a massive man-hunt.
I am too young to remember the initial crime, but I do recall Mr Robert’s name from my own childhood. Like the Moors Murderers and a few other high profile cases, his is one that has lingered in the public consciousness.
Convicted at the Old Bailey and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 30 years, Mr Roberts narrowly escaped being hanged, since capital punishment for murder had been abolished the previous year. However, the trial judge did observe that: “I think it likely that no Home Secretary, regarding the enormity of your crime, will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence.”
And Mr Roberts has been banged-up ever since, a kind of relic of the 1960s still wandering prison wings nearly half a century on. However, because he was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff, his eligibility for release on a parole licence has been quietly ticking away like an ancient unexploded bomb waiting to go off underneath some unsuspecting Secretary of State. Now it finally has.
|During the police hunt for Roberts|
The angry response of the Police Federation over the release of Mr Roberts is entirely predictable. However, by publicly attacking the Parole Board, the organisation is in danger of politicising the case, while undermining public confidence in the Board, which is an important and integral part of the criminal justice system. This in turn raises questions about the rule of law that police officers are supposed to be committed to uphold. All too often, the Federation does seem to give the impression that its members are above the law, or indeed hold certain aspects of the our legal system in contempt, a perception that I believe is contributing to the erosion of public confidence in policing.
At a time when public trust in the police is at an all-time low in the UK, it might be better for the Federation to focus on putting its own house in order. Its public reputation remains shockingly poor, particularly amid the continuing fallout from the ‘Plebgate’ affair, as well as questions over its own financial business, including ‘secret’ bank accounts and its ability to manage its regional branches in a professional manner.
Earlier this year, an independent review panel chaired by a former Home Office Permanent Secretary, Sir David Normington, concluded that the Police Federation required “fundamental reform”, having lost the confidence of its own members, as well as the general public. One of the most telling criticisms was that the Federation had embarked on various political campaigns, targeting its critics and perceived political opponents. All very nasty for a body that is supposed to be representing the forces of law and order.
|Media coverage in 1966|
While it is easy to understand the animosity of police officers towards prisoners such as Mr Roberts, the ongoing public vilification of the Parole Board in the media following its recommendation concerning Mr Robert’s release on licence, both by the Federation’s officials, as well as by senior police officers, really does the Federation no favours at all. Respecting the rule of law in a democracy also means not openly attacking or undermining bodies such as the Parole Board for purely partisan or ‘tribal’ motives.
Unlike some cons or ex-cons who regard Harry Roberts as some kind of ‘hero’ because he murdered police officers during his criminal activities, I don’t. His case is an example of the bogus mystique of ‘professional’ criminals – such as armed robbers – that is encouraged to some extent by the media and especially in ‘gangster’ films and novels.
This in turn boosts their egos and leads them to regard themselves as some sort of prison ‘aristocracy’, when often they are little more than ignorant thugs and violent bullies who treat fellow prisoners – and often the staff – like dirt. I’ve met people in prison with this mindset throughout my sentence and dislike them intensely.
|In the eye of the media storm|
That said, as I’ve noted above Mr Roberts was not given a ‘whole life’ tariff (although he almost certainly would have received that sentence had his offences been committed in the 1970s onwards). As part of its review of his case, the Parole Board will have considered the reports of Probation, prison staff and other people who’ve worked with Mr Roberts directly, so his risk is now considered manageable in the community.
At the age of 78, I doubt that he will return to a life of crime and, in any case, he will be on a life licence and under intensive Probation supervision which means that he will be liable to immediate recall to prison for the rest of his life on the slightest suspicion of any non-compliance with the conditions of his licence or in the event he is suspected of committing a further criminal offence, or even doing anything that might increase his level of risk to the public.
I expect he’ll end up living in a very bare and basic room in approved premises – some local hostel for ex-cons – under tight curfew and with hourly reporting conditions to begin with, while living on the basic old age pension. For some former prisoners, particularly those who have experienced a couple of years in a relaxed Cat-D (open) prison, life on parole licence supervision in the community can be much more stressful and controlled than being back in the nick. I know several ex-cons on licence who have told me they would rather be in an open prison than living in approved premises.
It can also be a desperately lonely and empty experience, particularly for an older person who may no longer have close family ties or friends from outside the world of prison. He is also unlikely to be permitted to associate with any other ex-cons outside the confines of the hostel, so his social circle may be pretty restricted.
Giving his high media profile over the past 48 years, Mr Roberts is likely to be the focus of much negative attention when he is back in the community, so his daily life is hardly going to be free and easy. His every movement and comment will be monitored and analysed, probably for the rest of his natural life. In some respects being released on life licence, with the risk of immediate recall by the Ministry of Justice hanging over him forever, could well prove to be a new chapter in his continuing punishment.