New row over advice given to John Worboys parole board

Prison officials fear ‘undue weight’ given to evidence of defence psychologist

Prison and probation officials have complained that disproportionate weight was given to external advice in the controversial decision to release “taxi rapist” John Worboys, the Observer has been told.

An independent psychologist, hired by Worboys’ defence team, drew up a report, making the case for his release, that ran contrary to the opinions of some Prison Service officials. The psychologist, whose identity is protected by parole board procedures, had previously called for Worboys, jailed in 2009 for attacks on 12 women and suspected of scores more, to be moved to an open prison. The request was rejected in 2016.

However, after conducting interviews with Worboys last year, the expert, who has decades of experience working with sex offenders, produced a report for Worboys’ lawyers endorsing his release which was then submitted to the three-strong parole board panel hearing his case. Its decision to approve Worboys’ release shocked his victims, who have questioned whether he has been sufficiently rehabilitated.

It is currently unclear whether Worboys has undergone a sex offender rehabilitation programme or admitted his guilt – normally a precursor to release. In 2015 he launched an appeal against his sentence, proclaiming his innocence.

“The decision to release Worboys is highly controversial,” said Harry Fletcher, an expert on probation and victims’ rights. “The independent report appears to have been very influential in that process. Prison sources have told me that undue prominence was given to the independent report over those provided by prison and probation staff.”

Fletcher said that lawyers acting for prisoners applying for parole were entitled to commission independent experts. Increasingly defence teams commission their own psychological reports. This would usually involve at least two interviews with the applicant in jail. “The report does not have to be submitted, but if put forward it can be influential,” Fletcher said. “It is controversial, as prison staff are paid to assess inmates and have considerable experience of monitoring behaviour and risk over many years.”

A spokeswoman for the parole board said the decision to release Worboys was taken only after extensive consultation. “The parole board carefully considered a detailed dossier of evidence of nearly 400 pages and heard evidence from nine witnesses, including four psychologists, two probation officers and three members of prison staff,” she said. “The independent parole board panel took account of all of that evidence. It is simply untrue to say that they were overly influenced by one individual’s evidence.”

Worboys was held on an indeterminate prison sentence. These have no fixed length of time and it is up to the parole board to decide when someone on such a sentence is released.

A briefing document explains: “The parole board makes these decisions by assessing the risk the prisoner presents to the public. It may only direct the release of a life sentence prisoner if it is satisfied that it is no longer necessary for him/her to be detained in order to protect the public from serious harm.”

However, the panel’s assessment that Worboys no longer poses a risk to the public is disputed by some of his victims.

Lawyers from Slater and Gordon and Birnberg Peirce – two firms which have represented some of the women he attacked – have written to the Crown Prosecution Service asking it to reassess 93 unprosecuted cases against Worboys. The CPS has rejected the request.

Liz Saville Roberts, Plaid Cymru’s spokeswoman on home affairs, last week used a parliamentary question to ask the lord chancellor, David Gauke, to commit to a review “that will consider the role of independent psychologists in advising on offender risk, especially when their advice conflicts with that of probation and prison professionals”.

In response, Gauke said: “Clearly, as we look at the issue of transparency for parole board decisions, we shall need to look at the evidence with which the board is provided and review the extent to which it should be put in the public domain.”