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Prisoners' Release on Temporary Licence: recent controversies and reform proposals

Published Friday, June 3, 2016

The Government is proposing major reforms to the prison system in England and Wales. Giving governors more discretion over the use of Release on Temporary Licence (ROTL) is likely to be amongst them. This Briefing Paper focuses mainly on England and Wales, but it also briefly considers the schemes which operate in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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What is ROTL?

ROTL allows offenders to be released temporarily into the community for specific purposes, such as to engage in employment or to receive medical treatment.

According to Government guidance, the main purposes are:

  • rehabilitating prisoners
  • reducing offending
  • allowing risk management plans to be tested in the community under strict conditions before prisoners are finally released


The policy became particularly controversial in May 2014 when a violent armed robber, Michael Wheatley, absconded whilst on temporary licence from an open prison. Before that, in the summer of 2013, there were three serious incidents where prisoners released on temporary licence committed offences.  These led to a review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons.

Tightening up the rules

In response to these serious incidents, in March 2014 the then Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced that the rules would be tightened up. The changes included:

  • a more thorough risk assessment of risk
  • a requirement that ROTL would bring “a very clear benefit” to rehabilitation and reducing reoffending
  • a new scheme of restricted ROTL for those prisoners who have committed serious crimes in the past, with more stringent risk assessment and more robust monitoring arrangements

Interim guidance followed, and the current guidance, Prison Service Instruction 13/2015, Release on Temporary Licence was published in March 2015.

Not every prisoner can be released on temporary licence. Some, such as those categorised as posing the highest security risk, are barred altogether. Others, such as those with a history of absconding, would only be eligible in exceptional circumstances.

Use of ROTL has fallen since 2013

Since a peak of just over 529,000 incidences in 2013, the use of ROTL has fallen considerably. In 2015, there were just over 333,000 incidences of prisoners being released on temporary licence. This is the lowest number of incidences since 2003:

Data for 2010 is unavaible due to a new prison database system being introduced in mid 2009 (P-NOMIS)

ROTL "failures"

There were 162 “temporary release failures” in 2015. “Failures” cover absconding and late return, alleged offending whilst on licence and other breaches of the licence conditions. There were 49 failures per 100,000 incidences of ROTL in 2015; the annual number of failures per 100,000 incidences has more than halved since 2002.

Reform proposals

In May 2016 the Justice Secretary Michael Gove said he wanted to “rethink ROTL”. He pointed to its advantages in rehabilitating prisoners, and announced plans to give prison governors much more control over this and other aspects of prison management.



Commons Briefing papers SN06878

Authors: Pat Strickland; Grahame Allen

Topic: Prisons

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