1. What are IPPs?

IPPs were indeterminate sentences designed to protect the public from serious offenders whose crimes did not merit a life sentence.[1] They required offenders to serve a minimum period or ‘tariff’ in custody. Once offenders had served their tariff, they would remain in custody until the parole board decided they were no longer a risk to the public and released them on licence into the community.

IPPs were abolished in 2012. However, the abolition did not apply retrospectively to people who had already received such a sentence. The government’s latest prison population data showed that on 30 September 2023 there were 1,269 offenders still serving an IPP sentence who had never been released from prison on licence.[2]

2. What concerns about IPPs have been raised?

Representative bodies and campaign organisations have raised concerns about the impact of IPPs on prisoners’ release prospects and mental health.

The British Psychological Society (BPS)—a representative body for psychologists in the UK—has argued that IPPs undermine the process carried out by forensic psychologists to evaluate the risk an IPP prisoner poses to the public.[3] The BPS described how the “unique” situation of serving an IPP sentence created stress and uncertainty, and affected prisoners’ coping strategies. It said these factors could negatively impact a prisoner’s risk rating in a psychological assessment. The BPS also stated that risk assessments in IPPs inhibited trust between forensic psychologists and prisoners. This was because it prevented some IPP prisoners from being honest about their state of mind due to a fear that it could impact their release prospects.

The BPS also described how IPPs could cause prisoners psychological harm. It explained how the nature of the sentence meant that prisoners could find themselves in a perpetual state of anxiety. According to a Prisons and Probation Ombudsman bulletin on self-inflicted deaths of IPP prisoners, provisional Ministry of Justice data had shown there were nine self-inflicted deaths of IPP prisoners in 2022.[4] The ombudsman said this was the highest number of self-inflicted deaths among the IPP prison population since the sentence was introduced in 2005.

To address some of these concerns, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) has called for the government to introduce a compassionate release programme for IPP prisoners.[5] The Criminal Justice Act 2003 (section 248) gives the secretary of state the power to release certain prisoners on licence if exceptional circumstances exist that would justify a prisoner’s release on compassionate grounds. In October 2023, the government said it would use this power to move some lower level offenders out of prison to address prison capacity issues.[6] Richard Garside, director of the CCJS, argued that this be expanded to include those serving IPP sentences.[7]

In addition to concerns raised by organisations in the UK, the IPP scheme has also received recent international criticism. Human rights experts (known as special rapporteurs) appointed by the UN Human Rights Council wrote a letter to the UK government expressing their concerns about the effect of IPP sentences on the human rights of affected prisoners.[8] The experts argued the severe distress and corresponding physical and psychological damage caused by IPPs could “potentially contravene” several international law conventions including the ‘Convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’. In response, the UK government said its enforcement of IPPs was compatible with UK international human rights obligations.[9] It highlighted the government’s plans to introduce reforms to the IPP licence termination period through the Victims and Prisoners Bill.

3. What reform to IPPs would the Victims and Prisoners Bill make?

The Victims and Prisoners Bill would change the process for terminating the licences of IPP offenders who have been released from prison. When the Parole Board releases an IPP prisoner on licence into the community, the licence remains in force indefinitely unless it is terminated by the Parole Board.[10] Whilst on licence, IPP offenders remain liable to being recalled to prison. Currently, IPP offenders released on licence become eligible to have their licence terminated by the Parole Board 10 years after their first release. The Victims and Prisoners Bill would reduce this licence termination qualifying period from 10 years to three.

The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) has expressed its support for the bill’s licence termination provisions.[11] However, some campaign groups have argued that the bill’s provisions would not go far enough. The Howard League for Penal Reform said whilst the provisions were a “significant and welcome change”, it would offer little practical benefit for the IPP prisoners who have either never been released or who have since been recalled to prison following release.[12]

More information on the bill can be found in the House of Lords Library briefing ‘Victims and Prisoners Bill’ (13 December 2023).

4. Read more

Cover image by Freepik.


  1. Ministry of Justice, ‘IPP factsheet’, accessed 4 January 2024. Return to text
  2. HM Prison and Probation Service and Ministry of Justice, ‘Offender management statistics quarterly: April to June 2023’, 26 October 2023. Return to text
  3. British Psychological Society, ‘Parliamentary briefings: Imprisonment for public protection sentences’, accessed 8 January 2024. Return to text
  4. Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, ‘Learning lessons bulletin: Fatal incident investigations—self-inflicted deaths of IPP prisoners’, September 2023. Return to text
  5. Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, ‘Time to consider a compassionate release programme for IPP prisoners’, 30 November 2023. Return to text
  6. Ministry of Justice, ‘The government’s approach to criminal justice’, 16 October 2023. Return to text
  7. Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, ‘Time to consider a compassionate release programme for IPP prisoners’, 30 November 2023. Return to text
  8. UN Human Rights Council, ‘Letter to UK government ref imprisonment for public protection sentences’, 17 August 2023. Return to text
  9. UK Government, ‘Letter to special procedures branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ref special procedure communication AL GBR 15/2023’ 19 December 2023. Return to text
  10. House of Lords Library, ‘Sentences of imprisonment for public protection: Updated action plan’, updated 19 May 2023. Return to text
  11. Monidipa Fouzder, ‘‘Fair process’: Criminal bar chief welcomes decision to curtail IPP licence periods’, Law Gazette, 30 November 2023. Return to text
  12. Howard League for Penal Reform, ‘Victims and Prisoners Bill: Second reading’, 18 December 2023. Return to text