Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

On-the-run murderer arrested

Arnold Pickering failed to return to prison after day release (Merseyside Police/PA)

A murderer who stabbed a blind man to death has been arrested after going on the run from prison.

Arnold Pickering was arrested for being unlawfully at large at an address in Oldham today, police said.

The 44-year-old, wh o was jailed for life in 1991 for killing a man he wrongly thought to be a paedophile, failed to return to HMP Kennet in Merseyside after leaving the Category C jail on day release on Saturday.

Today Merseyside Police said he was arrested by officers from Greater Manchester Police at around 11.45am and is now in custody.

Another inmate, swastika-tattooed Thomas Moffett, 51, who is serving an indeterminate sentence for a number of robberies, also failed to return from day release on Saturday but was arrested last night for being unlawfully at large.

The disappearance of the two men came just two weeks after notorious armed robber Michael Wheatley - known as Skullcracker - absconded from Standford Hill open prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, while on temporary release.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling described the case as unacceptable and said the Government would speed up a planned tightening of the rules around temporary licences.

Pickering, who stabbed 53-year-old Thomas Leigh to death in Oldham in 1990, was sentenced for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 18 years.

He last absconded in December 2009 when he was let out on day release from HMP Kirkham to work on the bins in Manchester city centre and handed himself in four days later in Scotland. He had also escaped from Strangeways in Manchester on a previous occasion.

Pickering, from Chadderton, Greater Manchester, had been risk assessed as suitable for temporary release on licence by the Ministry of Justice, Merseyside Police said.

In a previous statement, the force said both prisoners had been "risk assessed as suitable for temporary release on licence by the Ministry of Justice".

Ministers have said that there will be an assessment of the release on temporary licence (ROTL) process, with possible changes including the abolition of "town leave", where a prisoner can be temporarily allowed to "wander around town all day", more stringent risk assessments, and electronic tags for prisoners on day release.

Mr Grayling told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "If you look at what's happened over the past 12 months, as I say we've got a system where most people treat it properly and appropriately and there are very few people who cause trouble.

"But the reality is we have had a number of serious incidents with people out on temporary licence.

"We are therefore tightening the rules, particularly where people have a history of violent offences."

Conservative backbencher Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, described the latest disappearances as an ''absolute scandal''.

He questioned why convicted murderers were ever given temporary release when figures which he obtained through parliamentary answers showed 106 had absconded in the past 10 years.

He said that when he tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament which would have prevented the temporary release of murderers, it was blocked by the Government.

''It is an absolute scandal in the prison system. How on earth people like this can ever be given temporary release from prison on licence is beyond me,'' he said.

''This is a regular occurence - murderers are walking out of prison willy nilly. It's a joke. I'm exasperated. I think the whole system is completely ridiculous.''

Peter McParlin, chairman of the Prison Officers Association (POA), said: "We have been saying for many years now that we have overcrowding in the prison estate, people are being put into open conditions who are unsuitable for open conditions.

"Twenty prisons have closed in the last three years and prison staff numbers have reduced by 6,000 since 2010.

"There is immense pressure on the system and it is clear to me that the tick box mentality that goes into transferring prisoners to open conditions has failed the public."

Downing Street said changes to the temporary release regime would be made "as soon as we can".

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "We are going to seek to do that as quickly as possible. It is of course important that we get to the bottom of exactly what has happened in each of these cases."

He added: "The changes we want to do in terms of greater restrictions and more robust monitoring and the ending of town leave, all the things the Secretary of State for Justice was talking about today, we will seek to do that as soon as we can."

Asked whether David Cameron regretted not putting the reforms in place sooner, the spokesman said: "He thinks it's right that we have set out the changes that we already have. But in light of recent events is it right to look again, see whether we can do this quicker? Of course it is."

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