HL Deb 07 April 1998 vol 588 cc610-1

2.41 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they propose to give statutory basis to the work of the Prisons Ombudsman.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government are sympathetic to the idea of covering the Prisons Ombudsman's role in primary legislation and will consider this further after a forthcoming review of the ombudsman's office.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. Does he agree that Sir Peter Woodhead does an admirable and necessary job but that he has to wrestle with a number of obstacles, one of which is that his office does not have a basis in law? Does he further agree that that weakens his standing and makes him subject to attempts by the Home Office to whittle away his terms of reference? As the noble Lord will be aware if he has researched the matter, this is not an idle point. If the Minister agrees with that—I believe that he does—will he now accept the recommendation of the Select Committee on the ombudsman in 1996 which criticised the present non-statutory framework? Will he go a little further than his reply so far and undertake that the Home Secretary will insert this provision in the next relevant Bill that he brings before Parliament?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, certainly Sir Peter Woodhead does an extremely good job. He was appointed in 1994 and has a final extension until May 1999. The review to which I referred is likely to report not later than August of this year, so The Timescale is quite short. I recognise that under previous governments, not this one, there was a deal of whittling away, attempts being made to draw bogus distinctions between what was administrative and what was policy. As I believe my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees observed on an earlier occasion, "administrative" was when things went wrong and "policy" was when things went right.

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, I understand that few appeals by young prisoners reach the ombudsman, largely because it is not within their culture to be able to put matters down in writing, so much so that, although there is no lack of grievances, few young prisoners ever make a start under the formal complaints procedure. Is that a problem which the Minister recognises? If so, does he have any thoughts on a possible solution?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the ombudsman's regime does not begin until internal complaints procedures have been exhausted. At the moment, most complaints are on adjudications, lost property, transfers and recategorisations. Bearing in mind the terms of the noble Lord's question, I shall certainly research it to see whether further steps should he taken with regard to drawing the attention of particular groups to the opportunity of complaint to the ombudsman.