HL Deb 28 June 1999 vol 603 cc32-45

4.31 p.m

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, with your Lordships' leave, I should like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary earlier this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker. I should like to make a Statement on the report of an inspection of HMP Wormwood Scrubs which the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, is publishing today. Copies have been made available in the Library and the Vote Office. Given the nature of the report, I thought that I should report to the House the failings exposed at the prison and the urgent remedial action I expect to see taken.

"Prosecutions: before coming on to the report, let me, however, first deal with the question of the prosecution of certain prison officers. On 15th June, after a detailed police investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that 25 prison officers from Wormwood Scrubs were to be charged with offences of assault on prisoners. The House will understand that I am therefore unable to comment on them today. But there can be no place in the Prison Service for abuse of prisoners of any kind. This is a fundamental principle. The Government and the new director general, Martin Narey, will take whatever steps are required to maintain it.

"Findings: let me now come on to the report itself. The Chief Inspector of Prisons undertook an unannounced full inspection of Wormwood Scrubs from 8th to 12th March 1999. This report published today makes deeply disturbing reading. In his preface, Sir David recalls that he had already been highly critical of what he had found when he last visited the prison in 1996. In that earlier report he made a large number of recommendations and called for a determined Prison Service response to reform the prison. However, on his return Sir David found that this reform had not occurred. While individual staff were carrying out excellent work, in what he said were extremely difficult circumstances, he considered that overall the treatment of prisoners remained `profoundly unsatisfactory'.

"Sir David sets out a number of specific failings: the needs of prisoners appeared inadequately understood; there were examples of the statutory rights of prisoners being denied; induction procedures were poor; prisoners spent too long in their cells; regimes were inconsistent and impoverished; healthcare had been cut back; there were allegations of abuse, including racial abuse; and arrangements for discharge of prisoners were not systematic.

"Sir David also found a destructive, unco-operative and self-seeking attitude among a minority of staff which was very difficult for managers to combat.

"Response: these are serious criticisms and Sir David makes a large number of recommendations for improvement. I have asked the new director general, Martin Narey, to put in place a robust action plan to respond to them. He is to report to me within 30 days. I expect the overwhelming majority of the recommendations to be accepted and implemented.

"There is one significant exception. Sir David recommends that Wormwood Scrubs should be market tested. I am keeping this option open but there are new managers in place at almost every level of the Prison Service responsible for Wormwood Scrubs and in my view they should be allowed an opportunity to put the prison back on an even keel. Should, however, rapid progress not be made in reforming Wormwood Scrubs all options—including market testing or closure—are open.

"Change already under way: let me now tell the House of the changes already under way. These include: a thorough overhaul of the procedures of the segregation unit; improved prisoner complaint procedures; more efficient deployment of staff; expansion of the regime, including additional offending behaviour programmes, increased constructive activities and a new education contract; a restructuring of healthcare management; and finalising and implementing an effective drugs strategy.

"The report points out that at the time of the inspection, 46 her cent of prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs came from the ethnic minorities compared to 11 per cent of staff. The chief inspector makes six recommendations relating to race relations and I expect them all to be accepted. As the House knows, the Government are setting the Prison Service challenging targets for the retention and promotion of ethnic minority staff. This reflects our commitment to eradicating racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

"POA: these remain small beginnings and much remains at a planning stage. What I require is a radical overhaul of Wormwood Scrubs, its culture and its working practices. I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of prison officers will welcome the improvements which the Prison Service needs to implement at the prison. I expect the Prison Officers Association, both nationally and locally, to work constructively with the service to secure reform.

"The senior POA official who a few days ago publicly described prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs as `the scum of the earth' has now expressed bitter regret for his gratuitously offensive remarks. Last week the national chairman of the POA gave the director general a categorical assurance that his members would work with the governor and senior Prison Service managers to transform Wormwood Scrubs. I welcome that assurance.

"I have made it absolutely clear to the director general that change must be delivered at Wormwood Scrubs. I hope this will done with the full support and co-operation of the staff at Wormwood Scrubs and of all Prison Service trade unions, including the POA. But there will be change either with or without that co-operation. Wormwood Scrubs has the staff and the resources to meet the challenges laid down by the chief inspector. To ensure progress I have asked Sir David and his team to conduct a further investigation of the prison in six months' time, the results of which, will of course, be reported to the House.

"I am determined to ensure that the Prison Service protects the public and provides a decent secure environment for prisoners".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the House will be grateful, as usual, to the noble Lord the Minister for repeating what the Secretary of State said in his Statement to another place. I am personally grateful for a sight of the report itself, although obviously I have not had time to study it in great detail. I expect the noble Lord the Minister will want to share with your Lordships his own reaction to the report, as the current prisons Minister within the Home Office.

The report made very clear that it believes that responsibility for the failure to make improvements since the last inspection lies with the Prison Board and the area managers and so on, and not solely with the local management. However, some questions can relevantly be asked, particularly as regards what happened during that period. Why was there apparently no governor at the prison for a period of six months or thereabouts? When the prison was in a serious situation, with bad reports both from the inspector and the board of visitors, that seems a very long time for it to be left without proper leadership.

Why was there a 40 per cent cut in health provision when attention had been drawn to the fact that that area required more attention rather than less? The error presumably lay above local management level with the higher management of the Prisons Board and Ministers. What was done about the action plan that we believe was put in place following the previous inspection? Generally speaking, when inspections of this kind take place an action plan is drawn up to address the failings that are revealed. In this case the action plan had evidently not been implemented. The inspector describes his previous recommendations as having been virtually ignored.

I support the decision of Ministers not to close the prison at this time or to market test it—although both options remain open and it is correct that they should. Does the Minister agree with the statement of the chief inspector that no private contractor in a private sector prison could get away with what has happened in Wormwood Scrubs?

4.41 p.m.

Lord McNally

My Lords, the Minister must now be considering whether his department is not the "Ministry of One Darned Thing After Another". He should also be aware that over the years the Home Office has proved more often a trap-door than a springboard for ministerial ambition. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Cope, indicated, this Statement is different from the others that the Minister has recently had to make. It covers his direct area of ministerial responsibility and events that have taken place during his watch. I noted a report in one newspaper that the Minister might even consider this a resigning matter. I do not believe that our public life is so rich in talent that that would be a way forward. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister, during his time as prisons Minister, or other Ministers visited Wormwood Scrubs during the period covered by the report.

More broadly, does the Minister agree that this is one of the most damning and disgraceful reports of recent times about any part of our public service? As the report rightly states, Wormwood Scrubs has both the staff and the resources to carry out its responsibility. At any other time, the response to a report of this seriousness and severity would have been to set up a full public judicial inquiry. Was that ever considered?

I understand what the Minister says about market testing. However, the report seems to indicate that market testing in the private sector has proved a success. Are there lessons to be learnt about how those findings might be applied to the public sector?

Almost every prison report over the past 30 years has highlighted the appalling state of industrial relations in our prisons. There is no question that prison officers have a difficult job and that the vast majority of prison officers are decent human beings. But there is overwhelming evidence of rogue branches in the POA and of a canteen culture as bad if not worse than that identified in the police service. The POA has for too long had the reputation of being a cowboy outfit. It should realise just how low is its esteem as an organisation. The POA is as much on test now as Ministers are as regards how to deal with this situation Paragraph P6 of the report highlights the fact that Sir David Ramsbotham asked to see an investigation report. He states: I was denied access by the then Director General, after he had taken legal advice". Does the Minister defend that decision? Would other inquiries find similar refusals to co-operate with investigations?

Are there any proposals for improving prison officer training—for example, in restraint techniques, racial awareness and cultural differences, and in the management of drug regimes? In short, are our prison officers sufficiently trained for the conditions they have to face? Will there be any dismissals other than those that are presently under prosecution?

Finally, I ask the usual channels to note that the House will expect a full debate on the Prison Service before we rise for the Summer Recess. I said that ministerial resignations were not in question. But Ministers must realise that, if the matters highlighted in the report are not put right at once, the resignation required will not be of the prisons Minister but of the Home Secretary himself.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in response to the noble Lord's last question about the usual channels, as the noble Lord tactfully and subtly indicates, that is not a matter for him or me. I have always responded on the basis that if there is to be time available for important public matters, I personally welcome the opportunity to explain and, where justification is available, to justify.

I am grateful to both noble Lords for their responses. As to my own reaction, it was anger and fury, and shame. I can get some benefit from the statement of Sir David Ramsbotham in paragraph P29: I have therefore discussed the way forward with the Minister of Prisons and the Director General, and know how committed they, personally, are to eliminating the evil that we found at Wormwood Scrubs, and that we have reported on in a number of other prisons". Every manager of any significant seniority who was present during the relevant time, whether within the prison or at area management level, now no longer works in the mainstream Prison Service. Most have left the service altogether. There were serious problems here and serious deficiencies. There was not a governor for six months. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right to say that that was too long a gap. The earlier governor resigned at fairly short notice. The question then was whether to continue with an experienced deputy governor in situ or whether immediately to change over. We have learnt a lesson. The Prison Service is focusing much more closely now on succession issues for prison governors. There needs to be a sensible balance between a governor who stays too long—I do not necessarily say that that was the situation in this case—and a governor who is extremely enthusiastic and stays too short a time. But these succession issues, in management and human terms, are extremely important.

The 40 per cent cut in the healthcare budget was, in my view, a mistake. The 1996 action plan was, as I understand it. provided to Sir David Ramsbotham with a progress report which was able to confirm implementation on a number of action points. So the action plan was not "virtually ignored". Some work was done.

The question of market testing has been raised.' Jack Straw has said quite plainly that market testing at this time is not feasible and we must make the prison work. To close the prison is not feasible for the same reason. But the Home Secretary has also said unambiguously that he does not rule out any option including market testing or closure. Some lessons are to be learnt about the quality of service provided by private prisons. Equally, not every private prison I have visited or read inspection reports upon is supreme in every way. It is notoriously well known that a number of private prisons at some stage have had quite significant worrying failures.

I turn to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Fortunately, I do not have his previous convictions and therefore do not have to have any political ambitions. I have said many times, and I am happy to repeat, that the job of the prisons and probation Minister is one that should be the honourable ambition of anyone who waits to do something useful. One does not regard it as either a prospective platform or diving board, depending cal whether one goes up or down. It is not a springboard to ambition in my case. We have a genuine duty to the wider public and to those who are incarcerated as a result of state coercion.

The noble Lord fairly asked about prison visits. My immediate predecessor Joyce Quin visited shortly before the hand-over of responsibilities to me in July of last year. In respect of both Feltham and Wormwood Scrubs, I had intended to make unannounced visits but for the same general reason in both cases I was asked not to do so. I knew that there were to be visits to both by Sir David and his team. One can muddy the waters and take away the virtue of an unannounced inspection. According to the figures given by Jack Straw—therefore, they must be right—I have visited 46 prisons. I believe your Lordships are aware that I visit every Friday. It is possible to visit every prison for a quarter of an hour, but I regard that as deeply insulting to both the prisons and those who work there. One must have a sensible period in a day in order to visit a prison.

We considered a public inquiry. I do not believe that that is appropriate for Wormwood Scrubs at this time. Twenty-five officers have already been arrested, charged and suspended. It may well be that the police inquiries are not concluded. Inevitably, with criminal prosecutions under way, to hold a public inquiry is impossible; in any event, it would interfere with our determination to get things right. Your Lordships will note that we want Sir David to return in six months. Much more importantly, we want a positive action plan within 30 days.

The question is: has the private sector proved a success? Undoubtedly, yes. We are applying market testing to Doncaster and Buckley Hall, both privately run institutions that are open to competition by the Prison Service and the private contractor in the immediate future. Have industrial relations been poor at the Scrubs? Undoubtedly, yes; no one who reads this report can dispute it. To me, one of the very important aspects was that when the wholly inappropriate comment was made by a senior POA official at national level, virtually immediately he withdrew it in writing. Just as significantly, the chairman and general secretary of the POA, Mark Healey and David Evans respectively, have made it quite plain that their personal support for reform will be guaranteed.

The POA sometimes does wrong—I do not know of any human institution that does not—but a very significant number of its members do extremely well. I give one small illustrative example. I visited Blundeston prison on Friday last and learnt of a very imaginative scheme called Encounter that brings young juveniles into the prison to see what may happen to them if they do not pull themselves together. Those who are about to fall into the abyss of the prison system from their point of view are brought into the prison, spoken to firmly and locked up in the cells. That scheme, which is more extensive than the shorthand summary I have given, is run by David Banks, chairman of the POA at Blundeston. Although certain matters have arisen at Wormwood Scrubs, if the POA wants to work with Jack Straw and myself we have made quite plain that we welcome that co-operation.

My first action on taking over the job was to ask both Mark Healey and David Evans to come and see me. We agreed to meet on a regular "diarised" basis so that we could chart the way ahead. But, as Jack Straw said quite unambiguously—no one should be under any illusion or in any doubt—if matters do not improve, no option is excluded. Therefore, he requires certain amelioration from the director general and the full-hearted co-operation of the POA, which we have been guaranteed.

I defend the decision on the internal report. That was taken entirely on legal advice. It is not always possible to hand over documents at that stage. In many ways I believe that it is an advantage to Sir David to come to his own independent conclusion and not necessarily be governed by internal disciplinary inquiries which are not complete. Is there sufficient training in control and restraint? That is a matter very much in the minds of Martin Narey and Phil Wheatley, the new deputy director. Will there be dismissals? I do not know; nor should I know. There are disciplinary charges and it is for the proper disciplinary mechanism to deal with those matter. It is quite wrong for me to speculate one way or another. As to the debate which was the last matter to which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred, I responded to that immediately.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Biffen

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister accepts that only the perverse would seek to take any political advantage out of this unhappy situation. Taking account of his reluctance to hold a public inquiry and having regard to the general interest in this topic, would the Minister welcome a departmental Select Committee investigation?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not convinced of the validity of that. We have had the most trenchant possible inquiry and vigorously expressed report on Wormwood Scrubs. We must turn that place round on the basis of a tight timetable: 30 days for an action plan and a specific series of recommendations for the Home Secretary, followed by a return in six months. It is not for me to reject the noble Lord's suggestion, particularly bearing in mind my regard for his very long public service and experience. We can certainly bear it in mind. Our immediately priority must be to get this right.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I agree with others that this a damaging report. In my 50 or more years' experience of prison visiting this is the most damaging report on any prison that I can remember. In those circumstances, the Government can never absolve themselves of all responsibility. On the other hand, talk of resignations should be set aside as ridiculous. My noble friend, whom I have criticised before and shall criticise again quite often, is one of the ablest Ministers I can remember. I rule out that idea. I also disagree with the comment from the Liberal Democrat Benches about the POA. It is easy to blame the POA for everything. I believe that all governments, including the one to which I belong, have failed to establish the proper relationship with the POA. None of us would want to be a prison officer; it is the most appalling job in the world. One must make special efforts to come to terms with the POA, which all previous governments have failed to do.

I disagree very strongly with the Minister on one particular matter. He said that privatisation had succeeded. I disagree totally with the idea of privatising prisons. It is a step entirely in the wrong direction. Having said that, I disagree entirely with those who want to get rid of one of the best Ministers we are likely to find.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have never found myself in absolute, total agreement with the noble Earl. I know that he is enormously supportive of what we seek to do. There is no question of resignation. There is a shame that we have found these things. No one has made a party political point. Sir David Ramsbotham's first report related to matters in September 1996. Matters which should have been put into effect following that time were not effectively followed through.

I have said already that I extended the hand to the POA immediately on taking up this work. I hope that its representatives, chairman and general secretary will want to take that hand and give the co-operation which they have said unambiguously that they will. The noble Earl said that no one wants to be a prison officer and that it is the most appalling job in the world. I entirely disagree. One sees the commitment, dedication and quality of young staff coming into the Prison Service. It is not the most appalling job in the world; and it is done by many with great distinction.

Baroness Uddin

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement. I wish to comment on the welfare of Moslem prisoners. I had the privilege of seeing the report but have not had time to study it. Paragraph 5.39 refers to blatantly racist comments made by prison officers. How does the Minister intend to deal with that? If he has already done something, what action has he taken?

The report also acknowledges differential treatment as regards the statutory right of Moslem prisoners to be involved in religious activities. Will the Minister tell the House what is being done to ensure that all prisoners, including vulnerable prisoners, have equal access to religious provisions?

Paragraph 5.99 refers to the special needs of foreign national prisoners. Does my noble friend agree that we are not talking about special needs or special treatment but about equal rights and equal treatment of all prisoners?

Finally, 46 per cent of prisoners are from ethnic minorities. What action will my noble friend consider in six months' time when the review is undertaken, or perhaps in 30 days when the action plan comes before the Home Secretary? Will my noble friend consider taking on board some of the Macpherson recommendations for all institutions as set out in the report on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords. my noble friend is right. Forty-six per cent of inmates are from ethnic minorities; and 11 per cent of staff. That cannot be acceptable. Earlier this year, the previous director general set up a scheme entirely for the recruitment, training, retention and promotion of those from ethnic minorities in the Prison Service. I have also set in hand a scheme where members of the Prison Service from ethnic minorities will come to my private office on a regular basis for two weeks at a time so that we get a decent interchange of views. That has been enormously well received by those who are from ethnic minorities in prisons. We were overwhelmed by the volume of applications. That is about to start.

I stress that the scheme by Sir Richard Tilt was set up before the report. There is a long way to go. I shall have nothing useful to report in 30 days; and nothing beyond tentative steps within six months because there is a long backlog of wrong behaviour, of blind wilfulness, to get over.

The noble Baroness is right about statutory rights. If they are statutory rights, they should be enforced by law if staff or management fail.

On religious observance, it has been plain to me that the Moslem community was not properly dealt with in the prison context. Therefore I recently authorised a full funding of a Moslem adviser to the chaplaincy. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, was interested in that. Those matters are in hand, with the advertisement placed recently.

It will be a long haul. We are ready, quite rightly, on these occasions to criticise wrongdoings of other organisations. But—I do not say this in mitigation—it is not the only organisation in this country which has similar defects in the racial context.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, perhaps I may put three questions to the Minister and thank him for the tone of the Home Secretary's Statement which seems positive about what needs to be done.

First, the Chief Inspector of Prisons has never before called for the closure of the prison. This is the first time he has done so. That drastic recommendation shows the depth to which the prison has sunk. What concerns me most is that complaints surfaced as early as 1991 through reports of the chief inspector, the board of visitors and by individual inmates. Yet it has taken all this time for any action to be taken. The noble Lord, Lord Biffen, who mentioned the Select Committee inquiry, is right. How long does it take for a complaint of this nature to be dealt with? It was through the sheer force of the solicitors that the complaints were examined in detail.

Secondly, I refer to the machinery of complaints against prison officers. Those of us who have been members of boards of visitors know clearly how inadequate the machinery is. In many cases the governors are powerless against the might of the prison officers. Rather than simply relying on ombudsmen, is it not time to consider whether similar machinery to the Police Complaints Authority is appropriate so that there is an independent element in examination of complaints?

Thirdly, I wish to echo the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. Forty-six per cent of the inmates in Wormwood Scrubs are from ethnic minorities. Many people—some have rung me—are concerned about what has gone on. If we were to analyse the complaints made against prison officers, a substantial number are from black and Asian prisoners. Will the Minister ensure that the Home Secretary's Statement, which is fairly positive in the action that needs to be taken, is reported widely in the ethnic minority press so that sympathy is given to those families who are worried about their relations in prison?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes, we have the benefit of the immediate and, I hope, long-term consequences of the Macpherson recommendations in the context of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. As the noble Baroness said, there are many lessons to be learned from that inquiry which are not limited to one police service; namely, the Metropolitan Police.

I agree that machinery is important. The prison ombudsman, to wham I pay tribute, is just retiring. As his retirement request—not simply the last meal of the condemned man—he asked the Home Secretary and myself whether his terms of reference might be extended. We agreed.

The noble Lord. Lord Dholakia, said that this is a very damning report. It is. It is fair to say that the chief inspector said that there are a number of alternatives The first is immediate closure. I do not think that anyone suggests that realistically at this time, but I stress what the Home Secretary said. He is not closing off any options; and he means it. The second was to change managers. But, as Sir David says at P14 of his preface, almost all the governor grades are new, having been brought in recently by the governor. The governor has been there only since March 1998; and we have a new area manager as well. So all those in effective management positions are new. He spoke about market testing, which I have dealt with. He spoke about partial closure and staff retraining. Two wings have been decanted so that the population has gone down from 1,100 or so to 700 or so. He raises the question of changing the role of the prison. That is a more long-term question; I think that he wants immediate issues focused on first. But we must take seriously those five options which he puts forward.

As regards reporting, Sir David and Mr Martin Narey, as the new director general, are having joint press conferences. Had it not been for the fact that I was required to repeat the Statement here, we had agreed that the three of us should be present as an indication of the way in which we all three mean business. I repeat what Sir David has said not in any sense of self-exculpation. During every conversation I and Martin Narey have had with him we have said that we shall support him when he finds wrong-doing and we shall do our utmost to put things right. If we set a 30-day target, we requested him to produce another report in six months which Jack Straw says will be published.

That was not the position in the past. As regards the period going back to 1991, I shall not make any partisan observation. I do not know the full details and I am sure that, as always, there is strength in what the noble Lord says. We have been responsible for what has gone wrong and I repeat what Jack Straw says; he takes responsibility. There is no hiding behind the difference between operations and policy.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I declare an interest in that I am vice-president of the Butler Trust, named in honour of a distinguished predecessor as Home Secretary. The trust gives honours and awards on a considerable scale. They are presented every year at Buckingham Palace to people in the Prison Service who do a good job. A great deal of good work is being done within the service and we must not allow this terrible report to lead people to believe that it is typical of the service. It is not.

There is no such thing as a Prisons Minister; there is only the Home Secretary. Whatever is done in the prisons department of the Home Office to divide up the work, the responsibility lies with the Home Secretary and there is no question of him or my noble friend resigning. It jars with me sometimes when in Northern Ireland reference is made to the "Prisons Minister" and the "Police Minister". There is only one person in charge—and that is the Home Secretary.

The question which I hope is being asked is: why has nothing been done since the last report? We can have all the reports on earth, but is there to be a repeat of the situation? Why was nothing done? It is not a political question; this is a different government. Why was nothing done about the last report and what can we expect from another report?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, is right about the Butler Trust. I attended the presentation of the awards this year when the Princess Royal gave the awards commending people. It was humbling to see the excellent work that was done. I took my hat off to those people—and not for the first time. That is why I slightly chided the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for saying that it is the most appalling job in the world. People of the kind identified by the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, make me certain in my belief that it is not the most appalling job in the world. It is difficult and challenging, but good people do it well.

The noble Lord is right about the shorthand that is used. When I watched the Home Secretary's response to questions in another place, he made that very point. He said, "I am Secretary of State at the Home Office. The responsibility is mine." That has not always been the position.

The noble Lord asked why nothing was done about the report. It related to an inspection in the autumn of 1996. I do not know what happened, but it was not published until 21st March 1997. I shall not tease, but I shall allow myself this: it was the last day of the Sitting of the previous Parliament.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, I may have misheard the Minister's reply to my noble friend Lord Cope, but I thought that when rejecting the suggestion of a public inquiry, the Minister, who is normally very careful with his words, said that it may well be that police inquiries are not concluded. I did not understand whether ongoing inquiries have not been concluded or will not be concluded. The answer could be interpreted either way.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am probably trying to be too careful, conscious of the fact that 25 officers at Wormwood Scrubs have been charged with offences involving assaults on prisoners. More than 25 allegations are being made and others continue to be made by solicitors representing other prisoners. That was all I wanted to say. I must be extremely careful because it would be ashes and dust in the mouth if any trial were prejudiced, or could be prejudiced, by anything incautious I said. I think that I was being too Delphic, but that is the explanation for it.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, as one who had the privilege of being professionally associated with the Prison Officers Association for many years, perhaps I may comment briefly on what the Minister has said. During that time, I came across a number of real idealists and I was proud to know that they were part of the Prison Service, and they were proud to be members of it. Perhaps I may do something which is sometimes objectionable, but not in this case. I should like to pay a special tribute to a great idealist whose name has been mentioned, Mr David Evans, general secretary of the POA.

It has been asked why a previous report has not been implemented. From the contents of the report, it seems that major items of complaint—and they are terrible—would have been as obvious as a running sore to anyone who carried out any inspection. I understand why a report may not have been implemented, although it is regrettable, but what about inspections in the mean time after the realisation that a report had stated that many things were very wrong at Wormwood Scrubs? How frequently do ordinary inspections take place? If they have been too meagre in the past, is it part of the Government's plan to put things right and to introduce regular inspections which are not announced beforehand, and not only by the Chief Inspector of Prisons once every so often?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Mishcon has had this interest for many years. He was the founding drafter of the charter of the POA a very long time ago. I pay tribute to David Evans, the general secretary. I have been interested in prisons since long before the election and frequently discussed these matters with him. The work done by the race relations committee of the POA is first rate and we have a great deal to learn from it.

There was a running sore in 1996. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is right to ask whether inspections are sufficiently frequent. I suspect, although I shall correct it if I am wrong, that one would be looking for an inspection every two years or so. But that is not the end of the matter because one is speaking of the chief inspector's inspections. It seems to me that inspections by area managers and ultimately by the deputy director general are also of extreme importance. We are focusing on that aspect because the area manager can visit on a more regular basis. Self-evidently, it is part of his job to manage those governors and prisons within his area. That is an issue which we have very much in mind.

Similarly, we have divided up the organisation of prison matters. The new deputy director general, Phil Wheatley, who is certainly extremely vigorous, well informed and active, is to have operational responsibility, which means of course the oversight of area managers' inspections.

My noble friend also raised the question of unannounced inspections. The last one, by Sir David and his team, to whom I pay full credit, was unannounced. I have myself been on unannounced visits. After the first half-hour it is quite plain that somebody's telephone has been ringing. In my case, all it led to was a request to the Private Office for a photograph so that I might be easily recognised at the gate and there would be even more warning of an unannounced inspection. Unannounced inspections have their virtues, but I am not sure that they would solve all our problems.

We must recognise management's duty to manage. One cannot simply rely on the great inspections. In the same way, in the schools context, one cannot simply rely on Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools to turn up, because all the pupils tend to be on good behaviour, with the teachers quaking. What one needs is something much more focused and involved, which we must get in the Prison Service and which Martin Narey and Phil Wheatley are determined to have. They have absolutely the full support of Jack Straw and myself in everything they want to do, not only to put Wormwood Scrubs right but to remedy any other deficiencies that are found in the Prison Service.