HL Deb 17 April 2000 vol 612 cc453-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Avebury

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose to take on the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons on HM Prison Rochester.

Lord Bach

My Lords, we welcome this report which highlighted a number of weaknesses in conditions for prisoners and detainees at Rochester.

An action plan addressing the 132 recommendations made in the report was produced within 30 working days of publication. Sixty-five of the recommendations have already been implemented, 55 are in the course of implementation and the rest are still being considered. We expect the Prison Service to respond to the report formally in three to four weeks.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. First, can he explain why the Prison Service has repeatedly ignored the recommendation of the chief inspector not to leave prisons without governing governors for months on end? In this case it was six months. As the chief inspector points out, such a situation almost invariably leads to problems.

Secondly, can the Minister say what has been done about the recommendation—again repeatedly made by the chief inspector—to have a senior official at Prison Service headquarters responsible for the treatment and management of foreign prisoners, whether they be in detention centres or prisons? If the Government do not accept that recommendation, what other means do they plan to adopt to ensure that the special needs of foreign prisoners are met?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the difficulties caused by leaving an establishment without a governing governor are recognised. The Prison Service must make the best possible use of the skilled managers in the service. The movement of senior governors is directed by the deputy director-general in discussion with the relevant area managers, based on their expert judgment of the greatest need.

As has been stated recently in the House, the director-general has said that at diverse and complex prisons there will be no gap at governor one level. Efforts are being made to keep any other gaps at other prisons to a minimum, but it is not possible to eliminate those entirely. Therefore, for as short a time as possible, it will be necessary to fall back on the deputy governor who will cover a role that he normally undertakes and that he is qualified to carry out. Rochester falls into that category, but I and the Prison Service recognise and accept that it was unsatisfactory for Rochester to be left without a governing governor for as long as six months.

The answer to the noble Lord's second question is "no". It would be impractical. We believe that it is best to manage the service on a geographical basis, aligned to government regions.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, is it not a matter for dismay and alarm that the report finds the education provision at Rochester to be in so desperate a state? Fewer than half of those enrolled in classes attend them; evening courses have been suspended; there are no functioning workshops; there are bad relations between the Prison Service and the education service; and poor management of the education service. As regards education in prisons, will the Government take urgent action not only in Rochester but throughout the service?

Lord Bach

My Lords, at the time of the inspection, there were weaknesses. However, I am happy to be able to tell the House that there have been significant improvements since then; for example, in November last year 98.5 per cent of the contracted hours were delivered. Improvements to the regime at Rochester were already in hand prior to the visit of the chief inspector, with the allocation of —465,000 of funding over the three-year period specifically to develop the provision of education and offending behaviour programmes.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, in view of the chief inspector's recommendation that there should be an urgent review of the conditions in the prison at Rochester and his call for a clear and coherent set of guidelines for the treatment of detainees, together with the need to take the variety of cultures seriously—for example, in the training of prison staff and in terms of staff from the Immigration Service—will the Minister acknowledge the excellent work being carried out by the ecumenical chaplaincy, which, incidentally, was not mentioned in the report, and pledge all the necessary resources for the continuance and strengthening of this important work?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am happy to do so. I am very grateful to the right reverend Prelate, who represents with such distinction the area within which the prison is located, for asking me a question this afternoon. The answer to his question is, unreservedly, "yes".

Lord Allen of Abbey-dale

My Lords, can the Minister say whether there is any truth in the press report that the Government are proposing to abolish the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons?

Lord Bach

My Lords, there is no truth in that report. However, if the noble Lord will be patient with me, I shall have more to say in that respect on Thursday when I believe that I shall be answering a Question for one of my noble friends on this very subject.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that one of the chief concerns mentioned in this report was the poor treatment and conditions experienced by numbers of asylum seekers, immigration detainees and other foreign nationals? Does the Minister propose to do anything about the recommendation that someone should be identified by the Prison Service within its headquarters and given specific responsibility for the treatment and conditions of foreign nationals?

Lord Bach

My Lords, as I hope I indicated in my earlier reply to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, given the small numbers held in various establishments, which also have other functions, it would be impractical for someone at the head office of the Prison Service to have overall responsibility for the treatment and conditions of foreign nationals.

'The most recent consultation exercise on the management structure of the service produced widespread support for continuing to manage the service on a geographical basis. Only the high security and female estates are managed functionally. The move to dedicated centres for immigration detainees, which is the Government's policy, will reduce the number of prisons which hold small numbers of them alongside other prisoners.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House of any progress that the Government are making to ensure that fewer people who are mentally ill, mentally handicapped and mentally disturbed are kept in prison when they could perhaps be more happily accommodated elsewhere?

Lord Bach

My Lords, a task force is at present looking into exactly that difficult and important issue. I look forward to being able to report back to the House in due course.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords can the Minister say whether it is still the view of the Government that prison works?

Lord Bach

My Lords, of course prison works; but it works better for some than for others.