HL Deb 12 June 2000 vol 613 cc1368-70

2.53 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have yet reached a decision on the future of the inspectorates for prisons and the probation service.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

No, my Lords. We are considering how best to ensure that the arrangements for inspection of the prison and probation services support closer working between the services as well as ensuring that the individual services continue to be inspected rigorously and independently, as they have been. I shall be making a further statement to your Lordships on this in due course.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he accept that there is a link between this Question and the future of Her Majesty's present Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham? At a time when there is a good deal of discussion inside all political parties about sending yet more people to prison without any evident understanding of the state of our prisons today, would it not be a mistake to take steps which silenced the voice of Her Majesty's present inspector, Sir David Ramsbotham, because he—prison by prison, report by report—tells us what is happening in our prisons in a voice which is clear and strong and, above all, independent?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord's assertion that Sir David Ramsbotham has done an excellent job in reporting on the state of our prisons. He has been robust, independent and forthright. He might not always say things with which we feel entirely comfortable, but he has the honesty and integrity that should go with his post and he does a very good job indeed. It is not the Government's intention to undermine that independence of spirit in any way, shape or form. We intend simply to ensure that whatever we do contributes towards driving up standards in prisons and in the Probation Service, as in all other services. That is our intention in looking at the ways in which the two inspectorates work.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that the education and training programmes, so resolutely and consistently supported by Sir David Ramsbotham as the best hope of rehabilitation, will continue to be at the forefront of government policy?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am more than happy to give that assurance. Sir David Ramsbotham has in particular highlighted those important elements in prison regimes. It is, and has been, our intention to ensure that training and education are provided. They are central to the constructive, well worked out regimes that enable offenders to return to a normal life and to take up a more honest, law-abiding existence when they come out of prison. That is our intention and our policy objective—and we are working very hard towards achieving that end.

Lord Acton

My Lords, can the Minister say how much longer Sir David Ramsbotham's contract has to run and whether he is eligible to be reappointed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord will probably be aware that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary recently announced that Sir David Ramsbotham's term has been extended by a further eight months until July 2001. His eligibility to continue in post is not in question. This exercise is simply to ensure that we get the best of both worlds when looking at the future shape of the prison and probation inspectorates. That is why the two terms have been run together to conclude at the same point in time. It is for that reason that I made it clear at the outset that I would be bringing forward a further report to your Lordships' House.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us have a great deal of sympathy with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd? Is he further aware that any proposal to merge the prison inspectorate with that dealing with the Probation Service would be fiercely opposed by many in this House? The merger of the two inspectorates would undoubtedly have the effect of undermining the strong position of the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, perhaps I should reiterate the point that it is not our intention to do anything that would undermine the independence or effectiveness of the Chief Inspector of the Prison Service in any way, shape or form—or, for that matter, of the Probation Service. I suggest that the noble Lord should ponder the point that issues of sentencing, combination orders, flexible punishments, throughcare, and the CARATS programme—all regimes that attempt to address offending behaviour, and in particular the offending behaviour of those with drugs or alcohol abuse problems—are properly concerns of the inspectorate. Looking at different ways in which the probation inspectorate and the prisons inspectorate may work together with that independence and robustness of nature will help us to improve the regime in prison and the treatment of offenders outside prison.

Lord Elton

My Lords, surely the way to keep the closeness between the inspectorates is by close conversations between the inspectors, not by turning their appointments into one post. Is the Minister aware that on this side of the House, among Members with whom I am familiar, there is a strong feeling that to reduce or dilute the authority of the Chief Inspector of Prisons by giving him another job—that of looking after the Probation Service—would reduce his authority? It is most important that whoever takes the post shall have absolute security of tenure during his contract so that he may give his opinions—however unpopular—without fear.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I take to heart the comments made by the noble Lord. They are both well meant and well measured. We do not wish to dilute or in any way undermine the position of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. That is not the intention of the Government. We need a robust and genuinely independent inspectorate. Sir David has done a splendid job in that regard and I trust that he will continue so to do. His reports are widely circulated; they are also widely read and well understood. Their importance should not be undermined in any way.