HL Deb 02 October 2000 vol 616 cc1200-6

(".—(1) The Secretary of State may not exercise the power conferred by section 6(2) to appoint a person as chief inspector who also holds the office of Chief Inspector of Her Majesty's Prisons.

(2) A person who holds the office of chief inspector may not be appointed to the office of Chief Inspector of Her Majesty's Prisons.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment has been tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia. It raises topical matters of some importance and, I suspect, of some controversy. Therefore, I should like to take the opinion of the Committee as to whether the debate should be deferred until alter the dinner break or whether we should continue at this point. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, whose Unstarred Question is the next item of business, is sitting in his place. Indeed, I also see some other speakers waiting for that debate in the Chamber.

I should welcome an indication from the Front Bench as to whether I should proceed now or delay the debate until after dinner.

Lord Bach

I understand from the Clerk at the Table that it is possible to adjourn the debate on an amendment of this kind before any decision is taken. I notice that some of those who are to speak in the following debate are not present in the Chamber as it is not yet 7.30. I hope therefore that the noble Lord will move his amendment.

Lord Windlesham

I welcome the chance to move my amendment. However, I thought it might receive a warmer welcome if I gave noble Lords the opportunity to discuss it after the Unstarred Question. The Minister who is to reply to the Unstarred Question is not yet in the Chamber. Therefore, it may be convenient to proceed with the amendment now.

The aim of the amendment is to ensure that there should be no merger of the offices of chief inspector of the national probation service and HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. Currently there are separate inspectorates for probation and prisons, each headed by a distinguished and effective chief inspector. But their roles are different. Inevitably there is some overlap as many convicted offenders are likely to spend part of their time in custody and part under supervision in the community. The two current chief inspectors, Sir David Ramsbotham and Sir Graham Smith, both distinguished public servants, have estimated that, at a maximum, 25 per cent of their time is taken up with work that could be described as joint; the remainder being directed either at what goes on in penal institutions or what goes on in the community. To try to put them together under one head would, in the opinion of the current Chief Inspector of Prisons, reduce the effectiveness of both.

I was invited—as perhaps were other Members of the Committee—to contribute to a consultation that is currently taking place on future options for ways in which the two inspectorates might work together more closely. In my reply I argued— and I summarise the argument now—that the ethos of the Prison Service and of the Probation Service is, and always has been, fundamentally different. Joint working to reduce offending and to protect the public sounds effective enough as a slogan, but it does not take full account of the way that the principal tasks of the two services differ, and will continue to do so.

Security and discipline lie at the heart of the Prison Service. The first task of the prison officer is to ensure that offenders sentenced to imprisonment remain in prison for the authorised period. The need to avoid disturbances, the most serious of which may lead to temporary loss of control, is formative of attitudes towards security and discipline. The inspectorate is, and should be, primarily concerned with what happens inside the prisons. Are they secure? Do the conditions in which inmates are held correspond with what they are supposed to be? How effective are the precautions to prevent drugs being smuggled into, and then traded within the establishment? Are the managers and prison officers properly carrying out the onerous tasks with which they are charged?

It is important to stress this aspect because there has been an unprecedentedly long interval since there have been any notorious escapes or major prison disturbances. I believe that absconding is also at a lower level than in the past. But we should never forget that when major incidents occur—as they have done in the past and will again—they shake public confidence in the prison system more than anything else.

As we are all aware, in recent years the independence and outspokenness of successive chief inspectors of prisons has become a beacon of light in the penal system. Their frank reports, sometimes based upon unannounced visits, have done more to illuminate bad practice, security lapses and unacceptable conditions than any other single source. The chief inspector needs to be someone who understands the workings of a disciplined organisation, and by his personality can command respect, inside and outside the Prison Service. Replacement of that function by the kind of appointment outlined in the consultation document would be a retrograde step.

The Chief Inspector of Probation also has a central role in the penal system, although in a markedly different context. In complete contrast with the Chief Inspector of Prisons, he is seen not as a critical outsider, but in many ways as the focal point and head of a decentralised service. As we know from our debate, that will change with the forthcoming reorganisation of the Probation Service and the appointment of a national director. Thought will need to be given to what should be the nature and responsibilities of the post of chief inspector. But one prerequisite stands out: it should be kept entirely separate from the remit of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. That is the purpose of the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia

My name is also added to the amendment, whose purpose is clear; namely, to control the powers of the Secretary of State and to prevent him from appointing, a person as chief inspector who also holds the office of Chief Inspector of Her Majesty's Prisons". Some months ago in a Starred Question I raised the question of the Government's intention with regard to a prison/probation inspectorate. The Government were, to the best of my knowledge, non-committal. However, it was obvious from the number of supplementary questions that followed that many noble Lords could not support a move that would bring Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons under one control. I ask myself a simple question: why tamper with a system that works well and has delivered all that is expected of it?

The Government's consultation paper mentions developing the joined-up approach. They say that evidence tells them that this will prove most effective. I shall, of course, await the Minister's spelling out of that evidence. I do not question his intentions, but so far the Government have not produced any evidence to prove the effectiveness of such an arrangement because such a situation has never arisen before.

What are the facts? The impact of merging two inspectorates would blunt the effectiveness of both. The criminal justice system can be oppressive if controls are not established at various stages of the process. We welcome the independence of the police inspectorate. We on this side of the Chamber supported the establishment of the inspectorate of the Crown Prosecution Service. No one would argue that a seamless system requires a single inspectorate looking at various aspects of the criminal justice system. We do not have a seamless criminal justice system, yet we are moving in that direction. Each of the agencies has a specific role. It requires specific expertise to ensure that the system operates with fairness.

HMI Prisons has made a considerable impact on the way in which our prisons are run. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, cited examples of that. Judge Stephen Tumim, and now Sir David Ramsbotham, have been fearless in their condemnation of practices that are unacceptable in our prisons. Have the Government consulted them? Like most other people, I am sure they would say that a unified service is unacceptable.

Then we have the probation inspectorate. The inspector's recent report on race issues in the Probation Service highlights what needs to be done. The detailed inspections promise changes for the good. It keeps the Home Office on its toes. It tells governors and staff which are unacceptable practice in our closed institutions. The resulting publicity is good for the accountability of the Home Office. It also builds the confidence of the community and, more importantly, families and vulnerable prisoners know that the inspectorate is keeping an eye on the conditions and treatment that inmates receive.

No one can doubt that inspection reports have helped to change prison conditions and probation practices. However, I suspect that the Home Office is weary of inspections—more so those of the Chief Inspector of Prisons because his reports normally do not make happy reading and always make headlines in national newspapers.

There are some sound examples where unified probation/prison arrangements work well—for example, in Denmark and Canada. There are combined, unified services providing a single service. We have not reached that stage in this country and are unlikely to do so for some considerable time. When the Prison Service is stretched to the limit, and we are not sure how the newly established probation service will work, it is a backward step to establish a single inspectorate.

I believe that the current arrangements have worked well. They have the confidence of the public and the client groups, and they provide a dedicated focus to their distinctive roles. That should continue. The public want a system they can trust. We shall oppose any move that breaches that trust. The amendments are designed to achieve precisely that.

7.30 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lincoln

I speak as bishop to prisons, and have made already a submission on behalf of the Board for Social Responsibility, of the Church of England, to the Home Secretary on this point. I support the amendment.

The critical issue is security and the conditions in prisons. In this Chamber, we have debated reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to successful and useful conclusions. I want to voice my concern and that of many in the community that the posts of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Chief Inspector of Probation should be amalgamated. I can see that there is a minimal amount of overlap. However, my plea is that we take seriously this proposal. With all the force I can, I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.

Baroness Blatch

I shall not repeat the arguments. They have been argued powerfully. I said earlier that I had reservations about what might happen to the inspectorate. I understand from the Minister that consultations are in progress at present about the future of the inspectorate for the Prison Service and the Probation Service. It is important that we establish some first principles at this stage. The argument is unarguable. I wait with interest to hear from the Minister.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

These are important and interesting arguments but they are being conducted in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fundamental problem is that the amendment amends the wrong Bill. This Bill does nothing to establish a joint inspectorate, or one inspector for the two services. The amendment is flawed because it prejudges an important discussion, debate and deliberation about the inspectorate we wish to develop and deliver.

I have not heard today an argument against having joined-up services within the criminal justice system. No one has put forward that point. However it has a bearing on the issue. The purpose behind our consultation exercise is to ensure that we gain the best from having a more joined-up system of inspectorate and to discover how best those inspectorates can work together.

We do not seek, and the consultation exercise does not propose, to merge the two inspectorates. We recognise that the Prison Service and the Probation Service perform many separate functions. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, accepted in part the argument that there is a cross-over. The estimate of the chief inspectors is that there is a 25 per cent cross-over of one kind or another. In part, that makes the case for a relationship between the two inspectorates. Although I accept the argument that the inspectors are looking at different matters, in some respects they are considering the same issues, in particular the supervision of offenders. It is important to recognise that people go from prison into probation supervision, and into supervision in the community. There are similarities and areas of commonality. They are looking at the same client group.

We have launched an extensive consultation exercise. We shall listen carefully to the fruits of that consultation. We want to gather views as to the best way to achieve closer working relationships. I do not think that it would be right today, here and now, to forestall the outcome of that important debate.

It is worth reminding ourselves that more than one third of those sentenced to custody will spend some part of their sentence under Probation Service supervision. Important decisions about release, conditions of supervision and custody depend on the two services working together in a coherent way. We look to the inspectorates to ensure that they work in a coherent way.

We have not made up our minds on the best option for the two inspectorates. We have made clear that no decisions will be made until responses to the consultation exercise which ends on 31st October have been fully considered.

I want today to underline this important point I have sought to make before in this Chamber. We have no intention of weakening the rigour, robustness or independence of the inspection processes for either service. I view the need for a strong, authoritative inspectorate working with a clear set of standards to help drive up performance as in the best interests of these public services. We need that independence, robustness and rigour to ensure that that objective is secured.

We expect to reach a decision as to the way in which inspectorates can best work together and deliver the services they are intended to deliver by the end of the year. At that stage we shall make a clear statement of our intended policy to this House so that it can be debated properly as it should be. I do not think that it would be right to pre-judge those deliberations and that debate today in a Bill which merely replicates the current inspectorates and carries them forward in this new piece of legislation. Consultation is in place. We want to hear from Members of your Lordships' House. We have already had the benefit of the advice and views of the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. I am grateful to other noble Lords for their contribution to the ongoing debate. However, I urge the Committee not to go along the path of the amendments today. To do so would be to close off an important and valuable option that might be available to us. I emphasise the word "might".

Lord Windlesham

It is a time for blunt speaking. It is common knowledge that the present Chief Inspector of Prisons and his predecessor, Judge Stephen Tumim, have been thorns in the side of successive Home Secretaries. Their energy and candour in exposing the many flaws in the prison system have been combined with unusually persuasive communication skills. Those two factors have made them the conscience of the penal system. There must be no watering down of their remit, or limiting their scope by merging the office of the Chief Inspector of Prisons with the Probation Service.

This is a straightforward, easily understood issue in which party loyalties should play no part. I was tempted to take the opinion of the Committee, but I accept some may feel that, important though the issue is, this short debate might be slightly out of place in a Bill dealing with the reorganisation of the Probation Service. With some reluctance, and with an assurance from the Minster that he will discuss the matter and make sure that our views are known in the Home Office before any decisions are taken, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Bach

I beg to move that the House be resumed. I suggest that the Committee stage does not begin again before 8.40 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

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