HL Deb 04 April 2001 vol 624 cc812-5

2.47 p.m.

Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons criticising Birmingham Prison.

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

My Lords, in accordance with the protocol agreed between Ministers, Her Majesty's chief inspector and the Prison Service, an action plan will be produced within 30 working days of the report's publication. That will address all the report's recommendations. We accept that conditions at Birmingham were extremely grim, and urgent action is necessary. Progress is already being made in a number of key areas.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, as always, I respect the much esteemed Minister for his heroic attempt to defend the indefensible. This is the most damaging report ever published by a chief inspector. I hope that the noble Lord will go ahead with the master plan. Can he explain why no master plan was introduced in this case when master plans were introduced for Wormwood Scrubs and Wandsworth, where progress was made? Does the noble Lord join me in paying tribute to the chief inspector for this long series of scathing reports? Does he agree that we must make sure that the chief inspector is not treated like Thomas à Becket was treated by King Henry, as a turbulent priest?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I was not around at that time.

A noble Lord

It was a previous government.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

A previous government, yes!

Perhaps I may turn to the points raised by the noble Earl. We have the deepest of respect for the work undertaken by Sir David Ramsbotham during his time as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. His reports have not always been scathing. Certainly, when they have been critical, we in government have not been slow to move on them.

The noble Earl rightly referred to the action plan. Matters have improved. An action plan was drawn up following the visit, with progress reports submitted to the Minister at different and appropriate times. It would be fair to observe that the action plan has been largely completed for all the points agreed with the chief inspector. It is important to note that the problems at Birmingham are deeply rooted, perhaps in the culture of the organisation, and that they do not relate simply to procedures that need to be refined. I have been advised that, as regards the 1998 report, which was undertaken in the early part of that year. some 40 of the 54 action point recommendations have now been completed.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, as regards the action plan, what is the machinery for enforcement to deal with this rather serious problem? Furthermore, who is in charge of it?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the action plan will be drawn up and agreed. We shall then want to see a copy of that action report. It will be for the governor to ensure that the action report is implemented. Of course, ultimately it will be the Government who must be held to account for the way in which the Prison Service in general is run and managed.

Lord Quirk

My Lords, has the Minister noted that, of the roughly 1,000 inhabitants of this overcrowded gaol, well over three-quarters are educationally at or below level 1? Bearing in mind our need to rehabilitate prisoners so that they can get jobs on their release, is it not a matter of grave concern that only 60 of the 1,000 are undertaking full educational courses and that an equally derisory number are engaged in proper vocational training?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, on many occasions from this Dispatch Box I have stated that I fully accept that a great deal more progress needs to be made in terms of education provision in our prison establishments. I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that this can be particularly difficult in local prisons where often prisoners are held for only a short period of time. Today I met the governor of Birmingham Prison and we discussed the progress that is being made. He is addressing the serious problem of overcrowding identified in the report. I am advised that the population figures are now around 820, having fallen from the original level of 1,063.

The governor has also advised me that he is optimistic that the new attendance arrangements which have been agreed with prison officer staff will enable prisoners to spend far more time out of their cells in association, undertaking the important education they require and participating more fully in the training opportunities on offer within the prison.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, in view of the Minister's comments as regards the earlier action plan issued following the 1998 inspection, why has the chief inspector now commented that, after a scathing earlier report, none of this need have happened if anyone had acted on the recommendations of the previous report?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course we are concerned about the slow progress that has been made following the original report. It is for that reason that we recognise and accept that this is a very serious report on the conditions at Birmingham Prison. I think that the new prison Governor, Mr Shann, who has been in post since last October, is already making considerable progress. He has the backing of his staff in that effort and he is putting in place a programme and machinery to ensure that conditions improve within the prison. The Government are playing their part by increasing funding for healthcare provision. A new health centre is to be constructed. More classroom space is being provided for educational purposes and we are working very closely with Mr Shann and his management team, who deserve the support of all Members of the House in their efforts to turn conditions at the prison around.

Lord Acton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in saying that he has the greatest respect for Sir David Ramsbotham, he endorses a view that is held universally? Is he further aware that, while not being treated like Thomas a Becket in the fullest sense, Sir David is to lose his job at the end of July and be replaced? The original terms of reference for Sir David's job allowed him to continue in post until November 2003. Will the Government reconsider their decision to end his employment at the end of July and keep him in post until November 2003?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am well aware of the fond respect in which Sir David Ramsbotham is held. I have said on many occasions from this Dispatch Box that Sir David is greatly respected for the robust and thorough nature of his reports and for the important work carried out by the inspectorate. It is a great credit to our system, showing that it behaves with honesty, openness and integrity.

As regards my noble friend's other point, Sir David completed a five-year term of office. That term was then extended. Noble Lords have had many opportunities to debate the position of Sir David Ramsbotham and have not been slow in coming forward to enter that debate. We are in the process of appointing a new Chief Inspector of Prisons. That process will be completed in due course and we expect the new appointment to be made in July of this year.