HL Deb 18 June 2003 vol 649 cc806-8

3.7 p.m.

Lord Dholakia asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to change the vetting system for the employment of prison officers.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, a formal investigation into the circumstances of the employment of David McGee at Woodhill prison is scheduled for completion by 27th June 2003. The terms of reference include a requirement to ascertain the causes of what took place and to recommend any changes to recruitment procedures and pre-appointment vetting arrangements. The Prison Service will consider and act upon these recommendations appropriately to prevent a similar occurrence. It would not be prudent to pre-empt the findings.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she accept that the control and discipline of a prison establishment depends very much on the quality of the prison staff? I am well aware of the example she has quoted, which is a matter of serious concern. The rising number of prisoners and the lack of staff is no excuse for sloppy procedures or cutting corners. What assurance can the Minister give that those presently employed in our prison establishments have been suitably cleared?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree that it is of critical importance that the serious nature of the procedures and the necessity to adhere to them is well understood. We have done everything to ensure that that is understood. The incident to which the noble Lord implicitly referred is a matter of concern. We shall take the opportunity to consider whatever recommendations come out of the investigation.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does not this case illustrate that there is a need for a national identity card, using biometrics positively to identify the person to whom the card has been issued?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. We await the results of the inquiry. At the moment we do not know what instrument of identification may have been used by the person to prove his identity. Like your Lordships, I shall have to await the outcome of the investigation.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord opposite for asking exactly the same question as I was about to ask.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, rather than having an internal investigation, will the Minister consider asking Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons to conduct it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have taken the view that we need to have a clear, rapid understanding of what happened and what were the circumstances, so that we can take immediate action to resolve the situation. The internal inquiry hopes to give us a preliminary outline of its recommendations on Friday of this week and to be complete by the following Friday. We believe that in this instance speed is of the essence.

Lord Elton

My Lords, will the Minister nevertheless undertake to consider a review by HM Inspectorate of Prisons after the local inquiry has been completed? This issue goes far beyond one particular establishment and touches on the security of all our prisons.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly assure noble Lords that we will carefully consider any recommendations made by the investigation. The noble Lord has made a very valid suggestion. We certainly have not closed our minds to any arrangement that may be necessary to ensure that this very important issue is properly addressed.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that the key issues are that prison staff are overworked, that there are too few of them, that the number of prisoners is growing, that steps are not being taken to reduce their numbers by the imposition of alternative sentences, and that as a result, whatever changes are now recommended, the situation will get worse?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot accept the very gloomy picture painted by the noble Lord. We are taking steps. Noble Lords will know that the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill advocate a wide variety of alternative sentences, which seemed to me to be warmly welcomed by virtually everyone at Second Reading. Prison staff members must be of high quality. We are addressing the very serious issues raised by the noble Lord, and we see very good practice in a number of our prisons.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, with regard to the terms for the recruitment of prison staff without prejudice to the outcome of this particular investigation, is it the case that the staffing of prisons has been increased in line with the rising number of prisoners? Are there special problems in recruiting prison staff in particular parts of the country, and will the Minister confirm that identical standards are being maintained in recruitment procedures whether or not there are special problems in particular places?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that identical standards are being applied throughout the country. Alongside that, we are trying to ensure that the sensitivities of the regions are recognised. I cannot give the right reverend Prelate specific answers about the numbers. However, I undertake to write to him in relation to those matters.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Chief Inspector of Prisons gave a specific warning about understaffing in the case of Woodhill Prison? Can she assure the House that on that account the Prison Service will not lower its sights with regard to its recruiting procedures?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can assure the noble Viscount that we will not lower our sights. The noble Viscount knows that the central recruiting policy was changed to enable us to have a regional opportunity to recruit people. There is no current intention to reverse that trend because of current issues. However, we shall have to look very seriously at the lessons that may need to be learnt from the incident at Woodhill Prison.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in view of the Minister's reliance on the effect of the Criminal Justice Bill, is she not aware that it is a very detailed Bill of 374 pages, that it will not come into operation for many months and that before that time it may be considerably amended in your Lordships' House?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have, of course, had the joy of reading that Bill. I understand that it is 374 pages long. Noble Lords will know that I also had the delight of replying at Second Reading. I therefore know the challenges. However, that has not prevented us trying to put good practice into place and encouraging those invested with the huge task of sentencing to mix mercy with punishment.

Back to