HL Deb 06 October 2003 vol 653 cc15-8

3.26 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to review the role and functions of Her Majesty's inspectors in the criminal justice system.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

Yes, my Lords, the Government are currently reviewing inspection arrangements in the criminal justice system.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, successive Home Secretaries have felt uncomfortable about the forthright reports of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons. Will the Minister confirm that prison inspectors provide a close scrutiny of prisons which are the least visible and most neglected of our public services? Will the Minister also confirm her department's commitment to a robust, independent prison inspectorate which is directly accountable to the Home Secretary, and that no changes are contemplated which would undermine those principles?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am certainly more than happy to confirm that the Government are wholly committed to the maintenance of robust inspections. Like the noble Lord, I give support and credit to all those inspectors who have robustly discharged their duty. No review currently contemplated by the Government intends in any way to undermine the effectiveness of inspections.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons was created in 1982 in a clause in the Criminal Justice Act of that year which I moved on the advice of the late Lord Whitelaw when he was Home Secretary. It was done at a time when the prison population was considered to be totally unacceptably large and the effects of the system in which prisoners were kept totally counter-productive. Now that the prison population is virtually 30,000 larger than at that time—representing an increase of about 85 per cent— does the noble Baroness agree that to enlarge the responsibility of an inspector to take in the duties of the Probation Service would be wholly mistaken?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I make it absolutely plain that the Government have made no final decision about how, if at all, any changes should be made. The noble Lord should recognise that through all the efforts that we are making we are trying to create a criminal justice system which is fit for purpose. The changes that we are making through the national Criminal Justice Bill and through local criminal justice areas in trying to bring people together will, of course, place additional burdens on those who inspect a system which is becoming more integrated. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that we have made no decision as to how best to fashion a system. However, I absolutely agree with the comments made by the noble Lord and by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that inspection is critical. It must be robust, of high quality and independent if it is to serve any real purpose.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that to have such an independent, robust and forthright Chief Inspector of Prisons as Anne Owers, and indeed some of her predecessors, has given many of us confidence in a system that in other respects has given us much cause for anxiety? Although I understand that my noble friend has made some very positive comments, she has also talked about possible changes. Many of us hope that those changes will not diminish the robust independence and strength of the work of Anne Owers and her predecessors.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I should like to reassure my noble friend that any changes which may be made in the future will be made to improve the inspectorate and not to diminish its effectiveness.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure many of us are, for the Minister's supportive comments about inspection. Does she agree that another aspect of the context which makes inspection doubly important is the very high profile that crime has in the popular mind, and therefore the tendency to a rhetoric of toughness? The word "robust" is more frequently used about the regimes that people should have rather than about the inspection regime. Does she agree that it is particularly important that we are vigilant at such a time as this and that inspection fulfils the function of keeping our eyes on those whom we do not usually see and keeping our memories open to those whom we are tempted to forget?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate that it is of real importance for us to have the benefit of inspection so that we can verify whether that which we aspire to achieve is actually being achieved.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, in view of the compliments that have been rightly bestowed on previous inspectors, what exactly has motivated the present inquiry?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, there has been a review. During that review, it was indicated that there was a level of duplication and a need to refocus the inspection process on the new challenges that are facing the system. We needed to have a holistic approach. Therefore, we needed a review to look again at how to deliver it.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow

My Lords, the noble Baroness has been very careful in her words. She has referred several times to her confidence in "robust" inspection. Does that mean that there will be a continuation of a robust and independent chief inspector who is reportable directly to the Home Secretary?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot specify what form the inspection will take, although a number of models are currently being posited. One model is that there should be no change whatever. Another model is that instead of five inspectors, there should be six. A third model is that the number of inspectors should be reduced from five to three with an overarching commission or commissioner. There are also other models. We have come to no conclusion on which model would be best. We are openly considering them all, because we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the inspection process is the best that we can make it.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, does not the recently published book by Sir David Ramsbotham suggest the need for one change; namely, that the reports of the inspectorate should be published at once and not after such delay as Ministers and their officials may think is needed to dissipate the embarrassment of the criticisms that such reports contain?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will know from his past position in the previous government that that is not the reason why the Government take time to consider inspectors' reports. They are serious documents which need serious consideration. The Government have continued the previous tradition of doing just that— giving serious consideration. I do not think that that criticism can validly be laid at our door.