HL Deb 26 April 2004 vol 660 cc558-60

2.52 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they are making with their review of the five criminal justice inspectorates.

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

My Lords, Ministers commissioned a review of the five criminal justice service inspectorates to examine the existing inspection regime to ensure that it is as robust as possible. A report has been received by Ministers and discussions are currently taking place with the chief inspectors and others to ensure the report properly addresses all the issues. Structural change is being considered and significant progress has been made.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that interim reply. All the inspectorates are important but does she agree that the Inspectorate of Prisons is especially so? It is an expert body of undoubted independence and, under the previous two chief inspectors and the present one, it has done indispensable work in throwing light into corners of this public service which might otherwise remain in the dark. Can the Minister give an assurance that when the review is complete, or as part of the review, whatever its outcome, the duties and rights of the prison inspectorate will be no longer a matter of an administrative decision based on the wishes of the Home Secretary but enshrined in the law of the land with statutory back-up?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the important role played by the current chief inspector and her predecessors. It is absolutely vital that the function continues to operate. If change is necessary, some of it may well involve a change in the law. If that is the case, the matter will come before the House and the other place and we will all have an opportunity to have our say.

Baroness Stern

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the UK Government are to be congratulated on being one of the first three states to ratify the protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Torture in December 2003? The protocol requires the UK to put in place independent inspections of all places of detention. Therefore the remit of the chief inspector has been extended to all immigration detention centres and the military centre at Colchester. Can the Minister reassure the House that under the reorganised inspection arrangements, the UK Government will continue to meet the requirements of the convention for both the independence and the coverage of its inspection arrangements?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have pleasure in confirming that that is the case. I thank the noble Baroness for her congratulations, which I must say, if somewhat immodestly, are well placed.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, the Audit Commission has reported that we now have the highest ever level of public spending in the criminal justice area. It has also reported that it is committed to working very closely with the criminal justice inspectors and that one of the objectives it intends to achieve is value for money. Does the Minister agree that public confidence is shaped by the quality of service provided by HM inspectors, particularly the Chief Inspector of Prisons? Will she give an undertaking that there will be full public consultation when the review report has been examined and that direct accountability to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State will not be eroded as a cost-cutting exercise?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we do not see the rearrangement as a cost-cutting exercise. The independence of the inspectorates will remain and it is paramount that it should do so. The chief inspectors will retain their direct accountability to Ministers and will be free to report as they find. We will retain their independence and professionalism and provide Ministers, their departments and the public with the information and assurance they need about the quality and integrity of the criminal justice system. We will also allow inspectorates the freedom to focus on additional areas of concern. All those issues will be fundamental to any reorganisation. There has been consultation and that will continue to be the case. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, if legislation is necessary it will be fully discussed and everyone will have an opportunity to have their say. However, it is important at this stage to continue the consultation process that we have with the inspectors and others directly involved in order that we can make a proper, informed judgment.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her proper praise for the work of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons. While she is contemplating change, will she allow that inspectorate now to inspect the Prison Service as well as the prison estate?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, one of the changes that we are considering is to enable the inspectorates to look at the new criminal justice system we are establishing by taking parts of the system from working in silos to working together in a more joined-up way. The whole point of change is to enable the inspection of that process to be more robust and comprehensive and to consider matters about which we need to be assured. It will enable us to be clear that the system is working well.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, will the inspectorate consider the issue of the training of prison officers? Given that the initial training is nine weeks, this might be a way of improving the whole culture within the prison system.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we will review the issues that need to be dealt with. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, is leading a team at the moment, which includes the Acting Chief Inspector of Probation. They are reviewing the future inspections of the National Offender Management Service and its wider responsibilities, including immigration detention centres and youth offending areas. We are not relying on structural change alone; we are simultaneously changing how we, as the Government, lead in setting an inspection strategy and we will create a machinery to prioritise and follow through criminal justice inspections. All these issues are matters of review now, and we want to get them right.