HL Deb 19 January 2005 vol 668 cc848-72

7.36 p.m.

Baroness Stern: moved Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure the independence and integrity of HM Inspector of Prisons in the light of the proposed consultation on merging criminal justice inspectorates.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the work, role and future of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and to so many noble Lords for supporting this debate. The debate is taking place just as reports are appearing in the press which suggest that change may be imminent. It is reported that the Government are shortly to publish plans for the reorganisation of the criminal justice inspectorates and that the Inspectorate of Prisons would be absorbed in some way into a larger grouping and could lose its separate identity and some of its independence. This matter has been raised before in this House. There is real concern here that any change may lead to a dilution of the inspectorate and a reduction in its capacity to carry out searching analysis of the conditions of imprisonment. The Inspectorate of Prisons, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, reminded us when this matter was discussed 6 October 2003, was created by the Criminal Justice Act 1982. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, moved the relevant clause and he did well so to do. Since then, the inspectorate has grown into a mechanism for promoting human rights and ensuring good governance that is admired and copied throughout the world.

I have been in a British Council library in a poor and rather remote part of India and watched people download from the Internet and read prison inspectorate reports, reading them with admiration and amazement at finding so much transparency and so much practicality in defining a humane prison that treats prisoners properly. The inspectorate is an institution of which we in this country should be proud and so should the successive governments who created and developed it.

Further, we should be very proud that the UK was the third state in the world to ratify the Optional Protocol of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. No doubt the drive to ratify this instrument came from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, when she was at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Optional Protocol to the UN convention requires governments to have in place independent inspection mechanisms of all their places of detention. We were able to ratify the Optional Protocol sooner than many other states because we already have flourishing independent inspection mechanisms. For prisons, we have two: one is the independent monitoring boards—I declare an interest as president of the Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards—and the other is the Inspectorate of Prisons.

It was because of this ratification that the remit of the prisons' inspectorate was extended to include places other than prisons; that is, to immigration, detention and removal centres and places of military detention.

This extension of the remit of the inspectorate leads me to my first question about an integrated criminal justice inspectorate. Could the Minister tell the House in her reply how far the inspection of immigration and military places of detention fits with a criminal justice inspectorate, and whether or not the Government intend that the Chief Inspector of Prisons should continue to inspect these places if there are changes?

Furthermore, in the light of this international obligation, I would be grateful if the Minister could tell the House in her reply whether the Home Office or other departments involved have had questions or expressions of concern from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the proposals and, if so, how has the Home Office responded to them?

We have been fortunate since its inception in 1982 that the post of chief inspector has been filled by some outstanding people who have performed a great public service—a service in telling the public what is happening in their name in prisons; in educating the public about what prison can and cannot do; and, above all, on the standards which prisons should reach in a civilised society.

Under successive inspectors, a framework for inspections has developed a definition from the World Health Organisation of a "healthy prison". Under this framework the inspectors measure prisons by four indicators: how far they provide safety for all, even the most vulnerable; how far prisoners are treated with respect for their human dignity; how far prisoners are encouraged to participate in activities that will be beneficial to them; and what steps are taken to prepare prisoners for release into life outside the prison.

It is sometimes suggested that the Government find the work of the Chief Inspector of Prisons uncomfortable, too critical, too public, and too unswervingly concerned about the treatment of a few vulnerable individuals. I would be surprised if that were true. The Government and those who administer prisons benefit enormously from the work of the inspectorate. It gives the public information that few others in the world have. It gives reassurance that even in the secretive world of prisons, abuses will not go undetected and there will not be cover-ups.

Everywhere in the world there are abuses in prison. There are abuses even in countries where prison staff receive two years' training rather than our eight weeks, a point that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, might have made if he had been able to be here. It is not a source of shame for a government when these are uncovered. It should be a source of satisfaction and confidence that the truth does come out and that the abuses are dealt with.

That is not all. The inspectorate publicises the many positives in the prison system and gives prison staff credit for their good work. It helps good prison staff to stand up against those who think they can get away with abuse because no one will ever find out. It gives prison management a unique source of detailed information on how they are performing at their core task.

The inspectorate has carried out thematic reviews of important issues that has paved the way for significant changes. The report by a former chief inspector suggesting that prison healthcare needed to be dramatically improved and should be under the aegis of the National Health Service gave the spur to the transformation of the arrangements for prison healthcare and the great improvements that the Government have introduced.

The joint report with seven other inspectorates, Safeguarding Children, produced in 2003, was also important in improving the protection of children in prison. In this House, the Minister said that under the re-arrangement of the inspectorates, The independence of the inspectorates will remain … The chief inspectors will retain their direct accountability to Ministers and will be free to report as they find … We will also allow inspectorates the freedom to focus on additional areas of concern".—[Official Report, 26/4/04; col. 559.] We were grateful for those commitments.

Can the Minister reassure the House in her reply, so that we have it on the record, on several issues? First, that the standards to be used by the chief inspector in her inspections will continue to be the standards drawn up by successive chief inspectors as set out currently in the documents called Expectations.

Secondly, that however the merged inspectorate, if there is to be one, is structured, the Chief Inspector of Prisons will not be subordinate to any overall head inspector but will continue to be accountable directly to Ministers, Parliament and the public without any intermediary.

Thirdly, that whatever system there is in the new inspectorate for publication, the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons will be published separately and without any interference.

Fourthly, that the chief inspector will retain the right to make unannounced visits at any time to any prison, at seven in the morning, in the middle of the night, or at whatever time she chooses, and to be admitted.

Finally, that the number and intensity of inspections currently carried out by the prisons inspectorate will not be reduced because of budget cuts or for any other reason in a merged inspectorate.

I look forward to the debate.

7.46 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I remind the House that I chair the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs. I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the debate. I apologise for the flamboyancy of the tie I am wearing, but it is in the good cause of publicising bowel cancer. I know that other noble Lords have them around their necks as well.

The Minister will know, because I have written to her, of my concerns about the separate and independent future of the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The review which led to proposals for better cohesion and co-operation between the Prison and Probation Services was designed to reduce re-offending through well planned and resourced programmes dealing with major issues such as behaviour and drug and alcohol abuse.

That is fine, but I see immediately two real risks. First, things will be done in too much of a hurry in the Prison and Probation Services, rather than simply bringing the headquarters together first and taking, say, three or four years to join the services together at local level. We have had too many experiences of doing things in a hurry which have gone terribly wrong. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it runs a real risk of concentrating on process and the way in which things are done, to try to improve efficiency and outcomes.

I do not believe that it is either solely or mainly about process. The process is not the master but the servant of achieving better aims and outcomes in the criminal justice system. With prisons, this is to ensure the human rights of prisoners and that they are treated with decency and dignity. That responsibility is more than enough for a separate and independent prisons inspector given the appalling levels of overcrowding in most prisons which sabotage plans to cut re-offending and aid resettlement.

Successive inspectors—the late Stephen Tumim and his admirable successor, Sir David Ramsbotham, as well as the present inspector, Anne Owers—bear testament to the failures of the Prison Service which deserve and demand rigorous independent scrutiny and examination. It makes a mockery of independent scrutiny to have an inspector report to a civil servant rather than, as now, direct to the Home Secretary.

The strong case to continue with an independent and separate prisons inspector can be summarised in a few words: Feltham Young Offenders Institution and HMP Liverpool. The inquiry into the murder, four years ago now, of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham by his known racist cellmate was bad enough—but it was not a one off. The inquiry into that death this week heard how three racist prison officers handcuffed an inmate to his cell bars, removed his trousers and smeared his buttocks with black boot polish. Were the officers sacked? No. Were they docked any pay? No. Were they transferred? No. They were simply given written warnings.

At Liverpool, the inspector reported yesterday that some areas of the prison were no-go areas for prison officers, that bullying and violence thrived among the 1,400 inmates, and that some prisoners were afraid to leave their cells.

These are just two of the latest examples of what is going on in our prisons. In my view, they underline inescapably the need to continue with a separate and independent prisons inspector.

A public service which allows such things to happen is one in which the independent inspection regime should be extended, not weakened. There is, against this background, an unanswerable case for the Prison Service itself to be subject to inspection by the prisons inspector, and not simply the prisons.

Many will be pleased that the new Home Secretary has dropped plans to privatise the Forensic Science Service, and I am among them. In the same spirit, I invite the Minister to tell us that a separate and independent prisons inspectorate will remain, or, at the very least, will be kept in place until the Prison Service and those who head it better demonstrate their ability to protect the human rights, decency and dignity of those for whom they are responsible in our prisons.

7.52 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for raising this issue; and, in view of the imminent publication of a related government consultation paper, I congratulate her on her good timing in doing so today.

All of us share concern about three separate, if connected, aspects. First, the independent and efficient work of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons should be encouraged and supported. Secondly, between criminal justice services, much better working links should be engendered to improve our poor national indicators for prisons and crime. Thirdly, however, any attempt to bind services more closely together should never be made at the expense of the necessary independent role of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons.

Clearly there is a risk, as has already been said, that the merging of criminal justice inspectorates will dilute the quality of prison inspection and thus also lessen the protection of prisoners' rights. Quite correctly, the chief inspector has spelt out, as have the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, which parts of inspection duties should not alter. Chief inspectors must decide how they will inspect, and what they will inquire into. In the future, they should inspect individual prisons and young offenders' institutions no less regularly than they do at the moment. They must continue to carry out unannounced inspections without outside consultation, and they should not change the practice of reporting only and directly to the Home Secretary.

The Minister for Prisons has already given assurances that it is not the Government's intention to interfere with those functions. However, can the Minister refer to particular safeguards envisaged and explain why they may be able to protect these independent functions of inspection within a merged criminal justice inspectorate?

Within criminal justice, and between its services, there are clear advantages arising from the right kind of improved co-operation, if that should come into being. The aims must be to decrease our prison population, reduce recidivism and deter crime.

Regarding prisons, the starting premise may be fairly obvious. A significant proportion of the total prison population is made up of young people sentenced for minor offences, who should not have been sent to prison in the first place; instead, they should have been given effective community sentences. Does the Minister agree that while the courts do not use community sentences nearly enough, there are nevertheless three recognisable benefits arising from their deployment? I refer to the decrease which will arise in our overcrowded prison population, a reduction in recidivism and, through cost savings, the inference that there will be much more money to spend on education and rehabilitation for others for whom a prison sentence is necessary. Yet the courts often remain diffident about using community sentences rather than prison. What plans do the Government have to promote these expedients, through the revised design of such sentences, where necessary, and through achieving better understanding between criminal justice services, not least the courts and sentencing policy?

As the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, warns us, any new steps in the direction of criminal justice co-ordination should be taken with great caution. They must not threaten the independence of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons, and they should ally themselves to targets—and why not ambitious ones?—for the reduction of the prison population, recidivism and crime.

It is a depressing fact that among our European Union partners, per head of population, the United Kingdom has one of the largest prison populations and one of the highest levels of recidivism. Can we not now grasp the nettle, reverse this trend and, at last, disseminate good practice?

7.56 p.m.

Baroness Prashar

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Stern for initiating this debate on the work, role and function of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, and for doing it so clearly and effectively. I fully endorse her reasons for initiating this debate and the questions which she has posed to the Minister.

In my contribution, I want to emphasise why I believe that focused, robust and independent scrutiny of our prisons is necessary. I seek assurances from the Minister that the principles and values which have guided the work of the inspectorate to date will not be diluted or eroded in any reorganisation of the criminal justice inspectorates.

There is no doubt that we need arrangements in the criminal justice system which will monitor the system as a whole and ensure that different parts of the criminal justice system work together and with others in pushing forward the resettlement agenda. But the function of the prison inspectorate is different. It focuses specifically on the treatment and condition of those whom the state holds in custody—a function which needs to be carried out robustly and independently.

Solutions to crime and crime reduction have to be sought not only by punishment but by providing opportunities for rehabilitation—rehabilitation which respects human dignity and human rights. We must constantly remind ourselves that those in custody are not a separate class to be excluded or forgotten. They are fellow citizens to be brought, as far as possible, into a position where they can be reintegrated into society and gain respect. Above all, we as a society respect their human rights.

To achieve this, the criminal justice system must be efficient but also accountable. However, efficiency must not be judged only by means of internal performance indicators and targets; there should be a wider vision of accountability based on recognised principles and values.

To date, we have been served really well by successive chief inspectors of prisons. They have ensured that the conditions and treatment of those in custody are highlighted, and have held to account those responsible. As a society, we can rightly be proud of this institution, for it is a reflection of our attitudes towards those who are excluded and could easily be forgotten. Any erosion of the role and function of the prison inspectorate will mean losing an important safeguard and a mechanism of accountability.

The function also needs to remain independent. As we have already heard, in expressing concerns about the changes, Anne Owers, the current chief inspector, said that it is important that she continues to inspect by her own criteria and methodology; to inspect no less regularly than at present; to retain the power and resources to authorise unannounced inspections with outside consultation; and to continue to report only and directly to the Home Secretary. Any changes in the current arrangements will undermine independence, and I hope that we can be reassured again that they will not change.

Any drive for efficiency must not lead to open, expert, informed and independent inquiries. An assurance on that would really be welcome. A move towards reform these days means that you have to compromise principle. In my view, reform and maintenance of values and principles is not incompatible. There should really be a benchmark for the reform.

8 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, is by common consent the chief inspector of our consciences in relation to the subject of prisons and I am very grateful to her for being that. It cannot be anything other than a lonely position to occupy. The question that she has raised today is of the profoundest importance, and I support everything that has been said so far, but I want to focus on two particular matters by way of support for the continued independence, separateness and robustness of the prison inspection system that we currently have.

When I act as Bishop to Prisons, one of my functions is to arrange regular meetings in conjunction with the General Synod of the Church of England in which those synod members who are interested in the subject are gathered to listen to a speaker of note. It was our privilege to have with us the Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Dr Andrew McLellan. What I remember about his speech is being sternly and firmly rebuked by him for having used in the material inviting people to the meeting the expression "alternatives to custody". He reminded us that custody is not the default penalty and must not be allowed to become that in our thinking or in the sloppiness of my and other people's languages.

I thought that it was good to have a taste of the medicine handed out by a chief inspector of prisons. But in saying that, he was drawing my attention—and I wish to draw the attention of the House—to what it means to put somebody in prison. Although we all know that, and although the Minister has demonstrated on many occasions that she knows that and has a high level of passionate concern about it, it is very important that it does not pass unmentioned in a debate of this kind.

Putting somebody in prison is an awesome thing to do. I often warn people who are considering doing voluntary work in prisons that they must expect a conversion experience. I think it reasonable to say that the late Judge Stephen Tumim and General Sir David Ramsbotham were probably not recruited from the anarchist hard left of our society, and I have to assume that something happened to them when they got involved in the work of being the inspector of prisons, which also happened to me, some 35 to 40 years ago, when I first became involved in that work. What happens is that you are confronted with the sheer awesomeness of the prison experience.

Let me invite your Lordships into a fantasy world. Let us suppose that we never had prisoners who were denied access to education; let us suppose that the horrendous episodes to which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, drew attention never happened; let us suppose that the majority of prison officers who go into this work with commitment and dedication were not simply the majority but everyone in the Prison Service—so we never had any of these scandals. Would we still perhaps need a prison inspectorate? Even in that fantasy world, from which we are so far distant, we certainly would, because prison is the publicly sanctioned deprivation of basic human rights from people. We cannot allow ourselves to carry out that highly specific act against persons in such a way as to make it possible for them to become non-persons in the way in which they are treated and regarded. We cannot allow them to be forgotten.

I absolutely respect the instincts and reports that have led the Government to try to achieve the maximum unity of effort and policy among the different parts of the criminal justice system—and the creation of NOMS,

the National Offender Management Service, is of course the current activity in pursuit of that policy. But while I understand those impulses, the specificity of the nature of imprisonment is such that we cannot afford to deprive ourselves of that separateness and independence—separateness, I stress—of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector. We cannot allow the criminal justice system to become what the present chief inspector has called "a primeval soup", in which we inspect in some vague and general way the effectiveness of a system without the constancy of contact with actual persons who are enduring it.

The chief inspector of prisons is, of course, the inheritor of the statutory requirement that is still in place, which allows diocesan bishops unfettered access to the prisons in their dioceses. That is very important, but it does require to be professionalised in the way that the creation of a chief inspectorate has made possible. That is why there has to be a chief inspector of prisons who is independent and separate.

My second point is more positive, can be said more briefly, and perhaps is more abstract. I believe that the existence of a chief inspector of prisons models something about our society that is profoundly important—that there is nobody, however mandated, whatever majority they have, whatever instruments of sovereignty they wield, who should be immune from the possibility of independent, unannounced and well-resourced inspection. That is crucial as an arm of the democratic state, and it is for that reason that I fully support the noble Baroness in raising this sharp Question. I look forward very much to the Answer from the Minister, which I hope will give us reassurance on these points.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for raising this important question about the independence of the prison inspectorate. I have just completed a period as the chair of the British Council and in that role I had the opportunity of visiting quite a number of prisons around the world. What becomes clear as one sees other institutional arrangements is just how precious our own inspectorate is. It really is one of the great British triumphs.

When the state removes a citizen's liberty it is always important to remember that the state's responsibilities do not end there. Even those who have committed serious crimes have to be protected from abuse and treated with dignity. That is not just because we should respect the humanity of prisoners—which of course is crucial—but also because we degrade our own humanity by ill treating others.

The great strength of the inspector's role is that the inspector is a robust, independent voice, as others have said. That power, which others have mentioned, of arriving unannounced at a prison and insisting upon entry; the ability to speak directly to prisoners about their experience and about their treatment; the direct access to the Home Secretary, not via some functionary who might dilute the message; and all that

openness of the reports which are produced—all these elements of the role make it a powerful check on the system, and that is why it is so important.

We have yet to have an inspector of prisons who has not incurred the wrath of politicians. We have to ask ourselves why that is. I suspect it is because they speak the truth about what they see and sometimes there is a gap, which may be unpleasant to hear, but there is a gap between policy and reality.

Sir Stephen Tumim and Sir David Ramsbotham had to deal with the brickbats of Michael Howard and Jack Straw respectively. The assumption was that when Sir Stephen completed his term he should be followed by a harder, tougher personality, and that a military man like Sir David would be no faint heart. But David Ramsbotham was someone with a highly developed sense of fairness. You only have to read his book about his account as an inspector to understand that. He was unafraid about speaking out. The current inspector, Anne Owers, who is a director of Justice, came with a full awareness that these are human rights issues on which the Government should take action. But she herself has also had to travel quite a rocky road.

The Government do not tend to like their shortcomings to be exposed, but I am afraid that that is the role of the inspector. The inspector is an alarm system so that we know what happens in our name in hidden corners.

My concern is that we are seeing the teeth of the prison inspectorate being drawn—its specialist role being undermined; its independence eroded. I have no contest with there being more collaboration and closer working between the different elements of the system. But I am concerned that the reforms will mean a reduction in the scale of inspections in individual prisons and of their potency. I am worried that we are creating something that will be termed "Offmoff"—the office for the management of offenders.

In the past 10 years we have seen an extraordinary escalation in the numbers of people being sent to prison. An area which I know quite a lot about is that of female incarceration and we have seen an incredible increase in the numbers of women being detained. The pressure of numbers makes for great demands on prison staff and prisoners. We should be mindful of the cost of that. Today's Guardian carried a report into the death of Sarah Campbell who committed suicide in Styal Prison last year. Her mother Pauline has been a powerful campaigner ever since on the issue of women's incarceration and the risks there are for many vulnerable women. Six women died in Styal within a period of 12 months.

The reports of the inspector, Anne Owers, over the past few years have shone light into areas that we might never have known about and are really important in a civilised society. In her report into Huntercombe where girls were detained she wrote: [It] was holding far too many young people, in unmanageably large units, to be able to provide a safe environment". There was no assessment of risk or vulnerability being carried out.

Her report into Ashfield, a privately run juvenile gaol, exposed the scandal of bullying children who became so afraid that they did not come out of their cells. In May 2003 at Pentonville she wrote that every day 100 prisoners came out but another 100 went in; there were 40,000 movements in a year and the pressure on the staff was such that conditions fell so far short of decency.

On the front pages of today's newspapers were horrifying photographs of apparent abuse of Iraqis in custody. We know that the same thing happened in relation to prisoners in Abu Ghraib; they were subjected there to inhumane, degrading treatment. We came to know of those abuses only because of photographs that leaked into the public domain. That should never be necessary. We should be hearing about it through inspectorates in those prisons too.

When people are in prison they can readily become forgotten, but the inspector becomes our eyes and our source of intelligence. That person must have public trust. That trust is developed because the prison inspector has status, independence and autonomy. I hope that the Government will really accept the arguments being made here tonight that the prison inspector should not have her powers reduced and should remain in all her glory.

I fear that we are seeing a professionalising of control—the turning of those who act as inspectors of regimes into managers. The risk then is that the inspector is drawn into an overall embrace which would be very unhealthy for the whole of our criminal justice system.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Chan

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Stern for securing this debate and for inviting me to participate in it.

My interest in tonight's debate is related to my membership of the Sentencing Advisory Panel that advises the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I have also recently visited Walton Prison in Liverpool. When one reads the reports of what happens in prison—this was evident from my visit to Walton Prison—one has no doubt whatever that prisoners are vulnerable people whose freedom our criminal justice system removes in order to punish but also to rehabilitate them so that when the time comes for them to return to the community they are better citizens.

The noble Lord, Lord Corbett, mentioned the report of bullying and violence in prison in Liverpool. I saw something of that although when I asked about it I was informed that it was not common. Walton Prison contained significant numbers of black and ethnic minority prisoners. I have no doubt that they were subject to racist abuse as that is what they whispered in my ear. There is no doubt whatever that a separate and independent prison inspectorate service is absolutely essential to uncover those kinds of problems and the conditions that exist in our prisons. We need to maintain the high standards for which our prison system, and in particular our inspectorate, are noted.

The area of my greatest concern, and where I pay greatest tribute to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons, is that of prison health. If it were not for independent, unannounced inspections, with inspectors who can report directly to the Minister, how would we know when treatment is required for our prison population, particularly as in some prisons 40 per cent of prisoners need mental health care? We now have the useful situation whereby the NHS supplies trained personnel to treat and manage certain prisoners. I believe that in future those prisoners will not be put into prison as we shall have better ways of looking after them within the National Health Service. The use of the health service to relieve overcrowding in prisons is of great benefit. As regards the treatment of offenders under Drug Testing and Treatment Orders, if we did not have independent scrutiny, would that provision deteriorate?

The courts do not impose sufficient community sentences on young offenders. That is without doubt a particularly important issue. The Esmée Fairburn Foundation's report stated that that was probably due to poor communication between courts and probation services. If that is the case, I am sure that it can be uncovered through independent inspection.

I conclude by wholeheartedly supporting my noble friend Lady Stern in this very important issue.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, there are few Members of this House who can speak with more authority on a matter of this kind than the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. Her extraordinarily effective period as the leader of NACRO and all she has done since, gives her the kind of experience and insight which should be at a premium. I am sure that the Minister will have listened very carefully to all that she said.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester was making his remarks about the awfulness of prison and the conversion that happens to people who become exposed to it, I was reminded of a conversation that I had recently with a chief superintendent of police who was retiring after a very important career in that service. He was expressing his anguish and concern about the very issues that preoccupy us this evening.

He made a very interesting observation. He said, "My experience is that when the prisoner stands in front of the judge and he is sentenced, that is a terribly lonely moment in anybody's life. Some prisoners carry it off with bravado, some seem less affected than others, but it is in fact a terribly lonely moment". He said, "That's the very time when there should be somebody standing at his elbow saying, 'Right, old chap, what are we going to do now to rebuild?'".

What we all know is that the Prison Service is not yet delivering in terms of that philosophy because rehabilitation matters in terms of civilised values and for humanitarian reasons. But if I dare say so, rehabilitation matters tremendously for economic reasons because it is sheer madness to go on tolerating the level of re-offending we see in society because somehow our Prison Service has proved itself unable successfully to complete the task on the scale on which it should be undertaken.

I have had experiences in the past few years which have strengthened my own convictions about these issues. As I have said in the House before, I am coming to the end of a very interesting learning period as national president of the YMCA, which works with young offenders in prison. In the past year, as a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which draws membership from this House and another place, I have been involved in the report on deaths in custody, which has taken us on visits to a good number of prisons and detention centres.

When I reflect on those two experiences I see countervailing realities. On the one hand, I despair at the number of suicides, the level of self-harm and the despair that that represents. I worry about the lack of adequate educational facilities. I am concerned that not only young people, but older ones as well, are going out ill-prepared to meet the challenge of making a positive contribution in society.

On the other hand, I have seen some dedicated people within the Prison Service. I have met some of the finest people within that service, desperately struggling against the odds and wanting to change. I have not heard one of them in private conversation make anything but positive observations about the role of an independent chief inspector who can bring judgment, objectivity and enlightenment to the task and who can strengthen the position of those struggling within the service to improve the situation. I believe that to remove the independence and robustness, as the right reverend Prelate put it, of an independent inspectorate would be to undermine and betray those who are trying to build for the future.

There are, of course, other observations. Any of us who has had any experience of institutions knows that closed institutions become cosy. They have their own culture. It is important for a voice to ask whether one is achieving the objectives that one should achieve. One does not need to ask just how far one is administering, how far one is keeping the lid on it and how far one is keeping scandal out of the public eye, but one needs to know how far one is achieving the objective of rehabilitation and positive citizenship. That is the tremendous contribution that successive chief inspectors and the inspectorate have brought to the task.

I conclude by saying that I do not always find myself in total agreement with everything my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale says on this subject or sometimes on other subjects. I also enjoy listening to what he says, because he puts his points provocatively and strongly. Tonight I found myself, if anything, in 200 per cent agreement with what he said. This is the very time at which we should be talking about strengthening the independence of the inspectorate and the role of the chief inspector. For any rumours to circulate about any other possibility is distressing.

Therefore, I hope that my noble friend the Minister, who is a very able and distinguished Minister, will not give us any generous, but equivocal, language about the future of this matter, will not deploy all her legal and professional skills in keeping us at peace, but will give us an unequivocal, straightforward assurance that we shall have an independent inspectorate, a chief inspector who will report directly to the Minister and that nothing will undermine the battle for progress and enlightenment in the Prison Service.

8.27 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Stern for her timely Question. For many years I was a member of a board of visitors—now called independent monitoring boards—at a young offender institution. The appalling situation of the racial incidents at Feltham young offender institution has sickened me and is one of the many reasons why the robustly independent voice of prison inspectors should not be endangered with plans to create a merged inspection team, covering the whole criminal justice system. To put a racist skinhead with a history of violence alone in a cell with an Asian inmate seems more than unwise and for prison officers to handcuff a young man and smear him in boot polish is bullying of the first order.

I read in the press that two Home Secretaries failed to act decisively on lay visitors' concerns about frequent suicide bids, squalor and mismanagement at Feltham going back to before 1996. I take it that the lay visitors mentioned were members of the board of visitors who, each year, send a report to the Home Secretary.

It is most frustrating for members of monitoring boards if their concerns are not adhered to. The boards are made up of a variety of people, many of whom are magistrates who give their time freely to try to see that all is well at the prison establishments that they serve. They do rota visits and interview inmates and can pick up all sorts of worrying situations and vibes. It is of the greatest concern if there are cover-ups and if inmates, many of whom are the most deprived and difficult members of society, are put at unnecessary risks from other inmates and bullying prison officers.

Prisons cover so many different categories of person: remand prisoners; murderers, drug addicts; alcoholics; women; children; babies; burglars; driving offenders; rapists; fraudsters; sexual offenders; young; old; disabled. In fact there can be anyone from all parts of the world. There is the prison estate, the closed and open establishments, education and health. The prison inspectors have a great deal to inspect if they are to do a thorough and comprehensive job.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers, has warned that the scale of inspections of individual prisons could be reduced if a merger takes place of the whole criminal justice system. She said, and I agree, that it is a "critical human rights safeguard" that the prison inspectors have the ability and resources to go into any prison at any time without warning and that they remain sharply focused on inspecting individual places of custody. There is so much to cover.

Crime reduction and community safety are of vital importance, especially now that we must put up with increased drug and alcohol abuse in the community, but prisons are a different matter. The one category that perhaps should be brought in closer to the prison inspectorate is the probation service, as this would help with rehabilitation in the community as regards, for example, tagging and community work. A close link with prisons would be useful, but the inspectorate for prisons must be independent above all else. I hope that the Minister will give us a satisfactory reply tonight.

8.32 p.m.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, on asking this key question. It gives me enormous pleasure to pay special tribute to my noble friend Lord Merlyn-Rees, for he is the ultimate forefather of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the prisons inspectorate. It was he who, in November 1978, set up the May committee of inquiry into the organisation of the Prison Service. The May committee reported after the general election of 1979, and in April 1980 the Conservative Home Secretary, Mr William Whitelaw, accepted its recommendations for an inspectorate of prisons. He later announced the appointment of the first HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The initial 1981 report of the Chief Inspector of Prisons gave a succinct summary of the May committee's deliberations and recommendations about prison inspection, which are still highly relevant. His report said: The Chief Inspector was a member of the Prisons Board and inspections were therefore performed as a management task with correspondingly limited terms of reference, and reports were presented to the Board: they were not published. May saw a need to separate the inspectorial from the management function and to promote openness, as the means of providing an independent and authoritative check on the work that the Prison Service did on behalf of the public". I particularly stress those words, an independent and authoritative check". Those are the words from the beginning. The Chief Inspector went on: Thus in paragraph 5.61 of their report the Committee concluded 'we have no doubt both that the Prison Service would benefit from and that public sentiment requires that … the Prison Service should be opened up to as wide an audience as possible. We therefore think that there should be a system of inspection of the Prison Service which … should be distanced from it as far as may be practicable'". He then said: The committee went on to recommend that the Chief Inspector be a Crown appointment answering directly the Home Secretary with a small staff of appropriate experience, and proposed that their reports be published". The Home Secretary gave the chief inspector terms of reference, and in 1982, the chief inspector and the terms of reference alike were enshrined in an amendment to the Prisons Act 1952, as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, reminded us.

The pith of the amendment was that the chief inspector was to inspect prisons and, in particular, report to the Secretary of State on the treatment of prisoners and conditions in prisons.

The system has now worked splendidly for a quarter of a century. When one reflects on the era of the late Judge Tumim, of Sir David Ramsbotham and now of Anne Owers, they have more than passed the May committee's test of, an independent and authoritative check". They have reported fearlessly on the treatment of prisoners and conditions in prisons and have been a shining example. Indeed, on 28 June last year, my noble friend the Minister, in reply to a question about Anne Owers said that, the chief inspector does an excellent job".—[Official Report, 28/6/04; col. 8.] I believe that she spoke for the whole House.

However, storm clouds are gathering over the chief inspector. In another place, in a Question for Written Answer, Mrs Curtis-Thomas asked, what assessment has been made of the possible merits of a merger between the inspectorates of constabulary, prisons and probation?". Paul Goggins, the prisons Minister, answered: The Government will consult early in the new year on more coherent arrangements for the end to end inspection of the criminal justice system. There is recognition of the need for inspection to better reflect the way services are delivered and to ensure a user perspective is properly built into the process".—[Official Report. Commons, 15/11/04; c.l 105W.] I suggest that the present system of prison inspection is not only coherent but admirable. The user perspective of the prisoners is admirably built into the process and nothing should be done which would, to use the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, dilute or erode the present time-tested system.

I hope that during this consultation the Government will ask three key questions. How would merging the prisons inspectorate with other inspectorates improve the inspection of prisons? How would merging the prisons inspectorate with other inspectorates improve the lot of prisoners? Above all, is not there a danger under both heads of a grim deterioration?

8.38 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, I hope that I may be permitted to intervene briefly in the gap. I have two reasons for wanting to do so.

First, I knew Judge Tumim for very many years, and I have known for a number of years General Ramsbotham. Neither of them could be said to have been drawn from the ranks of the anarchist hard left. They were drawn from the ranks—which thank goodness are fairly plentiful in this country—of people of utter determination to do their jobs fearlessly, and people of courage and integrity.

My second reason is that I have learnt in a lurid career the importance of perception, and the way in which it can take root and become just as important, if not more important, than reality. If Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons is to be merged with other inspectorates of the criminal justice system, and if he or she is to report to an official rather than the Home Secretary, the perception will be that this is a deliberate downgrading of that function and that it derives from the discomfiture of the executive at the trenchant terms in which successive inspectors have expressed their anger at the way services are delivered". I hope that the Minister will find time to say whether she accepts that those perceptions will arise, and if so, what steps the Government can possibly take to dispel them.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for this important debate. Noble Lords are right to compliment her. She is renowned not only here, but internationally, for some very important work on prison reform. Two years ago I went to Kyrgyzstan, right on the border of China, and in a remote place asked to visit a particular prison, thinking that I would probably be the first westerner ever to set my foot in that prison. Alas, I was told that the noble Baroness had already been there.

We expect the annual report of the prison inspectors to be published next week. We can only speculate what it will contain but I hope that, as in the past, it will go some way to establishing confidence in our penal institutions. Inspectors highlight what needs to be done to ensure that the rights and dignity of inmates are not tampered with and that, more importantly, prisons reflect the civilised values we all cherish.

The relationship between prison inspectors and the Home Office has never been cordial. That has been very much reflected in the contribution of a number of noble Lords today. I always value it, because that tension allows us to be able to evaluate not only what the Home Office says, but what the independent inspectors tell us. They are right to compliment their predecessors, Judge Stephen Tumim and Sir David Ramsbotham. I also thank Anne Owers and her team for undertaking some very difficult tasks in the area. The public have a right to know what goes on behind those walls; the inspectors provide us with that information.

Since an independent prisons inspector was first established following the May inquiry into the Prison Service more than 20 years ago, the inspectorate has proved an important driving force for prison reform. That has been partly as a result of its inspections of individual prisons. On every inspection, the inspectors have identified examples of good and bad practice, and their inspections and follow-up visits have resulted in many specific improvements in response to their findings and recommendations for change. For example, follow-up inspections of 22 prisons in 2002–03 found that those prisons had implemented a total of 1,500 recommendations for change. That is a very impressive record.

The second way in which the inspectorate has helped to create change is through its thematic inspections on themes such as sanitation in prisons, life-sentence prisoners, suicides in prisons, young offenders, female prisoners and many other issues. Those have helped to focus the attention of Ministers, officials, policymakers, politicians and the public on the need for strategies designed to tackle deficiencies in key areas of policy and practice across the prison system.

A third and key way in which prisons inspectors help to reinforce the pressure for change is by gaining national and local media publicity for the reports of their inspections. Publicity for reports of the appalling conditions which inspectors discovered at times at prisons such as Holloway, Brixton, Birmingham, Wormwood Scrubs, Feltham and Portland helped to arouse the public conscience and increased the pressure for a rapid improvement in unacceptable and uncivilised conditions. As a result, conditions in those establishments have significantly improved in response to the inspectorate's findings.

It would be deeply regrettable if either the effectiveness of the inspectorate or its readiness to speak out and draw public attention to squalid and uncivilised prison conditions were reduced by a merger which blunted the prison inspectorate's cutting edge. That could happen if it resulted in the loss of an inspecting body with a clear and specific focus on the prison system.

The arguments for a single combined inspectorate covering the whole criminal justice system revolve largely round the need to ensure that the system is operating well as a whole and that it is scrutinised as a whole, not just in different silos or compartments. It is certainly important to ensure, for example, that the rehabilitation of offenders is seamless, as prisoners pass through custody and out into the community under probation service supervision. To take another crucial example, it is vital to ensure that criminal justice agencies work together to tackle institutional racism and to promote race equality across the criminal justice system.

As president of NACRO and chair of its race issues advisory committee, I have been at the forefront of that body's work in this respect and we are constantly pressed for this seamless and integrated approach. However, this does not mean that five separate inspectorates will necessarily operate better if they are combined into a single body. It certainly means that the criminal justice inspectorates must work together closely to ensure that key changes are promoted effectively across the whole criminal justice and penal system. I therefore welcome the fact that joint working—and, particularly, joint thematic inspections—has become a common way of working for the Inspectorate of Prisons.

However, the Inspectorate of Prisons in particular owes its track record of effectiveness in promoting changes largely to its sharp focus on prisons and prison conditions, as well as to the status and visibility of a series of high profile chief inspectors of prisons.

In essence, I pose three questions to the Minister. First, would she ensure that in any future arrangement, the accountability of the inspectorate to the Secretary of State is not compromised? Secondly, will she ensure that any legislation to establish a new arrangement receives parliamentary scrutiny? Thirdly, will she ensure that the independence of the inspectorate will not be altered by such legislation?

8.47 p.m.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, the House must be grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for initiating this debate—bringing, as she does, unrivalled experience of the subject.

If I was required to suggest recommended reading for this debate by a listener or reader, it would be a publication by each of the two most recent holders of the office of chief inspector. The first is a book written by Sir David Ramsbotham in his retirement, entitled Prison-Gate —which has already had a plug from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. This book gives an uncompromisingly frank account of his experience over five years as the chief inspector. My other recommended reading would be the annual report for 2003—and, if the reader has time, for the previous year as well—of the present Chief Inspector of Prisons, Anne Owers. These reports provide unrivalled encapsulated examples, for all to see, of what the work of the chief inspector is about in a day-to-day context. I see this work in its simplest form as unrestricted access to the Home Secretary and unrestricted access to any part of the prison regime.

In my view these publications make the strongest case for the retention in its present form of the brief and terms of reference of the office of chief inspector. What is the chief inspector faced with? In the first place, there is a prison population at the last count, on 7 January this year of 73,085. That is 141 per thousand of the population; one of the highest figures in western Europe, compared with 93 for France and 98 for Germany. This may be in part due to the sentencing regime in this country which it is not the brief of this debate to discuss, but it is a fact of life which the prison administration has to face.

With that comes a sophisticated hierarchy among inmates. It has been well said that prisons are the universities of crime, where, putting it in respectable terms, new ideas and techniques are being continually honed by a continually changing intake of students with the end aim of refining the art of criminality and also, let us be clear, bending the prison system to the wishes of the godfathers among the inmates.

Nowhere has this been shown more dramatically than in revelations in the last few days of goings-on in Feltham and Liverpool. This was, as someone remarked to me, "no bad thing, for at least it has dispelled the image attractive to a certain potential type of criminal that prison is a soft touch". Of course, overarching all of this is the appalling problem of overcrowding and drugs.

If I digress, it is only to remind your Lordships that the prison regime is inevitably a confrontational one, however it is dressed up. Indeed it is not a soft touch, and it is this environment which is so important a part of the chief inspector's work.

The Prison Service does not have a good name with the public, whose attitude, like that towards the work of undertakers, is "the less we know the better". But this is a dedicated service, comprising in the overwhelming majority of cases, regarding both management and staff, totally committed individuals. That point was made with great emphasis to me by Sir David Ramsbotham while he was still in post and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, emphasised that, too.

But there will inevitably be abuses, some inherited from years of past practices, some, particularly those which are not mainstream, which have slipped in—often through lack of resources. A case in point is education and training, about which Anne Owers was scathing in her last report. There would be little disagreement among prison governors that he or she occupies a lonely role and needs a totally independent person to monitor and, in many instances, to be his or her supporter, so often in appallingly trying circumstances. That point was made very forcefully by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. In this, as the noble Baroness has reminded us, the chief inspector has an invaluable complement in the independent monitoring boards.

As the noble Baroness has also reminded us, this country is still the envy of the world in the integrity of the public servants it produces and there could be no better example than in the sequence of successive Chief Inspectors of Prisons. But the very width of demand on the services of the chief inspector is a herculean task that has been faced by successive inspectors in their work, not least in terms of time and resources. For example, many of your Lordships speaking tonight took part last year in an excellent debate on the role of women in prisons;—a point that was also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy—when speaker after speaker highlighted the particular problems faced by women prisoners. Then it occurred to me that if there was a chief inspector solely of women's prisons, even with that narrower remit, there would be more than enough to occupy that individual. But as we know, this is but one aspect, albeit a surpassingly important one, of the myriad problems within the regime that the chief inspector needs to address.

This is the challenge for every chief inspector. The role must be totally focused—unfettered, for example, by intermediate reporting lines or overlapping briefs with one or more of the four other criminal justice inspectorates. In short, the role should be unfettered by anything that will prejudice the admirable line of communication and freedom of action which the chief inspector currently enjoys. Our admiration for the huge list of successes in improvements in conditions, and the elimination of abuses achieved in the past, and by the present chief inspector, should be put on record.

In conclusion, I refer to the foreword in Anne Owers' report for 2003, published at the beginning of last year. She refers to the assurance that she received from the Minister, that she may continue to use her own criteria and methodology, that there should be no less regular inspections than at present, that she should retain the power to make regular inspections and, most importantly, report only and directly to the Home Secretary. Perhaps I may I quote her comments after that. She stated: This is welcome; but it will nevertheless be important to examine any proposed changes to ensure that they fully reflect these principles, protect independence and provide a more effective, rather than simply a more expedient structure". The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, asked the Minister five questions. I could do no better and we await her reply.

8.53 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, on initiating this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester rightly said of her that she is the chief inspector of our conscience in relation to this matter. Having heard the several contributions to this debate, she has a number of able deputies; and the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, even has aspirations for her pre-eminent place.

It is clear that we can all agree that independent inspection in the criminal justice system is an important driver for ensuring the safe and proper delivery of services. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester was right to say that removal of liberty is an awesome endeavour, and one should do it judiciously, carefully, and with proper restraint.

It was correct that my noble friend Lord Acton should have reminded us of the history and he placed proper emphasis on the word "authoritative". Perhaps I may reassure the House that I do not dissent from anything said in that regard. I hope that I will be able to give the House much of the assurance that it seeks. I was very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for reasserting the assurances that have already been given to Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.

The Government are reviewing inspection arrangements across the public sector, to ensure that all inspection is efficient, effective, offers value for money, and does not impose unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on frontline staff. As part of this general review, we intend to consult on different, more coherent arrangements for the end-to-end inspection of the criminal justice system. The consultation, however, will include proposals for structural reform and outline the advantages of merging the criminal justice inspectorates.

Impartial and rigorous inspection plays an absolutely vital role in maintaining public trust and confidence in the criminal justice system and in improving the delivery of public services. It was right therefore that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, should make reference to perception.

Inspection reform will not undermine the efficiency or efficacy of inspection, nor will it reduce the independence of the current inspectorate regime. Inspection should be independent of service providers, so that inspectors are free to make objective assessments about the services they inspect.

It is important to be clear that the Government have not taken decisions on the purposes and functions of any new inspection arrangements. We want to hear views, prior to agreeing the detailed design of the new regime. I therefore particularly welcome the views I have had the privilege of listening to tonight.

I agree with my noble friends Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, Lord Judd and Lord Acton, and indeed the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, on these issues. The current inspectorate has done an excellent job in driving up performance. In particular, the prisons inspectorate has been a key agent of change in improving the decency of prisons. The police inspectorate's assessment of police performance, added to the information provided by the Police Standards Unit, means that we benefit from a definitive, up-to-date appraisal of how forces are serving the public.

It is important, however, that our inspection regime reflects the changes in the criminal justice system and does not support old systems and structures. The Government have introduced fundamental changes to joint working across the criminal justice process. They have established the 42 local criminal justice boards, to bring together the chief officers of the criminal justice agencies—to which the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, has made reference. They are accountable for local targets and are working together to improve the whole of the criminal justice system in their area. The local boards have become a landmark in developing solutions across the whole of the system, and we want the inspectorates to help share this good practice.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, rightly alluded to the need to identify that only those who really need to go to prison should go there. The better use of community service so as better to address the underlying causes of the offending behaviour is important if we are to reduce the level of recidivism.

All of that could be contributed to by the partnership working, and an inspectorate which is able to respond to those new partnership ways of working. We want inspection to support those recent changes to joint working and, in particular, to focus attention on the joins between the criminal justice agencies, to ensure that they are jointly focused on striving to provide a high-quality service for the public; that everything possible is done to ensure that crime is tackled; that victims and witnesses are supported; and that offenders are punished—but, yes, rehabilitated.

At the moment, the inspection regime is limited because the five statutory remits do not allow for efficient cross-criminal-justice inspection. However, I, too, would like to commend the efforts that have been made to date to undertake the thematic inspections to which reference has already been made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and others.

We also want to reduce the burden of inspection on inspected agencies and ensure that there is no unnecessary duplication in the system, especially between the different scrutiny bodies. We are committed to ensuring that frontline staff are focused on delivering effective services and not on responding to a plethora of unnecessary or duplicative requests for information.

Perhaps I may now turn specifically to the inspection of the treatment and conditions of those people in custody, which is an issue that has dominated today's debate. Let me make it clear that the Government absolutely accept the need for independent inspection of prisons and other places of detention, so I specifically include, in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, all those other institutions that are currently subject to inspection.

It is right—the history teaches us—that in closed communities of this kind, it is easy for abuses of power to develop and take root unless there is a powerful, independent and external check on what is going on. Sometimes, that makes life difficult for the government of the day, and it is right that it should. I agree absolutely, and endorse the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, and my noble friend Lady Kennedy, in that regard. I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty's Government value—rightly value—the acuity of that examination. Therefore, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, was right to make that assessment.

So there is no difference of view on the need to maintain a strong, independent inspection of prison and prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners. Therefore, the Government are determined that whatever the future inspection arrangements, inspection of prisons must continue to be independent of those running the service. Inspection must continue to focus on the decent treatment of prisoners and their human rights, which means that inspection must focus on prisoners' experience of being prisoners, not just paperwork and processes.

To safeguard against abuse, inspectors should continue to have the right to make unannounced inspections, as now, whenever they deem it appropriate. To be effective, the inspectorate must have staff that know the prison world and have the skills to probe and challenge what they find. Finally, the inspectorate must continue to have the right to put its findings direct to the Home Secretary and to publish its findings, as now.

We believe that all those features can be incorporated into new inspection arrangements. Further, it is essential that they are so incorporated as a fundamental safeguard against poor treatment or abuse in this very special area of the criminal justice system and as an assurance to the Home Secretary, who carries personal responsibility for those matters, as well as others concerned with the conditions of our prisoners, including many in this House and the public at large.

Of course, there are questions about how precisely we will build those features into any new inspection arrangements. It is precisely in order to address such issues fully and squarely, in public, that we are launching the forthcoming consultation exercise. I have been listening very carefully to the concerns expressed in the House today and will continue to do so.

I would ask noble Lords to read the consultation document that we will shortly produce. Noble Lords will find that we have gone to great lengths to accommodate the points that have been made in the debate today. Designing a new inspection regime presents us with a variety of challenges, not least because the inspection regime being examined supports three government departments and a number of agencies undertaking work both within and without the criminal justice process. We do not want simply to merge the functions of the five inspectorates. That would waste an opportunity radically to re-examine the purpose and functions of inspection.

We want to ensure that the new inspection arrangements act as a catalyst to help the agencies inspected to improve their performance, individually and as they work together to improve the criminal justice system as a whole. We want the inspectorate to deliver independent judgments, reporting in public and providing assurance to Ministers and the public about the safe and proper delivery of services.

My noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws was right to raise the history, in particular, of the difficulties that we have had with young offender institutions and with women prisoners. We have fewer women in prison today than we had a year ago. After the six tragic deaths in Styal, my honourable friend Paul Goggins commissioned the ombudsman to produce a report, and he will investigate all the deaths. We understand the importance of that scrutiny.

The consultation process that we are embarking on will instigate a debate on the independence and accountability of the new arrangements. It will re-examine the purpose of inspection in the criminal justice system, asking for views on what functions should be inspected. In doing so, it will keep high on its agenda the question of how the independence, integrity and effectiveness of the inspection of the treatment and condition of those in custody can be maintained, with full regard to the special considerations that I outlined today.

I hope that I have been able to reassure noble Lords that we are fully conscious of the issues. I look forward to hearing more from all concerned on the detail of how we should go about addressing those issues, as I believe that I will. I am confident of that because of the energy that has been demonstrated in the past by each Member who has participated in this debate—the noble Baronesses, Lady Masham of Ilton and Lady Prashar, my noble friend Lord Acton, who sits so sternly looking at me, the right reverend Prelate, my noble and trusted friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws and all who have spoken. This matter will not be left alone. Confident that your Lordships will do your duty, I hope that you will allow me to do mine by sitting down.

House adjourned at eight minutes past nine o'clock.