HC Deb 16 January 1995 vol 252 cc335-6W
Mr. Cox

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department (1) how many prisons the prisons ombudsman has visited since his appointment.

(2) what is the present address of the office of the prisons ombudsman; and what has been the total cost spent on furnishings and fittings at his office since his appointment;

(3) how many meetings the prisons ombudsman has had with (a) prison governors, (b) the board of prison visitors and (c) prison officers or members of the executive committee of the Prison Officers Association;

(4) what are the terms of reference of the appointment of the prisons ombudsman; and to whom he is directly repsonsible;

(5) how many complaints have been received from prison inmates by the prisons ombudsman since his appointment;

(6) what is his assessment of the role of the prisons ombudsman and members of boards of visitors at prisons in England and Wales; and if he will encourage a continuing relationship in their general discussion on matters relating to the Prison Service in England and Wales.

Mr. Michael Forsyth

The prison ombudsman was appointed to consider grievances submitted by individual prisoners who have failed to obtain satisfaction from the Prison Service's internal complaints system and, where necessary, to make recommendations to the Director General of the Prison Service or to the Home Secretary. A full job description is available in the Library. The post is independent of the Prison Service and the prison ombudsman is directly responsible to the Home Secretary.

By 11 January 1995, the prisons ombudsman had received 398 complaints since his office became operational on 24 October 1994. Boards of visitors have the role given to them by the Prison Rules 1964 as amended. Broadly, the task of boards is to look into the condition of prison premises, the administration of establishments and the treatment of prisoners. Boards report to the Secretary of State annually and must inform him immediately of any abuse which comes to their knowledge. They must visit establishments frequently, and have access to every part of a prison, to its records and to all prisoners. The prisons ombudsman can request reports from boards if he wishes, and may refer to them complaints suitable for local resolution with their help. Boards of visitors are left free to judge when their intervention in the grievance procedure is most effective.

The address of the prison ombudsman is St Vincent House, 30 Orange Street, London WC2 7HH. The cost of furnishings and fittings has been £17,417.

Since his appointment, the prisons ombudsman has visited 37 prisons. At each, he has met the governor and other governor grades, prison officers and representatives of the boards of visitors. He has also attended and addressed meetings of governors and their area managers and the boards of visitors' national conference. He was represented at the conference of the Association of Members of Boards of Visitors. He is planning to attend a board of visitors' training course. He has also met the chairman and general secretary of the Prison Officers Association.

The appointment of the ombudsman is not intended to replace the vital role of boards of visitors in any way. The functions of boards are set out in section 6(2) of the Prisons Act 1952, Prison Rules 1964 as amended and Youth Offender Institutions Rules 1988 as amended. Boards play a key role in the local monitoring of prisons in England and Wales and there are no plans to abolish or undermine their role. However, the prisons ombudsman may need to be in contact with boards as part of his investigation of specific complaints submitted to him by prisoners.

I have set up a review of the role of boards of visitors in order to look at the framework in which they operate and the relationship between them and the prisons ombudsman and HM inspectorate of prisons. I will most certainly want to encourage discussion of those matters in the context of my forthcoming review. The aim of my review is to enhance the vital work carried out by members of boards of visitors.