HC Deb 23 May 1995 vol 260 cc544-5W
Mr. McLoughlin

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has reviewed the role of boards of visitors. [26103]

Mr. Michael Forsyth

On 1 February 1995 I made an announcement in the House that I would conduct a review of the role of boards of visitors. My right hon. and learned Friend and I place great value on the work of boards and on the participation of lay people from the local community in the prison system. There has been considerable change within the Prison Service, particularly after it became an agency, which has placed new and increased demands on boards of visitors. The objective of the review was to find ways to strengthen the role of boards and help them undertake their duties more effectively.

My review group consisted of Mrs. Lindsay Addyman JP, Mrs Mary Bentall OBE JP, Mr. Colin Edwards, Ms Freda Evans, Mrs Denise Hurst, Mr. Alfred Mossop JP, Mrs Sylvia Peach JP, Mr. Jim Romer, and Mrs Judy Veale OBE JP, all of whom are current or past members of boards of visitors, and Judge Stephen Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. The governor of HM prison, Maidstone was co-opted. Support was provided by a small team of officials.

Written representations within the terms of reference were invited by 3 March from a wide variety of groups interested in penal affairs including boards of visitors, prison governors and others. I chaired a number of meetings during March and April at which the review group considered these representations and in the light of their own wide practical experience, developed the recommendations.

The main recommendations are that: the title "board of visitors" should be replaced by "advisory council"; a code of practice should be produced and all boards should follow it; a statement of purpose and a common constitution should be adopted by all boards; all training for new and experienced members and new chairmen should become mandatory; and a training-needs analysis should be completed; there should be a new elected body under the title "national advisory council" to represent to the Secretary of State matters of common concern to boards; there should be a director of boards, appointed by open competition, supported by a secretariat based in the Home Office; additional funds of about £300,000 per annum will be necessary; the director's role will be to provide support to boards and to enhance their performance of the watchdog role on behalf of ministers; the chairman and vice-chairman of a board should be appointed by the Secretary of State after they have been nominated by a secret ballot of its members; the role of the board chairman should be strengthened, his duties should include ensuring the best use of resources within a notional budget set by the Secretary of State, and agreeing with the governor (or prison director) in writing the level of administrative support required from the clerk to the board and other secretarial staff; and a 12-month probation period should be introduced for all new members; a new power should be introduced enabling the Secretary of State to suspend a member from duty as a matter of urgency; and objectives should be introduced for members and chairman together with a system of open appraisal.

One of the remarkable features of the review group was the unanimous agreement on the nature of the problems faced by boards and about their solutions. I am confident that the recommendations will command widespread support. The aim is to have them in place by January 1996.

Copies of the report of the review have been placed in the Library.