Select Committee on Public Administration Memoranda


Submitted by The Association of Members of Boards of Visitors

  Our President, Sir Stephen Tumim, has passed to me your letter to him of 25 May 1999, concerning the above Bill. Having considered your request for information at our recent Executive meeting, I am replying on behalf of the Association of Members of Boards of Visitors (AMBoV).

  I should say at once that we are, in general terms, in favour of freedom of information both in relation to prisons and Boards of Visitors. We think that, with appropriate safeguards for necessary security and confidentiality, freedom of information is likely to bring many benefits to all those who live and work in prisons. The threat of disclosure and review of information is often, in our experience, a spur towards better decision making.

  At present restrictions on information in prisons vary from prison to prison and department to department. In some prisons the Governor seems willing freely to disclose information to Boards of Visitors; in others information is treated with the sort of Masonic secrecy which would be excessive even in MI5. For instance, about four years ago the Board of Visitors at HMP Belmarsh was prevented from having access to the internal report into the suicide of a prisoner, a decision which the then Director General upheld on the spurious basis that the report was not a "record of the prison" and was thus exempt from disclosure to the Board. A Freedom of Information Act would, we hope, improve the powers of Boards of Visitors to conduct investigations in prisons; it would also enable prisoners to get information for themselves.

  We recognise, however, that there are a number of potential effects which freedom of information is likely to have in our prisons:

    —  It is likely to increase the amount of administration in prisons, both in order to ensure that minutes, records and other documentary information are satisfactory, and in order to provide information in accordance with the provisions of the Act. So far as Boards of Visitors are concerned much of that administration will have to be carried out by our clerks, for the volunteers who man Boards could not reasonably be expected to do it. So far as we can predict, the amount of time for which many Boards have clerks each week will probably have to be increased to cope with the demands of freedom of information.

    —  That increase in administration will inevitably require an increase in resources, both in terms of manpower and finance. We are concerned that money necessary to fund freedom of information should not be taken from other Prison Service budgets. It would be a retrograde step if freedom of information in prisons were only obtained at the expense of a reduction in the quality of the regimes. (Prisoners are unlikely to think much of freedom of information if it causes them to be locked in the cells for longer or leads to a reduction in education classes.) So far as Boards are concerned if the additional resources are not provided we fear that will affect the other services (such as rota inspection visits and complaints panels) which we provide to prisons.

    —  Freedom of information seems likely to affect litigation against the Prison Service in two opposing ways. First, it may reduce it because some prisoners currently appear to use the legal system as a way of obtaining information, which they cannot get by any other route. Secondly, it is likely to increase it because information will enable prisoners to take legal action where, at present, their ignorance of the true position often prevents them from doing so. Thus, for instance, a prisoner held on the Segregation Unit improperly (because, for instance, the necessary forms have not been completed and may be able to sue the Prison Service for that breach of his rights. Since freedom of information will become law at about the same time as the Human Rights Act (which will, on its own, revolutionise prisoners' rights) we predict that the amount of litigation by prisoners against the Prison Service (and Boards of Visitors) will increase substantially during the next few years.

  We think that it is important that certain safeguards are present in the Act, namely:

    Security:   The demands of security are currently used to prevent much disclosure in our prisons. Security is, of course, important but it is not the only important part of the regime. We think that the demands of security and freedom of information can and should be balanced. That balance requires, however, that there will be some situations in which prisoners should not have access to files (for instance, because it may identify someone who is providing information to the prison authorities). That does not mean that there should be a blanket ban on disclosure of all information relating to security: for, to allow that would make a major inroad into freedom of information in prisons. There are clearly some practices which will have to change. At present, for instance, prisoners may be placed on the "E" List if they have escaped, tried to escape, or evinced an intention to try to escape. Inclusion on that list leads to major restrictions being placed on the prisoner: for instance, he must be accompanied by an officer wherever he goes, he cannot be employed in most workshops and there are many prisons to which he cannot be moved. In practice, the reasons why prisoners are placed on that list are often kept secret from the prisoner and he is, therefore, unable effectively to challenge those reasons. In consequence, prisoners may be kept on the list because of rumour, innuendo or pure malice on the part of fellow prisoners or prison staff. We would like to see secret areas like this opened up to the scrutiny which freedom of information would allow.

    Confidentiality:   There is some information, mostly of a personal or medical nature, which is confidential and personal and which it might be appropriate to protect from disclosure. For instance, it would not, we think, be appropriate for the personal details (for instance, his medical history or the address of his family) of a notorious prisoner to be disclosed to the press or any other third party.

  One final matter concerns us. We understand that in other areas in which freedom of information has been passed into law (for instance, under the Children Act) practices have sometimes developed by which either decisions or the reasons underlying them are not fully written down. Thus, decisions are discussed and taken at informal, un-minuted meetings and a formal meeting is then held at which the formal decision is taken without any record being made of the reasoning behind that decision. Alternatively, no document recording the decision is every made. There is clearly a danger that such practices would develop once freedom of information is imposed in prisons. In order to prevent this happening, so far as possible we must ensure that existing rules about filling in forms and recording decisions are maintained and strengthened.

June 1999

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