Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs First Report



Duties of the Northern Ireland Boards of Visitors

37. In our original report, we recommend that the duties of the Northern Ireland Boards of Visitors should cease to include jurisdiction over matters of prison discipline. In its Response, the Government stated that "the removal of the Boards of Visitors' role in adjudications will be implemented, as soon as possible, by amendment to the Prison Rules".[66] We were therefore surprised when, in its October 1999 memorandum, the Prison Service stated that implementation of the recommendation was still under consideration, as a number of potential difficulties had been identified.[67] This matter was also raised in the course of the debate in Westminster Hall.[68]

38. We were thus pleased to learn, in September 2000, that the outstanding policy issues had been resolved and that secondary legislation to effect the removal of Boards of Visitors from the adjudication process was to come into effect on 2 October 2000, concurrently with the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998.[69] The Prison Service subsequently told us that arrangements had been put in place for matters which would previously have fallen to Boards of Visitors to be referred to the Royal Ulster Constabulary for investigation.[70] While we welcome the belated implementation of our recommendation, we regret that this took some 18 months from a Government undertaking to implement it "as soon as possible". In future cases where a commitment of this nature has been given, we recommend that, if difficulties are subsequently identified, Ministers take the initiative over informing us, and do not leave us to discover the change by chance.

The Prison Inspectorate

39. We originally recommended that the inspection of the Northern Ireland Prison Service should be a formal responsibility of one of HM Chief Inspectors of Prisons. We note that approval in principle has now been given for the formalisation of the role of the Inspectorate in Northern Ireland. However, the role of the Inspectorate in England and Wales is currently under review and, as the Prison Service points out in its evidence, the Criminal Justice Review has recommended the establishment of a Criminal Justice Inspectorate in Northern Ireland.[71]

40. There is clearly a risk that reorganisation of the arrangements for inspections may interfere with the inspection arrangements themselves. We were therefore pleased to learn that the review in England and Wales was not holding up any inspections of prisons in Northern Ireland and that the Prison Service was keen to have a formalised régime "at an early stage".[72] We therefore hope that the Government will make an early announcement on its preferred option for the structure of prison inspection arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Review of Prisons legislation

41. The Government has decided that, given the changes both in the Prison Service and in the environment in which it operates, the time may be right for a review of prisons legislation, a substantial proportion of which dates from 1953.[73] Both the Prison Officers' Association (Northern Ireland)[74] and the Prison Governors' Association (Northern Ireland)[75] have been invited to take part in this review, as have a number of interest groups in Northern Ireland.[76] The Prison Service hopes to be in a position to bring forward a completely new legislative framework in the next Parliamentary session, if a slot in the legislative programme is available.

42. The Prison Service has already completed a review of its overall approach to prisoner grievance procedures. As a result, it intends to create the position of Prisons Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, another of the recommendations of our original Report, in the course of the review and revision of prisons legislation.[77] We welcome both the review of prisons legislation applicable in Northern Ireland and the acceptance of the proposal to create a Prison Ombudsman, thus bringing Northern Ireland into line with other United Kingdom jurisdictions. We recommend that the Government make every effort to include the relevant legislation in its programme for the 2001-02 Session.

66  First Special Report, Session 1998-99 (HC 299). Back

67  HC 866-i, Ev. p. 3. Back

68  Official Report, 27 January 2000, Vol. 343, Col. 111, 134 WH. Back

69  Ev. p. 5. Back

70  Ev. p. 3. Back

71  Ev. p. 3. Back

72  Q 52-53. Back

73  Ev. p. 3. The Quinquennial Review recommended some legislative changes (see Stage One Report, para 5.4.12). Back

74  Q 101. Back

75  Q 142- 144. Back

76  Q 49. Back

77  Ev. p. 3 and Q 50-51. Back

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Prepared 28 February 2001