Prisons and Courts Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Prison Officers Association (POA) (PCB 04)

Prisons and Courts Bill

Government’s proposed new legislation contained within the Prisons and Courts Bill is intended to deliver on the prison reform commitments as set out in the Prison Safety and Reform White Paper.

Only 22 of 72 Clauses of the Bill are concerned with prison reform from the 256 paragraphs produced in the White Paper.

The POA notes the fact that 17 of these clauses enact new legislation for the Prison and Probation Ombudsman.

The POA sets out our opinions on these and the remaining 5 Clauses, as they affect prison reform.

Clause 1 Prisons: purpose, and role of Secretary of State

I ntroduces new clauses into the Prisons Act 1952, giving a statutory purpose for prisons to;

· Protect the public;

· Reform and rehabilitate offenders;

· Prepare prisoners for life outside prison; and

· Maintain an environment that is safe and secure.

What difference does the inclusion of the purpose for prisons in statute have to the delivery of safe, decent and secure prisons? The POA are unsure of how this change will make any positive impact to frontline delivery within our prisons.

It further requires the Secretary of State to report annually to Parliament on how each prison is performing in the new duties set out for them. How this provision actually makes the Secretary of State accountable for either the success or the failure of prisons is unclear. What sanctions are available to Parliament against the Secretary of State should a prison have been deemed to have failed? Who makes the decision on whether or not a prison has failed?

NOMS have published an annual report to Parliament for many years under its various guises. What is required from Parliament is, when the report does not show positive progress is being made, that the necessary remedial action is taken to improve the performance of the prison via Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons with oversight by the Justice Select Committees.

Clause 2 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector and Inspectorate of Prisons

This Clause, again, adds to the Prison Act 1952 and increases the remit of HMIP so, in addition to its focus on the treatment of prisoners, they will also be required to take into account the statutory purpose of prisons set out in the new Clause 1 when producing its inspection reports.

There is also a new requirement for the Secretary of State to respond to recommendations contained in an inspection report within 90 days of the publication of the report. This timescale may well mean that responses are only published 6 months after the inspection has taken place, which is in our view a n un satisfactory position.

Should the Chief Inspector have "significant concerns" he/she will be required to give an "urgent notification" to the Secretary of state and there will be a requirement for a response to be made within 28 days. Again this could lead to a situation where the time between an inspection taking place and the publication of the Governments response is unsatisfactorily long.

The legislation also provides HMIP with statutory powers to enter premises and to access any documents necessary for it to conduct inspections.

The POA believe the Chief Inspector of Prisons should have the same legislative powers as the Health and Safety Executive.

Clause 3 Minor and consequential amendments to Prison Act 1952

This clause makes necessary amendments to the 1952 Act to reflect the changes made by clauses 1 and 2 and corrects obsolete references to the "Prison Commissioners" in section 42 of that Act.

Clause 21 Interference with wireless telegraphy in prisons etc

The power for the Secretary of State to authorise governors to interfere with wireless telegraphy to disrupt unlawful mobile phone use in prisons was established in the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012. Clause 21 and Schedule 2 of this Act amends this provision to create a new power for the Secretary of State to a uthorise Public Communications P rovider s (PCPs) to undertake this on his/her behalf .

The use of illegally held mobile phone in prisons is quickly becoming an embarrassment for Government, the Ministry of Justice and NOMS. The POA have long championed the use of new proven technologies to block the use of mobile phones from within our prisons. Unfortunately, progress on delivery of these new technologies has been painfully slow. There is a clear need for this, the POA hope that this Clause will provide the impetus to deliver an end to the use of ALL mobile phones in prisons. This will, in our opinion, reduce criminal activity within our prisons and communities.

Clause 22 Testing prisoners for psychoactive substances

The increase seen in recent years in use of New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) in custody is already well publicised.

The Prisons Act 1952 provides prison officers with the power to test prisoners for controlled drugs for the purposes of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

Section 16A of the 1952 Act sets out the underlying power which allows a prison officer to require a prisoner to provide a urine sample to ascertain whether he or she has any "drug" in his /her body.

Under the current legislation, "drug" is defined to include any controlled drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, or any "specified drug," meaning any substance or product specified in the Prison Rules 1999. In relation to the Prison Rules 1999, rule 2 sets out the definition of "specified drug" which includes a number of listed chemical compounds.

In cases where new illegal substances are identified, in order to test prisoners, secondary legislation is required in each case to specify the substance to be authorised for testing.

The POA welcome the intention behind this change to the Law but would very much like to have seen increased research into the effectiveness of the testing mechanisms. These substances are constantly changing. Government needs to ensure the prison disciplinary process does not fall into disrepute, due to the lack of a proven testing regime.

Clauses 4 to 20 The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

The POA welcome Governments plans for delivering a stronger position for the work and role of the PPO, whilst undertaking what are recognised by all in the Criminal Justice System as crit ical functions , of independently investigating deaths and complaints of and by those held in custody .

As with our comments on the findings and responses to reports from the HMIP, we are equally concerned, not with the outcomes and recommendations of investigations by the PPO , but with Government responses and actions to them.

Conclusion

The Government White Paper - Prison safety and Reform - sets out their plans to deliver improvements to the safety and operation of our prisons. There is a lack of detail on how the improvement would be delivered in the White Paper, therefore the POA reserve judgement until there is clarity.

The publication of the Prisons and Courts Bill was something of an anticlimax.

Though, as we have set out, the provisions that are included are in the main welcomed they will do little in the medium term and nothing in the short term to protect the health and safety of those who work and live behind the walls and fences of prisons in England and Wales.

There is nothing within this Bill which addresses the real day to day workplace concerns of staff in our prisons, as they are understaffed, under resourced, violent and dangerous places for staff and offenders alike.

Therefore the POA would ask what is the standing of the remaining commitments contained within the White Paper which are not covered by the proposed Prisons and Courts Bill.

March 2017

 

Prepared 27th March 2017