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Let us just look at the last inspection of Pentonville, quoted in the most powerful article by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in the Observer on Sunday. He quoted the lack of basic requirements, including vermin infestation and complaints about assaults and bad treatment of staff. He did not, however, mention one other complaint that the inspector mentioned, namely that the food ran out during lunch—the only hot meal of the day. For me, the two worst aspects of the report were, first, that there was no supportive first-night strategy, and night staff did not know the location of new arrivals, which suggests to me that all is not well about suicide prevention despite the assurances that we are given. Secondly, unemployed prisoners, who represented half the population, had only an average of 2.5 hours out of cell, while employed prisoners were out for about seven hours. The average across the prison was five hours, which is far less than the over eight hours that the prison was reporting. I mention that because I wonder whether under the proposed new regime those sorts of uncomfortable details will be allowed to be published.

As a soldier, I learnt that at times of crisis the one thing that you need above all is timely, accurate information. The current crisis has come about in part because the Government have failed to listen to timely, accurate information provided by their one independent and objective source—the independent prisons inspectorate. But you don’t shoot the messenger just because you don’t like the message.

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All Members of this House admire not only the Minister’s ability but also her unswerving loyalty to her party’s line. Never having been a member of a political party, I speak as an informed member of the public, knowing that what is being proposed is, as has been said to me in a letter, nothing more and nothing less than dangerous nonsense whose practicalities and consequences have not been properly thought through. Were I the Minister, particularly at a time of crisis such as our prisons are going through now, the last thing that I would want to lose would be my one source of objective, independent information. Protest though the Minister undoubtedly will, a Deputy Chief Inspector of Justice, Community Safety and Custody (Prisons) who is subordinate to a chief inspector, subject to the direction of 13 different Ministers and required to have regard to such aspects of government policy as Ministers in three separate ministries may direct, simply is not as independent as the current stand-alone Chief Inspector of Prisons. I repeat sentiments that the Minister will recall were expressed from every side of the House in Committee, in the hope of preventing the Government from committing an act of wilful and unnecessary destruction of a beacon of our criminal justice system. I beg to move.

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, we on these Benches have a particular interest in this matter. These Benches are the seat of people who, from the beginning of the modern prison service, have had the right to enter and inspect. That right was exercised by the Lords Spiritual because of a recognition that you cannot do anything more serious to anybody than deprive them of their liberty, and that that act itself is completely unique in the relations between the state and the subject. It deserves careful and independent scrutiny, and that scrutiny is of the first importance to be maintained. Of course, no one on these Benches today would wish to suggest that we return to the custom that the only source of independent inspection should be diocesan bishops, because we all recognise that that work these days requires independence, professionalism and resources. That does not mean that we do not continue to have an interest in this area of work, and all my colleagues share with me as bishop to prisons a concern that this feature of our prisons regime should be sustained.

I am even more astonished than I am outraged by this government proposal. I am astonished because it seems to be depriving the Government of one of the sources not only of independent judgment—as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said—but of public support for those aspects of crime reduction that have most engaged the Minister’s committed attention. She has rightly asked representatives of the faith communities, the voluntary sector and commercial organisations to join with the Government in giving assistance to ensuring that people who have offended are enabled to make the best possible transition to society. There is no stronger ally of the Government in that respect than the chief inspector who examines prisons precisely to ensure that they are fit for the purpose of returning people to society with the best chance of not reoffending.

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How does the chief inspector become such a formidable ally of the Minister and her concerns? The chief inspector does so by her direct and prestigious access to public media. The chief inspectors that we have had—sparing the blushes of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, himself—are remarkable examples of what happens when you have a highly competent, committed, objective and serious person inhabiting an office of enormous public prestige under the Crown. That is what is required of that person—to gain access to the public media and to gain publicity for the main recommendations of the inspectorate’s reports. It is simply not conceivable that a subordinate official of the enormous inspectorate that the Government are thinking of creating will have that kind of access.

6.30 pm

We should be clear that we are talking about abolition and not merger here, because there will never again be, if this provision passes into law, a Chief Inspector of Prisons. The result will be that the public sympathy and interest which have been gained during the time of the past office holders will simply disappear.

I am astonished that the Minister, who has such a strong commitment to the rehabilitative purposes of the criminal justice system in general and of prisons in particular, should be prepared to lose that element of support in this work. In the process she has managed to alienate, as far as I am aware, every person and responsible organisation that has invested attention in prison reform—something to which she is also committed. She has lost the sympathy of faith groups, communities and Churches that, on the basis of that commitment, have been prepared to enter into the faith alliances that she has promoted, because we now suspect that the Government’s attitude to prison reform is far more detached and cynical than we had supposed.

This situation is of the greatest seriousness. I urge the Minister to think again, and I urge your Lordships seriously to consider supporting the amendment in a Division and standing firmly by it in the subsequent stages of the Bill.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, faithful to the mention made by the Chancellor in his Budget speech that the Government were minded to move to a single inspectorate, the Bill now provides for the inspectorates of prisons, police, the Courts Service, the CPS and the National Probation Service to be clustered under a single chief inspector. I cannot help thinking that that curious clustering would form a good task for a simple aptitude test. The question would be: “Identify the incongruous item”. It would have to be a simple test, because the odd one out in that list stands out so plainly as the inspectorate of prisons. None of the other four services looks at what we do to and for people who are locked away out of sight, out of hearing and generally out of mind. That is a distinct characteristic to which the right reverend Prelate referred.

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Our collective responsibility for that service is in a wholly different class. Exactly because of the characteristics of prison, we need to have confidence that it has an independent inspectorate that will tell it as it is—prison by prison and establishment by establishment; not in a manner that is glossed over by reference to the problems and performance of some other responsibility with which it is said by Ministers to exist end-to-end. Such an inspectorate of independence we now have.

Once the bald facts are in the open in a report, then by all means let the excuses, explanations and justifications be made. But let them not temper the reporting in the first place under the inevitable influence of a chief inspector who was put there to achieve an end-to-end report, and who is to be subject to ministerial direction into the bargain. He will know what is expected of him.

On 6 July, in Committee, the Minister stated that,

Shortly afterwards, a very shrewd and simple question was asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Billingham, who was sitting behind the Minister. The noble Baroness said:

The reply by the Minister occupies the next 22 lines. While they deserve to be read, they are too long for me to cite now; but the upshot of the argument is in the last four lines. The Minister said that,

I could possibly share that aspiration, but not the expectation; nor, I guess, can many people share it in the light of what the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, said in that debate. She said:

In the criminal justice system, the noble Baroness scarcely wanders alone—knowing no one, discussing nothing. If the Government will not heed the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, then let them heed her.

Baroness Quin: My Lords, I am pleased to have an opportunity to say a few words in this debate. Mention has already been made of the Prison Reform Trust and the role of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in chairing that organisation. Although I do not think that it is a declarable interest, I would like to say to the House that I am chairing a Prison Reform Trust project involving work with prisoners with learning disabilities and learning difficulties.

I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, whom I had the pleasure of working with during my brief tenure of office as prisons Minister. One of the points he made is one about which I too am concerned—that this proposal

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does not seem to involve a very clear line of communication between the inspectorate and the relevant Ministers, because of the jumbo nature of the new organisation. I hope that my noble friend the Minister can reassure us about the lines of communication between the inspectors and the relevant Ministers who will be most concerned with the subjects under consideration.

I would be grateful also if my noble friend could provide current cost estimates. When organisations are changed, considerable costs can be incurred. I would like to be assured that, in the short term, the costs of this operation will not exceed the benefits. Perhaps she can also provide estimates of long-term savings and say what constitutes “long-term” in that regard.

I share the concern that many people have expressed about any compromise of independence. I believe that the independence of the current inspectorate arrangements is a very important aspect. I, too, pay tribute to the work done by the current inspector of prisons, as well as that done by the previous distinguished occupants of that position.

I hope that the Minister will be able to resist some of the doom and gloom about the present situation in prisons. Perhaps I could share with the House an experience that I had during the summer, when I visited a prison—the young offender institute in Deerbolt in County Durham—that I had previously visited some nine years ago, when I was Minister. I was greatly impressed both by the changes to the physical infrastructure of that establishment and by the great improvements in the sense of purpose, the regimes and the innovative programmes that were being pursued. So I do not simply accept the description of our prison system as being in crisis. I think that a lot of good progress has been made in recent years and I say to my noble friend that, because of such developments, I am generally happy with the Government’s approach to prison issues and penal reform. However, on this issue, I will have to listen very carefully to her reply to this debate.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, who will rid me of this troublesome inspectorate? That was a thought that I often had when I was Minister for prisons. Its reports caused me some anxiety from time to time but, looking back, I am extremely grateful to it and think that it did an excellent job. Perhaps I should therefore support the Government’s proposal to get rid of the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

I was the first Minister to visit a prison unannounced. It was an amazing experience. Not only was I welcomed by the prison officer at the gate, who rang the governor and said, “There’s a guy here who says he’s the Minister for prisons and won’t go away”, but I found that to go into a prison totally announced was very different from my normal visits to prisons.

The Minister will argue that of course that situation will be retained. However, I put to your Lordships three things that will not be retained. One is the finance for the inspectorate, which undoubtedly will be trimmed, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham,

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said. Secondly, if the prisons inspectorate is joined with other inspectorates, the key element of independence and objectivity will be minimised. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, the standing of the prisons inspectorate in the eyes of Ministers and of the public will be severely reduced. For those reasons, I cannot support what the Government propose and will support the amendment.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I will just intervene briefly. I had a long conversation with my noble friend on the telephone yesterday morning and listened to her put forward all the arguments that we shall no doubt hear later. I promised to think very carefully about them. I have thought very carefully about them and I am afraid to say that I am not persuaded, the more so now because I have heard some excellent speeches this evening, which have demolished the Government’s case. I do not think that I am regarded as a member of the awkward squad, but one does not have to be a member of the awkward squad to say that the Government have got this one wrong.

I have three brief points. First, the crisis in the prison population suggests that this is the last moment to be tampering with what is one of the great traditions in Britain—an independent inspectorate that has shown robustness and integrity and has been willing to say things that are uncomfortable for Governments. I always thought that it was a great tribute to successive Governments and prison Ministers that they have had such an independent inspector of prisons. Indeed, that has been part of the way in which we have managed a very difficult area of life.

Secondly, like others who have spoken, I believe that the role of the Chief Inspector of Prisons is different in kind from the role of the other inspectors—so different that I think to merge them is not sensible.

Finally, our reputation internationally rests on a number of key features of British life. I suggest that the way in which we have inspected our prisons, with a real sense of independence, has sent an important message to other countries where things are not done that way. People in other countries look, sometimes with admiration, at the way in which we have managed prison inspection, so it would be a sad day if we said to the world, “No, this is coming to an end”.

6.45 pm

Lord Elton: My Lords, I have the greatest sympathy for the present Minister for prisons, who is in a position very close to the one that I was in when I came to the Home Office in 1982. Very soon, I had a chart on the wall to show how many places were left before we had to use executive release to make room for more prisoners to come in. We got down to 11 places at one time, and that was using the bridewells and police cells as well. It is no good saying that there is not a crisis. There is a crisis. To try to manage that crisis at the same time as reorganising an important element of what you are doing seems to me to savour of not very sensible thinking.

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I share the astonishment of the right reverend Prelate, not for the reasons that he gave but because, despite the fact that I continually hear the Government say how anxious they are to decentralise, we have here a great accrual of directive power to the central authority in exactly the opposite direction. It is rather like pressing the button for No. 2 when you get in the lift on the Principal Floor and saying, “I’m going down”; it is the reverse of what is happening.

The damage that will be done by this is considerable, as has been powerfully put already. I speak only because I spent a year as Minister for the probation service and three years as Minister for prisons and my silence might be taken as a lack of concern for what is afoot. I am deeply concerned. Whatever words of assurance are given, your Lordships should read the Bill and still try to believe that, in future, the person responsible for inspecting prisons will be in any sense independent. It is simply incredible. He will be subordinate to someone who is in turn subject to ministerial direction. That is two layers that do not exist now to cloak what he is able to bring out.

Finally, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said in a most powerful speech. A Minister is the prisoner of his civil servants when it comes to receiving information. The only other sources are hearsay and newspaper reports unless you have an independent inspector to do that job for you. In the circumstances in which we now understand prison staff work, that is an absolutely essential connection of the Minister to reality. Connecting to the public also gives the Minister muscle in Cabinet or in departmental meeting, because the public become aware of what is wrong and want something to be done about it—as do we. Let us not stop that happening by passing this ridiculous part of the Bill.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, my name is on a number of these amendments, so I would like to speak. However, I should first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of his speech. I was so busily caught up with these few words that the debate crept up on me.

I am saddened and disappointed to be making this speech because, after our July debate, I genuinely believed that we would be able to reach some agreement on the prisons inspectorate. However, that has not materialised. The Government’s aim to bring together the various organisations to make the criminal justice system more streamlined is fine by me; I have no problems with that. However, to achieve this, I can see no necessity for the prisons inspectorate to be subsumed within this mass of other inspectorates. I, too, believe that the prisons inspectorate is different. It alone deals with the conditions in which prisoners exist, a matter that I believe must be judged as one of the cornerstones of progress in any civilised society.

I am afraid that, for once, Hansard got it wrong in July. It was me who spoke in the debate on this matter and not my noble friend Lady Billingham. We are sometimes mixed up, even when we go to pay what we

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owe in the Dining Room. I said in the debate that I believed that whoever headed this proposed new inspectorate would need to be superhuman. After the Home Secretary's Statement to the other place yesterday, I believe that that is even more the case.

We are told that we are to have more prisons. Prisons are to be recategorised to accommodate prisoners that they were never meant to house. There is going to be maximum flexibility within the prison estate—whatever that means—and we are to use police cells for convicted prisoners. At the same time, if the Bill goes through unamended, the real vigour of the prisons inspectorate will have been lost.

The overcrowding in our prisons is pertinent to this debate because overcrowding means that rules cannot be kept to and prisoners’ rights go out of the window. The number of prisoners in the system and their welfare go hand-in-hand, and the prison inspectors are the guardians of that welfare.

As the noble Lord said, this is not a new position in which the country finds itself—we have been here before. In the late 1980s, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the then Lord Chief Justice, in his inquiries into the Prison Service following the Strangeways riots, identified overcrowding as bringing perpetual crisis management to the system. He was right. Considering a reduction in the individual independence of the prisons inspectorate at this time and proposing to lump it in with other inspectorates is wrong. If there has ever been a time when there is a need for a hands-on separate prisons inspectorate, it is now.

In July, I told the House that, although it might be expected that the Prison Officers’ Association would welcome this change in the prisons inspectorate, in fact it did not do so. This morning I again contacted the POA general-secretary, Brian Caton, who told me that the POA continued to believe that the amalgamation of the prisons inspectorate with other inspectorates would,

I agree. I ask the House to support the amendment.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, first, I extend my great congratulations on a most incredible and powerfully argued speech from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I think that that sentiment is probably shared by most of us in the House today. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate, whose outrage and astonishment I share.

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