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Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, the amendment, ably and skilfully introduced by the two previous speakers, gives the Government an opportunity to get out of a difficulty in which they find themselves. I am quite specific and blunt about that.

Prisons remain to a large extent a forgotten element in our society. Prisoners have no vote. I have the impression that Members in another place do not on the whole take a great interest in what happens in prisons. The attention of the media is wayward, even perverse. No serving Prime Minister, so far as I can discover, has ever visited a prison. That is a significant fact. Such forgetfulness is highly dangerous to our society. It is useful only to those whose idea of criminal justice is to fill and over-fill our prisons without considering what happens once people are inside them.

Prisons are a part of our society. Those who are sent there come from our society; they usually represent its dark underside. Perhaps more importantly, they return to society when they are released. Therefore, what happens in prison to the drug addicts, paedophiles and young offenders is of importance to all of us. We need to know.

At the moment, rightly or wrongly, the best illumination that comes to us of the state of our prisons emanates from the reports of the present Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, and those of his predecessor, Sir Stephen Tumim. Those reports cast a shaft of light through the fog of misconception, which so often surrounds this subject. Why? It is because they do not deal just with principles and generalisations; they convey the facts, the figures and the feel of individual prisons, one by one.

I had the privilege of accompanying the chief inspector and his team on a prison inspection not long ago. I was deeply impressed by the team's

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professionalism. The team gives praise where praise is due--and it often is due--but it is also blunt in its criticism where that is justified. Of course, it is that criticism which, inevitably, gets into newspaper reports.

From their knowledge of government, noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that there is some grumbling and some tut-tutting about these reports in Whitehall; and about the brisk, military style in which they are couched and the attention which they, therefore, receive. I have not heard anyone say, "Who will rid me of this of this turbulent chief inspector?" It has not got as far as that--indeed, it could not get as far as that--but of the irritation, I have no doubt and much evidence.

That is the background against which the Government, quite properly, are considering the relationship, first, between the prison and probation services and now, more narrowly, between the inspectorates of those two services. They have issued a consultation paper. The two previous speakers clearly illustrated what the response to that consultation has been. Today the Prison Reform Trust, which I chair, has written in response to the consultation to the Home Office explaining why, after a good deal of thought and research, we share the conclusions already reached by the two previous speakers; namely, that the changes proposed--certainly the amalgamation of the inspectorates--are not justified and would be confusing.

Against the background that I have briefly sketched, it might be thought that this exercise is part of an attempt to muffle in some way the voice of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and his successors by a reorganisation--an unnecessary and confused amalgamation--of two different bodies. I hope that that belief is unfounded. At any rate, the Government have an opportunity today to dispose of any such suspicion. They can accept this amendment and that line of argument will fall away, leaving the rest of it to be discussed on its merits.

It is very important that it should be clear that this House, the other place and the Government are in favour of the kind of straightforward, clear and blunt reports that we receive from the chief inspector. In my view, it is essential that such reports continue to come through both sharp and clear as is the case at present. They should not be complicated by other considerations and other relationships. We need that clarity and we should insist on keeping it.

6 p.m.

Lord Warner: My Lords, at the risk of being accused, again, by a noble Lord opposite of being audacious, I should like to advance a few opposing points in response to some of the extremely persuasive arguments put forward by previous speakers, whose judgment I have the greatest respect for in this area. However, I have to say that those arguments tend to look backwards rather than forwards to the future and to the kind of changes that might improve the criminal justice system in an evolutionary way.

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I recognise that noble Lords opposite are on something of a roll. But when people rush to the "Contents" Lobby in the way that they have been doing of late, they might like to reflect on the fact that, on the previous amendment, they actually voted for the Home Secretary to be unable to pay for accommodation to safeguard the public from dangerous sex offenders like Robert Oliver. I just mention that in passing because that is what has actually been voted for this afternoon.

Therefore, before we rush again into the Division Lobby, I should like to expound on the arguments for not voting for this amendment. I, too, pay great tribute to Sir David Ramsbotham for his excellent and thought-provoking reports, as well as the work that he has accomplished in exposing inadequacies in the Prison Service. His reports have often drawn attention also to the fact that the good work carried out in the Prison Service is sometimes undermined on release. One of the underlying approaches that the Government have adopted is to seek to improve the working relationship and the operational co-operation between the Prison Service and the Probation Service. Moreover, alongside this process, there is also the increasing use of technology in terms of community supervision as an alternative to custody, as well as changes in the character of some of the sentences being imposed in the criminal justice system. At the same time, the Government have announced a review of the sentencing framework.

I suggest to noble Lords that these ideas and developments are working to blur the line between custody and community supervision. That is all to the good, both as regards protecting the public and improving the chances of offenders not reoffending in the future. If that is going on in the services that are being inspected, it seems to me to be slightly rash--whatever one may think about the Government's intentions in relation to present incumbents--to say that we should never consider the Home Secretary of the day, whoever it may be, issuing directions (which is what the power under the Bill will provide) on the way that inspections might be conducted in relation to subject areas that straddle the probation and prison services. That is what this amendment would achieve.

Noble Lords should perhaps bear in mind the experience of the National Criminal Intelligence Service and of the National Crime Squad. A distinguished Member of the other place from the party opposite acts as chairman of both those bodies to ensure the co-ordination of their work. Indeed, it might actually be in the interests of both the Probation Service and the Prison Service if there were a greater degree of commonality of function of personnel straddling both inspectorates. I am not saying that that is the Government's intention; indeed, I do not know what that is. However, we seem to get a little anxious about their intentions in this area.

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In conclusion, I should mention that it is the current Home Secretary who put in place rigid timetables for the publication of reports by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons--a set of arrangements that was not in place under the previous government, resulting in very long delays before the publication of such reports.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, surely the argument against the possibility of such a merger is that the tasks of the Chief Inspector of Prisons and of the Chief Inspector of Probation are, by their very nature, different. I accept that the criminal justice system must be considered as a whole, but the duty of the Chief Inspector of Probation is to deal with those services that provide for the punishment and rehabilitation of prisoners within society. The duty of the Chief Inspector of Prisons is surely to oversee the conditions in prisons as regards those who are contained within them.

It has been said that a society is often judged by the way in which it treats those whom it keeps in captivity. The great advantage with the Chief Inspector of Prisons is surely that he has shown fearlessness in acting on behalf of society and reporting what he sees, at times, to be the failings of the service. It would be a an awful pity were that task of the Chief Inspector of Prisons to be diluted in any way by giving him other tasks in addition. I am sure that the Minister will accept that there have been rumours abroad for some time that the Home Office intends to get rid of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, or his post, when he retires. Will he give the House an assurance tonight that that is not the Government's intention and that they do not intend to merge the two posts?

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, an independent voice in your Lordships' House would like to add how important I think it is to have an independent Chief Inspector of Prisons. It has been this independence which has made the appointment so worth while and effective.

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