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Lord Elton: My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend is referring to the bag of builder's tools which

17 Jan 2001 : Column 1184

was part of the legitimate equipment of one of the prisoners but happened to be in the wrong place when the search was made.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that intervention. I cannot comment on what was said. However, we note that, in accordance with the recommendations of the committee, a review of intelligence gathering has been put in hand.

As regards the status of Blantyre House, the committee is critical. One of the failures of communication between the prison governor and the area manager, to which many noble Lords have referred and which clearly played a significant part in the whole disastrous incident, was their clearly different perceptions. The governor considered it to be a resettlement institution and the area manager viewed it as a category C prison.

It is worth mentioning a comment on the relations within the service. At paragraph 83 of the report the education manager told the committee that Mr Murtagh told her that prisoners,

    "were not to be trusted because they were all beyond redemption".

Mr Murtagh, in his subsequent evidence, refuted that. He said:

    "I certainly have not said anything of the sort. I categorically deny it".

But what of the future of Blantyre House? My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew has left us in no doubt of the reputation which Blantyre House had locally, at least up until the events of May. With due respect to his former constituents, they would not be reticent in voicing their objections had Blantyre House and its liberal and imaginative regime posed any threat to the neighbourhood. I understand that objections have been few, if non-existent.

The work placement is well established and successful and in several instances former prisoners now hold permanent jobs locally. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne drew attention to the opportunities made available by various crafts. The Prison Service, in its internal report, refers to the measures now being taken to improve the security of the regime. I am sure that that is all very fine but in evidence to the committee the Minister for Prisons said, "Trust has been shattered", and a former prisoner said that,

    "you can buy drugs in here for the first time ever".

A representative from the Prison Governors Association said that,

    "the way senior people are treated in the Service at the moment is such that it may not be the wisest career choice".

The Prison Service memorandum states,

    "Although much has been said about a loss of Blantyre House's ethos, performance figures strongly suggest that what is best about Blantyre has been maintained and in some key areas enhanced".

I suggest that, in the light of a memorandum from the board of visitors that verges on the complacent. The memorandum refers to continued unrest at not knowing the reasons for the search--

    "perceived misinformation repeatedly given out by the authorities"--

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and to a lack of confidence in the regime leading to less co-operation in education in prison activities. That is the measure of the damage which has been done to this imaginative institution and, if I may say so, to the service as a whole.

Perhaps I may make one further point. Recommendation 17 of the committee's report states:

    "We recommend that when something goes seriously wrong in the Prison Service, the investigation should be conducted independently by the Chief Inspector of Prisons".

It was the opinion of the committee that the two internal reports from the Prison Service appear to lack independence from the chain of command. I understand that similar complaints led to the establishment of the Police Complaints Authority. The Minister has the power to request such an independent inquiry from the Chief Inspector but Mr Boateng in evidence stated that it did not occur to him to do so on this occasion. I believe that the Government's reply to the committee's report on that matter was less than positive and I should like the Minister's assurance that, in the absence of compelling reasons to the contrary, such a procedure in cases of such obvious sensitivity concerning the operation of the service should be the norm.

Blantyre House has been a model institution, well respected in the community and with a below average absconding rate. As many witnesses testified to the committee and as said by many speakers today, it was built on the basis of trust. The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, put that particularly well. As to whether there were serious abuses by inmates and staff, and whether there was a serious security risk in the making, there are clearly two views. But the point made so eloquently by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew is that that trust should form the basis of improvements--no institution is perfect--rather than be the victim of some hasty reforms put in hand as the result of what can be described only as a philistine and destructive episode.

For good measure, the committee sought fit to include in its report a check list of how a search of this nature should be conducted. It is devastating in its simplicity and common sense. It reads:

    "It could have been planned properly in advance ... conducted shortly after dawn (or with adequate lighting provided) ... with the direct involvement of the Governor and staff ... with the keys obtained and forced entry unnecessary ... only in the presence of outside visitors (Board of Visitors) ... and under the overall command of Prison Service Headquarters".

The whole service, from the Minister downwards, would do well to bear that advice in mind should the occasion arise again.

The resettlement regime has attracted some of the most imaginative thinking into the Prison Service. It is a scarce commodity; there are only three institutions of its type. The setback to one of these should not be minimised and the Minister should be in no doubt as to the scale of the task facing him in restoring its effectiveness.

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6.57 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I, too, want to place on record my gratitude to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, for providing the Government with the opportunity to call attention to the excellent record of Blantyre House and to commend it as a resettlement prison.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord's opening observation that trust is at the heart of the debate. Whatever one's view of what took place at Blantyre House last May, we must all pull in the same direction and ensure that trust is put at the heart of what in future happens there and at other resettlement prisons. That is most important.

I have enjoyed listening to today's contributions to the debate. They have been excellent in quality and perception and all contributors have carefully constructed their comments and observations. Their criticisms have been precise and points made with honesty and integrity. In circumstances such as these it is invidious to draw attention to any one contribution but, as always, I listened with care and interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern. She has a long interest and concern in this area of policy. I shall certainly take away her comment that we ought to have an expression of pride in the achievements of Blantyre House. None of us can be in doubt about the importance of that.

I shall try to answer as many questions as possible. However, if some stones are left unturned I shall try to respond perhaps in writing or in further discussions and meetings. The issue is important and I take it most seriously. The Home Affairs Select Committee held a recent and important inquiry into the search of the prison on 5th and 6th May. It was most critical of the way in which the search was conducted. The Home Office committee responded formally to its recommendations and I am grateful to the chairman of that committee for agreeing to make that response available in the Libraries of both Houses from yesterday. I am gratified by the welcome from all sides of the Chamber for the rapidity of its publication and some of its comments, although I understand that not all Members of your Lordships' House have had an opportunity to study the response in detail.

One key point is that, contrary to reports and some of the committee's suggestions and views expressed today, the search of Blantyre House was not indicative of the Government's lack of belief in the importance of resettlement; far from it. Not only do we pay great tribute to the work undertaken at Blantyre House but we fully recognise its importance and value within the overall prison estate.

We fully accept that unintentionally the search and the simultaneous move of the then governor of the prison led the Home Affairs Committee and others to doubt the commitment of the Government and senior managers in the Prison Service to resettlement and the regime at Blantyre House. We do not, however, believe that that doubt is in any way deserved. The Government greatly regret the damage caused during the search of the prison and accept the need for further

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work on the security classification of resettlement prisons and an overarching policy framework on resettlement. We are quite clear about the importance of ensuring that Blantyre House and the other two resettlement prisons continue to perform well in that role.

The Government regret that the Home Affairs Committee did not accept the explanation of the reasons for the search of the prison and remain fully supportive of the Director-General in carrying out his responsibilities. I echo the words of the Home Secretary that this is one of the most difficult jobs in public life. Like all Home Office Ministers, and many contributors to this evening's debate, I believe that Martin Narey carries out his job with great distinction.

Many questions have been asked about the decision to search the prison. Blantyre House provides a specialist resettlement role in preparing long-term adult male prisoners for their return to the community. It also caters for about 20 life sentence prisoners as part of their progression towards eventual release. Successful management of the prison depends on the careful balancing of security and resettlement needs. Prisoners who have daily access to the outside world mix with serious offenders who have not yet demonstrated that they can be trusted in open conditions.

While Blantyre House generally fulfils its resettlement role very effectively, the critical balance can be lost if security measures are not given sufficient weight. In the weeks leading up to 28th April 2000 emerging intelligence about Blantyre House built up into a worrying picture of possible security breaches, concerns that prisoners might be involved in criminal activities and the emergence of inappropriate work placements.

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