This is a guest blog by Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Justice Select Committee (you can follow the work of the committee via its Twitter account: @commonsjustice and Mr Neill on @neill_bob). It summarises the Committee’s work up to the dissolution of parliament before the 2017 general election.
Justice Committee publishes its final report on prisons
Prison reform legislation was signalled in May 2016 as a flagship Government policy. In the Queen’s Speech it was announced:
My government will legislate to reform prisons and courts to give individuals a second chance.
Prison Governors will be given unprecedented freedom and they will be able to ensure prisoners receive better education. Old and inefficient prisons will be closed and new institutions built where prisoners can be put more effectively to work.
In a press release issued on that day the Government described its plans as “the biggest shake-up of the prisons system since the Victorian era”.
Prison reform inquiry
Last summer we announced an overarching inquiry on prison reform, under the aegis of which we intended to hold a series of sub-inquiries on various aspects of the Government’s prisons policies. Our intention was to undertake work on prison
reform in a critical and constructive way alongside the development of the Government’s reform programme, commenting on the principles and the implementation of the reform plans and seeking to influence those plans in a process of dialogue informed by the written and oral evidence submitted to us. We aimed to expose the prison reform programme to the greatest possible degree of open and democratic parliamentary and public debate, using the main strengths of the select committee system. That aspiration has been curtailed by the early general election. Notwithstanding that, I am proud of what my Committee has achieved during this Parliament with regard to prison safety and reform and today (28 April 2017) we are publishing our final report on that subject.
The evidence we gathered enabled us, unusually, to seek to influence the House’s consideration of Part 1 of the Prisons and Courts Bill introduced on 23 March 2017. Generally speaking, there is little time for Select Committees to consider Bills as they progress but as we had already amassed significant material we took the opportunity to report. Following the House’s agreement to the holding of an early general election, the Bill will not be proceeded with in this Parliament but we decided to publish our views as a record should a similar Bill be introduced in the next Parliament.
We note in the Report that, with many important aspects of prison reform being pursued by non-legislative means, as it eventually crystallised, Part 1 of the Bill contained a fairly minimal and eclectic set of measures. We conclude that, important though its various measures are, Part 1 of the Bill can hardly be considered to have fulfilled the promise made by the Government at the time of the Queen’s Speech in 2016 that it would be the centrepiece of the Government’s legislative programme for the 2016-17 Session.
Nevertheless, we welcome the introduction of a four-part statutory purpose for prisons, and the inclusion of the aim of reforming and rehabilitating offenders as part of that purpose. But we argue that the statutory purpose would be strengthened by the inclusion of an aim to achieve a decent and fair environment for prisoners. We did not believe it possible to reach a view on whether the clauses with respect to the role of the Secretary of State will make the running of the prison system more effective, or will ensure sufficient information is available to inform judgements on the matter, while accepting that it is the Government’s intention that this should happen.
Inspectors and Ombudsman
Having undertaken work during this Parliament on the Criminal Justice Inspectorates, we welcome the provisions putting HM Inspectorate of Prisons as well as HM Chief Inspector on a statutory basis and strengthening their powers. We recommend that the Committee should be required to give its consent to a recommendation to Her Majesty for appointment of a person as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons as a backstop guarantee of that person’s independence from potential ministerial patronage or pressure. We also contend that it is essential that the Chief Inspector should be able to determine independently the inspection criteria which he uses, and, secondly, that there should be scope for a requirement to respond to Inspectorate recommendations on immediate operational matters to be placed on the governor or director of the relevant establishment.
We also very much welcome the provisions in the Bill placing on a statutory basis the important office of Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, which investigates deaths in custody and complaints made by those in detention on a statutory basis.
National Preventive Mechanism
On matters not currently covered by the Bill, we recommend that if legislation is brought forward early in the next Parliament the opportunity should not be missed to place on a definitive statutory basis the UK’s National Preventive Mechanism, the group of 21 bodies co-ordinated by HM Inspectorate of Prisons which visits places of detention throughout the UK (in accordance with the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).
We have also been observing developments on non-legislative means of strengthening the independent scrutiny of prisons. The protocol between the Ministry of Justice and HMIP which we recommended over a year ago has now been agreed. In addition, we were consulted informally on the Ministry’s plans to strengthen the governance of IMBs and the model adopted, which offers the greatest degree of independence, was that which we commended.
Report on governor empowerment and prison performance
Earlier this month we published our report on governor empowerment and prison performance in which we examine the Ministry’s proposals to provide “clarity of accountability, defined purposes and performance standards for the system; an unequivocal mandate to governors, and the authority to deliver” in anticipation of one-third of prison governors being given from 1 April 2017 greater power.
We supported the principle of governor empowerment in principle, but concluded that the Government had not provided enough information about the practical implications of the reforms and tried to identify potential risks that would need to be mitigated. In addition increasing staff, devising a more robust performance framework, and the potential benefits of empowering governors will undoubtedly take some time to demonstrate impact; indeed time will tell whether sufficient staff are being put back in and how prison governors will balance the various aims of prisons.
After we agreed our report the Minister of State for Prisons wrote to us giving some clarification on the extent of use of pay supplements to retain staff; the nature of the offender management model; issues with recruiting prison governors for HMP Manchester and HMP Belmarsh; the nature of financial freedoms for governor; and the publication of performance data and league tables, on the latter of which there was had been some confusion.
The report was well received by stakeholders and the press. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice did not have the opportunity to respond to our report before the end of this Parliament. We hope that it will respond to the next Justice Committee in reasonable time.
There is a great deal in the White Paper on other important matters like control of drugs and mobile phones, reform of the estate, development of prison staff and improving education and healthcare. The Committee had planned to look in detail at some of these subjects over the coming months. Indeed we had just announced an inquiry on aspects of estate modernisation which will now be suspended. Apologies to any of you who had been preparing evidence to submit. We had hoped too to do some work on IPP prisoners following our correspondence with the Ministry on that, and to examine the role of the Parole Board in the light of the National Audit Office’s recent report. We have also published today a short report summarising the work we were unable to proceed with.
Prisons issues will continue to be of importance in the next Parliament. The scale of change required is significant. Indeed the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment reported last week and found that none of the prisons it visited could be considered safe for prisoners or staff.
There is a large degree of cross-party consensus on the urgent need to reform our prisons to make them decent, safe, secure, and rehabilitative environments. The significant and influential work that my cross-party Committee has done over its relatively short life is illustrative of that.
For example, our report on Prison Safety in May 2016 received an encouraging and very swift informal response from the previous Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, acknowledging the gravity of the situation and announcing additional resources totalling £12.9m focused on the most challenged establishments.
We subsequently received assurances from the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Elizabeth Truss MP, that her plans for prison reform would also emphasise safety. This was borne out in the subsequent White Paper Prison Safety and Reform and the financial boost secured by the Ministry to increase staffing complements announced in the Autumn Statement. This was an explicit and welcome acknowledgement by the Government (for the first time) that stabilising prisons is dependent on addressing severe understaffing and chronic issues with recruitment and retention.
Reform is a long-term project
Despite having been unable to continue with our inquiries, our work has given us a strong sense that there is no easy fix to the problems which are currently facing our prisons, and that despite the considerable energy being placed on reform it is likely to take a considerable time to turn prisons around. In particular, the impact of the additional funding is unclear.
For example, following our report on prison safety, we asked for specific data on staffing levels in those prisons that had received funding boosts last summer, including the three prisons which received a much higher level of funding and the six reform prisons. Between 30 June and 31 December last year overall operational staffing levels in those prisons did not rise, indeed the shortfall rose as benchmark levels were raised.
We did not manage to secure the Ministry’s commitment to providing us with prison level safety data. The latest set of Safety in Custody statistics published yesterday show a decrease in assaults and deaths in the last quarter, although the Ministry notes that this may be as a result of seasonal variation. It’s too early to say therefore whether this is an indication that the deeply troubling ongoing decline we have seen over the past few years has reversed.
The Ministry of Justice had been seeking to implement these reforms quickly and we remark in the governor empowerment report on the risks of bringing these changes in at pace, with minimal consultation, and very little testing. Nevertheless, the Ministry must be commended for the breadth and decisiveness of its action and while the details must be worked through carefully and tested, it is essential that momentum is maintained on improving the safety of our prisons and ultimately in ensuring that—for those for whom custody is absolutely necessary—prisons can become genuine places of reform.
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