Proposed statutory purpose for prisons welcomed

28 April 2017

The Justice Committee issues a report giving its views on Part 1 of the Prisons and Courts Bill, which contains those parts of the prison reform agenda which the Government considers need to be pursued through legislation.

Prisons and Courts Bill

The Bill was introduced in the House of Commons on 23 March 2017, and, following the House's agreement to the holding of an early general election, will not be proceeded with in this Parliament. The Public Bill Committee charged with considering the Bill did not proceed to consider all parts of the Bill, although it did finish debating Part 1 of the Bill before Easter.

Report findings

The Committee notes in its Report that, with many important aspects of prison reform being pursued by non-legislative means, as it eventually crystallised, Part 1 of the Bill contains a fairly minimal and eclectic set of measures.

The Committee concludes 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.

Four-part statutory purpose for prisons

On Clause 1 of the Bill, the Committee welcomes 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 it argues that the statutory purpose would be strengthened by the inclusion of an aim to achieve a decent and fair environment for prisoners.

Secretary of State

On the provisions of Clause 1 concerning the role and accountability of the Secretary of State, the Committee considers that it is not possible to reach a view on whether they 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.

HM Chief Inspector

The Committee welcomes the provisions of Clause 2 of the Bill, putting HM Inspectorate of Prisons as well as HM Chief Inspector on a statutory basis and strengthening their powers. Given the importance of the role of Chief Inspector, the Committee recommends that its pre-appointment scrutiny role should be strengthened by providing 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. The Committee says that this would be a backstop guarantee of that person's independence from potential ministerial patronage or pressure.

The Committee also contends 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.

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

The Committee says it very much welcomes the provisions in the Bill (Clauses 4 to 20) 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.

UK's National Preventive Mechanism

On matters not currently covered by the Bill, the Committee recommends 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).

Chair's comment

Bob Neill MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"We have taken a lot of evidence in this Parliament on prison reform, much of which is being taken forward by non-legislative means, and we have reported separately on governor empowerment and prison performance. Although the Prisons and Courts Bill will fall, we hope that the next Government, of whatever complexion, will attach a high priority to prison reform. In the expectation that legislation on prisons will be brought forward early in the next Parliament, we think it is right for us to express our views in this Report on the provisions of this Bill.

We are very pleased to see the intention in the Bill to give the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman a statutory foundation: this is something the current PPO has been advocating for some time and it would give greater legitimacy and authority to his office. We also welcome the changes proposed in the Bill to the powers of the Prisons Inspectorate which, together with the protocol which has been agreed between the Chief Inspector and the Ministry of Justice, should reinforce the effectiveness and independence of the Inspectorate. But we consider that the National Preventive Mechanism should be placed on a statutory basis, and we hope that if legislation on prisons is introduced in the next Parliament it will include that provision."

Further information

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