Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Windlesham moved Amendment No. 16:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, on the first day in Committee, a similar amendment aimed at preventing any merger of the functions of the Chief Inspector of Probation and the Chief Inspector of Prisons was the subject of a short debate. Despite the support of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lincoln, speaking in his capacity as Bishop to the Prisons, and of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch--all of whom have first-hand knowledge of the working of the penal system--our arguments were dismissed by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, as being put forward,

    "in the wrong place at the wrong time".--[Official Report, 2/10/00; col. 1204.].

I hope that this debate today is the right place and the right time.

Frankly, I was surprised by the strength of feeling expressed subsequently on this issue, both inside the House on a cross-party basis, and by the Probation Service. This further amendment is the result.

The timing is opportune as consideration is currently being given by Ministers to proposals either for an integrated inspectorate to cover both the prisons and the Probation Service, or to finding other ways for the two inspectorates to work more closely together. Under existing legislation, it would be possible to appoint the same person as both Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation. If the amendment is accepted, no such appointment could be made. All of the other options for joint working would remain open.

To avoid repeating what I said in Committee about the need for a separate Chief Inspector of Prisons, let me summarise as briefly as possible why, under the plans for a national probation service, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation believes that it is essential that the reorganised service should continue to have its own chief inspector. It should be said at once that the stance of the chief officers depends not on institutional pride or possessiveness, but on a recognition of the realities of joint working.

We are speaking now not in the vague generalities so beloved by Ministers--and so evident in the consultation document--of "joined-up government" and "seamless approaches" and so on, but of the reality of current practice. The Probation Service already co-operates closely with the Prison Service in the form of joint inspections or thematic reviews carried out by the inspectorates of prisons and of

31 Oct 2000 : Column 834

probation. Recent examples are the comprehensive reviews on life sentence prisoners and the preparation of prisoners for release and resettlement. This type of joint working is highly desirable; it is likely to continue, and it does not call for any legislative intervention.

What the recent consultation document fails to recognise is that only about one-third of the work of the Probation Service overlaps with that of the prisons, whereas virtually all of its work is linked to the courts or the police, or to both. The service also works closely with health authorities in respect of drugs and mentally disordered offenders, as well as with local authorities, particularly in the context of the relatively new and promising youth justice initiatives--I say that in the presence of the chairman of the Youth Justice Board, to whom credit is due. There is merit in joint inspections in each of these areas of probation work in the community as a means of recognising shared responsibilities and promoting best practice.

However, as to the possibility of a joint chief inspector for prisons and for probation, the Association of Chief Officers of Probation has been forthright in its response to the Home Office consultation document. The association points out that the document,

    "provides no evidence of the benefits to the Prison Service of this proposal. ACOP believes it would be to the detriment of Probation, in that inspections would be driven by the larger organisation, the Prison Service. The flexibility in choice of thematics, speed of response and focus on performance would, we believe, be lost if we were to become part of a much larger Inspectorate with a very different brief and culture to that of our own".

Ministers should take heed of those words in their reply to the debate. I beg to move.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, we on this side of the House support the amendment. We debated this issue in Committee, and we were not convinced by the explanation offered by the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, pointed out that at that stage the issue was being discussed in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Minister said that the amendment was flawed because it prejudged an important discussion, debate and deliberation about the inspectorate that the Government wanted to develop and deliver in terms of the final consultation.

The Minister can continue to have his consultation. But one area that we want to rule out is a merger of the two inspectorates. It is not about having a joined up service within the criminal justice system. What one suspects is at the back of it is the embarrassment faced by the Government in relation to report after report produced by the inspectorates.

No one disputes that a great deal of work is now in train to ensure that the Prison Service and the Probation Service co-ordinate their activities. A number of examples have been cited by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham. Whatever is done, to merge the two inspectorates completely and appoint a joint chief inspector for prisons and probation would damage rather than improve the effectiveness of

31 Oct 2000 : Column 835

inspections. First, there would be a risk of over-stretching the joint chief inspector and reducing the benefits that arise from having two inspectors with specialist expertise--which has been such a strength in the arrangements under Sir David Ramsbotham and Sir Graham Smith. Secondly, there is a real risk that establishing a joint inspectorate would blunt the public impact of the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons, which have been so valuable in focusing the attention of the public, practitioners and politicians on the need for prison reform.

In a Question for Written Answer, my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich asked how many organisations and individuals had, by 2nd October, expressed support for the Government's proposals and how many had opposed them. The answer may not come as a surprise to anyone on this side of the House. It was that having a joint chief inspector of prison and probation was not an option favoured by any respondent. The consultation period concludes today. It would be helpful to know from the Minister how many finally opted for the proposal. I look forward to his reply.

There are additional arguments against a joint approach. The Prison Service and the Probation Service come from historically different traditions. There is always a tension between the custodial approach and the community tradition which has never been effectively resolved by any government. We need to ensure that this healthy tension is translated into the way these agencies interact without swamping each other.

There is a clear distinction between loss of liberty through imprisonment and loss of liberty through community sentences. This distinction should never be blurred; the distinction of being in prison as against serving a community sentence must be protected.

There has always been a healthy tension in the objectives of the Prison Service and the Probation Service. On the one hand, there is the continuing culture of single-minded institutional security and management of the Prison Service; on the other, there is the local enthusiasm and initiative in the Probation Service for community based penalties. The way in which the Government intend to centralise such services is a clear indication that prison objectives would override community dynamics.

Despite the statements in the Government's consultation document, it is no secret that the Chief Inspector of Prisons has by and large stuck to inspecting custody conditions during incarceration. There are very specific, rather than overlapping issues. Moreover, his reports have not only embarrassed the Home Office in terms of its inaction but have also spurred it on to take urgent action on prison culture and conditions.

No one disputes the need for better co-ordination on matters of common interest between the Prison Service and the Probation Service. There is nothing to stop ad hoc arrangements, secondments, etc, as happens in many statutory departments.

31 Oct 2000 : Column 836

I wonder whether the Home Office has taken into account the enormity of what a joint inspectorate would entail. Perhaps I may give an example. The two services have a combined staff of some 60,000; 125,000 people start probation every year and 140,000 are received into custody. Where are the resources?

In conclusion, prisons face problems that are significantly different to those of the Probation Service. Consistency of treatment is more likely to come from adhering to high standards of professional conduct and respect for human rights and the dignity of the individual than through a joint inspectorate.

Clearly, the Government are obsessed by central control. Perhaps I may quote what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, said about the criminal justice system. They are entirely appropriate to this debate. In an interview with the New Statesman, he advised the Government to leave the criminal justice system alone for a while. He added:

    "There is a great danger that the system becomes punch drunk".

That is precisely the case here. We simply wish that the Home Office would stop interfering with a system of inspection which has delivered all that is asked of it and which has the confidence of the public in the way it performs its task. I support the amendment.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page