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House of Lords

Thursday, 14th December 2000.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Why the Home Secretary has not renewed Sir David Ramsbotham's appointment as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons for another three years, despite the terms of his original contract.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, Sir David Ramsbotham was appointed for a period of five years expiring on 30th November this year. Under the terms of his appointment, that period may be extended by a maximum of three years by agreement between Sir David and the Home Secretary. There is no entitlement, by contract or otherwise, to any extension of the appointment.

On 9th June the Home Secretary announced that, with Sir David's agreement, his appointment was to be extended until the end of July 2001, when Sir Graham Smith, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Probation, also retires. The Home Secretary also said that aligning the dates on which both appointments expire provides flexibility in considering how to ensure that arrangements for inspecting the prison and probation services best support closer working between the two.

The response to the consultation exercise which we held in the autumn showed clear support for bringing the two inspectorates closer together, while keeping the two chief inspector posts entirely separate. In the Government's view, the retirement of the current chief inspectors provides an appropriate moment to establish new working arrangements in order to achieve that. Both Sir David Ramsbotham and Sir Graham Smith have made a significant contribution to raising standards in the prison and probation services, and we are most grateful to them for that work.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, to which I listened very carefully. However, could not the facts of the matter be interpreted slightly differently? At the time that it was proposed to merge the two chief inspector posts, it was suggested to Sir David that he should retire and that his appointment should continue for only another seven or eight months. That proposition is no longer on the table. It has gone.

Does the Minister agree that under those circumstances everything possible should be done to ensure that an outstanding chief inspector such as

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Sir David--whose thematic reviews, for example, of young prisoners are becoming a bench-mark for the treatment in prison of those between the ages of 15 and 21--continues in post for another three years? Is that not now a possibility? Will not the Minister, with the Home Secretary, review the matter? Surely it is impossible that the appointment of someone who has shown the frankness, honesty and bluntness of Sir David should be prematurely terminated because he has perhaps become a thorn in the flesh of some senior civil servants.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is worth reminding the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that we have already extended Sir David's term of office for a further eight months. I made that plain in my first response. However, I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that it would be improper for me to do anything other than follow the normal conventions in these matters. It would be wrong for me to comment on the decisions made about the appointment of individual public servants, whether by our administration or by previous administrations.

I believe there is widespread admiration for the important work carried out by Sir David and Sir Graham. We are most grateful to them for the robust, independent and, yes, sometimes irritating reports that have been produced. Those reports have an important bearing on the way in which we view prisons, the way in which the prisons work and the way in which we formulate policy. Therefore, we all pay tribute to Sir David for his hard work in the past and we shall be most grateful to him for completing his term until July 2001.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, when the noble Lord referred to the fact that Sir David's contract had been extended by eight months, he implied that it was an act of graciousness by the Government. In reality, is it not the case that the Government did so for self-interested reasons? They were considering the amalgamation of the two posts but then dropped that misconceived idea. That is why the contract was extended and for no other reason. Secondly, is the noble Lord aware that many of us take the view that an outstanding Chief Inspector of Prisons is being treated with a singular lack of graciousness by the Government?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord heard what I said earlier. I did not consider my comments to be ungracious; however, it is for others to interpret them. We are most grateful to Sir David for the independent and robust way in which he has carried out his duties. The fact is that we have extended his period of appointment--it is not a contract--for a further eight months.

The noble Lord is right to say that we were considering the future of the inspectorates for probation and prisons. We carried out a consultation exercise, the fruits of which were clear. People believed that there was great sense in bringing the two inspectorates closer together for good public policy

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reasons. Now we have embarked upon another approach, and there the matter rests. We believe that the right policy is in place. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on decisions made about public appointments and it is not a course that I intend to follow.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, if the Government have not yet committed themselves to anyone else for this appointment, is it not still possible for Sir David to be asked to complete a further term as from next year? In the absence of my noble friend Lord Janner, perhaps I may express the hope that the issue of age will not be held against a person who is extremely competent.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I do not believe that the question of age arises in this case. We have said that the next chief inspector will be appointed in accordance with Nolan principles, which, among other things, require open competition, designed to attract as wide a field of candidates as possible, and an independent assessment of the selection process. Of course, Sir David is eligible to reapply for the post, should he wish to do so.

Lord Baker of Dorking: My Lords, perhaps I may express the hope that these exchanges will be drawn to the attention of the Home Secretary. Sir David Ramsbotham has been an outstanding Chief Inspector of Prisons. His reports have been penetrating and very critical of the regime and administration of the prison system, emphasising the lack of attention to education and training. They have often been uncomfortable for the prisons department and for the Home Secretary. That is what they should be. I hope that the Government will think again about reappointing Sir David because one needs a robust and independent-minded person, and that is what he has shown himself to be par excellence.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord heard what I said. He has used many of the same words as I used. I agree that robustness, independence and so on are important virtues. I accept that and the Government accept it. That is why we need a truly independent inspectorate. At this point perhaps I should give credit to noble Lords opposite who were in government in the early 1980s and who, following the May report, established a more independent inspectorate for prisons. They were absolutely right to do so. We believe in the independence of the inspectorate. It provides a great service to the Home Office and to the Prison Service as a whole.

Baroness Stern: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the system of prison inspection in this country, and in particular the work of Sir David Ramsbotham, is highly regarded throughout the world and is being copied as a model by other jurisdictions? Therefore, can the Minister say whether the Government have any plans to alter the terms of reference of the inspectorate and, if so, in what way?

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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am aware of the high regard in which our prison inspectorate is held, both nationally and internationally. We have no plans to qualify in any way, shape or form the independent nature of that inspectorate. However, following the consultation to which I referred earlier on the prospect of bringing the work of the probation and prison inspectorates closer together, there will of course be an opportunity to review the terms of reference within which those two independent inspectorates function. However, that is as far as our consideration of the terms of reference will go.

Orthodontic Treatment for Children

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have for the orthodontic treatment within the National Health Service of children with crooked teeth or defective bite.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government want to ensure that dentists can identify appropriate cases for treatment and use the most clinically effective and cost-effective approach while maintaining high quality standards. That will be achieved by concentrating NHS resources more on cases of true clinical need and less on minor cosmetic work.

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