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Lord Dholakia: My Lords, successive Home Secretaries have felt uncomfortable about the forthright reports of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons. Will the Minister confirm that prison inspectors provide a close scrutiny of prisons which are the least visible and most neglected of our public services? Will the Minister also confirm her department's commitment to a robust, independent prison inspectorate which is directly accountable to the Home Secretary, and that no changes are contemplated which would undermine those principles?
Lord Elton: My Lords, the post of Chief Inspector of Prisons was created in 1982 in a clause in the Criminal Justice Act of that year which I moved on the advice of the late Lord Whitelaw when he was Home Secretary. It was done at a time when the prison population was considered to be totally unacceptably large and the effects of the system in which prisoners were kept totally counter-productive. Now that the prison population is virtually 30,000 larger than at that timerepresenting an increase of about 85 per centdoes the noble Baroness agree that to enlarge the responsibility of an inspector to take in the duties of the Probation Service would be wholly mistaken?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I make it absolutely plain that the Government have made no final decision about how, if at all, any changes should be made. The noble Lord should recognise that through all the efforts that we are making we are trying to create a criminal justice system which is fit for purpose. The changes that we are making through the national Criminal Justice Bill and through local criminal justice areas in trying to bring people together will, of course, place additional burdens on those who inspect a system which is becoming more integrated. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that we have made no decision as to how best to fashion a system. However, I absolutely agree with the comments made by the noble Lord and by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, that inspection is critical. It must be robust, of high quality and independent if it is to serve any real purpose.
Lord Dubs: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that to have such an independent, robust and forthright Chief Inspector of Prisons as Anne Owers, and indeed some of her predecessors, has given many of us confidence in a system that in other respects has given us much cause for anxiety? Although I understand that my noble friend has made some very positive comments, she has also talked about possible changes. Many of us hope that those changes will not diminish the robust independence and strength of the work of Anne Owers and her predecessors.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I should like to reassure my noble friend that any changes which may be made in the future will be made to improve the inspectorate and not to diminish its effectiveness.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure many of us are, for the Minister's supportive comments about inspection. Does she agree that another aspect of the context which makes inspection doubly important is the very high profile that crime has in the popular mind, and therefore the tendency to a rhetoric of toughness? The word
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate that it is of real importance for us to have the benefit of inspection so that we can verify whether that which we aspire to achieve is actually being achieved.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, there has been a review. During that review, it was indicated that there was a level of duplication and a need to refocus the inspection process on the new challenges that are facing the system. We needed to have a holistic approach. Therefore, we needed a review to look again at how to deliver it.
Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, the noble Baroness has been very careful in her words. She has referred several times to her confidence in "robust" inspection. Does that mean that there will be a continuation of a robust and independent chief inspector who is reportable directly to the Home Secretary?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot specify what form the inspection will take, although a number of models are currently being posited. One model is that there should be no change whatever. Another model is that instead of five inspectors, there should be six. A third model is that the number of inspectors should be reduced from five to three with an overarching commission or commissioner. There are also other models. We have come to no conclusion on which model would be best. We are openly considering them all, because we are absolutely committed to ensuring that the inspection process is the best that we can make it.
Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, does not the recently published book by Sir David Ramsbotham suggest the need for one change; namely, that the reports of the inspectorate should be published at once and not after such delay as Ministers and their officials may think is needed to dissipate the embarrassment of the criticisms that such reports contain?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will know from his past position in the previous government that that is not the reason why the Government take time to consider inspectors' reports. They are serious documents which need serious consideration. The Government have
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, this is an operational matter for the Charity Commission as the regulator of charities in England and Wales. However, I understand that the commission has recently concluded a formal inquiry into Interpal which established that there was no evidence to substantiate allegations that it has links to Hamas's political and militant activities. The commission removed restrictions on Interpal's accounts and closed its inquiry on 24th September and published a report on its inquiry which is publicly available.
Lord Chalfont: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is it not a shame that the legitimate activities of this organisation should have been disrupted by what appear to have been false allegations? On the other hand, will she confirm that the European Union has now prescribed or blacklisted both the political wing of Hamas and its military wing? In the light of that, can we be assured that no charitable funds from this country will go to the Hamas organisation?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I can confirm that that has occurred and that the EU has frozen the assets of Hamas as the noble Lord describes. I should also say that it is a matter for the Charity Commissioners, who behave perfectly properly by investigating any serious allegations, as they have in this case, and putting those issues to rest.
Lord Wright of Richmond: My Lords, does the Minister agree that we should not let allegations against Palestinian charities prejudice the work of other charities such as Medical Aid for Palestinians which are doing quite outstanding work to relieve the suffering and deprivation of the Palestinians in the occupied territories?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, that is absolutely right. I understand that my noble friend Lady Symons discussed those very issues last week and that this matter was being pursued. I should also say that the matter is properly within the province of the Charity Commissioners, who have demonstrated on each occasion that they are able to act with total propriety.