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Lord Boyd-Carpenter: I am delighted to have that reassurance, however surprising. An early debate would be a very great advantage in enabling your Lordships' House to influence the discussions at an early stage. I beg of my noble friend to use her influence and good will to secure that such a debate takes place.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the substance of the report is a matter of concern to all sides of the House. Therefore, I have no difficulty in accepting that point. Secondly, the request for a debate is noted. I have to pray in the defence of my noble friend the Leader of the House that he is the soul of reasonableness. I know that he is listening to all the requests about an early debate.
My noble friend is right when he refers to the issue of home leave. The protection of the public from people who go free from prison, sometimes on parole or on early release, and commit further crimes is one of the factors which my right honourable friend the Home Secretary took into account. That is an important point. When my right honourable friend announced the new rules governing temporary release from prison, which made the protection of the public of paramount importance, the changes resulted in a 50 per cent. reduction in grant of temporary release from prison. In 1994-95 there were 1,600 temporary release failures. So far this year, with the new changes, there have been only 500. That is a fall of 80 per cent. I believe that the Home Secretary needs to be congratulated on that.
Lord Windlesham: My Lords, I have met Derek Lewis, the director general of the Prison Service, on a number of occasions. He struck me as a conscientious and able man working in exceptionally difficult surroundings. I regret the circumstances of his departure. As chief executive of a next steps agency, the director general of the Prison Service is expected to exercise operational control. But there is ample evidence, as anyone with any connection with the prison system is aware, of a marked reluctance of Home Office officials and Ministers to let go. To some extent that is inevitable. One can see the reasons. The Home Secretary regards his ministerial responsibility for the prisons as a delicate and sensitive one. There is the question of presentation as well. So the report raises a question that has caused anxiety for some time. Is agency status, whatever that may mean, something that can be reconciled with ministerial responsibility, or does it blur the issue of where responsibility lies?
The relationship between Ministers and the Prison Service is now a matter of urgent public importance. I am pleased to hear that it is to be reviewed, although some of the remarks made just now by the noble Baroness make the heart sink. She said that within the principle of agency status the director general is responsible for day-to-day operational decisions until, I paraphrase, it looks as though there are going to political implications. Then the Home Secretary is responsible. That is a circle that cannot be squared.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my noble friend makes important points. I made the point in the Statement, and I repeat it now, that much has been achieved by Mr. Derek Lewis as the director general of the Prison
My noble friend referred to agency status and asked whether it can be reconciled with the proper management of the service. What is importantI alluded to this in the Statement and it is work that is in handis that the relationship between the Home Office and the service and Ministers and the service is in need of review. That is being reviewed. But as long as Parliament wishes the Home Secretary to be accountable for the serviceit is reasonable to expect that no Home Secretary of whatever party could possibly be responsible for the day-to-day running of the servicethere has to be a proper review of how those two relationships can be reconciled in a way that allows the service to be run properly and Parliament to be properly accounted to for the running of the service.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the former Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in his first report on this series of episodes, pointed out that it was impossible for people within the service to understand the distinction between operational and policy issues? That was in his report. Is the noble Baroness aware that this problem will not be resolved until the matter is clarified?
In that context, can the noble Baroness answer the question raised by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. Who is going to conduct the review? Is it to be someone who is wholly independent of government or an official? It would be helpful to have a response to that question. Is the noble Baroness aware that most of us recognise that prison escapes will take place under governments of any political party? The question is how Ministers respond to those critical situations. If a belief begins to establish itself among prison governors in particular that there will be a relentless search for scapegoats after such episodes, that will do grave damage to the morale of the Prison Service.
One of the unsatisfactory features of the Statement, as my noble friend Lord Rodgers pointed out, is that this report was leaked to the Daily Mail and obviously quite deliberately. It occupied a great deal of the news on "The World at One" today, yet none of us has had the opportunity of looking at the report. The Statement made by the noble Baroness is a summary. For instance, we have no idea why the author of the report suggested in-cell television. It will be extremely interesting to have an answer to that question. As we have not had an opportunity to read the report, we are put in an impossible position. All we know is that the recommendation has been made and rejected because it is not consistent with what the Home Secretary said in a statement earlier this year. It seems to me pretty odd to ask a distinguished man to conduct an inquiry of this sort and simply to disregard one of his principal recommendations in the way that has happened.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, as regards the first point made by the noble Lord concerning the relationship between the Home Office and the service, there always will be a tension. Perhaps I may remind the House that very often when we switch on the radio in the morning or read the newspapers, something quite dramatic has happened in the community; for example, a prisoner has murdered someone while on early release. Whatever the incident may be, it is very important that Ministers seek information from the service in order to account to Parliament or to deal with what is a public safety and protection issue on the day. How that is done gives rise to possible ministerial interference. I notice that there is a passage in the report which refers to a meeting which was being held with the director general within the course of a day and where that meeting was interrupted a number of times by a Minister seeking information. That information was as a direct result of having to come to the Dispatch Box in Parliament and answer questions. There are legitimate reasons when the relationship is under tension. It is right that the matter should be properly reviewed and its outcome reported to Parliament.
As regards the leak, I am almost offended by the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that it was deliberate. I cannot tell you the lengths to which we have gone as Ministersto the point that I had not had a copy of the report until today when I was answering for it at the Dispatch Boxbecause of the sensitivity of the people involved, if for no other reason. It was wrong that the report should be peddled publicly before we had the opportunity to come to Parliament. I can tell the House that my right honourable friend is also very concerned about the fact that we heard about the report publicly over the weekend.
I am sorry that I did not come to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, about independence. It is an important point. I can assure the House that the review will be independent as regards the relationship between the Home Office and the service. The work is already under way. The report will be independent of the service and the Home Office, but I cannot give names. If it is possible to do that following this debate, I shall do so.
Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, perhaps I may raise a matter with the noble Baroness which so far has not been referred to; namely, the need to reassure those who reside in the area of the prisons concerned. Is the noble Baroness aware that one of the main features of prison policies is to reassure local residents who live in the area of these establishments? What measures are being taken to reassure in particular the residents on the Isle of Wight? Am I correct in saying that on the island there is not one institution but three, built and running side-by-side, with a very high number of dangerous prisoners contained within them? Has not the time come to reconsider the policy of concentrating so many high risk prisoners in such a small geographical area? Can the Minister reassure people, particularly those living on the Isle of Wight, that the Government will treat this as a matter of great urgency? I have to say to the Minister that many of the aspects to which she has referred today are long term and not short term in terms of reassuring the local population.
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