Police and Justice Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 10th October 2006.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 6:45 pm, 10th October 2006

My Lords, I have the greatest sympathy for the present Minister for prisons, who is in a position very close to the one that I was in when I came to the Home Office in 1982. Very soon, I had a chart on the wall to show how many places were left before we had to use executive release to make room for more prisoners to come in. We got down to 11 places at one time, and that was using the bridewells and police cells as well. It is no good saying that there is not a crisis. There is a crisis. To try to manage that crisis at the same time as reorganising an important element of what you are doing seems to me to savour of not very sensible thinking.

I share the astonishment of the right reverend Prelate, not for the reasons that he gave but because, despite the fact that I continually hear the Government say how anxious they are to decentralise, we have here a great accrual of directive power to the central authority in exactly the opposite direction. It is rather like pressing the button for No. 2 when you get in the lift on the Principal Floor and saying, "I'm going down"; it is the reverse of what is happening.

The damage that will be done by this is considerable, as has been powerfully put already. I speak only because I spent a year as Minister for the probation service and three years as Minister for prisons and my silence might be taken as a lack of concern for what is afoot. I am deeply concerned. Whatever words of assurance are given, your Lordships should read the Bill and still try to believe that, in future, the person responsible for inspecting prisons will be in any sense independent. It is simply incredible. He will be subordinate to someone who is in turn subject to ministerial direction. That is two layers that do not exist now to cloak what he is able to bring out.

Finally, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said in a most powerful speech. A Minister is the prisoner of his civil servants when it comes to receiving information. The only other sources are hearsay and newspaper reports unless you have an independent inspector to do that job for you. In the circumstances in which we now understand prison staff work, that is an absolutely essential connection of the Minister to reality. Connecting to the public also gives the Minister muscle in Cabinet or in departmental meeting, because the public become aware of what is wrong and want something to be done about it—as do we. Let us not stop that happening by passing this ridiculous part of the Bill.