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 Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour 6:45 pm, 10th October 2006

My Lords, my name is on a number of these amendments, so I would like to speak. However, I should first apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of his speech. I was so busily caught up with these few words that the debate crept up on me.

I am saddened and disappointed to be making this speech because, after our July debate, I genuinely believed that we would be able to reach some agreement on the prisons inspectorate. However, that has not materialised. The Government's aim to bring together the various organisations to make the criminal justice system more streamlined is fine by me; I have no problems with that. However, to achieve this, I can see no necessity for the prisons inspectorate to be subsumed within this mass of other inspectorates. I, too, believe that the prisons inspectorate is different. It alone deals with the conditions in which prisoners exist, a matter that I believe must be judged as one of the cornerstones of progress in any civilised society.

I am afraid that, for once, Hansard got it wrong in July. It was me who spoke in the debate on this matter and not my noble friend Lady Billingham. We are sometimes mixed up, even when we go to pay what we owe in the Dining Room. I said in the debate that I believed that whoever headed this proposed new inspectorate would need to be superhuman. After the Home Secretary's Statement to the other place yesterday, I believe that that is even more the case.

We are told that we are to have more prisons. Prisons are to be recategorised to accommodate prisoners that they were never meant to house. There is going to be maximum flexibility within the prison estate—whatever that means—and we are to use police cells for convicted prisoners. At the same time, if the Bill goes through unamended, the real vigour of the prisons inspectorate will have been lost.

The overcrowding in our prisons is pertinent to this debate because overcrowding means that rules cannot be kept to and prisoners' rights go out of the window. The number of prisoners in the system and their welfare go hand-in-hand, and the prison inspectors are the guardians of that welfare.

As the noble Lord said, this is not a new position in which the country finds itself—we have been here before. In the late 1980s, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, the then Lord Chief Justice, in his inquiries into the Prison Service following the Strangeways riots, identified overcrowding as bringing perpetual crisis management to the system. He was right. Considering a reduction in the individual independence of the prisons inspectorate at this time and proposing to lump it in with other inspectorates is wrong. If there has ever been a time when there is a need for a hands-on separate prisons inspectorate, it is now.

In July, I told the House that, although it might be expected that the Prison Officers' Association would welcome this change in the prisons inspectorate, in fact it did not do so. This morning I again contacted the POA general-secretary, Brian Caton, who told me that the POA continued to believe that the amalgamation of the prisons inspectorate with other inspectorates would,

"delete its effect and be disastrous".

I agree. I ask the House to support the amendment.