My Lords, first, I extend my great congratulations on a most incredible and powerfully argued speech from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. I think that that sentiment is probably shared by most of us in the House today. I also congratulate the right reverend Prelate, whose outrage and astonishment I share.
When this issue was debated in Committee, it was argued passionately and almost unanimously that the prisons inspectorate should not be merged into the proposed new mega-inspectorate. Few voices, if any, apart from those of the Government, were raised in favour of the proposition, and I believe that the Summer Recess has done nothing to diminish that passion. It is devoutly to be hoped that this time the Government really will have ears to hear and will listen.
The arguments for retaining the separate identity, independence and unique role of the prisons inspectorate remain the same and are, I believe, overwhelming. When we are dealing with issues concerning the treatment of people who have been deprived of their liberty and are locked away out of the public gaze, there has to be a body with the independence, expertise and muscle to ensure that international human rights standards are complied with and that safety is maintained. That is what our highly respected and internationally admired prisons inspectorate currently does.
We think that we live in a civilised country but that does not guarantee that what happens in our prisons is always civilised—far from it. Indeed, it is arguable that the current chronic overcrowding of our jails makes it almost inevitable that it is not, when people are literally warehoused and churned from place to place as beds become available and any form of rehabilitation is virtually impossible. The excellent reports from the inspectorate demonstrate that but, more than that, there is evidence that the inspectorate contributes directly to promoting change and good practice as a result of its recommendations. Indeed, it also draws attention to existing good practice and helps to disseminate that too.
The inspectorate is so much more than an auditor of process and systems. It requires very special knowledge and insight to inspect properly the treatment in and conditions of penal custody. Without it, there is little doubt that there is a serious risk that standards of treatment will drop and breaches of human rights of prisoners will take place. There is also the concern from the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights that the Government's plan,
"would not be compatible with the requirement of the Optional Protocol to the [UN Convention against Torture] that there be independent monitoring of places of detention at the national level", without the insertion of specific guarantees. The six safeguards laid down by the JCHR to ensure compatibility have not all been addressed by the Government and, without them, it is not acceptable that current standards should be undermined by the Government's proposals.
I draw specific attention to one area which requires a particular specialist skill within that of the inspectorate as it currently operates. This concerns the children that we have in custody. Here, there is a separate specialist team, which uses child-centred, welfare-based criteria and has a different set of expectations from those used by the adult prison inspectors. It spends a lot of time talking to children. It conducts joint inspections with Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate, thus acknowledging the particular needs and issues of this relatively small but extremely important and sensitive area of inspection. It also demonstrates how importantly it rates partnership, working with other experts. We have heard nothing of the provision that the Government might make for this aspect of the inspectorate's work, and I should welcome a comment on this from the Minister when she replies.
The chief inspector's latest annual report demonstrates some alarming findings. The most recent annual survey of the juvenile population shows that an average of 73 per cent say that their bell is not answered within five minutes; more than a third say that they feel unsafe all the time; a quarter have been insulted or assaulted by staff; and 2 per cent say that they have been sexually assaulted by staff. The latest report from Huntercombe YOI expresses serious concern about the use of force to strip-search children—an acutely traumatic experience for those who have been abused before coming to prison, of whom there are a significant number. In the six months before the inspection, there were four child protection referrals following allegations made by children of abuse while being strip-searched. That is evidence taken by very qualified people who spend time talking to children, and it is taken very seriously.
It is interesting that in the child prisons—the STCs—inspections are carried out by CSCI alone because the children are very young. It took an investigation by my noble friend Lord Carlile into the treatment of children in custody to discover children experiencing practices which would be called child abuse in any other non-custodial setting. That demonstrates the real specialism of the inspectorate.
That is all shocking evidence which needs to be exposed to protect this particularly difficult and vulnerable group within the prison population—the children. As I have shown, it requires very specialist skills to uncover it, even when YJB monitors are on-site. How can we possibly allow this work to be diluted or compromised? I sincerely hope that this time the Government will be able to listen to the arguments from all sides of the House and reconsider their position, where the whole will be far less than the sum of its parts. There is too much at stake.