Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 27th June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ramsbotham Lord Ramsbotham Crossbench 5:06 pm, 27th June 2017

My Lords, like Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, I was extremely disturbed to note that, despite all the evidence that the long-term and unresolved crisis in our prisons was deepening, there was no mention of any attempt to resolve it in the gracious Speech, as many noble Lords have already pointed out. The need to update the Prison Act 1952 was one reason David Cameron made the Prisons and Courts Bill, which had not completed its passage through the other place at Dissolution and from which prisons now appear to have been dropped, a major part of his 2015 manifesto.

The best evidence that our prisons are in crisis is that two-thirds of them are officially overcrowded, the accuracy of the previous chief inspector’s description of them as places of “violence, idleness and squalor” being acknowledged by Michael Gove when Secretary of State for Justice. Such a deep crisis can be resolved only by carefully thought-through, long-term plans, backed up by consistently sufficient resources. The last Secretary of State, Liz Truss, claimed that her White Paper Prison Safety and Reform, published last November, was a “blueprint” for a once-in-a-generation reform of our prisons, a claim I wish she had not made because it does not stand up to scrutiny.

The last major crisis in our prisons in 1990, the year of the riots in Strangeways and 23 others, was followed, in 1991, by the only previous White Paper on prisons, Custody, Care and Justice, whose centrepiece was 12 priorities which the then Home Secretary, now the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, described as the way ahead for the Prison Service. Unlike Prison Safety and Reform, which appears to have been written in a hurry by one person, its predecessor was painstakingly drawn up under the old Whitehall presumption that White Papers were statements of government policy which had to be implemented. Inexplicably, not one of the 10 following Secretaries of State responsible for prisons—two twice as Home and Justice Secretaries—has implemented it. Judging by his open letter published on 21 June, their number seems likely to be joined by David Lidington, who claimed:

“We know where the problems lie in our prisons, and we know what is needed to fix them”.

If that is so, why on earth have they not been fixed before now?

If only Liz Truss had ignored all the unco-ordinated initiatives of her predecessors and gone back to and updated the 1991 priorities, which were: to improve necessary security measures; to improve co-operation with other services and institutions, by working closely with the probation service and by membership of a national forum and area committees; to increase delegation of responsibility and accountability to all levels, with clear leadership and a published annual statement of objectives; to improve the quality of jobs for staff; to recognise the status and particular requirements of unconvicted prisoners; to provide active and relevant programmes for all prisoners, including unconvicted prisoners; to provide a code of standards for conditions and activities in prisons, which will be used to set improvement targets in the annual contracts made between prison governors and their area managers; to improve relationships with prisoners, including a statement of facilities for each prisoner, sentence plans, consultations, reasons for decisions, and access to an individual appeal body for grievances and disciplinary decisions; to provide access to sanitation at all times for all prisoners; to end overcrowding; to divide the larger wings in prisons into smaller, more manageable units wherever possible; and to develop community prisons, which will involve the gradual realignment of the prison estate into geographically coherent groups, serving most prisoners within that area.

Had these been implemented, we would not be facing today’s crisis. What is so worrying for the future is that, since 1991, there cannot be a single aspect of imprisonment that has not been studied, many times over, by experts, resulting in thousands of recommendations in hundreds of carefully researched reports, the only thing that all have in common being that they have been studiously ignored by the Prison Service and the Ministry of Justice. Having seen the fate of the 1991 The Way Ahead priorities and countless other sensible recommendations, I am sceptical about whether any of those currently in authority, who have resisted outside advice and orchestrated failure for so long, are the right people to implement reform.

If I have one cause for optimism that improvement is possible, it is the quality of so many of the people who work in our prisons. But their continued commitment cannot be taken for granted, and, if there is one thing that the lost years since 1991 have proved, it is that the prison system needs consistent direction and leadership. The stakes are too high for this crisis to remain unresolved any longer, and I beg the Prime Minister to think again.