Schedule 6

Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 7:15 pm on 20 November 2007.

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Her majesty’s commissioner for offender management and prisons

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move amendment No. 161, in schedule 6, page 158, line 38, leave out ‘send’ and insert ‘lay’.

Photo of Frank Cook Frank Cook Labour, Stockton North

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 162, in schedule 6, page 158, line 38, leave out ‘to the Secretary of State’ and insert ‘before both Houses of Parliament’.

Amendment No. 158, in schedule 6, page 159, line 1, leave out ‘Secretary of State’ and insert ‘Commissioner’.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice)

The amendments all deal with the parliamentary accountability of the commissioner or, as is currently presented in the Bill, the absence of such parliamentary accountability. Some of us who were at the evidence session before the end of the last Session of Parliament will remember when I asked the commissioner whether he would prefer his reports to be laid before Parliament rather than given to the Secretary of State. I asked whether he would prefer to be in a similar position to an ombudsman or even a judge. Thereby, although he would be paid for and appointed by either the Crown or Government, the line of accountability would go directly from him to Parliament, not to a Minister.

That is why I have tabled the amendments, which would change the situation so that the commissioner would lay a copy of his report before both Houses of Parliament. They would delete the reference to the Secretary of State in that regard. It is a matter of constitutional accountability. That would undermine the work of neither the commissioner, nor the Secretary of State. It would get the Secretary of State’s fingers off the report so that they could not edit it before it gets to Parliament.

Under the Bill as it is currently drafted, a report from the commissioner will get before Parliament, but not before the Secretary of State has had a look at it. I think that the Secretary of State has no business interfering with the terms, wording or conclusion of any report that he may have. He can answer in Parliament for any remarks that the commissioner might make, but he should be given no editorial role or power to interfere between the completion of the commissioner’s report and its presentation to Parliament.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

My comments are in the form of an inquiry because I have not had the opportunity to do the research. It seems that there would be considerable merit in having a common statutory format for the appointment of those officers of the Crown. That way, we would not have to discuss the details of the form of appointment and removal from office because there would be a common form with which the House was content, until such time as it might choose to have a different form. Therefore, I ask the Minister whether that position is directly comparable to other offices that are appointed by the Crown and fill analogous roles elsewhere.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I would like to respond to the amendments that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough has proposed and hopefully reassure him that they are not necessary. Their purpose is to give the commissioner and not the Secretary of State the power to lay reports directly before Parliament. As he made clear, his intention is to try to increase the perceived independence of the commissioner and ensure that the Secretary of State cannot suppress or alter a report. I hope that he is reassured by what the incumbent said when giving evidence to the Committee; there has never been any instance in his time when the Secretary of State has sought to impinge upon his independence or interfere in any way with any of his reports. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that that is the case. I hope that, in resorting to some of his more flowery language, he was not suggesting for one moment that the current Secretary of State or indeed anyone has sought to do such a thing or to interfere with or suppress reports of the current prisons and probation ombudsman in any way. The situation was made clear in evidence to the Committee.

I recognise, of course, that the laying of reports by the Secretary of State might give rise to concerns about the commissioner’s independence. We sought to obtain views from the British and Irish Ombudsman Association on the best way to deal with the laying of reports and on who should undertake that task for different Parliaments. The association recommended that the new commissioner’s reports should be published by him in his own right, and that the Secretary of State should then be required to lay them before Parliament. That is what we have provided for in the Bill.

The constitutional arrangements set out in the Bill are therefore broadly comparable with those for other ombudsmen operating in similar situations to that of the new commissioner for offender management in prisons, whose post will exist once the Bill is on the  statute book. There are various differences in detail that reflect the individual terms of reference of the different types of ombudsman, but the association certainly recommended that the arrangements were the correct way of proceeding.

An alternative view is that the Secretary of State is responsible to Parliament for such matters, and that he therefore ought to lay the report. We sought to make sure that there could be no question of a Secretary of State changing a report that he thought might be inconvenient, or delaying the laying of such a report. The Bill requires laying to take place as soon as practicable after receipt. The commissioner will be sponsored by and will report to the Secretary of State for Justice. It therefore seems right that that Minister should have responsibility for laying the commissioner’s report, but I can assure the Committee that there will be no question of interference or delay. I hope that the enables the hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, but clearly that decision is a matter for him.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Minister (Justice) 7:30, 20 November 2007

I think that the Minister was a little too defensive at the outset. We are making law for the long term; we are not concerned with the individual holder of the office of Secretary of State at the moment. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) would never suppress anything, and I have never suggested otherwise. However, we need proper lines of accountability and I happen to think that office holders such as the commissioner should not have to present things as difficult or anxiety-inducing as reports on the conduct of our prisons and on offender management directly to the person who is in charge of the political management of prisons. It would be better for the commissioner to report directly to Parliament, and then we can cross-examine the Minister on the report, or debate the report, at an appropriate time. It is a simple question of accountability.

I happen to disagree with the Minister, but I shall not press the amendment to a Division. I am not entirely satisfied with her response, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 6 agreed to.