The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:15 pm on 29th March 2017.

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Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway 2:15 pm, 29th March 2017

I beg to move amendment 30, in clause 4, page 9, line 6, at end insert—

“(d) Investigating cases where a person is detained in immigration detention facilities for longer than 28 days.”.

This amendment includes as a function of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman to investigate where a person has been held in immigration detention for more than 28 days.

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 8, in clause 4, page 9, line 14, at end insert—

“(f) investigating—

(i) attempted suicides,

(ii) the number and nature of assaults on staff or prisoners, and

(iii) the adequacy of staffing levels to prevent such behaviour;

(g) investigating the content and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes and liaison arrangements with the probation and other relevant agencies to ensure that such rehabilitation continues after a prisoner’s release from custody.”.

This amendment expands the remit of the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman in relation to the investigation of attempted suicides, assaults in prison and staffing levels as well as powers relating to the investigation of rehabilitation programmes and liaison arrangements.

Amendment 31, in clause 11, page 12, line 37, at end insert—

“(1A) The Secretary of State must request the Ombudsman carry out an investigation relating to detention of any person for over 28 days in immigration detention facilities including, but not restricted to, the effect on the individuals detained.”.

This amendment ensures the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman investigates each case where a person has been held in immigration detention for more than 28 days.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway

I am sure it is not lost on hon. Members that it is almost exactly the hour that those awful events happened in Westminster last Wednesday. There are various memorials going on around us. I am sure all colleagues would back me in saying that we would much rather be at those memorials than here, but business goes on, life goes on, laws continue to be made and we have to continue to do our job.

The Bill applies only in part to Scotland; specifically, it applies primarily to immigration detention and its processes. Amendments 30 and 31 would ensure independent oversight of detention periods in immigration cases, and that detention happens with due regard to Home Office rules and the facts of the individual case. Amendment 30 would add to the ombudsman’s powers the function of investigating where a person is held in detention for more than 28 days. Amendment 31 would compel the ombudsman to investigate such cases where detention exceeds 28 days.

The Government know this debate well. During the passage of the Immigration Act 2016, an amendment tabled by honourable colleagues went further than the amendment I have moved today. It would have limited detention for immigration cases outright to 28 days. The Government were defeated in the Lords and the amendment attracted cross-party support in the House of Commons, but was ultimately unsuccessful. I hope that closer consideration will be given to this amendment than was given to the last.

The all-party groups on refugees and on migration have concluded very clearly that there should be a 28-day limit. People held in immigration detention have committed no crime, yet their detention is open-ended, without limit, and could last for years. In no other sphere of our jurisdiction would we allow that to happen. It simply would not happen in the rest of the prison estate—no one would be held for more than 28 days without being placed before a judge—but it happens in our immigration system. The UK is the only EU country not to have a time limit on immigration detention. The current position is inhumane, ineffective and hugely expensive. Personally, I would say that indefinite detention without trial is an affront to the rule of law, which I hold so very dear, having studied law on both sides of our border.

Let us consider some statistics. Some 7% of detained immigrants were detained for longer than six months. Only 23% of those detained leaving Dungavel in Scotland were deported, so by inference 77% were deemed safe. In that circumstance, is it proportionate to not have a 28-day limit? It is in the interests of both sides of the Committee that following detention or following anybody coming to this country to settle and make their life, integration is of paramount importance. Having this draconian measure and not having safeguards to limit the amount of time that immigrants may be detained will not get them off on the best foot in terms of integrating them into our society. That is in no one’s interests. I respectfully suggest that the Government act and impose a limit to the time that people can be detained in immigration centres.

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Shadow Minister (Justice)

The Committee will be relieved to hear that I am not going to comment on amendments 30 and 31, as the hon. Gentleman has made an eloquent case for them, but I promised the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd that I would speak to amendment 8 on her behalf.

Amendment 8 would give the ombudsman the functions of

“investigating…attempted suicides…the number and nature of assaults on staff or prisoners …the adequacy of staffing levels to prevent such behaviour…investigating the content and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes and liaison arrangements with the probation and other relevant agencies to ensure that such rehabilitation continues after a prisoner’s release from custody.”

Those are perfectly proper things for the ombudsman to look at, so we ask the Government to consider accepting the amendment. We also support amendments 30 and 31.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Before dealing with amendments 30, 8 and 31, I will speak about some of the broader policy objectives of clause 4. The prisons and probation ombudsman was established in 1994 as the prisons ombudsman, following Lord Woolf’s public inquiry into the Strangeways prison riots. Over the years, its role and remit have expanded, but despite many calls for it to be put on a statutory footing that has yet to happen.

The ombudsman plays an essential role, not only by providing an independent avenue for complaints, which can be a source of great tension for prisoners, but by investigating deaths in custody, the numbers of which are worryingly high, as all hon. Members will be aware. There have been long-standing commitments from successive Governments to put the ombudsman into legislation, and statutory status has been widely supported by stakeholders, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Harris review. I am pleased that we can finally establish the office in legislation.

I should say that the ombudsman is part of a much broader response to the record high levels of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm. We are redoubling our efforts to make prisons places of safety and reform for those at risk. The actions that we are taking include rolling out new training across the estate to support our staff in identifying the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understanding what they can do to support prisoners at risk; putting in place specialist roles—regional safer custody leads—in every region to provide advice to prisons and to spread good practice on identifying and supporting prisoners at risk; and developing our partnerships with experts, including by providing extra funding for the Samaritans to provide targeted support to prison staff and to prisoners directly. All that is in the context of an extra 2,500 staff and the roll-out of new ways of working that I have already set out, which will enable individual prison officers to manage a caseload of about six prisoners each. That extra capability will enable staff to support at-risk prisoners more effectively and will enable prisons to run more predictable regimes, improving safety.

That is all happening without legislation; however, when a death occurs, it is right that it is investigated with the utmost seriousness. Having a statutory office will give the prisons and probation ombudsman more visible independence, permanency and stronger powers of investigation.

Amendments 8, 30 and 31 relate to the ombudsman’s remit. Amendment 8 would widen the remit of the ombudsman to include investigating

“attempted suicides…assaults…staffing levels…and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes”.

There are already other routes of investigation or scrutiny for these matters. At present, there is no set category to capture data on attempted suicides because it is not possible to determine intent when someone resorts to self-harm. NOMS records all self-harm incidents in prison custody. A self-harm incident is defined as

“any act where a prisoner deliberately harms themselves, irrespective of the method, intent or severity of any injury”.

Nearly 38,000 self-harm incidents were reported last year, so it would be neither practical nor desirable for the ombudsman to investigate them all; however, they are taken very seriously. There are existing systems for treating the prisoner and for providing support through assessment, care in custody and teamwork. Where appropriate, prisons investigate internally and take relevant action.

Investigating assaults is done through adjudications or by the police, so it should not be a function of the ombudsman. In the safety and order section of prison performance standards, we have included a measure of the rate of assaults on prison staff, which we will supplement with an additional measure of staff perception of safety within the prison. Governors will be held accountable for the results that they achieve in reducing assaults on staff; the inclusion of this measure is designed to drive positive change and improve staff safety. Requiring the ombudsman to investigate the effectiveness of post-release arrangements would be a significant departure from its current remit and would overlap with the work of the probation inspectorate.

Clause 11 enables the Secretary of State to request the ombudsman to investigate other matters that may be relevant to the ombudsman’s remit. In the past, that has included the investigation of an attempted suicide and rioting at an immigration detention centre. The ombudsman therefore has flexibility to investigate wider matters, but that is intended for exceptional cases and not to duplicate other established routes for investigation. In conclusion, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary, as other provisions are already in place to cover the functions.

Amendments 30 and 31 would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to request that the ombudsman investigates those instances where a person has been detained under immigration powers for more than 28 days. Such investigations would be completely outside the current administrative remit and proposed statutory remit of the ombudsman. Published Home Office statistics show that of the 28,661 people leaving detention in 2016, 35% had been in detention for 29 days or more. Using those statistics as an illustration, the amendments would require the ombudsman to investigate more than a third of all immigration detention cases, which would have a significant impact on the ombudsman’s workload and core functions.

If the purpose behind the amendments is to introduce some form of independent review in those cases where detention extends beyond 28 days, I am pleased to say that they are unnecessary. The Home Office has already made provision for additional judicial oversight of immigration detention by way of an automatic referral to the first-tier tribunal for consideration of bail after four months in detention. That provision will be commenced in due course. In addition to duplicating arrangements on the oversight of immigration detention, the amendments would fundamentally change the role of the ombudsman and are not consistent with the ombudsman’s purpose.

I hope Members agree that establishing the ombudsman in legislation is a hugely positive step that is long overdue. The ombudsman’s remit is well established. The Bill gives the ombudsman a clear framework to conduct investigations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will therefore withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Richard Arkless Richard Arkless Scottish National Party, Dumfries and Galloway 2:30 pm, 29th March 2017

I thank the Minister for those words. I will pick up on a couple of points and then make clear whether we will press the amendment to a vote. He mentioned that the amendments would compel the ombudsman to investigate 35% of more than 28,000 cases. My hope is that if there were a limit, there would not be as many cases to investigate, so I do not think he was making a fair point.

I appreciate what the Minister said about automatic referrals to the first-tier tribunal, but that only triggers after four months. Frankly, holding someone in detention for four months without placing them in front of a judge is just as much of an affront to the rule of law as it would be open-ended. I cannot agree that automatic referrals are a suitable mitigating measure, but we will not press the amendment to a vote this afternoon. We anticipate that it commands cross-party support, and we think there is a good chance we can make the Government see sense. We reserve the right to bring back the amendment in full force at a later stage of the Bill’s passage. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 1