At the end of March a debate took place in the House of Commons as part of the process of creating the Governments Prisons and Courts Bill. The debate was entitled “Prisons: purpose, and role of Secretary of State” and during this debate the shadow minister for justice Yasmin Qureshi stated “When we heard that this Bill was being introduced, everyone got very excited about it because it was advertised as a once-in-a-generation chance to reform prisons. However, when we actually went through the Bill, we found that it has left out many things that it should be dealing with. Although we welcome certain parts of the Bill, it does not deal with many of the things that are at the crux of the problem with our prison system.” Yasmin then went on to outline some of her concerns regarding the elements missing from the Bill and in turn Sam Gyimah the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Prisons and Probation responded and outlined some of the aspects the Bill is seeking to achieve. These include:
Reforms which the Government believe will sharpen accountability through the system and how prison governors will be held to account for matters such as “progress made on getting offenders off drugs, progress in health and in maintaining or developing family relationships. To hold governors to account for these new standards, they must be free to manage. We are freeing them up to deliver change and devolving key operational policies to them” He then referred to the transparency and scrutiny of the prison system, but focused exclusively on data which of course is only one element of scrutiny. All the data in the world will not count if no one is able to challenge and inspect such data. he stated “we want the public to understand that progress is being made in our prisons, so we will publish data setting out how prisons are performing” but in doing so he fails to appreciate that simply publishing data does not allow us to question and suggest alternative approaches. He then stated “Finally, we will discuss later our approach to strengthening the independent scrutiny of our prison system through the prisons and probation ombudsman and Her Majesty’s inspector of prisons.”
It feels rather sad to turn to a 13 year old report made by a retired Judge Sir William Macpherson of Cluny. This report was formed following the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence. One of the recommendations from this report was for all public services to undergo “regular inspection, public reporting and informed independent advice.” This may seem less of a need in the case of situations where there is an elected board or Council to run such services, although even in such places opening up services to such provision can make a huge difference to how the services are organised. However in a closed situation this need for independent advice is vital. I agree with Yasmin that there are things missing from this Bill. It is vital that the prison service is opened up to advice and indeed accountability at a local level. One way of achieving this would be through the Police and Crime Commissioners. However if they are too busy politicising the Police, perhaps we need an alternative approach?