Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Who Guards the Guards?

It’s sad but not surprising that Nick Hardwick will not be seeking re-appointment when his post as Chief Inspector of Prisons is re-advertised next year. Sad because he’s consistently delivered the objective and authoritative assessments of conditions in detention which are needed more than ever in a period of declining resources and ambitious change. Not surprising because since the summer at least, when his views were swatted away by Chris Grayling on the Today programme, the Inspectorate (HMIP)  has been in something of a stand-off with the Ministry of Justice- the department that both sponsors and funds it and holds responsibility for most of the establishments it inspects.  I’ve not always agreed with   Nick’s judgements – for example in respect of young adult offenders whom he thinks are best dealt with alongside adults – but he has always based them on the evidence from the visits he and his team have made.

The news that he will stand down next year provides the chance to think about whether and how the Inspectorate’s role might be made more effective. The National Audit Office (NAO) study of inspection in justice and home affairs early next year also offers a window of opportunity for reform.

I favour three key changes- one to strengthen its independence, a second to improve its evidence base and a third designed to ensure it produces change.

First, Nick is standing down because “you can’t be independent of people you are asking for a job”.  To bring HMIP into line with international standards, it needs to be more institutionally independent- reporting to and funded by Parliament rather than the MoJ. It is a move recommended recently by the Public Administration Select Committee in their inquiry into relationships between government and arms length bodies. Perhaps  the Justice Committee could oversee the Inspectorate's  work along the lines of the Public Accounts Committee's relationship with the  NAO;  but this would need to be considered in detail.

The second change would be to broaden the scope of the Inspectorate’s work and enhance its evidence base. Lord Ramsbotham, the Chief Inspector from 1995 to 2001, wanted to scrutinise prison service hq as well as the establishments; for him the failure to have a proper chain of command for, say, women’s prisons, explained the failures he encountered at Holloway and elsewhere. He had a point. Just as important, I’d like to see some more basic data collected during inspections, most importantly at the moment on staff numbers. It has been left to the Howard League to document the impact of cuts to prison staff. It’s a contested area to which the Inspectorate could bring light. So too would a more systematic and comprehensive  collection and publication of prison level   data sets on assaults, self-harm, use of segregation, IEP levels  and so on . Many reports include some of this information but a stronger quantitative focus would complement  the findings from prisoner surveys and the narrative assessments .

Finally something needs to be done to ensure that a proper response is made to the findings and recommendations – whether by the establishment, NOMS or the Ministry. I have previously suggested the power to put prisons into special measures but some in the education field argue this can make matters worse. Some kind of technical assistance and follow up is certainly needed in the most problematic cases.  It should not have been possible for HMIP this year to find that at Brinsford   “hardly any of our concerns had been addressed effectively and that in almost all respects the prison had deteriorated markedly”.  Unacceptable too  is the failure of the current secretary of state to enter a proper dialogue with HMIP on prison conditions.

There are dangers of course in opening up a debate about the future of inspection. Labour’s 2006 Police Bill tried to merge all the criminal justice inspectorates under one umbrella organisation and further attempts to do so cannot be ruled out. On that occasion, the then government in the end had to accept the argument that people deprived of their liberty enjoy (if that is the word) a unique status in a free society which requires dedicated and specialised monitoring. A future one might not see it that way.  In a book published after the 2010 election, two current members of the government were “not ashamed to say that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places”. Presumably they would not be too squeamish about weakening the way they are monitored. That is a further reason to put a greater distance between the Inspectorate and the government of the day.

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