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