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Prisons: OPCAT

Volume 726: debated on Monday 28 March 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they propose to take in response to the recommendation on gaps in the national preventive mechanism made in the first annual report of the United Kingdom’s Preventive Mechanism under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

My Lords, the Government welcome this report and are studying its recommendations carefully. MoJ officials are in discussion with Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons, Her Majesty’s Courts Service and the Provost Marshal—Army—to look at any ways of closing gaps that have been identified.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am very glad to see that there is a report because while this protocol was signed in December 2003, it was not until March 2009 that the national preventive mechanism was set up. It has an extremely important role, not just in prisons but with immigration detainees. The coalition, as noble Lords will know, has 18 members, but what is worrying them all is that in addition to the gaps that have been identified, about which the Minister spoke, there is a problem of resources. They have to resource those extra inspections from their own budgets. Can the Minister assure the House that cuts will not affect the operation of this protocol?

My Lords, the Government are committed to the operation of this protocol. All the bodies covering it have had to take their share of cuts, but they should keep in mind the overall commitment to honour the protocol when they apply those cuts.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the report also reflects concerns about the length of time that some detainees are kept in immigration removal centres. What is being done to keep their number to the absolute minimum for the shortest possible time?

My Lords, there is concern, and the UK Border Agency regularly reviews all cases where people are detained under immigration powers. It will consider for release all those who have been assessed as presenting a low risk of harm to the public and/or who are unlikely to abscond. However, there will always be some detainees who need to be detained.

My Lords, one area of concern is the fate of deportees when they are returned to their homeland. How often are the in-country reports updated to ensure that the political situation is taken into account? Secondly, what mechanism exists to ensure that they suffer no harm when they are returned?

My Lords, that goes slightly wider than this Question. Rather than trying to busk it, I will make sure that I get the correct information and write to my colleague.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the bodies in this mechanism is the Care Quality Commission and that last year it inspected 1,700 wards in hospitals where people are detained under the Mental Health Act? It was very concerned about children and adolescents being held in mixed wards because that threatened their privacy, their dignity and their safety. Do the Government have any plans to respond to that concern as a matter of urgency?

Yes, my Lords. This is being kept under particular review since how young people with mental health conditions are being kept is of concern. As far as possible, the issues identified will be addressed.

My Lords, perhaps we might return to the issue of resources. The noble Lord referred to the UKBA but would he acknowledge that, in the past few weeks, Ministers have referred to an increasing number of responsibilities being given to the UKBA at the same time as 5,000 staff are being taken off its head count? What we have not had is an explanation of how the UKBA is meant to manage these new responsibilities.

Cuts are being made right across government. I will not go through the mantra of why that is so, as those on the noble Lord’s side know it only too well. However, all departments in which the cuts are being made are looking at how to maintain delivery under a much more difficult regime. That is one of the facts of life that we face as a country.

My Lords, would the Minister care to answer the second part of my noble friend’s question? How can the Government justify putting more responsibility on the UKBA when the Minister acknowledges that it is making reductions in effect by putting more responsibility on those staff? Surely a responsible Government would take account of this and not give extra workloads to those whose numbers are being severely reduced.

The noble Baroness obviously sees herself as the minder of the Front Bench as she often pops up with questions that suggest, usually quite unjustifiably, that I have not answered the question. If she wants it more bluntly, we inherited an economic disaster. Every government department has had to take its hit, including mine; yet there are people within the public service grappling with those realities—in a way, may I say, that the last Government avoided. Those people will continue to do so, and I have every confidence that the UKBA will do that too.

My Lords, getting back to the report to which the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred in his original Question, the report raised significant concern about detainees with mental health problems, who often do not receive the support and treatment they need when in prison and are often held for long periods in segregation units. Even when they are held in more appropriate settings, they still experience difficulties in accessing mental health services. Can the Minister tell the House what efforts are being made to ensure that all detainees are able to access the services that they require regardless of where they are detained?

My Lords, mental illness is being addressed by the Government in a new cross-government mental health strategy that was launched in February. On the segregation units, for prisoners for whom segregation is considered to be the only option an initial segregation health screening must be carried out within two hours of the prisoner segregation. In addition, for prisoners in an open mental health situation a mental health assessment must be undertaken within 24 hours. We are taking mental health in the prison population extremely seriously and we will be bringing forward positive proposals to divert those who need mental healthcare away from prison and into the appropriate conditions.