My Lords, a wide range of organisations and individuals independent of the Prison Service, including inspectors, monitoring boards, parliamentarians and researchers, are frequently given access to our prisons. It is right that prisons should face scrutiny and are subject to public debate. Our priority is the welfare of prisoners, their families and those who work in prisons. Inaccurate and irresponsible criticisms undermine their welfare. NOMS has the right to refuse access to those who voice such criticisms.
My Lords, I sympathise with the Minister for having to try to defend the indefensible. In the future, the Secretary of State for Justice will be remembered and blamed for the havoc that he has wrought in less than three years on the entire criminal justice system, which will take years to resolve. Only those who fear the truth need to try to suppress it, which the Secretary of State is trying to do as regards a long-established, independent, voluntary organisation whose only crimes have been to oppose him and to expose untruths. Can the Minister please assure the House that this shameful instruction will be instantly withdrawn and never again repeated in a free United Kingdom?
My Lords, when the noble Lord became the Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995, I am sure that in the course of inspecting prisons, he was anxious to be fair and objective in his inspections regardless of whether they were private prisons or public prisons. These two prisons are private prisons. Unfortunately, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, disapproves of private prisons and has been quoted as saying that,
“making money out of punishing people is both reprehensible and immoral and it is on these grounds that we have opposed the private management of prisons”.
Just before Christmas, she said on “Newsnight” that for a three-week period over Christmas, young offenders would be locked in their cells while there was a 40% reduction in staff numbers. Both these assertions were completely wrong. She was given an opportunity to retract, but she declined to do so. NOMS has to bear in mind the welfare of prisoners, the families who would be concerned about such misinformation, and the morale of prison officers.
My Lords, last Thursday, the process of appointing a successor to the highly regarded Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, ground to a halt when Mr Grayling refused to consider the candidate put forward by the appointment panel. Moreover, on the same day the Justice Committee objected to his appointment of two so-called independent members of the selection panel—of four—who just happened to be Conservative Party activists. One of them is an adviser to that paragon of political impartiality, Grant Shapps. Today, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, has raised serious and legitimate concerns about a ban on visits to prisons by Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Incidentally, I understand that G4S, which runs the prisons, had no objection to her going to them. What reassurance can the Minister provide that during what remains of the Lord Chancellor’s tenure of office, Mr Grayling will desist from pursuing his career as a serial offender against the interests of justice?
That is a large question, and perhaps I can answer some of the many sub-questions in it. The Secretary of State had nothing to do with the decision taken by NOMS, but I of course, as a Minister, take responsibility for that decision, which was an operational one. As for the appointment process, this is under way. The noble Lord seems to be very well informed about the process, and an announcement will be made in due course. There is no question that Nick Hardwick has not been allowed to act independently. The Government’s preference is that all public posts are re-competed at the end of the fixed term, with that incumbent free to apply.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the conditions in our prisons will impact on control and discipline but are also a matter of serious concern for the families of those who are detained in some of our institutions? Has the noble Lord studied the recent lecture given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in which he talked about prison conditions when he undertook a review of Strangeways prison some years ago? He mentioned that many of his recommendations are still to be implemented and also suggested that a further inquiry ought to be undertaken. Does my noble friend agree with that suggestion?
The noble and learned Lord’s report on Strangeways, some 25 years ago, identified a number of things that were wrong with our prison system. I am sure that the noble Lord would agree, as indeed would the party opposite, that there have been significant changes and improvements in our prison system since. For example, there is no slopping out, there are much better conditions in cells, overcrowding is at its lowest level since 2007, prisoners are doing more purposeful activity and participate more in education, and the number of people absconding has been reduced. There is no room for complacency—there will be always be challenges in the Prison Service—but I am afraid that we simply do not accept that there has been no improvement in 25 years.
It certainly does not. The Government welcome constructive criticism of all sorts. We want constructive and objective criticism by the monitoring board, the inspectorate, the press and academics—all of whom are regularly given access to our prisoners. But objectivity and fair criticism, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, are vital.