In the Media

Prison reform inspectorate vetoed

PUBLISHED October 11, 2006

A government plan to abolish the job of chief inspector of prisons by amalgamating it with other watchdogs was defeated last night after a series of attacks in the Lords.

Labour peers and former Home Office ministers lined up with Lord Ramsbotham, the former chief inspector of prisons, to condemn the move to merge the post into a new super-regulator which would also be responsible for inspecting the police, court, crown prosecution and probation services.

Lord Ramsbotham's amendment to the police and justice bill maintaining the prisons inspectorate was passed by 211 to 98.  The prison system was "in crisis" and "several thousand prison officers are corrupt", Lord Ramsbotham said.

"The current crisis has come about in part because the government has failed to listen ... You don't shoot the messenger because you don't like the message," he said. He accused ministers of "wilful and unnecessary destruction" of the post.

Two weeks ago, Lord Ramsbotham said, he had been consulted by headhunters about the new post. They were "looking for someone who can speak with firsthand experience of inspecting 140 prisons, can advise 50 chief constables on personnel as well as operational matters, knows the intricacies of the crown prosecution courts and probation services, [and] is able to deal with three secretaries of state and 10 other ministers", he said.

Because "no one person can possibly do this", the new chief inspector would have to delegate responsibilities to a deputy, he said.

Holders of the post have caused controversy with a series of independent reports since the inspectorate was set up in 1982. Lord Caithness, the former Tory prisons minister, supported Lord Ramsbotham while admitting in the debate that he had often asked "who will rid me of this troublesome inspectorate".

Lady Scotland, the home office minister, was the only speaker in defence of the plan, which would create a single chief inspector for justice, community safety and custody by March 2008. It would assist moves to a more integrated criminal justice system, she said. The Home Office said it would seek to overturn the amendment when the bill returned to the Commons. The Lords also defeated the government, by 202 to 145, on moves to impose fines for offences, such as vandalism or drunkenness, without a court appearance. On that, too, the Home Office said it would ask MPs to reverse the vote