§ 9.55 p.m.
§ Lord Avebury rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what were their reasons for deciding not to renew the appointments of three members of the board of visitors at Haslar Prison in the triennial review on 31st December 2000.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords and to the Minister, who have stayed until this late hour to deal with a very important question—one which affects not only Haslar but has implications for the management and support of boards of visitors as a whole.
§ Let me start by acknowledging that there was a breakdown in relations between the governor, Mr McAlley, and the board of visitors at Haslar. Matters came to a head in May last year, three months after his arrival at the prison, when the board decided unanimously to conduct a race relations survey at Haslar on the lines of NACRO's prisons and race survey. The idea was approved by the Minister when he met the chair, Katheryn Harrison, on 23rd May.
However, when she tried to see the governor to discuss the arrangements with him, he was too busy. She therefore dealt with his deputy. The governor,
however, was violently opposed to the idea and wrote to Ms Harrison, on 8th June, saying that he viewed her conduct as,
underhand, subversive and a blatant attempt to undermine my authority as governor".
You will not, under any circumstances"—
which was underlined—
conduct a survey of the detainees at Haslar".
§ Ms Harrison replied that the board had every right to carry out the survey, and the Minister also intervened, causing Mr McAlley to back off, two days before the survey, when he wrote to Ms Harrison asking how she wished to proceed on the Sunday and what he could do to help. Almost immediately afterwards he wrote to all members of the board, reverting to the stand he had taken before and insinuating that the operation was being undertaken without the Minister's knowledge or approval.
On 23rd June, when the survey was published, the governor wrote to the board urging them to withdraw it, and threatening that if they did not he would signal to the Secretary of State that,
I find your continued presence in my establishment intolerable".
§ He accused the authors of lying; and he insinuated that they had padded the survey with extra forms which had not been completed by or on behalf of inmates. Two members of the board then resigned, cowed by the governor's threats and wild insinuations.
§ On 4th July, one of the members made a formal complaint against Mr McAlley's behaviour over the survey, saying that he had interfered with the board's statutory responsibilities. Here I should like to ask the Minister to state unequivocally that the plain meaning of the rules is that boards of visitors may conduct surveys of this kind.
§ The complaint also stated that members of the Haslar board had been subjected to bullying and intimidation by the governor and that the governor had made libellous statements about one member of the board.
Four other complaints of bullying and intimidation were made against Mr McAlley during his short tenure of the governorship of Haslar. One investigation found that officers,
have been caused stress, embarrassment, humiliation and discomfort"—
Further, that the governor,
failed to effectively undertake these critical duties—
those were the duties specified in Combating Harassment and Discrimination—
all the more of a failing given his position as a Governing Governor".
The inquiry recommended that Mr McAlley be posted to a job where he could receive closer managerial supervision than is provided to a governing governor—in other words, he should not be appointed to such a position and, in the meanwhile, he should receive,
support, guidance and training in order to overcome his perceived shortcomings in Personnel Management".
§ Did any of this get through to Mr Paul Boateng at the triennial review; and was he made aware of the unique circumstances in which the governor had been simultaneously under investigation following complaints by the chairman of the POA, senior management and a member of the board of visitors?
§ Afterwards, in October, Mr McAlley was transferred to another position and the staff have since been informed that Mr Bennetts, the Governor of Shepton Mallett, is to take his place. Will the Minister tell the House when Mr Bennetts will take up this appointment, bearing in mind the frequent warnings of the Chief Inspector against leaving establishments without a governing governor?
§ I believe that the Minister received an incomplete and tendentious account of events at the prison from the board of visitors secretariat, and that this was the real reason for the decision not to reappoint the three members. The briefing drew heavily on the inquiry into the complaint made by one of the three—an investigation which, as I shall show, was flawed by irregularity and unlawfulness.
§ In the first place, the chair of another board was appointed to the inquiry panel, the first and only time that it has ever happened in such an investigation, clearly showing that an ulterior purpose not mentioned in the official terms of reference was in mind. Will the Minister tell the House at whose instigation that happened? Who nominated Mr Foster, and was he on the database of trained investigators maintained by the investigation coordination unit?
§ Secondly, it became apparent from a list of 78 questions notified to the Haslar chair by the lead investigating officer, Governor Max Morrison, that it was the intention to probe the conduct of the board members, and not that of Mr McAlley. Any such inquiry ought properly to have been conducted under DC4/99, the document setting out the procedure for dealing with complaints about the conduct of a member of a board of visitors. That contains a number of procedural safeguards which were circumvented by dealing with the complaints under the pretence of inquiring into a complaint against the governor. The area manager herself mentioned DC4/99 in a letter to the Haslar chair, so she was well aware of the distinction.
Thirdly, PSO 1300—the instruction dealing with the conduct of "all types of investigation" other than those concerning boards of visitors, and in particular, as in this case, ostensibly into serious allegations against a senior member of staff—states that,
persons identified and criticised … must be given a reasonable opportunity to respond … the senior Investigation Officer should himself forewarn individuals of likely criticism and provide them with opportunities to respond … Any material that is to be disclosed which criticises any individual must be brought to the attention of that individual in writing with a specified deadline for response … The interviewee must be informed of the purpose of the investigation and issued with written advice about the use that may be made of their evidence in any subsequent disciplinary hearing or court".
§ The first three of those requirements were contravened; so was the spirit of the fourth; so was the requirement that the commissioning authority must consider any reasonable complaints about the procedures and respond to them. The chair wrote to the commissioning authority to complain that the 78 questions she was supposed to answer appeared to be a witch-hunt against the board. The CA replied to the letter without addressing the point. The irrelevance of the questions to the original terms of reference was also drawn to the attention of the board of visitors secretariat and to the attention of the Minister.
§ In the past three years, only 11 members of boards of visitors have not been re-appointed at their triennial review. Apart from the three cases that we are considering today, two members were not re-appointed at Holloway in 1999 and two were not re-appointed at Standford Hill, although they were never formally notified of the Minister's decision. Those two members at Standford Hill have been in limbo for the past 15 months. When can they expect to be told what their status is?
After the Holloway episode, an inquiry ordered by the then Minister, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, recommended that,
The triennial review system should be overhauled to make it more transparent and fair".
§ Can the Minister tell us what was done about that advice? If it has been ignored, Ministers are culpable of perpetuating what was described by Rhona McMeekin in an article in the AM Bo V Quarterly as "institutionalised injustice". The problem is still that the triennial review is used as a means of getting rid of members by the secretariat, acting in concert with the Prison Service, and carrying out its wishes in order to avoid the procedural safeguards that would otherwise have applied. The secretariat reports to Ken Sutton, the Director of Regimes, and, through him, to Phil Wheatley, who is Deputy Director General of the Prison Service. Your Lordships may think it unsatisfactory that boards of visitors, which are meant to be the independent eyes and ears of the Secretary of State, are nevertheless treated as part of the very system that they are supposed to monitor.
§ It is extremely difficult to get good members or, indeed, to get any members to serve on boards of visitors. Almost all boards are short of their proper numbers. They are short of the statutory complement of JPs; they are short of working people; and they are short of younger people. In view of what has happened at Haslar, as well as at Holloway and Standford Hill, it will be even more difficult to get anyone with a mind of his or her own to volunteer. The danger is that boards will be not independent watchdogs but the poodles of the Prison Service.
§ I very much hope that the review that is being conducted by the honourable Member for Gosport, which is about to report, will recommend, as I do now, that the secretariat be divorced entirely from the Prison Service. That change cannot occur too soon.965
§ 10.7 p.m.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Avebury for giving us this opportunity to debate Haslar Prison, and matters relating to its board of visitors. The events at Haslar must concern us all, and it is not difficult to see why. We are discussing this prison because it has a population of immigration detainees. As I have repeatedly pointed out in various debates, we are worried about the detention of asylum seekers, especially those who have exhausted their legal remedies to remain here prior to their removal.
It must be a matter of serious concern to hold immigration detainees when Ministers have stated repeatedly that there are not the appropriate places for them. Yet we pride ourselves on creating more places in our prisons for them. If we had a system that was free of backlog and dealt with applications much quicker, the problem about immigration detainees would certainly diminish to an extent. I am well aware that we are talking about the position of the members of the board of visitors at this particular prison. But, obviously, there is relevance in much of what I have said so far.
Many of the present policies relating to our asylum seekers are very muddled. We are concerned that the automatic bail appearance provisions in the 1999 Act may never be brought into effect. Why has it taken so long? When do we expect that to happen? Limited information from the Home Office stated that this provision would be implemented by May 2000. We were then told that the computer system was not ready, after which the date slipped to October of last year and then to spring of this year. I suspect—and this is confirmed by many who are involved in dealing with asylum matters—that there is likely to be even further delay. No wonder the detention population is rising. At the root of this confusion is the basic principle that all immigrant detainees should be brought before magistrates within eight days and, if still detained, after a further 36 days to question whether detention should continue.
The Minister would not find it difficult to refer to Section 44 of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999. After all, this was the Government's flagship designed to remove the chaotic conditions faced by entrants to this country. Why this delay? The Secretary of State does have discretion by order to amend the circumstances in which a person may be granted bail, which already applies to those in respect of whom directions for their removal from the United Kingdom are in force.
The problems at Haslar have their origins in the breakdown of relationships between the governor and the board of visitors. I am probably one of the few Members, if any, of your Lordships' House who has served as a member of a board of visitors. I did so for over a decade. The Prison Act 1898 officially introduced boards of visitors. Their duties were to inspect, hear applications—most of which were complaints and queries from prisoners—and to deal with adjudications relating to breach of prison 966 discipline. Needless to say the 1952 Prison Act required board members to be Home Secretary appointed.
It is worth pointing out that prisons are very oppressive institutions. Until the introduction of boards of visitors there was no access to outsiders within our prisons. To a great extent board members perform a useful task. They reflect a balance of people within the community between magistrates and non-magistrates and between the sexes. They constitute a mix of ages and occupations. That task is often resented by prison officers and, from time to time, by governors.
The main role of the board of visitors is that of an informed watchdog for the Secretary of State independent of the management of the prisons in which the prisoners are held. This is where conflict is bound to arise. The prison governors who manage our prisons often find board of visitor members obstructive because management decisions are often questioned. It is a healthy sign that such a tension should prevail. Inmates may lose many of their rights when sentenced but there always remain residual rights. It is for board members to ensure that those are never denied to those whom we imprison. Take away boards of visitors and we shall find ourselves back in the Victorian ways of managing our prisons.
I have been associated with many prisons in this country. More importantly, I chair NACRO, the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. We have undertaken many major activities in prisons. We undertook a prison and race survey with the full co-operation of the Prison Service. The Director General, Marlin Narey, to his credit, accepted our findings and introduced a number of changes affecting race relations in prisons. That we have welcomed.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the Haslar board also wished to carry out a race survey which seems to be one of the causes of the breakdown of relations between the board of visitors and the governor. I need not elaborate on that point as my noble friend Lord Avebury has sketched the history of the events there.
The board of visitors in Haslar should be congratulated on the way it went about its task. Almost all agencies working with the Prison Service welcomed the findings of the board of visitors In fact, the situation in Haslar was even worse than the one NACRO found in other prisons. Overall there was a higher level of dissatisfaction among Haslar detainees. The uncertainties in a holding centre no doubt played an important part in that. But there was also a positive side to the survey. Haslar detainees were more satisfied with access to education and with the library stock than were prisoners in the NACRO survey. However, there were other matters of concern. Asian detainees were much less satisfied than other detainees with religious services, food, access to work, education, counselling and legal advice.
967 It is important to identify shortcomings in our prisons. It is important to put right what is wrong in our prisons. More importantly, surveys of this nature identify particular areas needing attention which can affect one group in an establishment more than others.
Let us not forget that here we are talking not of criminals, not of those who have committed any crime but of those who have sought asylum in this country. But herein lies the root cause of the problem at Haslar. I shall not repeat the public perception of the three dismissed members of the board of visitors at Haslar. No amount of gloss on the part of the Minister can convince me that the reason for the non-renewal is to enable the changing of boards gradually over the years. This was an unprecedented decision and comes at a time when the Government have announced their initiative to persuade the public to perform voluntary service. Ministers must have reasons. It is important that these are openly stated. If that is not done, people are entitled to make up their own minds.
Of course, there are bound to be occasions when members of boards of visitors do not fit in and then I see nothing wrong in their removal. If, however, standards in public life are to be maintained, not only should we appoint members who are well qualified but also we should reject those who are not. Unless that is done openly, suspicions are bound to arise.
As my noble friend Lord Avebury has just said, the Minister explicitly agreed at Brighton to allow the board of visitors to conduct the Haslar race survey. Will he confirm that board members allege that they were subjected to bullying and intimidation by the governor? Has an investigation been carried out? Have the allegations been substantiated? It is no good complaining about the speed with which the survey was carried out. The board of visitors rightly said that it wasted no time in reporting the issues of serious concern reflected in the survey. I repeat, a named catering officer, when asked about catering arrangements for Jews, replied, "We have gas ovens, don't we? What more do they want?". I am simply quoting from the report. If such attitudes persist and are identified, those people should not work in our prisons.
The Haslar board was keen to carry out the race survey, which took place before the Commission for Racial Equality announced an investigation into racism in the Prison Service, because it had received only two applications from the immigration detainees at Haslar in the previous two years. The board had serious doubts about its own effectiveness and saw the publication of NACRO's Race and Prisons report as a vehicle for objectively evaluating its own performance. We at NACRO were approached and agreed not only to allow the board to use our questionnaire as a template in Haslar, but to review the draft report before publication. The governor was vehemently opposed to the proposed survey. As my noble friend Lord Avebury said, his reaction was:I view your conduct in this matter to be underhand, subversive and a blatant attempt to undermine my authority as Governor".968 We still do not know how he reached such a view and on what basis he made that statement.
The facts about the survey are not in dispute. One can only conclude that three members of the Haslar board resigned during that period as a direct result of the governor's hostility to the board carrying out its lawful duties. If that is not so, we should know what the other reasons were. Intense pressure was put on the board to suppress the report.
The Home Office will have to make up its mind whether it wants boards of visitors to be the eyes, ears and conscience of the community. Unfortunately, the confidence of local BoVs is often eroded by their treatment by the Home Office. Haslar has shown how the Home Office can negate much of the good work that has been done. The message is, "If you want to remain a member of the board, stop causing problems".
I am also on the council of the Howard League for Penal Reform. We all strive for effective and valued boards of visitors. The Howard League feels that the image of BoVs is not of an independent group of people representing the community and ensuring that prisons operate humanely and effectively. Far too frequently, they have been portrayed as lapdogs or screws in suits instead of watchdogs, which is their acknowledged role. That perception is supported by many of our observations of board members. We have witnessed boards of visitors clustering around wing offices near staff instead of interacting with prisoners and investigating issues that are important to them. Some board members have even admitted that they are fearful or uncertain about talking to prisoners.
Board members require a clear job description so that they know the parameters of their function, including the limits of their role. Haslar remains a shameful chapter in the history of boards of visitors. The governor, the Prison Service and the Home Office reflect the unacceptable face of our prison policies.
§ 10.19 p.m.
§ Baroness Stern
My Lords, it is a pleasure to participate in this debate, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who is such a tireless campaigner for human rights. I have met members of human rights organisations in many parts of the world. If I mention the House of Lords, they say, "Do you know Lord Avebury?". "Yes," I answer, "I am proud to say that I do". This debate is one in a long line that he has initiated on important issues.
The boards of visitors system in England and Wales is one of which, overall, we can be very proud. I have been involved with boards of visitors for many years and have contributed to training events and meetings. I have always come away thinking that it is a great strength that people of such high calibre choose to become involved with prisons. They carry out work that most of their neighbours—the other people in their street—would regard as abnormal, or even bizarre. The work that they do is very practical and has implications for the everyday life and the everyday happiness or misery of prisoners. It is public service at 969 its most unglamorous and most unrecognised. This debate provides an opportunity for this House to say that.
I am sure that noble Lords would agree that there must be independent, external oversight of prisons. Even in the best prison system in the world, things go wrong. Staff are tempted to cut corners and abuse creeps in. There must be community involvement in prisons. There is an important role for those who bring to the operation of a prison—a closed institution—the eyes and the sensibility of the ordinary citizen. They can bring in the values of the outside world and say, "This is how we expect our fellow citizens to be treated". The boards of visitors system combines both those elements and, as such, it is a model for the rest of the world.
The new government in the Republic of Georgia have just passed a law to institute a boards of visitors system which is closely modelled on our own. People from Georgia visited us here last week to learn from us and to hear from our boards of visitors about what they do.
Similarly, following a crisis in the prisons there, a committee was set up in France. The members of that committee came to London to look at our system of control and oversight. They met people from boards of visitors and were deeply impressed by their level of commitment and the fact that people from many walks of life chose to do the task for no money. When they went home, they recommended a new model for France based very much on what they had learnt about our system. Therefore, the importance of what we do extends beyond this country. It is worth taking seriously when it goes right and when it goes wrong.
One element of our boards of visitors system interests people from abroad greatly. It is the question of independence. Those from abroad ask how boards of visitors can be independent when the Minister responsible for prisons appoints them but can also remove them. The answer is that, in spite of the appointments system, they are independent because everyone in the system respects their independence. No one would ever try to get rid of them because of what they say or because of the points that they raise with the Home Secretary or with the governor of their prison, provided that they do so in a responsible manner.
That principle is very important. From what I have read and from what I have heard this evening, I fear that it may have been breached in the case of the board at Haslar. I do not want to comment at length on the events; previous speakers have done so. However, whatever the specific details, I want to ask the Minister whether he agrees that proper procedures must be put in place to deal with difficulties such as those. Does he agree that it is not appropriate to deal with them while pretending to do something else?
I should also like to ask the Minister whether the Home Office has reflected recently on the structure within which boards of visitors operate and on the role of the boards of visitors secretariat in the Home Office.
970 The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned the review under Sir Peter Lloyd. I hope that it will look again at a recommendation frequently made: that the regulation of boards of visitors should be removed from the Home Office and vested in an independent body under a president who would have powers to deal with problems highlighted here in a way which leads to a satisfactory resolution but which also safeguards that precious independence that is such a great strength. I should be grateful to know the view of the Minister if such a suggestion were made by the Lloyd review.
Finally, I should like to touch on the question that my noble friend Lord Dholakia raised about those incarcerated in Haslar Prison, who are not convicted criminals but immigration detainees, asylum seekers, people who have fled here for a multitude of reasons. I understand—I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm this—that immigration detainees held in such a detention centre are not subject to provisions of the Prison Service such as mandatory drug testing. I understand that immigration detainees held in wings of normal prisons are subject to mandatory drug testing. Can the Minister confirm this and, if it is the case, tell the House why this is done and under what powers?
§ 10.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Avebury for introducing this debate. I believe that my noble friend follows the very great tradition of reformers who have brought such honour upon this country—people who devoted themselves, their lives and energy to the protection of the most disadvantaged in our society, whose only reward is to have bettered the lives of some of their fellow human beings. I am more than honoured to share membership of the same party with my noble friend.
I begin where the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, ended: by asking one or two questions specifically about Haslar and the treatment of detainees there. That issue is the primary task to which the board of visitors devoted itself. On 22nd January I received a letter from one of those detainees, Mr Gabriel Nkwelle. Mr Nkwelle comes from the Cameroons, a businessman who has served professionally in his country. He is one of the leading human rights campaigners in that country. He fell foul of the authorities. If ever there was an example of the kind of person for whom most of us would use the term "genuine" asylum seeker, Mr Nkwelle falls into that category.
I asked about him before I took great notice of what he said. I shall tell the House something of what he said in a moment. I asked innocently enough of the Haslar board of visitors. I felt that its members would probably know detainees in Haslar rather well. It was very innocent of me because by that time—22nd January—most of the Haslar board of visitors had already been told that they were not going to be reappointed. One of them—whom I shall not name because I do not wish to see him dismissed as well— 971 wrote to me recently about Mr Nkwelle saying that he believed him to be a brave and honest man. That particular visitor had spent some time with him.
Mr Nkwelle had written to a number of organisations, including the Home Office, Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to complain about some of the things going on in Haslar. In particular he complained about the use of racist language; the use of expired food in the kitchen; the fact that there were no doors and curtains in the cubicles where the detainees were living, and the fact that at least two detainees—let us not forget that people are meant to be detained only in the latter stages when they are due for deportation—had been there respectively for 15 and 20 months, each of them men who had undergone serious operations.
Mr Nkwelle stuck to his guns. He sent the letter to all and sundry, making no pretence about what he was saying. Not surprisingly, on 2nd February—just eight days after he wrote the letter—he was sent to Belmarsh high security prison in south London. There were indications in the race relations survey, details of which my noble friend Lord Avebury has given to the House, that one of the things that was sometimes said to detainees was that they might be "shipped away" if they made too many complaints and caused too much trouble. That was not a reference to violent trouble, to leading insurrections or carrying drugs and alcohol into the detention centre; it was a reference to simply complaining about some of the circumstances in which their fellow detainees were kept.
However, Mr Nkwelle was not a man to be silenced and he wrote again, this time from Belmarsh. He pointed out that in Belmarsh asylum seekers who had committed no crime were being held in the same wing as convicted criminals. He pointed out that they were sharing cells with convicted criminals. He pointed out that they remained locked up when convicted criminals were allowed out for exercise and when convicted criminals were allowed out to watch television. In short, non-sentenced asylum seekers, against whom no charge of any crime was alleged, were being kept in considerably harsher conditions than those who had been convicted of committing serious crime, and no one goes to Belmarsh unless he has committed a serious crime.
Given the immigration and nationality service rules, perhaps I should add that those asylum seekers were allowed precisely five minutes a day for a phone call and only one phone call per day, and they were not permitted to receive telephone calls or faxes from their solicitors. That appears to me to be a direct breach of what I understand to be the safeguards under the Human Rights Convention which we in this Parliament passed, agreed to and believed Ministers would enforce.
I turn back to that same board of visitors—the people charged with responsibility for upholding standards at Haslar, a job it did excellently. The members took on board the complaints of Mr Boateng, the Minister for prisons. The Minister had 972 said, as had the much respected head of the Prison Service, Mr. Narey, that they were concerned that boards of visitors so often appeared to be non-reactive; that they allowed themselves to continue in formal office but not to draw attention to some of the things happening in the institutions for which they were responsible in the way that Ministers, the head of the Prison Service and others believed they should. It was against that background that the Haslar board of visitors decided to mount a race relations survey in the prison based upon the template of NACRO.
We know already from my noble friend Lord Avebury that every possible measure was taken by the governor at the time to stop the board of visitors from conducting that survey, including threats that all the members would lose their positions on the board if they proceeded with it. To their great credit they proceeded with the survey and at the end of the day it was the governor who was suspended and recognised eventually as not fit to be an active governor.
The board of visitors' report was praised by an astonishing range of people. It was praised by the Inspector of Prisons, by the head of NACRO, by the Race Relations Board. Indeed, it received praise which, if I had time, I would recite because in every single case that race relations survey was regarded as an outstanding piece of work and as being extremely helpful to those responsible for running our prisons. However, it does not appear to have stood the board of visitors in good stead to have received praise from all quarters, including senior officials charged with the responsibility for the Prison Service and the Chief Inspector of Prisons. Indeed, it seems to have done them nothing but damage.
At the triennial review three of the most active members of the board of visitors were told that their appointments would not be renewed. As my noble friend said, when in a triennial review precisely 11 members of boards of visitors in one third of all the prisons in England and Wales are told that they are no longer required, it is astonishing that three of the 11 should be among the most active members of this board of visitors which acted in a way that was so widely praised. As my noble friend Lord Dholakia said in his powerful speech, it is impossible to believe that they were not reappointed for any good reason.
One of them was relatively young. One of them was a JP. There is a requirement under the rules that at least two members of boards of visitors should be JPs; there are now no JPs on the board of visitors for Haslar. The chairman was a young woman committed to the welfare of the detainees under her care. It is extraordinary that they all went. I ask the Minister what reason was given by Mr Boateng, who had specifically authorised and encouraged the survey which appears to have caused so much trouble, for upholding these dismissals.
I turn to the situation of detainees, especially asylum-seeker detainees, in our prisons. I am deeply troubled by the fact that we, an honourable and decent country, are locking up in large numbers men and women some of whose crimes relate almost entirely to 973 acts of conscience of a kind that we should applaud and uphold. Much is going wrong in our detention centres. At Oakington there are allegations, which have not been thoroughly investigated, of trafficking of young women by Chinese gangs. We are already aware of the situation in Haslar. At Her Majesty's Prison, Rochester, we have found that the detainees who protest or complain seem to find their way rather frequently to Belmarsh.
I conclude by saying that any decent, democratic society depends on the courage of its whistle-blowers, of those who speak out and say what is going wrong. It is in the interests of the Home Office, the Prison Service and all those related to it that acts of injustice, cruelty and brutality should not be permitted to occur within its ranks. I was once a prison Minister. I have great admiration for many in the Prison Service. Many prison officers and prison governors are dedicated to their jobs. Many members of the Prison Service, including its present head, have done everything possible to root out bad behaviour and injustice. They are being let down by those who dismiss the whistle-blowers for their courage and for having spoken out. We are all in their debt.
I again ask the Minister to request his colleague Mr Boateng to consider carefully whether, in view of the fact that the brave members of the Haslar board of visitors were doing exactly what he had twice asked them to do, this decision should be reversed.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Viscount Bridgeman
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for initiating the debate. Once again, a small number of speakers in your Lordships' House bring an astonishing breadth of first-hand experience to the subject in hand.
This is a classic case of a bad relationship developing between two sets of individuals; in this case, the board of visitors at Haslar and the then governor. Undoubtedly, there was bad blood. There is a clear record of bullying of the visitors and obstruction of their inquiries, particularly when they instituted their inquiry on racism at the prison—so the relationship got off to a bad start.
There are always two sides to an argument and it is fair to assume that the prison management was rubbed up the wrong way by the board of visitors, who were, I understand, not always in agreement among themselves. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, the board of visitors produced a report on racism which received very favourable comments from the Prison Reform Trust and, significantly, the Prisons Ombudsman and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons.
The non-reappointment of three members of the board has shown up some radical weaknesses in the appointments structure for boards of visitors. That theme has run through the debate in the House today. The Minister was of course within his rights using the triennial review procedure where he was able not to reappoint the three members of the board without giving reasons.
974 Whether or not that was intended, it certainly gave the impression to interested outsiders that it had the effect of circumventing the provision of Rules 75(3) and (4) of the Prison Rules 1999 and certainly was not in accord with the fairness rules of the code of conduct for boards of visitors, which states that members must:be told in writing of the complaint against them in advance of any interview; be provided with copies of any written evidence (including witness statements) forming the basis for the complaints; be given the opportunity to state their case and challenge any evidence before any decision is made".The Minister's actions were certainly capable of the interpretation that this device had been used to get rid of troublemakers or those trying to rock the boat. It also must be said that, whatever the merits of the case, the odds are stacked against the individual members of a board of visitors when he or she is in conflict with the establishment. For instance, an aggrieved member would be wary of embarking on an application for judicial review because he would face an award against him of all the costs if the Minister were found to have been within his rights.
The Minister is to be commended on his initiative in appointing my right honourable friend Sir Peter Lloyd to chair a committee composed of well qualified experts to advise on the appointments of boards of visitors. The committee has yet to report, but I hope that it will recommend some kind of independent body to manage appointments of boards of visitors.
I am not referring to the case under debate here but to the role in general played by the boards of visitors secretariat. That body has a valuable role to play in looking after the individual boards of visitors and I surmise that the relationship between individual boards of visitors and the secretariat is one of trust and mutual confidence. It is therefore not right that the secretariat also has a disciplinary role. The combination of the roles may be appropriate in the case of a family, but in the public service it can be far more problematic.
If, as we hope, the Lloyd committee recommends some kind of independent body, that body will indeed have powers of appointment and dismissal. It should be taken out of the Prison Service administration and placed in the hands of a body which is truly independent, such as the Prisons Ombudsman's office.
Some of the decisions as to whether or not to reappoint or to dismiss will be relatively straightforward, such as in cases of misconduct. There will however be cases where it is for any reason inappropriate to give reasons for non-appointment. For instance, a member of the board of visitors may have a bad manner or, for instance, not be sufficiently unbiased, or possibly just simply stale and increasingly ineffective. No member should ever be able to gain the impression that he was part of the furnishings, provided only that he keeps out of trouble. Any such authority must have the powers to remove or not to reappoint members for sustained inadequate performance; otherwise it is a recipe for mediocrity and inefficiency. I hope that Sir Peter Lloyd's committee will also address the question of an appeals procedure and possibly a maximum length of service.
975 I believe that prison visiting has a tradition which goes back to the 2nd century AD. It certainly engaged the attention of Elizabeth Fry and William Allen in the 18th and 19th centuries. Let us not forget that here we are dealing with a particularly British institution which has counterparts in very few other countries; namely, an individual who is engaged in unpaid public service. In particular, I associate with that tradition the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, about whom the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, spoke most eloquently.
I speak with no experience of boards of visitors, but I am well aware that at least two noble Lords who have spoken have acted in that capacity. I am sure that what is required of a good member of a board of visitors is experience, judgment, commitment, integrity and compassion, to name but a few of the qualities which he or she will need to bring to bear. The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said that the board of visitors at Haslar was well under establishment. The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, has provided graphic details of the work which the visitors will need to address in that prison in future.
The board of visitors is an absolutely crucial part of the penal system in England and Wales. Whatever the difficulties, it has performed a valuable service at Haslar in particular in the race review. A few weeks ago I took part in the debate on the problems at Blantyre House in Kent. There the reports of the board of visitors were particularly significant in the context of the removal of the governor and the raid on that prison by the Prison Service which aroused such disquiet in your Lordships' House. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, spoke to that point as a former member of a board of visitors.
The treatment of boards of visitors as regards their period of service must be fair, and be seen to be fair and (to use a current, overworked expression) transparent. I am confident that Sir Peter Lloyd and his committee will address these issues. I await his report with interest and am sure that the Minister will take careful note of it.
§ 10.48 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for introducing this debate. I am equally grateful to him for agreeing to postpone it from the rather infelicitous hour of one o'clock this morning. Unfortunately, that decision led to one casualty: the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth. I know that he intended to make a characteristically constructive contribution. I place on record my regret that he is unable to join in the debate this evening, but I shall make myself available to listen to his representations which I know will be helpful in dealing with what we all recognise is an issue of great importance.
I also appreciated the contribution by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, who helped to put the debate into context. He is right that we need to look forward to the findings of Sir Peter Lloyd who is due 976 to report in the very near future. He will have a range of recommendations to make on issues that have caused concern to every noble Lord who has participated in the debate this evening. I expect that some of those issues will be addressed accurately in the report. In the course of my contribution I shall seek to answer as many detailed questions as I can, but I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not succeed in replying to all of them. I shall write to noble Lords in areas where there is a deficiency.
What is outstanding about all the contributions so well expressed this evening is noble Lords' respect for the board of visitors and the role that it plays in our system. Therefore, there is the inevitable regret and anxiety which develops when matters have gone wrong. No one can begin to approach the issue with regard to the Haslar holding centre without recognising that a number of mistakes have been made and difficulties have occurred. The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, in his opening remarks, identified the matter very accurately when he said that there had been clashes of personality and difficulties which were not resolved in the way we would ordinarily expect them to be resolved.
This evening we have had a very accurate definition of the ideal role which the Board of Visitors should play. We must strive towards that ideal as best we can. As noble Lords have identified, we have few people willing and able to come forward. Perhaps, as a society, we should be more solicitous about the need for people to come forward for this role. We defined it as essential. The people who come forward make an enormous contribution to the operation of our prison system. We owe them a very great debt of gratitude. However, from time to time difficulties will develop, as they clearly have in this case.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who originated the debate, had a number of specific questions to which he rightly expects replies. Let me preface my remarks by a slight note of regret. The noble Lord referred to his meeting with my right honourable friend Paul Boating, the Minister of State. I had hoped that that meeting would have led to many of the anxieties which the noble Lord has expressed this evening being allayed.
There is a sense that, in some respects, the process has been back to front. The meeting with the Minister has taken place before we have had a general airing of the issues. It is often more constructive to deal with the Minister after the broad issues have been opened up in debate, either in this House or in the other place. I recognise that there were specific questions which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wanted answered which I had hoped would have been answered. But I shall do my best to answer them.
The noble Lord is quite right in his supposition that the board of visitors is quite within its rights to interview prisoners out of the sight and hearing of officers. It has the right to carry out a survey. Such a survey is best effected—
§ Lord Avebury
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I am sorry to intervene when he has passed 977 the remarks he was making about the interview that I had with his right honourable friend. Can I make it clear—I am sure that the Minister would acknowledge this—that when I went to see Mr Boateng our discussions centred on the role of a board of visitors and the changes which might occur as a result of the review that was mentioned by the right honourable member for Gosport and Fareham? Mr Boateng made it clear that he did not wish to discuss, for particular reasons, what had happened at Haslar.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I accept that as an accurate reflection of the nature of the meeting. I merely report that it came as a surprise that the issues were being advanced on the basis of a debate in your Lordships' House. It was thought that a fruitful dialogue had emerged that would lead to an improvement in the situation as a result of the noble Lord's meeting with my right honourable friend the Minister.
Let us pass that matter. I can reassure the noble Lord that he is right when he says that the board of visitors was acting within its rights to seek to carry out a survey. It was suggested in a number of contributions that the survey was greatly respected and was the fruit of a significant piece of work on the part of the board of visitors. But it is the case that there were dissenting voices about the report among the board of visitors. It is not the case, as may have been portrayed earlier, that there was a clear position of the board of visitors on what was appropriate at Haslar and that conflicts came with the governor and senior staff. That is not the case. There was also dissension and difficulties within the board. We need to put these matters in context when we look at how some of the problems emerged.
I hasten also to assure the noble Lord—he was probably able to gauge this from his meeting with the Minister—that the Minister was fully apprised of all the facts before he reached his decision with regard to the non-reappointment of the three members of the board of visitors. Part of the difficulty we are all facing is that, because relatively small numbers of people are coming forward, some members of boards serve for long periods. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, himself identified that problem. He said that he served on a board of visitors for a very considerable period. I am not gainsaying the advantage of long experience, but it is probably advantageous if we are able to bring on new people and get fresh perspectives on boards of visitors.
Part of the problem may have occurred in relation to the Haslar Board of Visitors because a substantial number of them had been there for a very considerable period. The leading personalities had certainly had a very long association indeed. That gives them the enormous benefit of experience. But there is also the danger that they stray from their particular responsibilities, which were accurately defined in terms of eyes, ears and conscience. The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, expressed graphically the role of the board of visitors. Someone who had played a senior role as chairman or vice-chairman of the board of 978 visitors over a long period and had perhaps seen several governors come and go might be in danger of thinking that he or she had rather greater executive authority in relation to the institution than is identified in terms of the proper role of the board of visitors as set out by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia.
§ Baroness Williams of Crosby
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I have been following his argument. He has put up the best defence that is possible in the circumstances. However, in the light of his recent remarks., with which all of us would agree, that someone may become too long in the tooth, too dependent on experience and so on, does he not agree that that is a rather puzzling description of, for example, the chairman of the board of visitors at Haslar, who was a 34-year old mother, a professional woman, and someone who had recently come on to the board of visitors and had done an outstanding job, which was recognised by all the people mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman? It is a little puzzling to fit her, for one, into that framework.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, the noble Baroness will recognise that I am not in the business of identifying particular individuals. I hear exactly what she says in that context, but she knows that the board of visitors comprised others who did not fit into that pattern. The noble Baroness is right that we need to see greater numbers of younger people becoming members of boards of visitors and a greater representation of ethnic minorities. The imbalance between the sexes is also shown on so many boards of visitors.
I seek to make the point that we have not been able to recruit as effectively as we would like and to bring into the general framework of boards of visitors as many of our fellow citizens as we would wish. Part of the difficulties at Haslar reflected some of those features.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, put a number of other questions to me. I can tell him that the new governor will take up his position in the very near future. A decision on that is imminent. I hope that I have been able to reassure him on that point.
The noble Lord also mentioned the position as regards the board of visitors at Holloway. It has put forward its views on the triennial review system. I do not think that there is any doubt that the Holloway report, following the inquiry, made some helpful recommendations on procedures to be followed in the triennial review process. The suggestions contained in that report may be substantiated in the report from Sir Peter Lloyd, which we look forward to receiving in due course. At the point we expect to take the next significant step forward in the development of this system.
Perhaps I may refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, who raised an issue regarding people at Haslar who have not been found guilty of any offence. She stated that they are treated on exactly the same basis as convicted prisoners. I can reassure the noble Baroness that different treatment is offered appropriate to the 979 needs of unconvicted people at Haslar. Two regimes operate and reflect the needs of the different groups. The noble Baroness mentioned in particular the mandatory drugs test. I can tell her that the test which is mandatory for prisoners is not for people being held on a different basis in the holding centre.
I have listened to the representations made this evening with great interest. I am aware that we have here an issue which reflects a difficult set of circumstances. It is clear that relationships broke down. Furthermore, it is obvious that the board of visitors, the probation staff and the governor had reached a point where effective operations could not be sustained. That led to the former governor leaving his post. It has also led to a reconstitution of the board of visitors which, I am happy to relate, appears to be working extremely well. It has given cause for celebration, in that improvements are now being effected in relationships. The scene is being set for a constructive relationship with the new governor.
I appreciate the fact that this debate has come about as a result of very real anxieties about a breakdown in the system, from which we need to learn lessons. I hope that I have succeeded in allaying some of the concerns which have been expressed and that I have responded to the particular questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in introducing the debate.
§ Lord Dholakia
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, a number of other issues were raised. Perhaps I 980 may return to two of them. First, very damaging comments were made by serving staff as regards the race relations survey that was carried out. I cited one example. What has been done about those comments and what has happened to the individuals who made them?
Secondly, the Minister has still not told the House why those people were not reappointed. It would be helpful, for the sake of openness, if the Minister could write and explain the real reasons for the non-appointment of the visitors.
§ Lord Davies of Oldham
My Lords, I think that I have put in context the reason: that the difficulties which emerged at Haslar required the element of a fresh start. There is no question of impugning the integrity of the people who acted in that role. In fact, at least one member of the board of visitors at Haslar has been appointed to a similar position on the board of visitors of another prison. There is no question of impugning the integrity, the capacity or the abilities of the people concerned.
In circumstances where relationships had deteriorated to the pitch where there was a whole range of charge and counter-charge, suspicion and dissent, which led to great difficulties in the operation of Haslar holding centre, changes needed to be made, and they have properly been made.
§ House adjourned at five minutes past eleven o'clock.