Clause 11

Offender Management Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 3:00 pm ar 18 Ionawr 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Power of search in contracted out prisons and secure training centres

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do not want to detain the Committee, but I would like some elucidation of the thinking behind this change to the law, particularly as I have two prisons in my constituency. From the explanatory notes, I understand the change to be that in contracted-out institutions—the prisons in my constituency are not contracted-out—prisoner custody officers will be allowed to invite prison visitors to strip themselves of all their clothes to see whether there is anything in the clothes or on the body. They will not, however, be allowed to carry out an intimate search, which is presumably a search of body cavities.

I would be grateful if the Minister were to explain the reasoning behind the provision. Will he give us some idea of offences that have been committed by visitors smuggling drugs and other items into prisons? What evidence does he have of behaviour in private prisons differing from that in Her Majesty’s prisons? Is there a concern that a lacuna exists, because he has not extended to contracted-out prisons the right of intimate searches?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising those concerns. Perhaps it will help the Committee if I give some general background to clauses 11 to 15, which deal with related matters.

The Criminal Justice Act 1991 created the legislative framework that supports the use of private providers of custodial services. It created the role of prisoner  custody officer, equivalent to a prison officer, as well as the roles of director, equivalent to a governor, and of controller—a Crown servant—who was given statutory duties aimed at ensuring the proper running ofthe establishment and the appropriate treatment of prisoners. The 1991 Act defines the scope of the powers of each group. Clauses 11 to 15 and clause 21 make specific amendments to the 1991 Act, rather than seeking to introduce new legislation to replace or supplement it.

The first private prison opened in 1992, and there are now 11 such prisons operating in England and Wales holding about 10 per cent. of the prison population. The companies that provide those services have developed a strong track record of delivery and are driving forward the decency agenda, as well as introducing innovation and increasing value for money in public sector prisons. Martin Narey, the former director general of the Prison Service, has said that if had not been for the private sector, the decency agenda would not have moved at the pace that it has.

If we are to make a reality of the recommendations in Lord Carter’s report, “Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime”, then we need to provide, so far as it is practicable, a level playing field between public, private and voluntary providers in the delivery of services to offenders. That aim is best served by ensuring parity in the framework within which services are provided, so as to remove barriers to the best provider being selected.

In response to Lord Carter’s recommendations and the private sector’s strong record on delivery, we therefore propose to resolve some of the historical inconsistencies in the development of private custodial provision. We will create a level playing field for contestability by putting directors on a similar footing to prison governors in the public sector and expanding the powers of less senior workers to align them with their public sector counterparts. This raft of changes is therefore supportive of the general development of NOMS.

Turning to the substance of the clause, the 1991 Act placed limits on the power of prisoner custody officers to search visitors which are more restrictive than those that apply to prison officers in the public sector. Those powers prohibit anything other than a rub-down search, and they do not permit a visitor to be required to remove any piece of clothing other than an outer jacket, jacket or gloves. Such a strict prohibition is not imposed on the public sector. The smuggling of drugs and other items of contraband is a problem in both sectors. The searching restrictions on prisoner custody officers have unintentionally made illegal activities on the part of visitors and prisoners potentially easier in private prisons, which does not make sense and which may cause a real risk to the maintenance of prison security in the future.

With this in mind, we seek through this clause to make it clear that the rub-down search power of a prison custody officer is broadly equivalent to that available to a public sector prison officer. The clause expands that power by deleting from the 1991 Act the prohibition of the removal of anything other than outer clothing. I recognise that it is important that the power is exercised properly and with restraint, and that the limits to the power are fully understood by those  who use it. To reflect that desire, we have expressly included in the clause a prohibition on the conduct of intimate searches, as defined under section 164(5) of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, of visitors or prisoners by a PCO. It is our view that such searches, if necessary, should be carried out only by a police officer.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does that mean that prison officers and prison custody officers will be on exactly the same footing, or will prison officers still enjoy a wider right of search, such as the right to conduct more intimate searches than prison custody officers?

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

No; there are differences in relation to their duties—we will come on to that point in clauses relating to the role of a constable—but there will be parity in relation to strip searches. It is important to set out the nature of those responsibilities, which must be used in the right way in what we hope will be very limited circumstances. However, we need to close that gap.

The searching techniques employed will be exercised in line with procedures currently used in public sector prisons and in accordance with relevant prison rules and young offender rules. It will ensure that staff exercise their powers appropriately by having them certificated as competent by the controller. Furthermore, a controller will be able to observe staff conducting such searches and report to the Secretary of State if allegations are made that the power has been improperly exercised. They will also be able to impose penalties under the contract. In addition, the independent monitoring board in each establishment and the prison and probation ombudsman will provide impartial avenues for complaint.

Given that the restrictions imposed by the 1991 Act apply to young offender institutions in the same way in which they apply to prisons, I should point out that the expanded powers this clause provides would apply equally in a privately operated young offender institution, although at the moment there are no privately run YOIs. A similar amendment to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 will create parity in secure training centres by giving custody officers the same expanded power of search. Once again, it is important to emphasize that the power relates to searching visitors to those centres and not to searching the residents themselves.

Finally, the changes proposed by the clause do not provide custody officers or prisoner custody officers with constabulary powers. It is not necessary to provide them with such powers in order to achieve the aims of the clause. I hope that, with those assurances, the Committee will accept the clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 11 ordered to stand part of the Bill.