Schedule 6

Part of Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 7:15 pm ar 20 Tachwedd 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:15, 20 Tachwedd 2007

I would like to respond to the amendments that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough has proposed and hopefully reassure him that they are not necessary. Their purpose is to give the commissioner and not the Secretary of State the power to lay reports directly before Parliament. As he made clear, his intention is to try to increase the perceived independence of the commissioner and ensure that the Secretary of State cannot suppress or alter a report. I hope that he is reassured by what the incumbent said when giving evidence to the Committee; there has never been any instance in his time when the Secretary of State has sought to impinge upon his independence or interfere in any way with any of his reports. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts that that is the case. I hope that, in resorting to some of his more flowery language, he was not suggesting for one moment that the current Secretary of State or indeed anyone has sought to do such a thing or to interfere with or suppress reports of the current prisons and probation ombudsman in any way. The situation was made clear in evidence to the Committee.

I recognise, of course, that the laying of reports by the Secretary of State might give rise to concerns about the commissioner’s independence. We sought to obtain views from the British and Irish Ombudsman Association on the best way to deal with the laying of reports and on who should undertake that task for different Parliaments. The association recommended that the new commissioner’s reports should be published by him in his own right, and that the Secretary of State should then be required to lay them before Parliament. That is what we have provided for in the Bill.

The constitutional arrangements set out in the Bill are therefore broadly comparable with those for other ombudsmen operating in similar situations to that of the new commissioner for offender management in prisons, whose post will exist once the Bill is on the  statute book. There are various differences in detail that reflect the individual terms of reference of the different types of ombudsman, but the association certainly recommended that the arrangements were the correct way of proceeding.

An alternative view is that the Secretary of State is responsible to Parliament for such matters, and that he therefore ought to lay the report. We sought to make sure that there could be no question of a Secretary of State changing a report that he thought might be inconvenient, or delaying the laying of such a report. The Bill requires laying to take place as soon as practicable after receipt. The commissioner will be sponsored by and will report to the Secretary of State for Justice. It therefore seems right that that Minister should have responsibility for laying the commissioner’s report, but I can assure the Committee that there will be no question of interference or delay. I hope that the enables the hon. and learned Gentleman to withdraw the amendment, but clearly that decision is a matter for him.