The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman

Part of Prisons and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:15 pm ar 29 Mawrth 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 2:15, 29 Mawrth 2017

Before dealing with amendments 30, 8 and 31, I will speak about some of the broader policy objectives of clause 4. The prisons and probation ombudsman was established in 1994 as the prisons ombudsman, following Lord Woolf’s public inquiry into the Strangeways prison riots. Over the years, its role and remit have expanded, but despite many calls for it to be put on a statutory footing that has yet to happen.

The ombudsman plays an essential role, not only by providing an independent avenue for complaints, which can be a source of great tension for prisoners, but by investigating deaths in custody, the numbers of which are worryingly high, as all hon. Members will be aware. There have been long-standing commitments from successive Governments to put the ombudsman into legislation, and statutory status has been widely supported by stakeholders, including the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Harris review. I am pleased that we can finally establish the office in legislation.

I should say that the ombudsman is part of a much broader response to the record high levels of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm. We are redoubling our efforts to make prisons places of safety and reform for those at risk. The actions that we are taking include rolling out new training across the estate to support our staff in identifying the risks and triggers of suicide and self-harm and understanding what they can do to support prisoners at risk; putting in place specialist roles—regional safer custody leads—in every region to provide advice to prisons and to spread good practice on identifying and supporting prisoners at risk; and developing our partnerships with experts, including by providing extra funding for the Samaritans to provide targeted support to prison staff and to prisoners directly. All that is in the context of an extra 2,500 staff and the roll-out of new ways of working that I have already set out, which will enable individual prison officers to manage a caseload of about six prisoners each. That extra capability will enable staff to support at-risk prisoners more effectively and will enable prisons to run more predictable regimes, improving safety.

That is all happening without legislation; however, when a death occurs, it is right that it is investigated with the utmost seriousness. Having a statutory office will give the prisons and probation ombudsman more visible independence, permanency and stronger powers of investigation.

Amendments 8, 30 and 31 relate to the ombudsman’s remit. Amendment 8 would widen the remit of the ombudsman to include investigating

“attempted suicides…assaults…staffing levels…and effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes”.

There are already other routes of investigation or scrutiny for these matters. At present, there is no set category to capture data on attempted suicides because it is not possible to determine intent when someone resorts to self-harm. NOMS records all self-harm incidents in prison custody. A self-harm incident is defined as

“any act where a prisoner deliberately harms themselves, irrespective of the method, intent or severity of any injury”.

Nearly 38,000 self-harm incidents were reported last year, so it would be neither practical nor desirable for the ombudsman to investigate them all; however, they are taken very seriously. There are existing systems for treating the prisoner and for providing support through assessment, care in custody and teamwork. Where appropriate, prisons investigate internally and take relevant action.

Investigating assaults is done through adjudications or by the police, so it should not be a function of the ombudsman. In the safety and order section of prison performance standards, we have included a measure of the rate of assaults on prison staff, which we will supplement with an additional measure of staff perception of safety within the prison. Governors will be held accountable for the results that they achieve in reducing assaults on staff; the inclusion of this measure is designed to drive positive change and improve staff safety. Requiring the ombudsman to investigate the effectiveness of post-release arrangements would be a significant departure from its current remit and would overlap with the work of the probation inspectorate.

Clause 11 enables the Secretary of State to request the ombudsman to investigate other matters that may be relevant to the ombudsman’s remit. In the past, that has included the investigation of an attempted suicide and rioting at an immigration detention centre. The ombudsman therefore has flexibility to investigate wider matters, but that is intended for exceptional cases and not to duplicate other established routes for investigation. In conclusion, we do not believe that the amendment is necessary, as other provisions are already in place to cover the functions.

Amendments 30 and 31 would impose a duty on the Secretary of State to request that the ombudsman investigates those instances where a person has been detained under immigration powers for more than 28 days. Such investigations would be completely outside the current administrative remit and proposed statutory remit of the ombudsman. Published Home Office statistics show that of the 28,661 people leaving detention in 2016, 35% had been in detention for 29 days or more. Using those statistics as an illustration, the amendments would require the ombudsman to investigate more than a third of all immigration detention cases, which would have a significant impact on the ombudsman’s workload and core functions.

If the purpose behind the amendments is to introduce some form of independent review in those cases where detention extends beyond 28 days, I am pleased to say that they are unnecessary. The Home Office has already made provision for additional judicial oversight of immigration detention by way of an automatic referral to the first-tier tribunal for consideration of bail after four months in detention. That provision will be commenced in due course. In addition to duplicating arrangements on the oversight of immigration detention, the amendments would fundamentally change the role of the ombudsman and are not consistent with the ombudsman’s purpose.

I hope Members agree that establishing the ombudsman in legislation is a hugely positive step that is long overdue. The ombudsman’s remit is well established. The Bill gives the ombudsman a clear framework to conduct investigations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will therefore withdraw the amendment.