Introduction – recognition of IMB role
I am delighted to be here at this Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) National Conference and to have the opportunity to meet so many of you. You give up your time week in, week out, in what can be a difficult and challenging role.
Ensuring those who are detained by the state receive decent and humane treatment is essential.
IMB members provide a unique perspective on the operation of our prisons, immigration removal centres, short-term holding facilities at airports and ports as well as the charter flights returning people to their country of origin.
It’s a role with some history, and one with a reputation for being carried out with rigorous independence and attention to detail.
Being an IMB member is a voluntary role like no other: trusted to have unrestricted access to our most secure establishments, respected in highlighting poor standards or areas of excellence, and skilled in handling complex issues.
Nothing can match your detailed knowledge of your establishment, built up by your frequent visits and responding to applications from detainees on a wide-range of issues such as lost property, family visits and bullying.
It’s a voice I, and my ministerial colleagues in the Home Office, truly value. You occupy a distinct place within the scrutiny framework of both our prison and immigration detention estate. On behalf of the ministerial team, I want to say ‘thank you’.
The need for prison reform and action being taken
As Prisons Minister, I want to say something about our ambitious plans for prison reform.
Our prisons face a serious situation due to long standing problems. Violence, deaths and self-harm are all too high – as are reoffending rates.
Your reports raise these very issues. You have highlighted staffing levels, the physical environment, education provision and health services among many other areas of concern. The Secretary of State and I are determined to tackle them.
We need prisons that are safe, get offenders off drugs and into education and work. That is why we have embarked on the most significant prison reform agenda in a generation.
The Prison and Courts Bill is a key step in our path to reform. It will set a new framework and clear system of accountability for prisons which – for the first time – enshrines into law that a key purpose of prison is to reform offenders.
To complement this we have created Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service – a new frontline agency to focus on operational improvements. As an operational delivery organisation this service will have an overall responsibility for managing performance.
We are also taking action to address the concerns you have raised around staffing levels in prisons, and the impact this can have on prison safety.
- in November last year we announced a £100 million investment to increase prison officer numbers by 2,500
- It will take time to recruit these extra officers but we’ve already made 402 job offers and we already have over 700 officer recruits in training, more than at any other point previously
- we have given governors at 30 prisons across the country greater freedom and flexibility to recruit locally – reducing the time it takes to get new recruits through the door
Taken together, our reforms ensure that every prison officer will act as a dedicated officer to around 6 prisoners. They will act as mentors to listen out for problems, support changes in attitudes and behaviour, and defuse tension.
But we are going further. We are working with industry to identify how to stop drones entering air space over prisons, carrying out trials of technology to block illegal mobile phones, and rolling-out body-worn cameras across the prison estate.
But perhaps most significantly governors will be given greater freedoms in a wide range of areas. This will include their regime, staffing, budgets and health co-commissioning. This will start in April this year and will encourage innovation and build on the work already undertaken in the 6 reform prisons.
These freedoms will be underpinned by new 3 year performance agreements, signed by the Secretary of State and the governor of each prison to provide a transparent framework for accountability.
This new approach will help address some of the issues you identify in your reports, for example that the Governor does not have the freedom to commission local education services that would fill empty workshops, or that Governors are unable to adapt the resettlement provision to better fit the current cohort of prisoners.
Contribution of scrutiny bodies to reform and impact on IMBs
In the context of these reforms the Scrutiny Bodies have a vital role to play. So we are ensuring that the critical roles of IMBs, HM Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman are also enhanced and developed.
Last month we introduced the Prisons and Courts Bill. This will enhance the independent monitoring of prisons by bolstering the impact of the Prisons Inspectorate.The Inspectorate will be required to inspect prison leadership to ensure that governors are being held to account for their new freedoms.
The Bill creates a requirement for the Secretary of State to respond to findings of an inspection within a set timescale. Most significantly, the Inspectorate’s findings can act as a statutory trigger for the Secretary of State to take urgent action in the most serious cases.
And we are also putting the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman on a statutory footing, giving the Ombudsman greater permanence and powers to fulfil his essential investigations. This is a change that has long been called for, and one that we are now delivering.
Of course the value and importance of being enshrined in law, along with a ministerial duty to respond to reports, will come as no surprise given you have been part of the legal landscape since 1952.
But it is in this context – one of developing the most robust and transparent scrutiny arrangements in a reformed system – that the IMB Governance review has been undertaken.
In a system where governors have greater ability to run their prison free from overly-bureaucratic rules and regulations, and with clearer accountabilities, the role of IMBs is vital to provide a regular, and evidence-based, assessment of the difference these new freedoms are making.
That is why I have agreed a new national IMB governance structure designed to provide stronger leadership and accountability.
I am pleased that the advert for the National Chair went live on the Cabinet Office Public Appointments website this week.The Chair will be paid for the first time which brings IMBs in line with other scrutiny bodies.
It is a clear signal of our commitment to increase the influence and impact of independent scrutiny. An important part of the Chair’s role will be to ensure that your voice is clearly heard as we progress our prison reforms, as well as on issues concerning immigration.
Other changes will follow to put in place a new Management Board with a mixture of experienced IMB members and Non-Executive Directors, appointed for the particular skills they can bring to the Board. Preparatory work is underway so that the new Chair can quickly put his or her Management Board in place when they are appointed.
The link to local IMBs is fundamental to this new structure. That is why an appropriate network will continue to be important under the new arrangements so that your voice is heard at all levels.
These are important changes which will take time to deliver. I am grateful to John Thornhill for extending his presidency to provide continued leadership while we appoint the new Chair.
Addressing concerns and recommendations in IMB reports
All these reforms – new legislation, freeing governors to run their prison but with clear accountability, a new IMB governance structure –give us an opportunity to ensure that we use all the available evidence when considering prison performance.
Your reports make an important contribution to this. I take the reports we receive from IMB Chairs very seriously and these reports, along with HMIP inspections, provide me with helpful insight on what is happening within a prison.
The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) have clear processes in place to review and consider issues that you address for their attention. However, I understand your frustration when you make a recommendation, or raise a serious concern, again and again, yet nothing seems to change on the ground.
Our programme of reform means we can look again at:
- how your issues and recommendations form part of how we judge prison performance
- how we ensure that action is taken swiftly when issues are raised
- how we make the most of learning identified in your reports to improve outcomes
I have therefore asked my officials to work with John, and with you, to understand the issues with the current system and develop practical recommendations for the Secretary of State and I to consider. This will ensure that the future prison system is one where IMBs remain at the heart of an independent scrutiny regime.
Before I end, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the new Board at HMP Berwyn and their National Council representative. It is no mean feat to build a board from scratch and develop new members. I look forward to reading the Board’s first report in the coming year.