On Monday, the Government introduced its Prisons and Courts Bill. As a member of the Justice Select Committee we have been scrutinising the Government’s thinking regarding this Bill and we have come across several areas that we find worrying and with questions still left to be answered.
1. Independence of Prison Governors
2. Changes to small claims
3. The Government’s failure to tackle violence in prisons
It is now the case that 76 of the prisons in our estate—some 60%—are overcrowded, and have been deemed to be overcrowded by the prisons inspector. We have seen an increase of 39% in the number of deaths in prison custody over the last year alone, while there has been a 32% increase in self-inflicted deaths. There has also been a massive increase—22%—in the number of self-harm incidents reported. We have seen an increase in the number of assaults by prisoners on staff and on fellow prisoners. There has been an increase in the number of psychoactive substances found in prisons. There has been an increase in the number of mobile phones found in prisons, and, therefore, an increase in the number that are getting into prisons. Sadly, there has been a reduction of some 6,335—26% in the number of prison officers in the past seven years.
I believe that those facts are linked. We have fewer prison officers and the same number of prisoners—prisoners who, for a range of reasons, are more difficult and more challenging and, in many cases, have been convicted of more violent offences. The reduction in prison officer numbers has a real impact on the other statistics. While I do not object to the aims of clause 1 —indeed, I support them—I think that we need to think about what they mean in practice, and about how the White Paper is linked to them.
The Justice Committee welcomes the fact that clause 2 puts Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons on a statutory footing, and we consider the statutory recognition of the inspectorate’s role in visiting places of detention to be a positive development. We are pleased that the chief inspector of prisons will be required to have regard to the new statutory purposes of prisons. I am particularly pleased that the Government will have to respond to the chief inspector’s recommendations within 28 days if the matter is urgent, or within 90 days in the case of a general inspection, and that there will be scrutiny of inspection powers. Clauses 4 to 20 put the prisons and probation ombudsman on a statutory footing, and we welcome that as well.
The Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation that the HMIP protocol should be finalised, and said that they would produce a final version before the Second Reading. The Committee was consulted on the draft protocol in January, but as far as I know no final protocol has been agreed or published. I think it important for it to be published as soon as possible so that we can develop it accordingly. It was more than a year ago that we recommended a protocol on the relationship between the inspectorate and the Ministry, and we need to know what that relationship is.
Whiplash poses a challenge for the Minister and the Government. The Committee heard evidence from the Association of British Insurers and from the association of legal professionals who deal with whiplash cases. Because we have not been convinced by the Government’s case to date, we have established a follow-up inquiry—as the Minister is doubtless aware, it was announced last Friday—to call for evidence on whiplash. The terms of reference for our fuller inquiry include the definition of whiplash and the prevalence of road traffic accident-related whiplash claims, considering whether fraudulent whiplash claims stack up and whether the provisions in part 5 introduce an effective tariff to regulate damages for RTA-related whiplash claims. In particular, they include consideration of the impact of raising the small claims limit to £5,000 for RTA-related whiplash claims, and—this is not in the Bill, but it is directly linked to it—raising the small claims limit to £2,000 for personal injury claims more generally. They also include consideration of the role of claims management companies, which have not been touched on to date.
This is the challenge for the Minister. In Committee and on Report—and I hope that the Justice Committee will influence those debates—he must convince us that his policies, established on a cross-party basis with the Committee, will meet our objectives. The claims that the Government have made about savings being passed on to motorists and about the level of fraud in the system have not yet been tested to my satisfaction or that of the Justice Committee, which, it should be remembered, has a Conservative majority.
I will not block this Bill, but there is a huge amount of scope to improve it and deliver and protect justice for the people of Delyn and the UK more widely.