You wait nearly nine months for the Government response to your review – then they issue 36 reports on the same day. The independent review I led into self-inflicted deaths of young people in prison was submitted to the Ministry of Justice on 2nd April 2015 and published as The Harris Review: Changing Prisons, Saving Lives on 1st July 2015. The Government’s response was finally issued on 17th December 2015.
So was the wait worth it?
The review itself was the most comprehensive independent examination of penal policy for a generation rooted in an enormous volume of evidence and research and underpinned by a detailed analysis of the tragic cases of 87 young people who died in prison between April 2007 and the end of 2013. Since when, there have been a further 29 self-inflicted deaths of young people in NOMS custody.
The response has already been described as ‘complacent’ by Inquest, the national charity that provides advice and support to the bereaved families of those who die in the custody of the State.
There are, of course, some things to welcome in the response. It starts with a ringing declaration by Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice:
‘When an individual enters the prison system they are placed in our care. Offenders are rightly sent to prison as a punishment, not for further punishment. The State has a duty to ensure that everyone deprived of their liberty as a punishment for crime, is kept in a secure environment and held in humane and decent conditions.’
It is difficult to imagine his predecessor penning such lines.
And there is a clear promise that:
‘Reducing the rates of violence, self-harm and deaths in all forms of custody is a ministerial priority.’
Alongside this, there is an explicit acknowledgement that the review was:
‘… right to highlight the importance of the prevention agenda to tackle the root causes of offending and to divert young people from custody wherever possible, and this is dependent on a cross-government approach.’
However, these fine words seem in contradiction to some of the rather mealy-mouthed and defensive responses, no doubt penned by NOMS officials, to the individual recommendations.
Nevertheless, many of the review’s 108 recommendations have been accepted. Or at least this is what the government response appears to be saying. The detailed wording is not as clear-cut.
For example, the review recommends increased professionalisation of prison staff and that ‘remuneration should reflect that professionalism’. The response says this is agreed, but defines ‘agreed’ by saying:
‘The Prison Service Pay Review Body… is required by its terms of reference to take into account the need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified staff.’
However, nowhere does the response indicate what ‘suitably’ is meant to mean, nor that the level of professionalism will actually be increased. And in response to the recommendations that relate to the provision of sufficient ‘safer cells’ to meet to meet the needs of those requiring additional protection all that is said is that:
‘Maintenance of safer cells to the agreed standard forms part of the prison maintenance programme.’
This is not quite the same.
There are also a series or recommendations that are described as agreed and already adopted. This rather misses the point that the recommendation is there (for example, about adequate information being passed on when a prisoner is moved to another establishment) because existing policies were found by the review not to be effective.
Central to the review was the finding that existing Prison Service Instructions were not being delivered in practice, that in many instances they were not funded or that staffing levels to deliver them were not available, and that NOMS centrally does not have adequate mechanisms in place to assess whether their instructions are being adhered to in individual establishments.
The response simply asserts that:
‘Benchmark staffing levels for public sector prisons are set at a level that allows compliance with existing instructions.’
And the review’s findings that the benchmarking levels are not adequate and should be reviewed immediately to allow full compliance with Prison Service Instructions is summarily rejected, along with the proposal that there should be ‘a more effective system for auditing the implementation of PSIs at individual establishments and to assure NOMS senior management that the instructions are practical and are being implemented…’.
In all, 33 of the central recommendations of the review are rejected outright.
This includes the fundamental concept at the heart of the Review that there should be a suitably trained professional officer who has personal responsibility for the journey of each individual prisoner through the prison system. This Custody and Rehabilitation Officer would have a case load small enough for him or her to know each of the prisoners for whom they are responsible, and would ensure that health, social welfare, security, education, training and rehabilitation needs are being adequately addressed during their time in prison.
It is difficult to see how the rehabilitation revolution to which Michael Gove has committed himself can be achieved without someone ensuring that it happens for the individual prisoner.
This is a major missed opportunity and will mean that many lives continue to be wasted by a prison system that fails to find what Winston Churchill, when he was responsible for the prison system more than a hundred years ago, called the ‘curative and regenerating processes … in the heart’ of every prisoner.
Also rejected was the recording of how much time prisoners spend banged up in their cells each day and how much time is spent engaging in purposeful activity, despite the evidence that isolation and lack of purpose are likely to be important factors leading to self-harm and suicide.
The Review’s recommendation that there should be specific policies on bullying was not accepted, again despite the evidence that various forms of bullying were involved in many of the deaths that we considered.
Safety measures such as the proposal for a dedicated telephone line (rather than having to battle through prison switchboards) for relatives to pass on concerns about a prisoner following a visit or a telephone call were rejected.
The Review also proposed a statutory duty of cooperation between agencies to ensure that information about prisoners’ needs and vulnerabilities were shared appropriately and a duty of candour upon NOMS and its staff in the event of a death in custody. These too were rejected.
Changes to court processes to ensure that custody really is a last resort for a young person, by requiring that a full written pre-sentence report be commissioned, were not accepted. This was despite evidence the courts increasingly have to rely on abbreviated oral assessments of the circumstances and vulnerabilities of young people appearing before them.
Virtually all of the recommendations designed to strengthen transparency and accountability were rejected, including greater parliamentary oversight, the facility for the Chief Coroner to produce thematic reports on deaths in custody, and increased public reporting by HM Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.
When the review was submitted to Ministers, I wrote:
‘Those who ignore the lessons of past failures are condemned to repeat them. And that will be the fate of policy-makers who fail to act on the proposals that we are putting forward… . The proposals that we have put forward are rooted in the impressive body of evidence that we have received and considered. They are changes that are urgently needed, if the waste of resources that is our present penal policy is to be stemmed and if – even more importantly – the tragic preventable loss of young lives is to be halted.’
One of our recommendations, designed to keep this issue on the top of ministerial agendas, was that in future the Minister for Prisons should personally phone the families of young people who die in NOMS custody to offer condolences on behalf of the state, to promise a full investigation into what had happened and an assurance that the appropriate lessons would be learned.
We submitted our report in the memory of the 87 tragic cases that we considered. Our hope was that our conclusions would be heeded and that those ministerial calls would be exceptional and rare. Perhaps the reason why that specific recommendation has been rejected reflects ministerial shame about how often they will still have to make such calls.
Lord Toby Harris was made a Life Peer in June 1998 and is chair of the Labour Peers. He is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Policing; treasurer of the Parliamentary Internet Communications and Technology Forum; and a member of the Joint Select Committee on the National Security Strategy. He was leader of Haringey Council from 1987 to 1999 and chair of the Association of London Government from its formation in 1995 until 2000. He was the first chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority between 2000 to 2004. Lord Harris present chairs the Independent Advisory Panel on deaths in custody.