NIGEL NEWCOMEN WRONG MAN FOR PRISONS OMBUDSMAN
EDITORIAL OF THE PRISONS HANDBOOK 2013 – PUBLISHED TODAY
Before saying anything about the PPO’s office and its seemingly dangerous decline, it is crucial to first recall the horrors from whence it came, and which caused it to open its doors for business in 1994. It was during April 1990 that thousands of angry young men seized control of prisons around the country, with many of them subsequently taking to the prison roof-tops where they raised anguished voices in guttural cries of despair – ‘enough’ they screamed was ‘enough’.
In truth the seeds for the riots were sown many years before the events themselves actually kicked off inside the Chapel of Manchester’s Strangeways Prison on Sunday 1st April 1990. Prisoners described the riots as a genuine protest against inhumane Victorian prison conditions which saw them in overcrowded cells having to defecate and urinate in a pot and live with it and its stench for up to 16 hours a day – every day; where time of out cell averaged just 11 hours a week; where violence from prison staff was endemic; where health care was provided by second-rate medical doctors who conspired in the delivery of a second-rate service while being assisted by ‘Prison Hospital Officers’ who dished out drugs as a means of control with just 13 weeks ‘extended first aid’ training; where suicide and self harm were at record levels, and where the complaints procedure was not only completely ineffective but it was also practically non-existent – no-one ever listened, complaints were never upheld, and justice was never done.
The ‘Strangeways riot’ on 1st August 1990 caused a number of protests at prisons across England, Scotland and Wales. Approximately 100 remand prisoners at HM Prison Hull staged a sit-down protest in the exercise yard on 1 April, after hearing about the Strangeways riot on the radio. Disturbances occurred the same day at HM Prisons Gartree, Kirkham and Rochester, and there were minor disturbances at HM Prisons Lindholme, Low Newton and Bedford on 2 April. HM Prisons Durham, Winchester and Wandsworth erupted on 4 April, and HM Young Offenders Institute Glen Parva followed on 6 April.
The weekend of 7 April and 8 April saw increasing protests across the prison system. At HM Prison Leeds there was a sit-down protest after the arrival of over 100 prisoners who had been transferred from Strangeways. At HM Prison Dartmoor, between 100 and 120 prisoners wrecked D wing of the prison, and 12 prisoners also protested on the roof of C wing unfurling a banner that read “Strangeways, we are with you”. Thirty two prisoners from Dartmoor were transferred to HM Prison Bristol, where there was another major protest following their arrival. Up to 400 prisoners took over three wings of the prison, and held control of them for two days. 130 prisoners at HM Prison Cardiff destroyed cells, a twenty-hour rooftop protest took place at HM Prison Stoke Heath, and disturbances occurred at HM Prison Brixton, HM Prison Pentonville, HM Prison Stafford and HM Prison Shepton Mallet. A second protest took place at HM Prison Hull, where 110 prisoners staged a sit-down protest in the exercise yard. Prisoners smashed windows at HM Prison Verne on 9 April, and 40 prisoners held a prison officer hostage for twenty-four hours after taking over a hall at HM Prison Shotts on 10 April. On 12 April, two teenage remand prisoners at HM Prison Swansea barricaded themselves into their cell for seventeen hours, and on 22 April between 80 and 100 remand prisoners staged an eighteen-hour rooftop protest at HM Prison Pucklechurch – now rebuilt as HMP Ashfield.
By the time it was all over 25 days later two people were dead, many hundreds had been injured, 51 criminal trials were to take place, and the tax-payer was handed a repair bill of £90m – and anyone who could talk and walk upright pledged it must never happen again. One of the very clear lessons that came out of the Woolf Report published subsequently was that we as a society ignore the complaints of prisoners at our peril. Lord Bridge of Harwich giving judgement in the House of Lords in a prisoner’s appeal said “Nothing I believe is so likely to generate unrest among ordinary prisoners as a sense that they have been treated unfairly and have no effective means of redress.”
Therefore central to the Woof Report recommendations was the dire need for a truly independent Prisons Ombudsman who could independently investigate prisoners’ complaints and it was a recommendation that the then Home Office accepted by appointing Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Woodhead to the Post in 1994 – he was the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander (Atlantic) to NATO and a man who took his independence seriously – such that two years later he threatened to resign unless the then Home Secretary Michael Howard stopped telling him what he could and could not investigate.
Woodhead remained as Ombudsman until he retired in 1999 when he was succeeded by Stephen Shaw the then Director of the Prison Reform Trust and a man as independent of the Prison Service as his predecessor had been. Shaw held the reigns until September 2011 when (lamentably in my view) Nigel Newcomen was appointed. Newcomen, a former 20-year veteran with the Prison Service, holding the rank of Assistant Director there, has been dogged by criticism that his former employment leaves him with questionable independence – a criticism not reduced by eight years spent as Deputy Chief Inspector of Prisons – but it is a criticism which will not go away and risks damaging the importance of the Office itself.
To be fair the Office of Ombudsman was in decline before Nigel Newcomen was appointed to the post by the then Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who didn’t help matters by issuing a press release naming Newcomen as his ‘preferred candidate’ for Ombudsman – a normal procedure it seems in Whitehall but one which is seen as the kiss of death to true independence especially when it comes from the Justice Secretary who oversees the Prison Service that Newcomen is required to independently investigate.
While Newcomen’s background has not helped, neither too have the increasing responsibilities that his Office has had to absorb – and with decreasing resources available with which to discharge them. The Ombudsman investigates complaints by prisoners who have failed to obtain satisfaction from the prison complaints system; by offenders who are, or have been, under probation supervision, or accommodated in Approved Premises, or who have had reports prepared on them by NOMS; and immigration detainees who have failed to obtain satisfaction from the UKBA complaints system. Additionally he is required to investigate all deaths in custody. In these times of austerity the Ombudsman like everyone else has had to deal with what he called “considerable efficiencies” in his 2011-12 annual report.
“My budget allocation reduced by 7% this year” write Newcomen “and it has been indicated that it will reduce overall by some 21% between 2010–11 and 2014–15. “This is entirely to be expected but my office’s work is demand-led and this demand continues to grow: 2011–12 saw a sharp increase in the number of deaths we were required to investigate and there was no let up in the number of complaints.”
But it is not just his previous two-decade senior employment within the very Prison Service that he is required to investigate, nor the increase in complaints or the dwindling resources, that have caused him problems; Newcomen has also had to answer for some spectacular own goals scored by his Office before he arrived – and a couple he has been responsible for scoring himself once he had his feet under the desk. In June 2012 the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (PCA) found the PPO guilty of maladministration in respect of the investigation the PPO’s Office conducted back in 2009 into claims of an assault on prisoner Kevan Thakrar in HMP Woodhill by Prison Officers.
Bearing in mind that the Office of Ombudsman was created as the result of claims by prisoners that they were assaulted by prison officers, claims which were not properly investigated at the time, there is no more serious a finding of guilt against an alleged independent Prisons Ombudsman than that they do not take such issues seriously, or that they misled the complainant about what they were doing to investigate such claims – both of which the PPO was guilty of in the case of Kevan Thakrar.
Mr Thakrar complained that the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman failed to carry out an adequate investigation of his complaint and the PCA upheld that complaint finding that the PPO’s handling of Mr Thakrar’s complaint amounted to maladministration. Significantly, though this finding of maladministration was issued by the PCA in June 2012 no mention of it has ever appeared on the PPO web site, indeed it was only in August 2012 when I confronted Nigel Newcomen about it that he made any form of official response to it at all – an attempt which looked strangely like an attempt at concealment which has further damaged his Office and the alleged independence which goes to the very core of its functions.
Deaths in Custody have been subject to investigation by the PPO since 2004, but these too have fallen into disrepute. Frequently, due to inquests, the PPOs investigatory report into a death in custody is not published until years after the death took place – in one case in 2012 a fatal incident report was published seven years after the death to which it referred took place – and this is not a token exception by any means, indeed it is becoming increasing frequent. But it is not only delay that causes criticism of deaths in custody when it comes to investigations by the PPO, there have been examples where Coroners themselves have written to the PPO complaining that the investigation into the death in custody carried out by the PPO bore no resemblance to the factual events which actually took place leading up to the death itself – two such criticisms were made in the last year alone, leading to the criticism that it is not only assaults by prison staff on prisoners the PPO is not taking seriously but also deaths of prisoners in custody themselves.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is currently being investigated by the Home Affairs Select Committee because of allegations that too many of its investigators are former police officers – while Nigel Newcomen acknowledges that his office employs investigators who are (like himself) former Prison Service staff he categorically refuses to disclose their numbers. And it is not just transparency about former Prison Service staff employed as investigators which Nigel Newcomen refuses to disclose, when in 2012 criticism was made of Althea Clarke-Ramsey, an investigator for the PPO, and Assistant Ombudsman Nick Woodhead, who were seemingly guilty of second-rate and shoddy investigations decisions in respect of which the Ombudsman himself had to reverse, Newcomen responded not by saying such shoddy investigations would not take place again but instead by ordering that in future the names of investigators would be physically removed from all investigation reports issued to prisoners who had complained to him – a decision that smacks of a lack of openness and transparency which should be an anathema to any truly independent Ombudsman.
Let me be absolutely clear, Nigel Newcomen in my view is not the man for the job of Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, his 20- year background as a former Assistant Director at the Prison Service leaves him with a seriously questionable perception of true independence – can you imagine the criticism there would be if the head of the Independent Police Complaints Commission was a former Assistant Chief Constable? There is no difference between that scenario, and what we are dealing with factually here in the case of Nigel Newcomen.
Be that as it may I also have to accept the fact that like it or not Newcomen is all that we have got as PPO and for the next four years he is likely to be all that we do get – so the real focus must be on supporting him to deliver the vitally important independent service his Office was created to discharge. For that reason it is vital that his Office must be placed immediately on a statutory footing to protect his independence – more so for the sake of those who follow him in the future rather than Newcomen himself. Creating a Statutory basis for his office should not be difficult or even contentious – the promise of this “when Parliamentary time permits” has been put in writing by Ministers several times, but never delivered.
The Office of PPO must be open and fully transparent, how many former Prison Service staff are employed there as investigators or Assistant Ombudsmen must be disclosed, their names must be available and not concealed – and where criticisms of the PPO are made by the PCA in future they should be taken ‘on the chin’ addressed, acknowledged and publicly responded to. His office must be properly resourced in terms of personnel and adequately financed to discharge the plethora of vital tasks it is asked to deliver.
Never again must a person with an employment history associated with an organisation they are required to independently investigate be appointed to the post of an independent Ombudsman – and never again must we allow the £90m disaster of the Strangeways Riots to become the lesson that we failed to heed.