HM Chief Inspector of Prisons welcomes new ‘Urgent Notification’ agreement with potential to strengthen the impact of inspections in failing jails

PeterClarkePeter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has welcomed a new process allowing him to publicly demand urgent action by the Secretary of State for Justice to improve jails with significant problems – a move also welcomed by one of the Inspectorate’s fiercest critics, Mark Leech.

Commenting after the Secretary of State for Justice David Lidington announced a new ‘Urgent Notification’ protocol, Mr Clarke said: “I welcome the new ‘Urgent Notification’ protocol which the Secretary of State for Justice has announced.

“This has the potential to be an important outcome of prison inspections, and to strengthen the role of HM Inspectorate of Prisons. Our job is to report on the treatment and conditions experienced by prisoners, and these new arrangements should mean that in the most serious cases there will be an effective and speedy response.

“In particular, I welcome the principle of transparency and accountability underpinning this new protocol. The Secretary of State has accepted that he and his successors will be held publicly accountable for delivering an urgent, robust and effective response when HMIP assesses that treatment or conditions in a jail raise such significant concerns that urgent action is required. The protocol requires the Secretary of State to respond to an urgent notification letter from HM Chief Inspector of Prisons within 28 days. The Chief Inspector’s notification and the Secretary of State’s response will both be published.”

Mr Clarke said HMIP supported the inclusion of measures in the Prisons and Courts Bill to require greater accountability and transparency in the response to HMI Prisons’ recommendations. “We regretted the fact that the provisions in the Bill relating to prisons were lost after the general election, but welcomed the commitment by the Secretary of State to achieve their objectives so far as possible without legislation.

“The Urgent Notification process announced this week is the culmination of many months of discussions between HMIP, the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS).”

Explaining the impact of the new arrangement, which is incorporated into the existing protocol through which HMIP inspects prisons, Mr Clarke added: “Whenever the new process is invoked, we will expect swift and effective action to be taken in response.

“However, the implementation and monitoring of improvements is a clear responsibility of HMPPS, not the Inspectorate. HMI Prisons will take account of a range of factors to decide when, in the judgement of the Chief Inspector, a prison should next be inspected. If for any reason an HMIP recommendation is not accepted, we would expect the rationale to be explained and published.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook, who wrote a blistering attack on the Prisons Inspectorate in The Independent in August 2017 described it as “a huge step forward.”

Mr Leech, who had criticised the Inspectorate for its failure to have the vast majority of its recommendations implemented, said: “This is a huge step forward, not only for the reputation of the Prisons Inspectorate, but for the safety and security of those who live and work in our prisons.

“Now the Justice Secretary will need to publicly explain why HMIP recommendations are not implemented, and that can only mean that at last we will see either progress in our prisons or obtain an explanation we can all scrutinise as to why nothing is happening.

“Peter Clarke, the Chief Inspector, a person of whom I have been critical many times, has clearly been hard at work behind the scenes and its important to give criticism where that is justified but credit where that is due too.”

Mr Leech said there was one area where progress could be made much faster.

“The Prisons Inspectorate quite rightly admits that it doesn’t have the resources to monitor progress on its recommendations – but every prison has Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs) and they should be utilised now to follow up on HMIP recommendations and ensure progress is made – IMBs have been largely seen as a waste of time in the past but if they want to correct their dreadful reputation this is one area where they could step up to the plate and do something about it.”


Questions & Answers:

Q: Was the previous system of inspections, followed by a report and recommendations, too slow?

A: HMIP places great importance on fairness and rigorous fact-checking in its reports, to ensure the evidence on which we base recommendations is sound. Currently, the process from inspection to published report takes around 18 weeks. That said, there is nothing in the current system to prevent the leadership of a prison, and HMPPS/MoJ, from starting to take urgent action to address serious problems raised in an inspection. Inspectors share their major concerns with the jail’s leadership at the end of the inspection, supported by a written copy of the main findings. HMIP’s concern has not been so much about the speed of the system but rather that recommendations are either not acted on at all, or are inadequately addressed.

Q: How will the urgent notification process work in practice?

A: The test will be whether an inspection raises significant concerns that in the judgement of the Chief Inspector need to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State. That judgement will be made after the conclusion of an inspection, and formal notification made to the Secretary of State within 7 days.  24 hours after the letter has been sent privately, it will be published on the HMIP website and distributed to the media and through social media. The letter will be supported by the end-of-inspection briefing material shared with the prison. These notes will also be made public.

Q: Why can’t HMIP monitor work to improve a jail subject to an urgent notification.

A: HM Inspectorate of Prisons does not have the capacity continuously to monitor the prisons we inspect. This is the clear responsibility of line management from HMPPS. HMIP resources are fully committed to carrying out more than 80 inspections each year of prisons and other places of detention.

Q: When will the prison subject to an urgent notification be re-inspected?

A: In line with current practice, the timing of inspections will remain a matter for the judgement of the Chief Inspector. Some inspections may be announced, though the vast majority are currently unannounced. The monitoring of UN action plans is a matter for HMPPS but the action plan would, plainly, be something HMIP looks closely at in any repeat inspection.

Q: How many urgent notifications will there be?

A: In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be any because treatment and conditions in all our prisons would meet acceptable standards. Sadly, though, that has not been the case in recent years and conditions – particularly relating to prisoner safety – have deteriorated alarmingly in some prisons. However, it is simply not possible to predict the number of urgent notification letters. It will depend on the circumstances in a jail and the judgement of the Chief Inspector.

The protocol is available, from 30 November, at