The Prisons Inspectorate ‘Urgent Notification Protocol’: Does It Work?

By Mark Leech FRSA. Editor: The Prisons Handbook.


Like many who know a thing or two about prisons I was really encouraged last November when HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP), Peter Clarke, announced details of the ‘Urgent Notification Protocol’ (UNP) he had signed with the Justice Secretary.

Privately, while praying it would work, I was also cynically sceptical; it happens after 20 years in this field – and its healthy too.

The UNP allowed HMCIP to give the Justice Secretary urgent notification of significant concerns with regard to the treatment and conditions of those detained’ in establishments the Inspectorate had visited.

More than that, in a break with tradition, the urgent notification was itself to be made public by HMCIP – and the Justice Secretary agreed to reply publicly too, within 28 days, by setting out an Action Plan bringing focus and delivering resources to what urgently needed to be put right.

No other Chief Inspector of Prisons had ever managed to achieve anything like the degree of public accountability the UNP promised from a Justice Secretary; but could it really work in practice?

It seemed a tall order, time would tell, and as it turned out I didn’t have long to wait.

On 17th January 2018, six weeks after the UNP was agreed, HMCIP signed the first urgent notification in respect of appalling conditions he found at HMP Nottingham.

Peter Clarke wrote:

“The principal reason I have decided to issue an Urgent Notification in respect of HMP Nottingham following this most recent inspection is because for the third time in a row HMI Prisons has found the prison to be fundamentally unsafe.

“Most seriously, in the two years since our last inspection, levels of self-harm have risen very significantly and eight prisoners are understood to have taken their own lives (some cases are still subject to a coroner’s inquest). Despite these shocking facts, there have been repeated failures to achieve or embed improvements following previous recommendations made by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO).

“Irrefutable evidence of the failure to respond to HMI Prisons’ inspection findings at Nottingham can be seen not only in the gradings given as a result of the latest inspection, but also in the progress made in implementing previous recommendations.

“Following the February 2016 inspection we made a total of 48 recommendations, 13 of which were in the crucial area of Safety. Of those 13, a mere 2 had been fully achieved, and 2 partially achieved. Overall, 12 of the 48 recommendations were fully achieved, 23 were not achieved and 13 partially achieved.

“As the last two inspections have been announced in advance, to give the prison the opportunity to focus on the areas where improvement was urgently needed before the inspections took place, it is extraordinary that there has not been a more robust response. An action plan was drawn up to guide the implementation of recommendations, but has obviously not received consistent focused attention nor close monitoring from HMPPS senior leadership.”

True to his word the Justice Secretary prepared an Action Plan, with specific time deadlines by which improvements at HMP Nottingham had to be made – but Clarke wasn’t finished yet.

In May 2018, while the Action Plan at Nottingham was underway, the Chief Inspector fired off his second incendiary urgent notification – which this time landed squarely on HMP Exeter.

Peter Clarke wrote:

“The principal reasons I have decided to invoke the UN protocol in respect of HMP Exeter following this most recent inspection are because since the last full inspection in August 2016, safety in the prison has significantly worsened in many respects, and has attracted our lowest possible grading of ‘poor’.

“There have been six self inflicted deaths, five of which were in 2017.

“Despite some creditable efforts to implement recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman following those deaths, the overall level of safety at HMP Exeter is unequivocally poor.

“Self harm during the past six months is running at a higher rate than in any similar prisons. It has risen by 40% since the last inspection. Assaults against both prisoners and staff are among the highest we have seen, and the use of force by staff is inadequately governed.

“Meanwhile, illicit drugs are rife in the prison, nearly a quarter of prisoners are testing positive, and all this is taking place in a prison where the living conditions for too many are unacceptably poor.

“During the inspection we saw many examples of a lack of care for vulnerable prisoners which, given the recent tragic events in the prison, were symptomatic of a lack of empathy and understanding of the factors that contribute to suicide and self harm.”

Again the Justice Secretary responded with an Action Plan with time deadlines for improvements to be made. It was while David Gauke was reeling from both the Nottingham and Exeter notifications that, in August 2018, the Chief Inspector bowled his most devastating urgent notification at the Justice Secretary stump high – this time about HMP Birmingham.

Peter Clarke wrote witheringly:

“The first priority of any prison should be to keep those who are held or work there safe. In this regard, HMP Birmingham had completely failed.

“Levels of violence had increased and, when measured over the last 12 months, were the highest for any local prison in the country. Many of the assaults were serious and the number was rising. Prisoners and staff frequently required hospital treatment.

“In our survey, 71% of prisoners told us they had felt unsafe at some time in Birmingham, an extraordinarily high figure.

“Thirty-seven per cent felt unsafe at the time of the inspection and many reported being bullied and victimised by other prisoners. The prison’s response to this was wholly inadequate.

“Most violent incidents were not investigated. There was inadequate analysis or understanding of the violence. In short, the prison’s strategy for confronting violence was completely ineffective. It did not, for example, even address the potential impact that the widespread availability of drugs had on the violence.”

The Justice Secretary’s response and publication of the Action Plan for Birmingham prison are due imminently as I write this, but it was immediately apparent how seriously the Ministry of Justice took the urgent notification on Birmingham because for only the second time since prison privatisation came to the UK almost 30 years ago, the Government stepped in, removed the private prisons contractor (G4S) and put in place a public sector Governing Governor to restore order.

[As an aside, this weekend, in our national prisons monthly newspaper Converse, we publish a powerful article by the only other Governing Governor ever to ‘step in’ to a private prison after it had been taken back into public sector control – an article in which the difficulties and dangers of such a task are laid bare.]

How did we get here, how could these prisons have failed so seriously – and would this UNP even work?

How did we get here lol?

In a word: ignorance.

It was almost exactly a year ago now, following a damning prisons Inspectorate report on HMYOI Aylesbury that revealed of the 74 recommendations made to improve conditions at the prison two years before, only 14 had actually been implemented, that I decided to delve a little deeper into the effectiveness of the Prisons Inspectorate.

The research I carried out (published in The Independent) showed that of over 1,800 recommendations the Inspectorate made to improve safety and conditions last time they visited the 28 prisons they had inspected in the year to August 2017 – well over 60% of those recommendations had never been implemented, despite three and five years that had passed between those inspections having taken place.

No-one, from the very top down, batted an eyelid at the shameful implementation figures; ignoring HMIP recommendations had become dangerously routine and where, as a consequence, little if anything changed.

The Chief Inspector continued to tour the country finding exactly the same failings, in exactly the same prisons, and where he was ignored in exactly the same way, time after time.

I wrote at the time that what we needed was a Prisons Inspectorate that was ‘bold and forceful, one that publicly held Ministers to account’ or what, I asked, was the point of it all?

It would be wrong of me to imply my Independent article was responsible for the UNP that was signed three months after my article appeared, HMCIP had himself been privately complaining bitterly that his recommendations were being ignored, but if nothing else the Urgent Notification Protocol that followed it was a welcome by-product.

But does the UNP work?

On 14th August 2018, I submitted a FOIA request to the MOJ, looking at the Action Plans devised after the Urgent Notifications at HMP Nottingham and HMP Exeter. I asked whether the timescales for completion of all the remedial tasks set out in the Plans had been met.

I was both relieved and pleasantly surprised to learn that although there had been a time slippage of a couple of weeks on one or two tasks, the action plan tasks at both Nottingham and Exeter had all been completed – you can view the full request and response at the bottom of this editorial.

Without doubt the UNP is a massive professional accomplishment for Peter Clarke, one the prison system will derive benefits from for years to come, and one in which he has succeeded where so many others before him have failed.

But equally Clarke still has much more to do – ridding the Inspectorate of their ridiculous ‘partially achieved’ assessments would be a good start.

Instead of just assessing whether a previous HMIP recommendation has been achieved or not, HMCIP allows Inspectors – without any guiding criteria at all – to mark them as ‘partially achieved’; but what on earth does that even mean?

I asked the Chief Inspector to explain – he couldn’t do so – and its also unclear where ‘partially achieved’ even comes from; the words don’t appear once in the whole of the Expectations documentation that underpins all inspections.

But that is something for the future, right now the danger is that with the passage of time an ‘urgent notification’ will cease to have its current media effect – and with it, the political resolve to put things right.

Do things really have to reach the dreadful, dangerous, demeaning Dickensian conditions found at Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham before the MOJ swings into action?

Surely not.

The lesson (and the danger) of the UNP though is an old one: a stitch in time saves nine.

Unless we view every single recommendation of HMCIP, in all of their Inspection Reports, as an ‘urgent notification’ about which action needs to be taken, then the danger is the ‘urgent notifications’ will become less urgent as they become increasingly frequent – and as quantity increases quality and effect inevitably decline.

For the moment, however, we can be content to know that it is working as it should – but that must not stop the huge underlying mindset change that is needed in our prison system, if ever urgent notifications are to be the isolated examples they were designed to be, rather than the tip of an iceberg that they seemingly currently appear to represent.

You can view the FOI request and response here.

Mark Leech is the Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales and other books about the prison system. Twitter @prisonsorguk. Download our App!