Prisons minister says watchdog may play bigger part in bid for change in system

The prisons watchdog could be given a greater role in efforts to drive cultural change across the crisis-hit system, a Government minister has suggested.

Rory Stewart told MPs he was sympathetic to the possibility of establishing a team of assessors who would return to a jail after an inspection to check recommendations are being followed up.

He said there is a need to "get back to basics" following too much "abstract" discussion about policy, and described the task of transforming the service as a five to 10-year project.

The prisons minister's remarks come amid fresh scrutiny of the state of jails in England and Wales, which have been hit by surging levels of violence, self-harm and drug use.

Last week HM Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) condemned the "squalid" state of HMP Liverpool, describing conditions at the jail as the worst inspectors could remember.

Inspectors published a highly critical report on HMP Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA)
Inspectors published a highly critical report on HMP Liverpool (Peter Byrne/PA)

The inspectorate also used a new "urgent notification" system for the first time to demand the Government take action at HMP Nottingham.

Appearing at the Commons Justice Committee, Mr Stewart said HMIP's reports should be front and centre in how prisons are judged.

He said: "It does seem to me that we could make much better use of these inspection reports and really use them to drive cultural change."

The urgent notification mechanism was introduced following sharp criticism from Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke over the take-up of his office's recommendations.

Asked about the possibility of equipping the inspectorate with another team which could make return visits to check up on whether recommendations are acted upon, Mr Stewart said: "I'm very sympathetic to that idea, I need to look at it.

"These reports are fantastic reports. I'm very sympathetic to the idea that we should be bolstering the inspections."

Mr Stewart, who took up the ministerial post earlier this month, told the committee his instinct is that "we need to get back to basics".

He said: "We need to absolutely insist that we are going to run clean, decent prisons.

"There has been too much, from my point of view, over the last few years of very, very abstract conversations about grand bits of prison policy, which are important, but we cannot lose the basics."

Following HMIP's findings at Liverpool, the committee took the unprecedented step of convening a special evidence session about an individual inspection report.

Michael Spurr, chief executive of HM Prisons and Probation Service, acknowledged it was a "very bad" report.

He said: "I knew Liverpool was not in a good state but this was worse than I had anticipated."

Mr Spurr said some cells were brought back into use as the service came under pressure following a spike in the prison population last summer.

He added: "I accept that we should have recognised the failings at Liverpool and dealt with them earlier."

Prisons will come under the spotlight again on Thursday when the latest safety statistics are published.

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