Plans to get rid of prison visiting committees have provoked a political storm
There are upwards of 240 of them across the country. They can be called upon 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
They are not urban crime-fighting superheroes, far from it.
But their work, although low-key and mostly unheralded, vitally casts dozens of pairs of eyes over standards in Scotland’s jails and investigates concerns raised by inmates.
So when details of a plan to dismember ‘prison visiting committees’ seeped into the public consciousness at the end of last year, a party-political ruckus ensued.
Central to the criticism of the SNP’s initial proposal to create an advocacy service, in place of local volunteer groups, was the fear that monitoring would lose its reason for being, in essence, its independence from government, and potentially, would fall foul of Scotland’s international obligations on the humane treatment of prisoners.
Lewis Macdonald, Labour’s shadow justice spokesman, is among many opposition politicians, including Lib Dems, who believe reform and modernisation, not decimation, is the best approach to tackling any inadequacies of prison visiting committees in their current form.
He tells Holyrood: “Here we have hundreds of local volunteers who give up their time without payment and with a total cost of travelling and training expenses of £70,000; it’s a trifling sum by any standards.
“Effectively, we get free dedicated work from a range of people, all from their local communities, and inspecting their local prisons. And all that comes out of no personal, vested interest or professional interest. That’s a huge thing to throw away.”
To understand the outcry, it is worth looking briefly at the history of prison visiting committees.
According to the Scottish Government website, one of the seven virtues recorded in 15th-century carvings at Rosslyn Chapel pertains to visiting prisons.
That Christian context was formally instituted in 1876, amid an era of Victorian social reform, when the first official committees were established to ensure prison regimes were not just punitive, but also upheld the values of humane treatment.
They have operated in virtually the same spirit ever since and a Scottish Government review said, tellingly, in 2007: “Visiting committees continue to serve a valuable function distinctive from other players and should be retained and their specific features capitalised on to contribute to the wider reforms taking place in the criminal justice system.”
It added: “Visiting committees continue to provide a unique community-based means of ensuring that the people detained on our behalves in prison are decently treated, regardless of what they have done.”
There are currently 16 visiting committees across the country, monitoring 15 adult prisons and two young offenders’ institutions at HMP Polmont and HMP Cornton Vale.
Given the near unanimity of support for PVCs – either in their current form or modernised to ensure all local groups are given an equal footing – it is perhaps surprising that the Scottish Government has sought to tinker with their remit.
Macdonald even goes so far as to accuse Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill of flipflopping over the issue, with several apparent policy stances taken on the matter in the last year alone.
He explains: “MacAskill and the Scottish Government has gone through what can only be described as a series of twists and turns in policy that are bewildering in their complete reversal from one day to the next.
“The first proposal was that we didn’t need any monitoring at all and we would have an advocacy service, presumably on the basis of what the Scottish Prison Service wanted.
“That proposal was immediately criticised by the National Preventative Mechanism for human care as not compliant with our international obligations on independent monitoring of prisons. So the SNP did a U-turn.”
Macdonald recalls that the Scottish Government changed tack with several other policy positions in the run-up to, and even during, summer recess.
“They said you could have independent monitoring and they would appoint someone to do it and that person had better be an exprison governor, so they would know what they were doing.
“That was again criticised – they realised it was untenable.”
Macdonald says yet another position promoted the idea of appointing three professional monitors working under Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons (HMCIP).
Macdonald says: “So we’ve gone, ‘let’s abolish it and have an advocacy service, let’s have a monitor who’s an ex-prison governor, let’s have a monitor who might not be an ex-prison governor but will report to the prisons inspectorate’. And now of course the suggestion has been made we don’t need an advocacy service after all and we’ll just have this monitoring service within the inspectorate. So we have four different positions, all of which are mistaken, and the last position, from the latest manifestation over the summer, it appears that what the SNP want is not just one monitor but potentially four.”
At this point it is worth asking why the Scottish Government has sought to change the look and feel of PVCs amid such entrenched opposition.
Human rights groups have expressed concern and 59 of the 60 organisations consulted, with the notable exception of the Scottish Prison Service, were opposed to the plans.
“The only thing he [MacAskill] has ever said publicly that offered any kind of explanation was that he wanted to reduce the number of public bodies. But it’s such a small cost so I can’t see the argument.
“He has said other things about the number of times prisoners ask to see a prison visitor but that’s completely specious.
“It’s like saying that if nobody ever falls down a manhole cover, you don’t need anyone to inspect the pavements.”
Macdonald’s chief concern remains, though, that any change to the existing regime maintains not just true independence, but also upholds Scotland’s commitment to international treaties.
He stresses at the moment the PVCs are largely compliant with the Operational Protocol of the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), failing only in the sense that funding comes via the Prison Service.
“It is important we work towards making them comply with all the requirements, not less.”
In terms of modernisation, Macdonald is in favour of convening a working party group to channel all the thoughts of interested parties, both within government and outside, before drawing up a list of proposals that can be implemented without compromising the integrity of the groups.
“You invite current prison visiting committees, bodies like the Howard League and SACRO, maybe an academic, maybe someone from local government and a civil servant and a ministerial chair. You then sit down, over two or three meetings if you’ve got clear direction and you come up with a proposal for the modernisation of prison visiting committees. Replace them and call them something else if you want, that doesn’t matter, but don’t start from a position of abolition, start from a position of modernisation and reform and do it inclusively. Include the prospective partners and we’ll see some real progress.”
Whatever happens in the course of the next few months, Macdonald is certain that improvements can be made, especially with regard to frequency of visits.
He says: “It’s fair to say that different committees have developed in different ways. Some of them visit very, very frequently. Others visit only occasionally. I would like to see better or more standard training provided to volunteers. I would like to see the minister work with others to agree a refreshed remit. In other words, let’s tidy up around the edges, where there is overlap with other agencies, but let’s maintain the essential independence and the essential monitoring role of prison visiting committees.”