British Prisons

Penal Structure in England and Wales


The Home Secretary 

The Framework Document for the Prison Service established the relationship between the Home Secretary and the Prison Service when the latter became an executive agency of the Home Office on 1 April 1993. It states:

"The Home Secretary is accountable to Parliament for the Prison Service. The Home Secretary allocates resources to the Prison Service and approves its Corporate and Business Plans, including its key targets. The Home Secretary will not normally become involved in the day-to-day management of the Prison Service but will expect to be consulted by the Director General on the handling of operational matters which could give rise to grave public or Parliamentary concern". - Paragraph 3.1

"The Home Secretary will receive reports from the Director General on the following matters:

  1. escape of a Category A prisoner
  2. apparent suicide of a prisoner
  3.  serious disturbance involving a number of prisoners and damage to person or property or other matter which is likely to rouse Parliamentary or public concern
  4. any incident, issue
  5. national or particularly serious local industrial action or dispute
  6. major change in an establishment's functions or the proposed permanent closure of an establishment.

The Home Secretary may also request reports from the Director General on other matters." - Paragraph 3.2

The Secretary of State

The Secretary of State , also known as the Prisons Minister, is responsible to the Home Secretary. Effectively this post is responsible for the majority of the policies implemented in prisons.

The Director General

The Framework Document for the Prison Service states: "The Director General is the Chief Executive of the Prison Service. He or she is appointed for a fixed period by the Home Secretary, with the approval of the Prime Minister, normally following open competition. The appointment may be renewed". - Paragraph 3.4

"The Director General is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Prison Service and is also the Home Secretary's principal policy adviser on matters relating to the Prison Service. The Director General is directly accountable to the Home Secretary for the Prison Service's performance and operations". - Paragraph 3.5

The concept of a division between policy and operational matters is not without problems. In theory the Director General should be free from political interference in the 'day to day' running of the Prison Service. Comments attributed to Director General Derek Lewis by The Daily Telegraph in January 1995 following the escape of three prisoners from HMP Parkhurst show: "If something is difficult, then it's operational".

Her Majesty's Chief inspector of Prisons

The Framework Document for the Prison Service states: "The Home Secretary receives reports from Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons on inspections of prison establishments. The Home Secretary will ask the Director General to respond to recommendations on delegated matters". - Paragraph 3.12

General Sir David Ramsbotham, nicknamed "Rambo", was appointed to succeed Judge Stephen Tumim in December 1995. He was quoted as saying: "My job on behalf of the public is to go into prisons and make reports without showing any fear or favour to anyone. If I start fudging, then I am not doing my job. I shall be very critical, but I hope constructive."

Reports of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons

The Prisons Ombudsman

The Framework Document for the Prison Service states:

"The Home Secretary intends to appoint a Prisons Ombudsman. The Home Secretary will receive an annual report from the Prisons Ombudsman. The Director General will respond to recommendations from the Prisons Ombudsman in respect of particular complaints". - Paragraph 3.13

Lord Woolf, in his inquiry following the serious prison disturbances at HMP Manchester ('Strangeways') and other prisons, identified the need for a Complaints Adjudicator who would be a person eligible for judicial office (- a barrister or solicitor of not less than seven years experience). The rationale behind this recommendation was:

"The presence of an independent element within the Grievance Procedure is more than just an 'optional extra'. The case for some form of independent person or body to consider grievances is incontrovertible. There is no possibility of the present system satisfactorily meeting this point even once it has bedded down. A system without an independent element is not a system which accords with proper standards of justice". - Prison Disturbances: April 1990, Report of an Inquiry by the Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Woolf and His Honour Judge Stephen Tumim, CM 1456, HMSO, para 14.345

Sir Peter Woodhead, the first Prisons Ombudsman, has commented on the dichotomy between the role Lord Woolf envisaged and the reality:

"Firstly, the title "Prisons Ombudsman" is not quite the "Independent Complaints Adjudicator" which the Woolf Report envisaged but it is generally understood as indicating justice, openness and fairness. Furthermore, the title "Adjudicator" suggests executive powers which I do not possess in a definitive sense". Board of Visitors Newsletter Autumn 1994

Whether the Prisons Ombudsman, without executive powers, will be able to satisfy Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights as discussed by the European Court of Human Rights in Abdulaziz v United Kingdom (1985) remains to be seen.