Cover-up kept files from jails watchdog

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The Independent Online
Vital files on inmates were deliberately withheld from the jails ombudsman by Prison Service staff who in one case lied about the involvement of the Home Secretary, according to a report published yesterday.

The newly appointed Prison Ombudsman, Sir Peter Woodhead, details in his first report an internal battle he has waged with sections of the Prison Service to obtain information about some of the complaints made by inmates.

His report covers the 14 months up to the end of 1995 and involves the investigation of 424 grievances.

He said that he investigated a complaint made by a prisoner that a decision which concerned him had been taken on political grounds. Sir Peter's report said: "This was repeatedly denied by the Prison Service. My investigations revealed the existence of a memo from a senior Prison Service official which confirmed that political considerations had come into the decision." .

He also said that records about security incidents "are all too frequently sketchy and lacking in detail. Some are unsigned, others are undated, and few make clear the nature and reliability of the source".

Sections of the service removed documents from files and refused to provide information which involved advice to ministers, arguing it was outside the ombudsman's remit.

Sir Peter said: "However, staff in some sections in Prison Service headquarters have occasionally gone further by refusing to supply the file and copying to me only those documents from it which they regarded as relevant to the investigation." He added that some of the co-operation was "tardy" and in nearly a tenth of cases the papers take more than a month to arrive.

The row lead earlier this year to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, imposing restraints on Sir Peter's powers to investigate inmates' grievances: they restrict his access to documents making him dependent on what the Prison Service chooses to hand over and it removes his right to investigate or even check any decisions by ministers or advice to ministers.

Sir Peter said yesterday that he had considered resigning but decided he still had an important job and that the political decision only involved some 6 per cent of the complaints.

However he added yesterday: "There are certainly parts of the Prison Service who are still not being as co-operative as I would wish them to be. It's certainly part of the culture. I don't know whether it is because they are trying to hide something."

Sir Peter, the first occupant of a post recommended by Lord Woolf's inquiry into the 1990 Strangeways riots in Manchester, received more than 2,000 complaints in the first 14 months. Of these 424 were accepted for investigation, 44 per cent being upheld. Ninety per cent of the Ombudsman's recommendations were accepted by the Prison Service. Most complaints were about disciplinary adjudication's, transfers to other types of jails, handling of private property, and security grading.

Sir Peter did, however, praise the way the Prison Service dealt with the majority of complaints and said there were many examples of positive relationships between staff and prisoners.

Richard Tilt, the director-general of the Prison Service, said yesterday that Sir Peter had a vital role to play. "I'm a great supporter of the ombudsman."