06/01/2004

New agency set to probe deaths in custody

A new body, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), has been created to investigate all future deaths in prisons, probation hostels and immigration detention accommodation, it has been announced today.

Deaths in prison custody are currently subject to a police investigation and a coroner's inquest before a jury. In cases of self-inflicted deaths in custody, the Prison Service also carries out an internal investigation normally led by a senior governor from another establishment.

The PPO has arisen out of a need for "better quality investigations" which are consistent and which are more likely to capture learning and embed good practice, the Home Office said. The new body officially begins its new work on April 1.

The PPO's office is not yet on a statutory footing and, until the proper legislation gets drawn up and passed, the PPO will not have statutory powers to compel co-operation with investigations. Prison Service staff are, however expected to co-operate in accordance with the terms and conditions of their employment. The Coroner will remain able to compel attendance at the inquest.

Prisons Minister Paul Goggins said: "All deaths in custody are of grave concern to me. The Prison and Probation Services deal with some of the most vulnerable people in society. It is essential that in an investigation of this nature, our procedures are beyond reproach, and I believe that transferring this remit to the Ombudsman will increase public confidence through independent scrutiny of the events leading to a death in custody."

Welcoming the announcement of his office's extended role, Stephen Shaw, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, said: "In taking on the daunting responsibility of investigating deaths in custody, I have three main aims. First, to enhance public confidence when someone has died while in the hands of the state. Second, to involve and to provide answers for bereaved relatives. Third, to contribute to the efforts of the Prison Service and others to reduce the numbers of self-inflicted and other avoidable deaths."

The PPO will be given "substantial funding" to recruit a substantial number of additional investigating staff for this work, drawing on his own office, the Home Office and other government departments, other ombudsman offices and external competition.

(gmcg)

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