Why monitoring places of detention matters

Dr Roger Grimshaw
Thursday, 2 February 2017

Last month, the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) delivered its seventh annual report: Monitoring Places of Detention.

Reflecting the various settings in which detention may occur, the UK NPM is a composite of 20 organisations across the four countries and regions that make up the UK. It was set up under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to inspect and report on all places of detention. Its activities and effects are therefore a litmus test of the vigour of a human rights approach to detention standards.

What crisis?

The NPM  report came amid growing concern about the state of prisons and calls for major reductions in their population.

In July, the new Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, made a severe public judgement about current conditions. ‘Despite the sterling efforts of many who work in the Prison Service at all levels, there is a simple and unpalatable truth about far too many of our prisons. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous places’.

Prison disturbances followed, along with industrial action by officers. Yet Mr Clarke’s predecessor, Nick Hardwick, had warned the previous year of ‘a serious decline in outcomes for prisoners’.

When finally the urgent need for practical improvement was acknowledged, it appeared as if it had taken a very public crisis to stimulate the government into confronting the problems. It is crucial that NPM actors are properly engaged in policy consideration and not sidelined until a dramatic turn of events forces attention upon their concerns.

A growing task

The scope of the NPM’s task continues to expand. Detentions in mental health facilities have grown. The numbers subject to immigration detention have risen by 16 per cent over the year. The discovery that migrants had been detained in a freight shed was another alarming finding. The NPM has simultaneously published data indicating that 124,000 people are detained on any given day in secure hospitals, prisons, immigration facilities, secure children’s homes, police cells and military prison.

Concerted action across civil society is called for, if the promised impact of the NPM is to be maximised. For example, undercover journalism exposed abuse within Medway Secure Training Centre, which instigated a more thorough inspection than previously and led to significant management changes. Nonetheless, approved access for journalists to detention settings is extremely challenging to obtain.

The NPM’s position in an international framework is also pivotal to its functioning. The Annual Report mentions the observations of the UN Committee on Human Rights on the lack of adequate limits on immigration detention and the importance of measures to reduce self-harm and suicide. The NPM has given advice to the European Committee for Prevention of Torture, which is due to issue a report about detention in England and Wales early in 2017.


With a full 20 members, the NPM’s organisation is complex and not easy to define. It has been known for some time that the relationship between the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and Nick Hardwick, then Chief Inspector of Prisons and the previous lead of the NPM, had been fraught. Its previous Annual Report had noted that the government had not accepted proposals to safeguard the NPM’s independence.

During the year, the NPM as a body decided to appoint an ‘independent chair’. Initially David Strang, the Chief Inspector for Prisons in Scotland, the current chair is John Wadham, who takes up the post part-time and pro bono. The Chief Inspector of Prisons for England and Wales is no longer the lead person.

This outcome appears to end a situation in which the Minister responsible for detention facilities in effect appointed the lead of an ‘independent’ body scrutinising them. The main question, however, is whether it is – on its own – enough to address the broader structural and accountability questions surrounding the UK NPM as a whole.

Is there a robust financial and constitutional structure capable of fulfilling the international mandate of torture prevention? Is accountability to the public and to parliament sufficiently strong? Is civil society adequately engaged? Are there safeguards in place now that can help reverse the negative trends in the apparently growing level of mistreatment?

The latest report is in some respects a milestone in demonstrating a renewed sense of independence within the NPM. It remains to be seen how more effective the institution can become in carrying out its mission, beset by the highly worrying circumstances of today’s detention scene.

A new future?

Legislating a new basis for the NPM is something that it appears ready to work towards. We at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies are eager to work with other bodies and agencies to open up fresh perspectives on the structure and operations of the NPM as it responds to the current turmoil in detention settings.

Our good links with partners in the European Prison Observatory will also enable us to bring the benefit from experiences in other countries whose NPMs are differently structured.

As the UK begins to change its relationship with the rest of Europe, there has never been a more important time to uphold human rights standards within a principled international framework.