NS interview - Anne Owers

The prisons inspector warned ministers long ago about the deportation crisis and now fears an explos

So, Anne Owers, are you fit for purpose? As John Reid castigates the failures of his new domain, the question must be levelled at every section of the Home Office. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, who regards her department as fully competent, has no fear of scrutiny. Besides, she sees herself as separate from the floundering mother ship. "I have my own logo," Owers says, tapping a report. Not, though, for much longer.

The Police and Justice Bill, which reaches the Lords after parliament returns from recess on 5 June, will subsume Owers's operation into a general criminal justice inspectorate. She fears that, unless amended, the bill will also strip it of its rigour and independence.

That prospect appals Owers, who has this message for Reid: "Home secretaries have as their resource people who know prisons from the inside out. They need to make use of that expertise, rather than dilute it. I cannot see that [as the legislation stands], it will be anything other than diluted."

A date for the first meeting is in the diary. Reid should not expect an easy ride. Nor, if he is wise, will he ignore her guidance. Charles Clarke might have kept his job if only he had heeded the chief inspector's warning on the looming débâcle of foreign nationals. After the revelation that prisoners had been released without being considered for deportation, it emerged that Owers had flagged up, in her annual report of 2004, the Home Office's "institutional blind spot" over foreign nationals, as well as the "dilatory attitude" of the immigration service.

In fact, she tells me she had first blown the whistle in 2003, two years before Clarke says he became "fully aware" of the deportation problem. "For the home secretary [then David Blunkett], as for the prison service, it wasn't a priority." Owers also pointed out the lack of a proper system to identify and manage foreign inmates in countless individual reports, as well as in every yearly summary. So Clarke, like Blunkett before him, must have been fully aware of her concerns?

"Well, yes. If we wrote our prison reports by computer, which we do not, you could push any button and find a reference to the lack of a foreign nationals strategy. I could hardly have made more clear the absence of a strategy for managing foreign prisoners. I could also hardly have made it more clear, when I was looking at the immigration side, that there were enormous administrative failings."

Owers seems far from certain that Reid is improving the situation. "Clearly the deportation issue was a shambles. My concern is that we don't create another shambles. We should be addressing what's wrong." Headlines about escapes from open prisons and the row about foreign prisoners being freed from secure mental hospitals (which she does not inspect) have drawn promises of tough action from Reid. Owers worries that the remedies may just make things worse.

"Foreign nationals are being pulled out of open prisons and into closed ones. At least one British prisoner has been trans-ferred in error. We don't need a panic reaction. We need a system that allows us to manage foreign prisoners effectively," Owers says.

The picture she paints should appal Reid. In the past, she says, some prisons thought "all ethnic-minority prisoners were foreign nationals". Many were held "for months and years" after their release date. Even now, prison identification of who is British and who is not can be "like an auction". As Owers says: "There is a link between humanity and effectiveness." Public safety, in her view, hinges on having an effective process. "And this isn't one."

Five years have passed since Owers was appointed. She was the first female chief inspector, and she will be the last incumbent of her post. Her background, including the directorship of the human-rights organisation Justice, set her aside from her immediate predecessors, Judge Stephen Tumim and the barnstorming army general David Ramsbotham, whose public rows with Jack Straw doubtless made Owers determined to keep her distance from the political fray.

Though admired for the job she has done, she has avoided stridency. But now, with the end of her formal contract three months away and "prisons chaos" dominating the news, she sounds furious, not only at the foreign nationals crisis but at the broader scandal affecting the nation's jails. Occupation has gone up by 17 per cent during her tenure; we lock up vastly more people than any comparable democracy, and we may be only weeks away from the capacity figure of 80,000.

"There are many potential disasters in the prison service at the moment to keep ministers awake at night," she says. "I hate to predict [bad outcomes], but when the system comes under too much strain, the pressure exhibits itself in two ways. One is people hurting themselves; the other is people hurting others or causing disturbances."

No further prefabricated cells can be tacked on to existing prisons, she says, and "wings that we have said are not fit for habitation are being kept open". Two women's prisons, Brockhill and Bullwood Hall, have just been reassigned to men, leaving no women's jail in the West Midlands. "So what happens then?" she asks. "It is an interesting question. On sheer health and safety grounds, there is not much more capacity. The point will come at which prisons will have to put out 'House Full' notices. I don't know what contingency plans there are for this. You would have to ask ministers."

Over the next few weeks, Reid may have to tell parliament, and the public, that Britain's jails can take no more prisoners. At that point, rage among a nervous public may outstrip even the current fury. It seems probable that sending those in open prisons back to secure cells is feeding the impending meltdown, though Owers, tactfully, thinks it "too early" to link political furore to the latest rise. Are prisons at breaking point? "We have been pretty close to what I call tipping point for a long time now. I have seen good prisons getting worse and prisons that were starting to get better slip back. The sadness is that all the progress that has been made is under threat. If things go bad in prison, they can go bad very quickly. I don't want to sit here like some kind of Cassandra saying disaster is round the corner, but we forget at our peril the thinness of the line that prisons are holding," she says.

"I should not, in 2006, be inspecting prisons where menstruating women have to slop out, or where exercise in a high-security prison has to be cancelled because of the parcels of excrement prisoners have thrown from their windows, because they can't get out of their cells at night to go to the toilet."

She cites other examples of progress reversed - among them, alarming levels of self-harm among women, of suicide, and of re-offending consistent with "recycling" prisoners. Owers sees the disasters of penal policy at first hand. She also delivers lectures, from Texas to China, on an inspectorate that has been a model for the world. So why is the present government abolishing it?

Owers clearly thinks the plan is reckless. "I'm very concerned. When institutions operate outside the light, it is really impor- tant that you have a body which can go anywhere, see anything, talk to anyone and report on what it finds. There are two crucial areas: first, that we continue to inspect by our own criteria, and second that we carry on being able to do some of our inspections unannounced. Previous ministers have said this is what they want, and I have no reason to believe current ones think differently, but I am worried that those areas are not specifically protected [in the bill].

"We have huge expertise, and I am afraid that will be lost. There is insufficient statutory protection and no guarantee of what will happen in the future." Her hope is that the Lords will tackle the bill's deficits and protect a vital plank of justice. "I inherited a very robust inspectorate, and I want to do all I can to ensure it continues," she says.

Yet there is more at stake here than one department's future. Britain's jails - the hell-holes and the success stories now facing meltdown - are on the brink of a crisis. The disasters hidden behind locked doors threaten inmates' futures, public safety and the durability of home secretaries who have failed, for five years, to heed what Chief Inspector Owers has been telling them. For the sake of humanity and self-preservation, John Reid should start listening now.