Canadian Charter
Story Archives

Editorial against for-profits.
Prisons inspector is right to oppose privatisation
The watchdog barks - July 23, 2002

A watchdog should have teeth. Andrew McLelland bared his yesterday when he was introduced as Scotland's chief inspector of prisons, replacing the equally forthright Clive Fairweather. Dr McLelland's views on prison privatisation and the closure of Peterhead jail, including its sex offenders unit, are well known. He opposes both. Lest anyone was still in doubt yesterday, he made his position absolutely clear when he said he had not been persuaded by the economic arguments for prison privatisation. He doubted if it was in the interests of prisoners and said it should remain the state's responsibility to look after those whose liberty it removed. Closing the Peterhead unit would be damaging and costly because of the difficulty in replicating it elsewhere, in a community that, unlike Peterhead's, would not welcome it. How true.

Dr McLelland is a former chaplain at Cornton Vale, Scotland's jail for women, and, as a minister and former moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, he has taken a personal interest in prison reform. He emphasised yesterday that he was not coming to the job with a closed mind. Judging by the reaction to the Scottish Executive's proposals, however, it would take the rhetorical skills of the Faculty of Advocates to persuade him that full privatisation, including Peterhead's closure, can work. Only Jim Wallace, the justice minister, seems to believe so (publicly anyway). Yet Mr Wallace and Jack McConnell, the first minister, were responsible for the appointment of a man who has been openly hostile to their prison plans. Turkeys would not vote for Christmas, would they?

Perhaps Dr McClelland's appointment is a signal that the private sector will not build, maintain, and operate new prisons, and that the sex offenders unit will stay in Peterhead. If the executive pressed on with the plan, despite the weight of evidence against it, Scotland would have the biggest proportion of its prisoners in private jails in the world. Dr McLelland is not going to be persuaded of the merits of full privatisation, because it has no merits. If new prisons were fully privatised the independent unit charged with monitoring them would be run by a man who is against the concept: hardly a recipe for a constructive, positive relationship between the executive and the inspectorate. Mr McConnell and Mr Wallace could have opted for an easier life by appointing a poodle to the post. That was the fear among conspiracy theorists, who concluded that Mr Fairweather was effectively being dropped because he had made himself a nuisance.

But the first minister and his deputy should be applauded for selecting Dr McLelland. The Nolan rules on upholding standards in public life, including public appointments, made it very difficult to appoint a placeman. On paper, Dr McLelland looks the right man for the job. He believes prisons are a forgotten part of Scottish society. There are many penal issues that need aired. Compared with the rest of Europe, why does Scotland lock up so many young men? Why does nearly half of the country's prisoners end up in jail for failing to pay a fine? Why is the controversial prison building programme founded on managing an expanding prison population when the aim should be to reduce it? Dr McLelland is not entirely right about Scotland's prisons being forgotten. The executive's plans have, paradoxically, guaranteed them prominence. Now, probably more than ever, we need a strong voice in the prisons inspectorate. Dr McLelland should provide it. Life might become even more uncomfortable for Mr McConnell and Mr Wallace, but the appointment suggests they might well have the best interests of the penal system at heart. They can confirm that by abandoning full privatisation.

| Home Page |