The future of Independent Monitoring Boards

Christopher Padfield, Bedford IMB and Chair of AMIMB, looks at the future for IMBs

cpadfieldThere has been talk within Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and elsewhere, for at least a year, that the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) system is disappointing against expectations.  Thought is turning in those places, as it did in Scotland, to replacing IMBs with a tighter, more disciplined system linked to the Inspectorate, that they perceive would be more fit for purpose.

If the IMBs are not, by implication, fit for purpose, would abandonment and a clean slate be the best way forward?  Or could the IMB system as a whole find the strategic sense and the reforming energy to fit itself to the purpose; and in the process, conserve much of what is good and has been accumulated over the years?

If we, who spend our lives a long way away from the MoJ, have heard these rumours, how much better informed must be the IMB National Council (NC) and the Secretariat?  Did this threat lie, in some part, behind the NC’s commissioning of a review of Independent Monitoring Boards from Karen Page Associates (the KPA review), that NC President John Thornhill communicated to the membership in September 2014?  Some of the review’s observations are repeated here.  Another review approaches (see below).

Partly in preparation for this article, considering ‘speaking out’ about things that need to be voiced, the AMIMB executive committee consulted its membership and has analysed responses to three questions:

  • Should AMIMB speak out publicly?;
  • About which matters?;
  • And subject to what process?

The overwhelming answer was that AMIMB should speak out, and join forces with other voices, on important matters.  Respondents did not wish to limit the issues AMIMB might comment on, or where, but it was important, they felt, that any views expressed should be based on evidence.  That is of course also the view of the executive committee.

Beyond the reviews: a plan?

In his letter to IMBs accompanying the KPA review text, John Thornhill mentioned the imminence of a Cabinet Office triennial review.  All ‘arms-length bodies’ are subject to such reviews, and this could be the forum where the option to shut down the IMB system is explored and compared against other possibilities, if indeed such options are under consideration.  When it comes, the triennial review can be expected to be more focused on value for money than heretofore.  Even though the overall IMB budget is small compared to overall prisons expenditure, the accumulation of many such savings can be helpful to a government that is looking to achieve 30% savings within MoJ!

John Thornhill also announced that the NC would write a ‘Development Plan’ that would respond to the many points raised in the KPA review.  Published minutes of the National Council reveal an intention, as yet unfulfilled, to produce also a ‘Monitoring Framework’.  We further understand that the NC has successfully applied for more time.  Time for what?  Why is more time needed, given that the KPA review was delivered to the National Council a year ago already?

A year later, no attempt has been made to communicate to the membership any urgency concerning a possible threat to our existence, though an evidence of purposeful activity is that Mick Davies has surrendered his post as Head of Secretariat to concentrate on the IMB system’s response to the review.  The promised development plan has not been published, though John Thornhill was kind enough to send us a copy on request, remarking that none of the ‘supporting documents’ (the monitoring framework, etc) yet exist.

The development plan turns out to be an action plan, focusing primarily on administrative and procedural issues, rather than the kind of strategic analysis that would be needed to satisfy the triennial review, particularly if the view has already taken hold that the IMB system doesn’t quite ‘get it’, strategically.

The membership of the IMB system have been told very little about the triennial review and its agendas, and so we publish here an open letter to the IMB National Council President asking that he inform the membership on how things stand, and involve them fully in the process of preparation for the triennial review.  We hope to publish his response in the next issue of the Monitor.