A message from the chair

After a long silence during which we’ve hoped to publish a response from the President of the National Council to our open letter in the July 2015 Monitor, here is something of an update on where we think we stand.
On the face of it, the article was absorbed like a ball falling into a bed of feathers, but there have been many informal reports from the secretive high councils of the IMB that it did have impact. We would of course have welcomed a response from the NC or its President; an organisation that exists to challenge authority should not feel that turning the focus around is somehow not cricket.
But on the positive side, is it a coincidence that since then the National Council has been more communicative (the new chatty Bulletin) and has started to pay a quantum leap more attention to substantive matters concerning the IMB role and practice (the new Framework) – both very good starts?
Where does AMIMB stand?
The long-standing alienation of AMIMB by the National Council, has started to thaw over the last year, despite our new-found determination to speak out, and we welcome that with open arms. It no longer seems to be the case that some National Council members think AMIMB is trying to ‘represent’ IMB. There is a growing acceptance that we are just an association of some of the more inquisitive and perhaps proactive board members. We are internally trying to fill some of the gaps in provision for IMB members generally, and realising that as a fully and completely ‘independent’ organization in every sense, we can do and say things publicly that maybe the IMB as a formal institution will always find difficult.
Maybe there is a way here for the IMB system to find a voice to protest about the failings of policy and practice in our nation’s criminal justice system, as they concern prisons and prisoners, and their consequential impacts on society?
One of our principal concerns about the central bodies of the IMB has always been their persistent failure to engender a feeling of community across the system. Members need opportunities to talk intelligently with peers from other boards about their voluntary professional activity as monitors, and they need opportunities to learn more about the contexts within which they work. They need to be engaged in a constant stream of real consultation on matters requiring development and decision, rather than receiving the answers in full-colour, ex-cathedra. We currently have hope that the National Council might come to see that we will be stronger if the two organisations engage each other in teamwork.
We are even hopeful that ways might be found to overcome the incomprehensible difficulties senior officers have perceived in including a leaflet about AMIMB in the new IMB members’ correspondence, and authorising the reimbursement of travel expenses for attendance at AMIMB workshops.
Jenny Blackburn, a long-term AMIMB member, has been appointed as a link between the NC and AMIMB’s executive committee. We couldn’t have had a more constructive discussion than the hour or so your exec sat with Jenny as an alternative ending to one of our quarterly meetings this February.
The way ahead for IMB
We recognised, before Karen Page published her insightful Review in September 2014, that behind all the other things we were worried about, lay unresolved governance issues. But it has only been in the last year that we have really come to see, evidenced by specific incidents (where simple administrative decisions could not be taken by senior officers in the ‘independent’ IMB without reference to officials in the MoJ etc.), the degree of paralysis this routinely causes.
We consulted you, our AMIMB membership, about these matters in September 2015, and your responses were helpful and reassuringly consensual. We have already contributed to a preliminary sounding conducted by the review team in order to help them shape their questions, and AMIMB will be consulted, as an association, as part of the review proper.
In summary, we will argue for a thorough structural reform aimed at:
  • rectifying the many governance deficiencies – replacing the National Council with a board of directors, some of whom would be non-execs from outside the IMB system, under an independent chair accountable jointly to the Minister of Justice, Home Secretary and Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. Replacing the Secretariat with a combined professional and administrative staff group under a chief executive, accountable to the board
  • the need (as we see it) for much closer alliance with the several criminal justice system inspectorates and OPCAT monitoring organisations (but not for fusion with the prisons inspectorate)
  • the need for thoroughgoing and expert professional support for information to and consultation with IMBs, ensuring high common standards, collaboration across the piece etc.
We will argue for retention of the local Board structure (under new terms of reference and under the control of a stronger Centre), which we see as vital to the maintenance of volunteers’ motivation, and to the idea that IMBs represent a link between the closed world of prisons and the citizenship.
We will post a summary of our submission on the AMIMB website. Keep looking as we may well update the post as we hold more discussions!
The governance review
The Karen Page Review (September 2014) called for a ‘root and branch’ review of the governance of IMBs. All arms lengths bodies are subject to triennial reviews but ministers are holding off the formal triennial review of IMB until the prison structure is in place. When it happens it might be clustered with lay observers, custody visitors, PPO and HMIP. However the IMB system is considered to be so urgently in need of a governance restructure, the Prisons Minister commissioned an internal review of IMB governance on its own.
This started last October and AMIMB was interviewed as part of the fieldwork and research part of the process. Subsequently, AMIMB accepted an invitation to be updated on the developments prior to the consultation with IMB boards due out April 4th.
Board chairs will be required to submit a consolidated response by the end of April, that represents the various views of his/her Board Members. The overall findings are due to be published in the summer.
Currently it appears there will be three model structures for Boards to comment on. You will be invited to offer variations of these three models. Here are brief outlines, together with comments from the AMIMB executive committee. (The dialogue with members will continue on amimb.org.uk.)
  1. Maintaining the status quo of the existing structure but with the addition of a ‘Governance Framework’ paralleling the recently released Monitoring Framework, which clarifies the roles and accountabilities of the MoJ sponsor/ Home office sponsor, President, Secretariat and National Council
    Commentary:  This model does not move the IMB structure and governance very far forward. Can do better!
  2. As above but with the addition of changing the appointment process for NC members away from regional elected members to one where they are public appointees appointed to specific roles.
    Commentary: Still does not achieve one organisation with clear leadership as Secretariat would still be separate, the NC would still not have any authority or capacity to control the quality of local monitoring; still lack of professional support for boards; no central professional analysis and research to speak out regarding outcomes of monitoring. Salaried staff still provide an administrative function only
  3. Replace the existing model of NC and president with a board of directors chaired by an executive chair/chief executive. The Secretariat would continue as is, but clearly reporting to the chief executive. We did not understand whether the chief executive would be a volunteer or salaried.
    Commentary: AMIMB accepts that this model is the nearest to the blueprint we favour, but we consider it misses the opportunity to deliver what’s needed. We recommend two principal changes to this model.
    The chief executive should NOT chair the main board. We would like to see the president converted into an independent volunteer non-executive chair of a main board comprising members selected for their expertise and independent non-executive externals. Reporting to the board would be a new appointee, a chief executive with relevant professional and management experience who would head up a staff unit comprising a monitoring support group and an admin group. On this model the board would set strategy, advised by the chief executive, and would oversee the chief executive’s direct management of the central staff unit and facilitation of the work of the IMBs attached to places of detention. The board would exert authority over IMBs, as necessary, advised by the chief executive.
    The second point would therefore be the disbandment of the Secretariat and its replacement, as described above. Here is a lightly edited repeat of some bullets from our July 2015 Monitor article about the sort of professional support such a new staff unit could provide.
    • Systematic research and analysis of the outcomes from local monitoring to detect and investigate trends and patterns; framing questions to boards; collecting and analysing information and broadcasting conclusions; providing an observatory function; keeping members informed about germane developments nationally or abroad.
    • Seeking out the best monitoring theory and practice from around the world and finds ways of interpreting them to the British context.
    • By being absolutely clear about the outcomes of monitoring, speaking out about IMB’s findings, thereby achieving public recognition of its authority, and impact on penal policy; lobbying for better evidence-based rehabilitation-oriented policies.
    • Providing and supporting the provision of world-class professional development opportunities for members with intellectual, research or policy content.
    • Establishing co-working with other groups of inspectors or monitors within the criminal justice system; bringing for consideration other models (whether of prisons policy and practice, or of monitoring) from other jurisdictions.
    • Celebrating members’ achievements and exploiting their skills.
    • Offering and itself monitoring standards, and providing support where weaknesses are identified.