What is independence?

This article previously featured on Inside Time in January: https://insidetime.org/what-is-independence/

If you’ve read our previous articles in Inside Time, seen our complaints posters and leaflets around the prison, or heard our adverts on Prison Radio, you’ll know that we take great care to explain that the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) is independent of the Prison Service and those who work for it. In this article, I want to explain why our independence is so important to us – and what impact it has for you if you make a complaint to the PPO.

The Cambridge University dictionary definition of independent is: ‘not influenced or controlled in any way by other people, events or things’.

The PPO is what’s known as an Arm’s Length Body of the Ministry of Justice. PPO staff are civil servants and as an organisation, we use Ministry of Justice policies to manage how, among other things, we recruit new investigators, manage staff performance or support staff who are unwell.

However, our Terms of Reference (the public document that sets out what we do, and how we do it) make clear that we are wholly independent of the Prison Service and that this independence allows us to do our job ‘without fear or favour’, which means without taking sides.

When you make a complaint to the PPO, you need to feel confident that we can – and will – thoroughly and independently investigate your complaint, whether it relates to missing property or allegations that staff wrongly used force against you. You need to feel confident that if we identify that you have been badly treated or staff have made mistakes, we will take steps to put things right for you.

Our independence means that when we investigate your complaint, the prison must provide us with any relevant evidence and make staff available for interview if we need to speak to them about what happened. I am pleased to say that it is very rare that prisons don’t cooperate with our investigations.

In some cases, where we find that something went wrong, we make recommendations to the prison. Those recommendations might involve staff apologising to you, or paying compensation, or changing the way something is done in the prison to avoid the same thing happening to someone else. Our independence also means that we can recommend that the Prison Service changes a policy. As you can imagine, we have a lot of experience of what works (and what doesn’t) in Prison Service policies and we use evidence from our investigations to suggest how national policies could be improved to benefit all prisoners.

It is important that I explain that our independence doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll agree with you. We don’t take sides, so when we investigate your complaint, we might decide that the prison has done everything it should have, or that staff acted in line with policy. I understand that might be deeply frustrating if you have taken the time to raise your complaint with the PPO, but it is really important that all of those involved in a PPO investigation – you, prison staff involved, or those working in Prison Service headquarters – have confidence that we approach all of our investigations in the same way. For us at the PPO, our independence is central to driving improvements for people in prison.

If you have a complaint for the PPO, write to: Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Third Floor, 10 South Colonnade, London, E14 4PU

Susannah Eagle – Complaints Deputy Ombudsman