‘Please read the report’ – a message from the Ombudsman

This article was first issued in January, written by Prisons & Probation Ombudsman Sue McAllister for prisoners and readers of Inside Time: https://insidetime.org/please-read-the-report/

You can read the 2019/20 Annual Report here: https://www.ppo.gov.uk/news/the-prisons-and-probation-ombudsman-publish-their-2019-20-annual-report/

Prisons and Probation Ombudsman 2019/20 Annual Report now available


On 4 November 2020, the latest Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) Annual Report was published. As an independent body, we are required to publish a report every year to serve as a record of our activities and achievements. Typically, ours includes a foreword from me, summaries of the year for each of our functions (complaints, fatal incident investigations and learning lessons) and some anonymised case studies to show the sort of cases we have investigated throughout the course of the year. This year’s report covers the period from April 2019 to March 2020.

We send a copy of our Annual Report to every prison so that it can be placed in the prison library and read by anybody who has an interest in our work. We are very keen to know that has happened and we welcome feedback, both on whether you have been able to access a copy and how useful you found it. We also send copies, nowadays mainly by electronic means, to our many stakeholders and to the services we investigate. Before it can be made public, a copy is also laid in Parliament as an official record of our work.

Headline News

In the year from April 2019 to March 2020 (2019/20), the PPO received 4,686 complaints, 6% fewer than in the previous year. The most common complaint category we received was about property, with staff behaviour and aspects of prison administration as the next most common categories.

We completed 2,450 complaints in 2019/20.  Of these, 34% came from the Long Term and High Security Estate (LTHSE), only 2% of the total came from women, and 2% from people under 21.

As well as the complaints we investigated, we declined to investigate 285 in 2019/20, either because they didn’t raise a substantive issue or because we judged there could be no worthwhile outcome. Whilst we know this can be frustrating and disappointing for the person who has complained, we do have to use our judgement and focus on those complaints that will have impact, either for an individual or for the wider service.

We also sent some complaints back because they weren’t eligible, usually because they hadn’t been through the internal processes at the prison before coming to the PPO. We hope that the work we are doing to raise awareness of how to complain will lead to fewer of these ineligible complaints.

In 2019/20 we also started investigations into 311 deaths in custody, a small decrease of 7% from the previous year. Of the 311 people whose deaths we investigated, 176 died from natural causes and 83 people took their own lives. Every death that occurs in prison is required, by law, to be investigated independently and the PPO has been responsible for carrying out those independent investigations since 2004.

In my foreword to the report, I write about our frustration at the number of times we make the same recommendations and the work we are doing to understand what more we can do about that. As PPO, we have no authority to make HMPPS do what we recommend, and I have described that as us having no ‘teeth’. So, we have been looking at how we could make changes. For example, from how we write our reports and the way we make recommendations to prisons in a way that focuses on outcomes, to how things improve as a result of what we find, and what we say should change. We are determined that the work we do must have impact and that, where we find things have gone wrong, action is taken to put things right.

Other News

In our Annual Report, we also mention some of the things we have been doing to raise awareness of who we are and what we do. Many of you understand the role of the PPO and some of you will have complained to us during the year. But there are still some people in prison who might not be quite as well informed and so we have been working to put that right in a number of ways.

We visited prisons and held some sessions with wing reps and complaints reps so that we understood what we could do to raise awareness and, we hope, reduce the number of complaints we receive that aren’t eligible and have to be returned. Following on from those sessions, we worked with the Prison Radio Association and Wayout TV to produce some adverts telling listeners and viewers how to complain to us and, more recently, how we are keeping our services going during the COVID-19 restrictions. We’re looking forward to getting feedback on how useful those adverts have been and whether we should do more to share information in that way. And, of course, we have been writing articles for Inside Time in what we hope will be a regular slot.

I know that access to prison libraries will be affected by the restrictions currently placed on regimes. I hope though, that as prisons are able to move to having more activity and access to facilities, you will be interested enough to read our report and that there is something in there that feels relevant and interesting.