In a lively debate in the House of Lords yesterday, the Anglican Bishop of Worcester, Dr Peter Selby, spoke out firmly in favour of the retention of an independent inspectorate of prisons, forcing the government onto the back foot on the issue.
Peers were unpersuaded by Baroness Scotland's arguments that it would be appropriate to merge the position, currently held by Anne Owers, into a broader portfolio.
Some penal reform critics say the government wishes to water down the inspectorate in order to detract attention from its own tabloid-driven ëtough sentencingí approach - which has been condemned by top judges and has contributed to severe prison overcrowding.
But the government was defeated when the Lords backed a move to retain the independent prisons inspectorate. Voting was 211 to 98 during debate on the police and justice bill.
Baroness Scotland said that she 'was listening', but Labour intends to push ahead with the change in the Commons in contradiction to much expert opinion.
Dr Selby is the Church of England's spokesperson on prison issues, and an advocate of reform and of restorative justice - which the Church backed in a recent Synod report.
In an earlier defeat, peers voted 207 to 145, rejecting ministers' plans to allow fines to be imposed under the conditional caution procedure. Under this scheme an offender agrees to comply with conditions to avoid being prosecuted.
Anne Owers was appointed to succeed Sir David Ramsbotham as HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in 2001. An outspoken human rights campaigner and former head of Justice, she has issued a series of hard-hitting reports which have pressurised the government ñ but have been commended by specialists for their thoroughness and good judgement.
In a damning report put out on 4 October 2006, Ms Owers said that the Bedfordshire Yarlís Wood detention centreís health services were not able to meet the needs of people with serious health problems or those held for longer periods.
Her inquiry focused on support and treatment for detainees with mental and traumatic stress disorders, and on issues raised by the management of the medical needs of two female detainees.
It found that the centreís complex management arrangements (run by Global Solutions with health provision contracted to Veritas) made it difficult to establish who was responsible for delivering specific services.
The report also said that staff training was not good enough and that the provision of mental health services was ìinadequateî.
Home Office minister Liam Byrne immediately said he took the recommendations ìvery seriouslyî and that the government was drawing up an action plan in response.
Under Ms Owersí past leadership, the organisation Justice (which has 300 judges among its members) confronted former Home Secretary Jack Straw over his department's stand on immigration law, sentencing and the mistreatment of asylum seekers.
[Also on Ekklesia: Crime, punishment and redemption Jun 15, 2006 - Jonathan Bartley goes beyond moral panic to restorative justice; Bishop calls for prisons review; Church report on prisons to urge redemption not punishment; Fall of the Prison: Biblical Perspectives on Prison Abolition; The Future of Criminal Justice; Home Office findings on restorative justice 'very positive'; Little Book of Restorative Justice for People in Prison; Justice for Victims and Offenders: A Restorative Response to Crime; Spiritual Roots of Restorative Justice by Michael Hadley]