Berwyn Prison near Wrexham, which began operations in February this year, will be the biggest prison in the UK by some margin, with very tight staffing. It is in several ways something of an experiment.
The privately operated Oakwood and Northumberland prisons – also Cat C male, so these are all the same type – have been criticised by opponents of the private sector both for being too large, and having high staff/prisoner ratios, thus causing unsafe conditions.
But Berwyn will be much bigger - but not quite so tightly staffed (1):
capacity operational staff per prisoner (2)
Oakwood 1605 1:5.9
Northumberland 1318 1:6.8
Berwyn 2106 1:5.5
It will be interesting to see what happens, as Berwyn builds up numbers – it is currently only at about a third of capacity .
If it manages to maintain a stable, safe regime, that may put in question the assumption that staffing cuts are the main cause of the worst prison crisis in a generation. Might it also suggest that MoJ has found the 'sweet spot' where staffing is lean, but still safe? No: since prisons with similar or lower ratios are in deep trouble. Even so, MoJ's 9 'new for old' prison programme assume still further staffing cuts, to generate net savings in operating costs. But might it not also suggest that MoJ as customer has driven staffing ratios too high in private sector prison contracts - such as, indeed, Oakwood and Northumberland? (3)
If, on the other hand, Berwyn turns out to be chaotic and unsafe, it will validate the hypotheses about low staffing - and call in question the judgement of those who planned it. And - here's the difference relative to the privately run prisons, which are held to contact - staff numbers may have to increease.
There are differing views about mega-prisons. I haven't any expertise in the matter. They offer economies of scale, so are cheaper per place. Opponents say they will be factory-like and impede the relationships essential to good prisons. Advocates say that 3 or 4 units for different types of prisoner within a mega jail, each with their own identity, management and staff, would in fact be a series of smaller prisons, not one big one, and would have benefits for prisoners eg better specialist healthcare on site. Maybe: but I suspect that despite that, it will still feel like a mega jail, and something will be lost. Their sheeer size means that prisoners cannot be held as close to home as would the case if we built a network of small community prisons instead, though that would cost more.
Berwyn marks a major change in accommodation policy. Hitherto, we had always aimed at one man to a cell: that was how overcrowding was measured - how many were held two or even three to a cell. In Berwyn, many(I think the majoirty) will be housed two to a cell, albeit one designed for double occupancy, whether they like it or not. No credible reason is advanced for this, other than packing more in, and driving down construction and operating cost per place. I am surprised how little comment there has been on this historic change. It should be independently evaluated.
I haven't mentioned cost. The headline figures are:
annual cost per place, £
Berwyn (est., when when full) (1) 14, 000
Oakwood (4) 14, 348
Northumberland (4) 14, 548
So why are privately run prisons more costly, even though they have leaner staffing? Because they aren't. To compare like with like, you'd need to make several additions to the Berwyn figure:
Past experience of trying to ensure a level playing field in competition suggests an addition of around 2% for item 1 (6).
MoJ accounts show the on cost for item 2 is 25% for the private sector but 60% for the public sector, thus we should allow 15% differential on cost to the public sector (7).
3 is unknowable - but pension experts think that even under the reformed PSC scheme, the combined employer and employee contributions are likely to be 5% short of actual costs even on current assumptions, and it could be much more. But we'll never know – that's the beauty of the thing. Uncosted and uncostable (8). As so often nowadays - pensions, nuclear power, climate change, the NHS, social care, the ageing housing stock - when long term costs look too big to ever be affordable, we just ignore them.
That suggests the true comparison requires an additional 22 % for the public sector, thus:
annual cost per place, £
Berwyn (when full) 17, 500
Oakwood 14, 348
Northumberland 14, 548
About 5-7% of the higher cost in the public sector is having more operational staff; the rest is a a mix of higher (though hidden) pension costs, more non operational staff, higher pay, longer holidays, more sick absence, shorter working weeks, less flexibility, or more costly supplies and service contracts including central services (6). Of course, if we were looking at operational cost, rather than cost to the public purse, the gap between sectors will be even larger, because of the profit margin.
The significance of these figures is considerable. It means that in stating to Parliament that public and private prisons are equally efficient, Government has told an untruth (9); indeed that Government doesn't actually know what the true comparison is (10); and that in terminating competition on the bogus basis that there is no longer significant cost difference between sectors, MoJ has shown precisely the kind of 'producer self interest' which might be expected, given that the public sector has, until recently, both awarded contracts for prisons and has also been the biggest competitor in those competitions. (11)
It also implies that on a true cost comparison, the private operators could provide a better service than the public sector for the same money – but is not allowed to, because its costs are being mis-represented, relative to the public sectors.
No wonder the companies I worked for were so wary about competing against public sector prisons! (12). The match is rigged.
MoJ's prison programme can't work as planned - and even if it did, wouldn't address the causes of the prison crisis. Time to dare to....think?
FT article today
Plan to overhaul UK jails faces £1.6bn shortfall Overcrowding and building delays mean problem of prison violence ‘will not be resolved’
Britain's prison populationhas almost reached full capacity, at nearly 90,000 people
A plan to tackle overcrowding and violence in Britain’s prisons is underfunded by £1.6bn over the next five years and will not work, according to a former finance director of the prison service. Julian Le Vay, who was the service’s finance director for five years until 2001, suggested that a higher-than-expected prison population and delays to building plans for new prisons mean that the present levels of unrest and violence will not be solved without fresh funding. The most recent prison population figures show 86,075 people in prisons in England and Wales, only just short of the 87,411 total capacity.
The Prison Reform Trust, which released his analysis, said it showed the fundamental problems with efforts to resolve overcrowding by providing new spaces, rather than by cutting down the numbers of offenders sentenced to prison. The severe overcrowding of prisons has helped to produce a significant rise in violence, with 27,193 assaults or serious assaults in the year to June and a 25 per cent rise in attacks on guards. Many analysts also believe that overcrowded prisons lead to worse rates of reoffending on release. After trying the same failed policy for nearly four decades, the time has surely come for a change Peter Dawson, Prison Reform Trust
Mr Le Vay said he believed a shortfall in cash means the government’s 2015 plan to build nine new prisons “is not going to do what they want it to do.”. The plans for the five years to 2020 were meant to provide around 10,000 new places in five new prisons, at a capital cost of £1.5bn. The project was meant to be funded largely by closing old, expensive-to-operate city-centre prisons such as London’s Holloway and selling the sites for housing. But so far the government has done no more than identify the sites of four new prisons and, in March, told parliament only that it would be submitting planning applications in future.
Mr Le Vay said that, based on the experience of Berwyn Prison, near Wrexham, which opened in February this year, the service could expect a 3½-year gap between planning application and partial opening. That meant none of the new prisons would be open before 2020, while the prison population is expected to grow by 1,600 by 2022. He added that because the facilities would not open on time, it would be impossible to close the city-centre prisons on the anticipated schedule and the money for those sites would not be received as planned.
The study highlights the dilemma that the government faces as courts respond to increasingly tough criminal law by sending growing numbers of offenders to jail, despite a long-term decline in most measures of violent crime. Mr Le Vay calculates that spending for the 2018-19 financial year on prisons in England and Wales will be £162m more than budgeted because of extra staff costs. His projections anticipate steadily higher-than-budgeted spending over the following five years, to £463m by 2022-23. The total underfunding over the period amounts to £1.57bn.
Mr Le Vay argues that efforts to build capacity to relieve overcrowding have never been successful, since courts tend to sentence extra offenders to prison, filling up the capacity. Ministers have generally been wary of changing sentencing policy to divert offenders away from jail because of the risk of a public backlash.
But Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the UK was continuing to “throw” taxpayers’ money at prison building, at a time when many developed countries were reducing their prison populations. “After trying the same failed policy for nearly four decades, the time has surely come for a change,” Mr Dawson said. The Ministry of Justice said the analysis was “pure speculation”. It said it was investing to create “high-quality, modern establishments” and closing older prisons that were not fit for purpose. “This will help deliver prisons that are more safe and secure, so our staff can work more closely with offenders to change their lives and turn their back on crime for good,” it said.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
Difficult times at the MoJ - everything going badly, less money every year, everyone saying you're not doing enough to put things right. Still, David Lidington and his Perm Sec, David Heaton, have found a solution: just don't tell anyone what you're doing. I was searching the other day for the usual Departmental and Agency Plans and Strategies spelling out what they aim to do, the key dates, key targets, how they money will be used - and they no longer exist. All there is now is a super-bland statement of nothing much (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/moj-single-departmental-plan-2015-to-2020/single-departmental-plan-2015-to-2020).
As for Parliament, that great bulwark of our liberties, they simply haven't noticed. Too busy 'taking back control', I expect...
NOTE: This replaces an early version posted on 22 October, following helpful comments from Phil Wheatley.
That Chris Grayling's savage cuts in staffing levels in public sector prisons helped propelled them into violent chaos is understood by everyone (except, naturally, the Secretary of State). But what of privately run ('contracted') prisons? Until now, we haven't had their staffing numbers. However, I recently obtained numbers of PCOs in contracted prisons for each year 2013-2016. There is also data for 2011. Analysis throws up some interesting and partly unexpected points.
I used figures for PCOs in contracted prisons on 1 January each year 2013-17, recently supplied by MoJ in response to a FoI request. The data is missing for some prisons in 2013. I stitched onto the front of this data from a PQ for PCO numbers in March 2011 (1), thus giving a trend 2011-17. The quality of the data is uncertain: MoJ do not regularly collect it, do not quality assure it, and there is ambiguity e.g. the FoI release states these are 'funded' PCO posts, implying an unknown number may be vacant, and it is unclear whether these are all FTEs. I am seeking clarification. I also looked at changes MoJ's annual payments, prisoner numbers (annual average to avoid seasonal fluctuations), rates of assaults and self harm, and compared trends in public sector prisons.
So, what can be said?
Since 2010, staffing in public sector prisons have been cut by over a quarter, but hardly at all in the private sector – charts 1 and 2
Over the period 2010-17, public sector prisons cut the number of prison officers and Operational Support grades grades by 27%; during 2011-17; but the number of PCOs in the contracted sector rose by 8% (chart 1). But the underlying change – once one has stripped out switches of prisons between one sector and other, and opening of 3 new prisons by the private sector - was a reduction of 23 % in the public sector, but a reduction of just 3% for the private sector (chart 2)
Was this unfair? No. MoJ cut numbers in the public sector because it believed, rightly or wrongly, that these prisons could be run safely with fewer staff. No one ever suggested that was true of contracted prisons as a group, which already had much lower staffing levels. In my time as FD, at least, staffing levels in successful bids were as lean as we thought safe. So to cut levels in contracted prisons, as a group, would have been unjustified and unsafe.
Chart 1 - changes in workforce numbers, public and private sector prisons, 2010-17
Notes: Public sector POs and Opp Support grades, private sector PCOs. Data missing for some prisons in 2013 only.
Chart 2 - underlying change in workforces, 2010-17
Note: data as chart 1 but stripping out switches between sectors and effect of new prisons in private sector.
KEY: BLUE = public sector ORANGE = private sector
Raw numbers in workforce Underlying change
More important for prisoner and staff safety and the quality of regimes than absolute staffing levels is the staff:prisoner ratio. In some contracted prisons, this was affected independently of staffing cuts, either by new capacity came on stream, or by more overcrowding in existing prisons. Three contracted prisons opened in the period that were larger than any previous prison, specifically with the aim of enabling higher staff:prisoner ratios to reduce costs. Thus, although less than half contracted prisons suffered staffing cuts, a majority increased the staff:prisoner ratio, as shown in chart 3. But it wasn't necessarily those with the largest staff cuts that suffered the biggest increase in the staff:prisoner ratio.
Chart 3: cuts in staff numbers mapped onto changes in staff:prisoner ratios, 2011-17
KEY BLUE=% change staff numbers ORANGE=% change in staff:prisoner ratio
Different prisons followed different paths
Contracted prisons did not follow the same staffing trends. Rather, they fell into different groups, as follows.
deep cuts: Altcourse
Only one contracted prison suffered the same deep cuts as the public sector: Altcourse. Francis Maude on appointment Cabinet Office Minister from 2010-12 was charged with securing reductions in contract prices across Government in the aftermath of the banking crisis. This is an aspect of the monopsonist market behaviour analysed in my book. When contracting out started, in the 1990s, it was claimed that contracts would protected operators against constant change, of the kind that public sector managers had to endure. But in a market dominated by a single customer, suppliers will find it hard to resist determined interference in contracts by that customer. (Other exmaples of such interference are MoJ's attempts to foist new national contratcs, for FM services and throughcare, both of them now proved disastrous mistakes, on contracted prisons.)
Altcourse was an obvious target for Maude's cuts because it had always been by far the most costly. When the contract was let in 1995, it was no cheaper than the then extremely inefficient public sector. Partly because it was so generously funded, it had always performed well, as evidenced by Inspection reports, performance measures, the views of successive Director Generals and comparative research by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology (2). It had been an outstanding prison. PCO numbers were cut 25% over the period – as deep as the cuts in the public sector. This was partly because MoJ cut prisoner numbers, thinking it would get more places for its money elsewhere. But by 2017, the staff: prisoner ratio had increased from 1:3.8 to 1: 4.4.
lesser cuts: Bronzefield, Rye Hill, Forest Bank
Less steep cuts were made at Bronzefield (-6%, Forest Bank (-4%) and Rye Hill (-8%) and at all of them, the staff:prisoner ratio also increased significantly.
initial cuts, later partly reversed: Doncaster, Dovegate, Lowdham Grange
At Doncaster and Dovegate, early cuts were later partly reversed, so that the ratio at the end of the period was not far off that at the beginning. At Doncaster the contract was re-competed in 2011. At that point, SERCO had high hopes of winning neighbouring prisons in the massive competition then underway, which would have enabled substantial savings through synergy. Understanding that the only thing that mattered to the customer by then was cutting costs, SERCO bid much lower than the existing contract, and won. But it did not win the other prisons – the scandal of SERCO and G4S's shameless milking of the tagging contracts broke, and SERCO was out of the running. So SERCO was stuck with a too-cheap contract. PCO numbers fell by 17% 2011-2013 and payments fell by a quarter. The staff cuts were almost wholly reversed after 2015, and by 2017, the staff:prisoner ratio of 2011 was restored. But MoJ did not restore previous funding, so the extremely lean profit margin the SERCO accepted in 2011 must now been thin indeed. It is even conceivable the place is now being run at a loss.
Dovegate similarly initially cut PCO numbers by 12% modified by later increases to 9%, and the staff: prisoner ratio rose slightly from 1:4.3 to 1:4.6. Lowdham Grange staff numbers were cut by 8% and the staff:prisoner ratio suffered accordingly, although the staffing levels had by 2017 been increased above 2011 levels, and staff:prisoner ratio also slightly improved from 2011 levels.
prisons where staffing increased: Parc, Peterborough
At Parc, numbers were substantially increased, by 14% , but as prisoner numbers increased also, the staff:prisoner ratio rose from 1:4 to 1:4.8. At Peterborough, staff numbers also increased, by 18% - but again, increases in prisoner numbers pushed the staff:prisoner ratio up from 1:3.8 to 1:4.2.
prisons which opened in the period on very tight staffing, later increased: Thameside, Birmingham, Oakwood, Northumberland
Prisons opening during the period were as it were born into austerity, with extremely tight staffing levels from the outset. They faced extra challenges – start up, or transfer of operator, are notoriously volatile periods, and three were much larger and thus more challenging to run than existing prisons.
In three of these prisons, staffing levels were actually increased over the period - but so were prisoner numbers. So ratios did not necessarily improve. At Oakwood, the staff:prisoner ratio rose to 1:6.6, at Thameside to 1:6.3. Only at Northumberland did an increase in staff very slightly improve the ratio, from an astounding 1:7.2 in 2015 to 1:6.9. At Birmingham staff numbers remained unchanged and so also the ratio, although it has fallen in 2017.
Because of missing data and its complete change of role in the middle of the period, it is not possible to make any statement about staffing trends for Ashfield.
Different prisons also fared differently as regards funding cuts, as MoJ tore up contracts in search of savings. Some suffered really deep cuts: Altcourse lost about £4m a year in real terms 2011-14, which could be justified to some extent, as it was always an expensive place and prisoner numbers dropped. Doncaster, never regarded as an expensive prisons, lost much more as a result of the ultra-low re-bid, about £6m a year (without any reduction in numbers of prisoners). Northumberland also did badly, yet adding to staff numbers, one assumes by cutting margins to the bone. Lowdham had no increase for 6 years, thus a real terms cut of 6% at least. Other prisons fared better: Bronzefield, Parc, Peterborough, Dovegate all got increases.
Exploring the link between staffing cuts and deteriorating conditions
Given that different contracted prisons suffered more or less severe staffing cuts, or none at all, it is possible to test the proposition that the main cause of deteriorating safety in prisons, as measured by rates of assault and self harm, has been reduction in staffing numbers.
Clearly, if staffing is cut too far, hours of unlock have to be reduced, witness the recent shaming report that over a third of young offenders are now locked in their cells at least 22 hours a day (and of course that makes nonsense of grandiose ministerial statements about working to reduce re-offending) (3). And a point must be reached that when prisoners are unlocked, there are too few staff on a large wing spot or intervene to stop bullying, trafficking or outright violence, to help the vulnerable or suicidal.
Staffing cuts may additionally cause problems if the more experienced staff choose or are chosen to go, meaning a loss of knowledge and confidence amongst staff. Additionally, if pay is cut, recruitment and retention may become more difficult. Further, if conditions deteriorate, new staff may feel unsafe and intimidated and may not stay, especially if they can easily earn similar pay elsewhere that is less stressful. All these things have happened in the public sector. But what about the contracted sector?
Impact of staff cuts on safety in contracted prisons
The deepest cut was at Altcourse and was accompanied by huge increases in both rates of assault (two fold increase) and self harm (tripled). The last inspection report on Altcourse focussed on rising violence (4). At first sight, it seems plain that the Maude cuts wantonly destroyed one of the best prisons in the country.
But it isn't as straightforward as that. There were actually bigger increases in rates of violence and self harm in prisons where the staff:prisoner ratio had not increased - or had actually improved. Chart 3 shows prisons with those suffering the greatest increases in staff:prisoner ratios at the top, those with no increase or a reduction in the ratio at the bottom, and in each case show the % change in rate of assault and of self harm. Plainly, there isn't much correlation between worsening staff:prisoner ratios and violence or self harm. Equally striking, there isn't much correlation between changes in rates of assault and changes in rates of self harm.
I am at a loss to explain the figures, and would welcome comments. It is always possible - in the prisons world - that the figures cannot be trusted - and some data certainly looks unlikely. But the data is bound to lead one to question the simple proposition that staff cuts directly caused the present crisis.
Another way of looking at it is that if public sector prisons got into trouble by cutting staffing levels by 27% to match those in the contracted sector, one would expect the contracted sector itself to suffer much the same problems – even without cuts - since they were already at that much lower level. (Though presumably the contrracted sector did not have the same problem of losing experienced staff, and turnover levels seem to be lower than in the 2010s).
Thus, the data is somewhat consistent with the proposition that while the causes of deteriorating safety were (as Minsters have insisted) the spread of the new psychoactive drugs, and gang culture, higher staff: positioner ratios made prisons far less able to cope with these challenges. That is also consistent with the experience of Scottish prisons, where there were not cuts, and conditions have not deteriorated to anything like the same extent (5).
But there remain significant variation in the fate of different prisons that cannot be explained through changes in the staff: prisoner ratio. Is it possible that intangibles such as management style or local culture accounted for that variation?
The case of Thameside
Thameside is an interesting exceptional case: rates of violence and self harm reduced, despite a rise in the staff:prisoner ratio. The prison recently received what was, for a prison nowadays, and especially a London one, a pretty positive inspection report (6). Someone ought to take a closer look and find out what they are doing right.
Chart 4: changes in staff:prisoner ratios mapped against changes in rate of assault and self harm 2011-2016
Note: this covers a slighty different period than chart 3.
Prisons are ranked vertically with those with the largest increase in their staff:prisoner ratio (BLUE BAR) at the top, those with the largest fall in that ratio at the bottom, and in each case case the change in the rate of assaults (ORANGE BAR) and self harm (GREY BAR) are shown for each prison. Thus, one would expect all 3 bars to move together.
Since 2010, the 'race to the bottom' has been driven by the public, not the private sector
The line put about by crusaders against privately operated prisons, that because they are run for profit, they must inevitably cut staffing to unsafe levels in order to maximise profit, has been completely turned on its head by the trend 2010-2017 - three time over.
Firstly, because it was the public sector that made really deep staffing cuts – not the contracted sector.
Second, because where staffing cuts were made in contracted prisons, they were made not by contractors seeking bigger profits, but by the public sector as customer, forcing changes in contracts in order to save money - and forcing contracual changes on operators to do so.
Third, because some contracted prisons responded to gathering operational pressure by increasing staffing levels, sometimes without funding to cover it.
Staff: prisoner ratios at contracted and publicly run prisons have converged
Charts 5 shows staff:prisoner ratios in male locals in each sector. Data for Operational Support Grades on the public side is not available by establishment for the whole period. As the ratio of Operational Support grade staff to Prison Officer grades is roughly 1:3, I have shown the public sector staffing levels inflated by that much. I have drawn on research published by the Howard League for these graphs (6).
Chart 5: staff:prisoner ratios at male local prisons 2010-2016
Public sector: Coldingly, High Down, liverpool, Wandsworth
Contracted sector: Altcourse, Doncaster, Forest Bank, Oakwood, Birmingham
These aren't precise comparisons of course, as no two prisons are ever exactly alike in all respects, and I could have chosen other comparators. Still, it's striking how exactly public and contracted sector staff:prisoner ratios converge in 2016.
So are staffing levels, and staff costs, now the same between sectors?
No, for 2 reasons.
First, research we conducted when I was FD showed that about 12% of the cost difference in staffing was because the private sector gets more hours worked from staff: holidays were shorter, they took much less sick leave, they worked a longer week. That data is now a quarter of a century old; but I'm not aware of changes in the public sector that would much erode that difference (if you know of any, please tell me!). So in terms of staff time actually on duty, the work of 100 Prison Officers can be done by around 90 PCOs (7).
Second, staff unit costs remain higher in the public sector. True, MoJ has dramatically reduced starting pay for Prison Officers, Prison Officer pay has been held back by pay restraint, and the Civil Service Pension Scheme has been overhauled. But still, public sector remuneration is bound still to be significantly ahead, for various reasons:
Why aren't staffing data for contracted prisons routinely published?
I had to make a FoI application for this data. In the past, MoJ and before that the Home Office used sometimes to argue that staffing data for contracted prisons couldn't be produced, either because it wasn't held by the Department, or it was commercially confidential. This release disposes of those arguments.
Where a vital public service is delivered under contract, information that is key to understanding the safety and quality of that service ought to be routinely published, even more so where the same data is routinely published for public organisations delivering the identical service, unless it can be shown compellingly to violate commercial confidentiality in a way that would do real damage. That is not the case here. Staff:prisoner ratios are at the heart of prison safety. Some staffing data for contracted prisons – not precisely the same as for public ones, as different issues arise there, but the basic data on numbers of operational staff – should be published routinely alongside the public sector data.
A final thought
Writing this has reminded me how different the crisis now is from that in 1990. Then, we understood that the near collapse of the system reflected decades of appalling physical conditions, weak or non- existent management, waste, a powerful, anarchic and reactionary trade union, negative and oppressive attitudes and behaviour by some staff and absence of any positive sense of mission. These were things we could do soemthing about, and eventually did. By the late 2000s, the service was in an entirely different and much better state.
This collapse, by contrast, overwhelmed the service in just 3 short years. And I am not sure that anyone really knows how to restore safety and decency in our jails. We seem well and truly lost.
I am not confident that all the data is reliable, or that I have always interpreted it correctly, especially for individual prisons. If you can see something wrong, please comment below.
It is a curse of our time that on many issues, views are so violently polarised. Something is either beyond all question wonderful, or beyond all question wicked. And some issues lurch precipitously from the one category to the other. The Private Finance Initiative, for example. Twenty years ago, PFI was accepted by all except the unions and the Labour Left (such as it then was) as self-evidently the way major capital projects for public services got done. The National Audit Office, Public Accounts Committee, and with few exceptions, the media, all accepted it as a fact of life and produced nice reports saying that it was a good thing.
Now, though, everyone agrees PFI was a disaster, causing huge damage to public services and wasting vast amounts of public money. And in the forefront of the penitents are...the NAO, the PAC, the media. But above all, what one might call New Old Labour, who reserve their greatest loathing not for the Tories, but for the Labour Government which had the biggest majority and longest period in power in all their party's history. For them, it is an article of faith that the Blair and Brown Governments, which let the vast majority of PFI contracts, did nothing good (1).
This is a mistake, for the truth is more complicated than that, and the consequence of these simplistic, sloganising views is that we do not understand what happened and do not learn from it for the future.
There is certainly plenty of evidence that some PFI deals were extremely poor value, especially in the NHS. It's also clear that since the 2008 Crash, the much lower rate for Government borrowing makes PFI very unattractive indeed, if not totally unviable. And even for the majority of deals which of course predated the Crash, PFI now looks an odd way of proceeding. Particularly, for the service element, the much vaunted risk transfer looks in hindsight more theoretical than real', while the very long term of these contracts looks problematic in a world where user requirements and technology are changing faster than ever.
Still, PFI wasn't all bad: and the alternative of traditional public procurement can boast many disasters of its own.
Firstly, it's worth recalling that through PFI we got over 100 new or substantially rebuilt hospitals and over 500 schools, not to mention GP surgeries and primary care centres. We could never have built the same number through conventional finance, since these would have required funding up front (1A). Therefore, even if PFI wasn't the best way to do it, the fact is that millions of people have been or will be treated or educated in new buildings, with up to date equipment, who would otherwise have been treated or educated in decayed, old and ill equipped buildings. So there is a huge social benefit, which continues.
Secondly, the actual service was delivered publicly, even though construction was privately financed and some support services privately run. Thus – and the Labour penitents seem to miss this – PFI was associated not with a reduction, but a huge expansion in the public service workforce: under Labour, the workforce in education increased by a third of a million, the NHS by even more (2).
Thirdly, not all PFIs were bad value. In my own field, prisons, PFI was particularly good value for several reasons that have been overlooked. Public sector performance had been dire: PFI allowed prisons to be built twice as fast at half the cost. And while privately managed jails in the 1990s had many problems (though certainly no worse than the much more expensive public ones), research showed that they provided a more respectful attitude towards prisoners than the traditional public sector prison culture (3). The keys to this success were two fold:, prison contracts combined building and operations, kept separate in NHS and school contracts; and had a single, thus more experienced and powerful customer, while in the NHS and schools the market was fragmented (4).
Fourthly, let us recall that traditional public sector projects have achieved, and are still achieving, disasters as frequent and as appalling as PFI. To name but a few of a long and never-ending list: Type 45 destroyers (at least 2 years late and £1.5bn over budget, consequently programme halved, plus their engines switch off in warm waters, which could be embarrasing), Network Rail's Great Western line electrification (costs triple the budgeted figure, programme much delayed and curtailed), 2012 Olympics (double the budget, the most costly Olympics in history), or in my own sector, electronic tagging (5 years late, millions spent on 2 failed procurements, and so on, and so on) (5). It is entirely arguable, on the facts, that public finance of major projects wastes money on much the same scale as PFI.
And finally, let's remember what the Labour penitents seem genuinely ignorant of, that there is no such thing as a purely public sector capital project. Buildings are not designed or built, IT systems are not created, by public servants (6). It is all done under contract. And that means that precisely the same issues that bedevilled many PFI deals – poor specification, inept procurement, poor contract management – must necessarily apply to any project, however financed. So there is always a public service customer, private sector suppliers and a contract of some sort between them. Working out the best mix of public and private sectors, and the right form of contracting, will always be the key challenge.
So the true lesson of PFI is this: that whether we finance capital projects privately or publicly, the real problem is not the involvement of the private sector, but the often poor performance of the public sector as customer.
(1) John McDonnell announced at the Labour Party Conference on 26 September that a Labour Government would take all PFI contracts back in house, although the accompanying press release added the words 'if necessary'. No estimate was given of the costs of doing so. It was said that 'Parliament would assess the appropriate level of compensation', implying legislation to override contract terms on premature termination; and that compensation would be paid not in money, as required by contract terms, but Government bonds.
An example of a Labour penitent is Margaret Hodge, Guardian, 26 September:
Hodge apologies for having been a believer in PFI under the Labour Government. Curiously, she discovered how evil it was immediately Labour went into Opposition.
(1A) The acocunting rules were eventually changed so that the financial control totals had to accommodate the full capital costs of PFIs up front but this didnt happen until late in the day, and it still wasn't quite as tough as actually finding the actual cash up front.
(2) Cribb, J. et al. 'The public sector workforce: past, present, and future'. Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2014
(3) Crewe, B., Liebling, A. and Hulley. S. (2011) 'Staff culture, the use of authority, and prisoner outcomes in public and private prisons' Australia and New Zealand Journal of Criminology. 44(1): 94-115.
(4) The use of PFI in prisons is analysed in detail in my book, 'Competition for prisons: Public or private? ' (2015)
(5) On this and other MoJ procurement failures see:
(6) Design of prisons was done in house up to the mid 80s - that is, at the time when prison building was slower and more costly than ever before or since. But to the best of my knowledge, Home Office civil servants never actually laid bricks.
MONDAY'S 'PANORAMA' ON BROOK HOUSE RAISED QUESTIONS ABOUT G4S, THE HOME OFFICE, THE INSPECTORATE.....AND 'PANORAMA'.
Last Monday's Panorama programme, 'Undercover: Britain's immigration secrets', is viewable here:
What we saw and heard
Outside Brook House (BH): secret filmer (Callum) explaining how he started work at BH, was appalled by what he witnessed, and started secret filming for Panorama; he came across as a decent man and a straightforward witness. We also saw interviews with ex detainees, an ex staff member and experts.
Inside BH: Much of the footage was poor quality and incoherent, with poor lighting, picture quality and sound, and smudging out of some faces on top of that; often, you could not say what you were witnessing. My notes say: 'someone shouting, probably detainee', 'someone says they were attacked, by whom??'; 'unclear if one sequence or many??'. Not so much true documentary as a sort of 'mood music' for the real story. Callum, voice-over, narrates, and reads HO and G4S statements.
At the heart of it was footage showing clearly abusive behaviour, language and attitudes of some G4S staff. It was appalling: racist, abusive language; boasting of, or planning, unprovoked violence; callous and aggressive language and behaviour towards detainees in distress/mentally ill. We saw one or two instances of what appeared to be clearly excessive use of force – actual sadism in fact (though we could not actually see what was being done, and relied on the voice-over to tell us). It was particularly chilling that a restraint trainer seemed to be urging abuse. We heard staff say they did not know how to do their jobs; and staff conspiring to falsify records, including those on food refusal.
G4S: a few rotten apples, or the whole barrel?
This was all outrageous. But what is difficult to judge is how representative this is of all staff, all the time. 'Authorised' documentaries focus on the acceptable: here, the reverse. We never saw staff being professional or even (other than Callum himself) caring. The viewer is in no position to judge the general state of the institution. This is relevant, not because it would lessen the seriousness of the abuse – what we saw was horrific – but because it leaves unsure about the true and nature scale of the problem.
It is not uncommon in prisons – and in reality, this is a sort of prison – for groups of staff to develop, and mutually reinforce, abusive attitudes, language and behaviour. That is precisely what we saw happening here. What you hope for is middle management that are alert enough, and motivated enough, to challenge such talk and behaviour early on, before it gets hold, and if necessary move or sanction or sack perpetrators. When Panorama filmed secretly at Medway Secure Training Centre (also run by G4S) last year, the impression was that the abuse centred on a particular team, and that one middle manager in particular was encouraging it. In this programme, there was again some indication that one or maybe two middle managers were at the heart of the abuse. One was actually leading the abuse by example and exhortation.
[Contrast here with Panorama's covert filming at Northumberland Prison, operated by Sodexo, earlier this year, we saw appalling things going on, but little or nothing of this sort of poisonous attitude and language, nor (if I recall it right) any physical abuse of prisoners by staff: prisoners were doing it to themselves, and to staff. In that case, what seemed to be going on was a collapse of control by staff and a withdrawal from contact with prisoners, brought about by low staffing and the wide availability of the new drugs. A different sort of problem.]
It is beginning to look from these two programmes as though G4S does not have a strong enough, or rightly motivated and orientated, middle management culture, and that as a result, abusive cultures are taking root in their institutions. If that is so, they are not a fit company to run custodial institutions. (But then could the same not be said of the public sector prison service, given what we know about the scale of violence, self harm and drug use throughout the prison system? It is not just G4S that is running unsafe,chaotic institutions, and demands for their contracts to be terminated miss this point.)
And yet....we heard the ex staff member say that 'the vast majority of staff' were trying to do a decent job in very challenging circumstances (though he had left in 2014); he says that there was a 'group' of staff with toxic attitudes. It is odd, I think, that Callum said nothing about the behaviour of staff as a whole, either good or bad, but seemed content just to film the worst (he does talk about staff becoming desensitised). So maybe what we saw was three or four bad men among 100 decent staff?
It's a real handicap that the format does not allow (or require) management to respond. One wanted to hear the Director's response to the question, how did you not know what was going on? How do you know that what was shown was an exception?
In short, secret filming might seem to show the raw truth, but actually leaves big questions still wide open. I discuss the use of secret filming further below.
The Home Office : incompetent customer, and incompetent manager of the system?
Had the Home Office registered what a poor service they are buying? And if not, why not?
Glasnost has yet to reach the Home Office. The MoJ publishes a surprising amount of information about the quality of prison life, including assaults, self harm, suicide, together with its own annual ratings of each prisons' all-round performance. Nothing like that exists for IRCs. So we don't know what the Home Office thought, or knew.
We do know that the Home Office is a weaker and less informed customer for immigration detention services than the MoJ is for privately run prisons. The Home Office doesn't run such facilities itself, thus does not have staff with direct operational experience, who know what to look for in an IRC and what questions to ask. Likewise, while MoJ has staff permanently based in privately run prisons who have wide powers to observe and monitor what is going on and ask anyone questions; sometimes this gets up the nose of the prison's management, but it is a vital check. Home Office staff in IRCs are more administratively than operationally focused. Also, there is a strong ethical tradition about maintaining decent and positive staff attitudes and behaviour in prisons, however often it has failed badly in practice: much less, if at all, in immigration detention., where the focus isn't on detention itself or how it affects detainees, but on removal.
What the programme did show very clearly, was gross failings in the system as a whole, that are obviously down to the Home Office, not G4S: the mixing of hardened criminals with people without any criminal background, and of teenagers and adults (in one case, a boy who claimed to be 14 – he was fairly quickly removed, so someone must have believed him); and the utter failure to use the IRCs for their declared purpose, to deport detainees – some detainees had been there years, uncertain of their future, and were understandably in a desperate state.
What the programme didn't do was ask why this was the case. Explanations I have heard include a legal system that creates many ways for lawyers to block removal; action by detainees themselves (one shown here seemed to have stopped the aircraft he was on taking off by claiming a heart attack; and I have heard of detainees destroying their passports); uncooperative airlines, and foreign governments. It was a major failure of the programme not to even register such issues, since the prolonged stays were so clearly creating a toxic environment. It exposed a problem, but did not explain it.
The Prison Inspectorate: non-barking watchdog?
The same question applies to the Inspectorate of Prisons, who inspected Brook House in November last year. Their report was critical of the physical design and condition of the place but overall, pretty positive:
“....an encouraging inspection. The centre had improved upon the standards we found at the last inspection, and on this occasion was assessed as ‘reasonably good’ in all four of our healthy establishment tests. This also marks excellent progress from the standards we were seeing at Brook House when it first opened. There is no doubt in my mind that the standards now being observed at the centre are the result of a great deal of hard work by the management and staff. They should be congratulated on their efforts...”
“Records justifying force were completed to a high standard, and all incidents were reviewed by a manager”.
Was this the same place we saw in Monday's programme (the filming for which was occurring about that time, or maybe slightly later)?
There are possible explanations of the divergence. The first is the possibility, as I noted above, that the abuse we saw was not widespread, not typical. There is some independent evidence. Inspections are accompanied by an anonymised survey of staff and detainees asking them in confidence about aspects of their experience of the place. That data showed that one third of detainees said they felt unsafe, and almost one fifth reported victimisation by staff. Those rates seem high: but they are not by comparison with, for example. recent inspection of Aylesbury Young Offender Institution, where 48% reported victimisation by staff. By this measure, Brook House was not particularly unsafe. Of course, YOIs and IRCs are different, and what constitutes 'victimisation' may be different, too.
The second explanation is that for all the sophistication and knowledge about how to really get to the heart of a place that the Inspectorate has built up over decades, it can still get it very wrong. That would be worrying indeed: we rely absolutely on the Inspectorate as backstop against abuse. It is surely relevant that we saw staff falsifying data on which the Inspectorate, and Home Office, relies. That is hard to spot. And I am reminded of a previous case of 'toxic' teams within prisons - the organised beating of prisoners in Scrubs Seg Unit in the 1990s – which the Inspectorate also failed to pick up (it was really only brought to a head through a local solicitor taking up cases - see my book; that was, however, before the Inspectorate really got its act together).
Again, no easy answers. But the Chief Inspector ought to be reflecting carefully on the divergence between inspection report and first hand witness.
Panorama's use of secret filming: a questionable practice
Panorama is addicted to secret filming. The programme editor, Joe Plomin, has written a book on it, and seems to think that is the future for journalism.
I am dubious. On the one hand, when it uncovers such serious abuse, secret filming absolutely justifies itself: because otherwise, in all probability, the abuse would have continued and the abusers gone unpunished. On the other hand, secret filming is intrusive, and intrinsically dishonest - for colleagues and prisoners, as well as employers: you are not who you seem to be, you are filming their every move and word for possible broadcast, what does that feel like when you find out? One wonders how the BBC itself would like it (but then, dog never eats dog, does it?)
It is dubious journalism, because the editor does not decide what should be filmed but merely edits what is handed over – he has no idea how representative the footage is (or how representative the detainees are whom the filmer chooses to befriend, and who are interviewed after release) and is dependent on the filmer to explain what the images represent. It is dubious when it is unclear what a lot of the footage is actually showing you. It is dubious because it is inherently sensationalist: a secret film must expose outrageous things, it cannot show normality or people doing a decent job – no story there. Therefore, that is what is filmed and what is shown. Such programmes therefroe inherently tend to lack balance. It is dubious because the management are never given time to properly review what is shown and give a proper informed response based on their own inquiries: hence the wooden responses by both G4S and Home Office given in this programme. It is lazy journalism when the wider issues behind what we see – why people spend so long in detention for example – are not looked at at all.
I also note that Callum explained that he didn't take his story to anyone because he didn't think we would be believed. The comments about the ex staff member who had done just that before quitting suggested he was quite right – as far as G4S were concerned. But one thing troubles me. The Inspection, by my reckoning, took place about the time the filming was going on, or at any rate, being planned. Callum could easily have asked to speak to the Inspector, an independent outsider, in total confidence. He did not do so. Was that because he was already under contract, or because Panorama could not afford to have its story blown prematurely?
Sensationalism is the name of the game: the story was aired on (I think**) BBC TV news on Friday, ahead of Monday screening, so on Saturday papers and MPs were already demanding this and that be done to G4S – but none of them had yet seen the programme! The way BBC News is used to 'sell' forthcoming BBC programmes as if they were a news item is a corruption of news values. If it really was worthy of news coverage, there is absolutely no reason, other than ratings, why BBC News should not have covered this after broadcast. This practice lessens the integrity of BBC News, which the BBC ought to cherish above all things, even ratings.
A much better use of workplace cameras is surely the body cameras now worn by the police and increasingly prison staff – a device first introduced, let it be noted, by private sector prison operators against the wishes of the MoJ. The very opposite of secret filming, which punishes wrongdoing only after the event and very seldom: body cameras prevent abuse, because they are not secret - everyone knows about them (1).
Panorama's bias against the private sector
My other concern is the curious consistency of Panoramas' choice of targets for secret filming. Over the last 10 years, Panorama has made programmes based on secret filming at six institutions (this may not be the complete list: I asked the BBC for details but they refused my request: some things have to remain, you know, secret). These included 2 prisons, one Immigration Removal Centre., and one Secure Training Centre, together with a hospital and a care home. One characteristic is shared by all those institutions, along with horrendous abuse of course. Can you guess what it is?
Yes: they were all operated by the private sector. In fact, no less than three - Rye Hill prison, Medway STC and Brook House - were operated by the same company, G4S. It rather looks like someone in Panorama is waging a campaign against G4S. Rightly so, you may say: but it cannot be right that a public broadcaster is used to pursue an undeclared personal campaign of this kind.
Yet the private sector operate only 1 in 10 prisons - so 90% are run by the public sector. So why this single minded focus on the private sector? Is it - perhaps - because the private sector are evil and incompetent, the public sector caring and decent? Well, Panorama might have you believe that, but it is demonstrably untrue. My book, 'Competition for prisons: public or private?', is dedicated to marshalling all the available evidence that tells us, unambiguously, that over the quarter century that there have been privately run prisons, there has never been a clear, consistent difference in the quality of service of publicly and privately run institutions. In fact, the two sectors have developed over time in close tandem: both had some very dangerous prisons in the 1990s, both improves significantly in the 2010s, both have spiralled downwards in this decade.
Only last month, the Chief Inspector of Prisons reported that not one Young Offender Institution in the country is safe, that conditions are appalling, with record levels of violence and self harm and warned that further tragedy inevitable. So the crisis does not distinguish between public and privately run institutions.
So why does Panorama focus exclusively on wrong doing in privately run institutions? Well, as Robin Aitken (himself a former BBC reporter) showed in his recent book, 'Can we trust the BBC?'(2) there is a clear institutional, one might better say cultural bias in much BBC journalism, and one element of that is an instinctive dislike or distrust the private sector, and a preference for the public sector. That is one possible explanation. There are others: a cynical calculation that an expose of a privately run institution will always play better with BBC viewers; or a personal agenda.
At any rate, I was sufficiently uneasy about Panorama's record that when I was asked to contribute to the programme on Northumberland, I declined to do so (and I know another who declined), because I felt they were singling out the private sector, and that this was a distortion of the argument and the evidence. The decision to film secretly yet another privately run institution in this programme makes me glad that I steered clear of involvement. I don't care what becomes of G4S: I do care that impartiality and objectivity of the BBC should not be subordinated to a particular agenda (3).
** The News broadcast is no longer available, so I cannot check, but my recollection is that the item was on the 6pm BBCTV News.
(2) 'Can we trust the BBC?' Robin Aitken. Bloomsbury Continuum (2013).
(3) The BBC of course can do impartial. Proof is the recent Radio 4 programme in the series 'In Business', on this very issue of private prisons, to which I contributed:
But then, as someone said, speech radio is TV for grown ups.
Phil Wheatley spells out the prison crisis, as Michael Spurr may not:: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/aug/30/surge-in-jail-population-adds-to-strain-on-overstretched-prison-service.
Riots so commonplace they hardly get press coverage; suicides, self harm and assaults running at record levels; steep decline in both HM Chief Inspector's and MoJ's own prison ratings; and now an unexpected population surge which threatens to exceed maximum "safe" capacity. While the MoJ sees fit to boast that staff on landings are 'only' 22 % fewer than in 2010 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/record-numbers-of-new-prison-officer-recruits).
And where is the Justice Secretary? Nowhere to be found. Tuscany, maybe. (His latest Tweets are, bizarrely, about RAF planes in Estonia: perhaps he fancies a change of Department?] And what does he offer when he is around? Platitudes and inaction: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prison-reform-open-letter-from-the-justice-secretary.
I have seen many Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries come and go, and criticised the policies of many of them. But I have not, until now seen, one simply walk away from his responsibilities.
The recent programme in Radio 4's excellent 'In Business' series, "Private prisons - who profits?", to which I contibuted, can be heard again here:
It is the only programme I've ever heard of that gives a reasonably comprehensive and objective view of the subject. And naturally I was glad to be interviewed, and to have my book mentioned.
But with the entire prison system descending into violent chaos, Government clueless how to stop it, no politician brave or informed enough to tackle our addiction to incarceration, two of the three main operators still under investigation for massive fraud against the tax payer yet Government still handing out contracts to them, and MoJ pretty inept at shaping and managing the quasi-market Government has created, the choice between public or private operators looks a bit like a dispute of how best to arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Yet the wider issue, of how to construct and run markets in public services well and for the public good, is still very much alive, and hardly ever properly considered. A rare example is this recent article on care homes:
If one looks at railways, or social care, or the NHS (or prisons or probation), one is struck again and again by how badly Government constructs and runs markets for which it is the sole, or dominant customer. The claim I make in my book is that with prisons, we didn't do it too badly, until the early years of this decade, and we showed that real benefits - to users and the public purse - could be achieved. But benefit is certainly not achieved automatically, by the mere fact of multiple providers. It's how you do it.
Part of the reason Government does this so badly is its failure to learn from experience - the very issue that I started this entire blog to look at. What is astonishing is how, despite the massive switch of vital public services into the private sectors, especially since 2010, Government is utterly uninterested in finding out how the markets they created and shape are working, or learning from it. (The Institute of Government has done some sterling work on this (1), but there's little sign of Government itself paying much heed.) In prisons, and the NHS, the only areas I know about, there is no research or evaluation that I know of: I mean none at all. For a spend of maybe £50bn across all service sectors. It is not an accident: it is a willed, sustained ignorance, presumably for fear that the answer might be awkard.
And of course the answer is nowadays awkward: because in recent years marketisation has gone hand in hand with increasing underfunding, resulting either in dire service quality (social care), or ever higher prices to users (railways). Marketisation is in this context not simply an ideology (private sector good, public sector bad - a daft mantra, which is disproved by news of private sector failures almost weekly), but a cynical political ploy to distance Tory politicans from the damage that cuts are doing. Nothing to do with us, they say: it's the market: it's the up to the user to choose well; if providers fail, the market will punish them. But so often the 'market' does not punish them: Government bails them out (2), and carries on awarding them new contracts (3). It's the public who are 'punished', by poor services over which, in reality, they often have little if any choice,
As a result , the public become more and more hostile to private provision of public services. Opinion polls show this very starkly: outsourcing is now very unpopular indeed (4). When Labour next get in, they will bring everything back into the public sector as fast as they can.
And that is sad. Because, as I have recounted with prisons, a State monopoly of service provision isn't in the public interest. Britsh Rail wasn't wonderful, though no-one under 40 knows this, Monopoly always tends to higher costs, to services run at the convenience of the staff, indifference to users' wishes and needs, and the incompetent or self interested meddling of politicians. The re-birth of the all-providing State under Corbyn will prove just as unsatisfactory as - and much more expensive than - the often botched privatiation we have now..
If only Government were willing to think about how to structure and run markets in a way that produced the best service for the money - with solutions that would, necessarily, be quite different in different sectors.
But that seems to be the Catch 22 of public services: that Government contracts them out because it believes it isnt very good at running them, but then shows itself not very good at managing contracting out, either. What do you do then?
(4) https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/05/19/nationalisation-vs-privatisation-public-view/ also https://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/11/04/nationalise-energy-and-rail-companies-say-public/
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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