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/
Commenting on a huge development plan which will further erode the very things that make people want to live and work in Oxford – Oxford is white-hot economically and as a result, feels like a city under siege by Big Money (1) - I have had to wade through a number of lengthy planning documents.
What strikes me is the peculiar language and style of these documents (same of course can be said of official documents which I used to write myself). Orwell taught us that language IS thought, and that deliberate distortions in language are deliberate efforts to distort, or limit, thinking.
Planners delight in using words and phrases that no ordinary person ever does, and which in fact often signal the exact reverse of what the authors hope they will convey.
'vibrant' = 'overcrowded, noisy; possibly smelly, too'
'high class' = ' as cheap as we think we can get away with'
'world class' = 'OK, we'll slap a fancy facade on it'
'iconic' = 'looks like Croydon'
'heritage' = 'infuriating, but we aren't allowed to demolish this'
'exciting' = 'lots of money to be made'
'visionary' = 'lots and lots and LOTS of money to be made'
'amenity' = 'little trees and benches to placate locals
'sustainability' = 'put usual 'green' stuff in here'
and of course
'consultation' = 'ask what they want, then do what we want'
Some of the language is just pseudo-technical and grandiose:
'gateway' = main road
'hub' = junction or interchange
'multi-model interchange opportunity' = 'bus and rail station'
'public realm' = 'public spaces'
'signage' = 'signs'
Some still await translation:
Here's my own offering: 'town planner': 'someone who knows everything about a city - except the people who live in it'.
Equally in Plan Speak, you cannot talk about the things that actually matter to people - the intangible atmosphere or feeling or look of a place. There is no language for it. I've seen so many instances (Oxford being much developed, but peopled by articulate residents) where communities are told that such things are simply not debatable, because they don't fit any category of officially recognised planning talk. Only footfall, through-flows, optimising value, and all the other crap that clog up the minds (and hearts) of planning committees everywhere.
Thus, when the Council official we went to see set all that aside, and simply asked us what we valued about our neighbourhood (all credit to her!), all sorts of things came out which, on one view, are trivia, on another, are the stuff of peoples' lives: there are lots of different birds in our gardens, because next to the countryside and river; you can let your children play in the street (it's a cul de sac) and as result, they get to know each other and as a result, their parents get to know each other; because people are often in the street, they talk to each other; old people feel safe; lonely and vulnerable people are hailed and talked to; a stranger who is behaving oddly is easily challenged, or helped; looking outside to the west, the countryside is completely dark at night; its so quiet at night, you can hear the cows lowing.
The effect of these comments was like a shaft of sunlight breaking into a room long shuttered.
To challenge power is to challenge the language of power.
(1) Brexit may be solving this problem as EU funding for research is cut and – a number of foreigners have said this to me – they no longer feel welcome here. I feel so ashamed, and angry to hear that.
Another month, another damning report on procurement in the Ministry of Justice.
In June, we had the joint Prison/Probation Inspectorate report on contracts for 'Through the gate' services, to prepare short term prisoners for release, which concluded that
“if [these] services were removed tomorrow....the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible” (1).
In July, we had the National Audit Office report (2) on the interminable saga of procurement of electronic monitoring of offenders: now on the third attempt, 5 years late and counting, millions wasted on nugatory work, savings missed, unrealistic requirements, unrealistic timescales, wrong contracting model, botched programme management, inadequate staffing, contracts unclear, oppressive treatment of contractors – whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. And much of which was foreseen by observers at the time.
A steady stream of inspection reports have been critical of the probation services delivered under contract by Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) (Suffolk -'nowhere near good enough', Northamptonshire - 'simply not good enough' , Gwent – 'a troubling picture at the CRC'). Last month the MoJ slipped out a statement admitting that the contracts were failing and giving the CRCs more money, though they won't say how much – 'commercially confidential', effortlessly trumping the citizen's right to know what is done with his money (3). These are the contracts where extra money was supposed to be payment by results – turns out they get extra anyway, success or failure. 'Risk transfer', certainly - just not in the right direction.
Similarly with the MoJ's FM contracts with Carillion for maintaining prisons. This from the Independent Monitoring Board at Pentonville Prison the other day:
“Aspects of the physical environment are squalid, with blocked toilets, leaking sewage and broken facilities meaning prisoners regularly go without showers, clean clothes and hot food. The prison struggles to ensure the basics of decency largely due to the outsourced provider responsible for maintenance: Carillion........The contract is working neither for Pentonville nor the taxpayer” (4)
The MoJ seem intent on rivalling MoD as the Department whose every procurement results in the familiar cycle of damning report, action plan, 'those responsible have moved on' (so sadly, can't be held to account) while – of course! - 'we are determined to learn the lessons'.
Explaining endemic failure
It is worth asking why MoJ has accumulated such a history of failure, for two reasons. First, the MoJ delivers a huge amount of its services through contracts – MoJ's spend through contracts is now not very far short of what it spends on its directly managed service. So if MoJ procurement is failing, then the Department is failing – and that raise questions about the ability of Government to manage outsourcing on an ever bigger scale, indeed, quite why outsourcing is such a brilliant idea.
But, second, it didn't used to be this way. Look back 10 years: contracts for prisons, and escorts, which had certainly had their share of teething problems in the 1990s, had settled in, and were running well. In 2006, the NAO produced a very positive report on the electronic monitoring contracts, the ones which are now so problematic (5). So what happened after 2007 (coincidentally or not, the point when these services moved from the Home Office to MoJ)?
1) the MoJ's history of failure goes back many years
It is tempting to think that it's all down to 'cuts', and Grayling's hasty and ill-advised schemes. But the appalling state of procurement in MoJ was evident well before any of that. In 2013, the then Justice Secretary revealed that his officials had over some years paid SERCO and G4S £200m for work they had not done. He referred the 2 companies to the Serious Fraud Office, and they are – still! – under investigation. The companies had to repay the money, lost contracts, lost their CEOs and lost huge share value. There has been no investigation however of why MoJ officials paid £200m of bills without checking them; nor what exactly the companies told MoJ officials of what they were doing, around 2010; nor of changes MoJ made to these contracts that made overcharging easier and, perhaps, even lawful; nor of the Internal Audit report around 2010 that flagged up this weakness, and which was also ignored.
What we did get was an audit of MoJ's big service contracts: and it was devastating (6). 5 out of 7 major operational contracts – on which law and order services in this country depend – were flagged as 'red', meaning weakness in contract management giving rise to significant risk of operational failure , or material errors in charging. Overall, the verdict was 'long standing and significant weakness in contract management' in MoJ. Meanwhile the Public Accounts Committee found evidence of failure to recruit experienced staff, botched reorganisation, failure of operational and commercial staff to work together and a culture in which accountability and responsibility were lacking (7). 'Nul points', in other words.
It goes without saying that the Permanent Secretaries who presided over this shambles sailed on into their well pensioned retirements without a scratch.
2) Grayling knew all that - yet insisted it did much more, much faster
It was on this weak, badly performing procurement organisation that Grayling chose to impose the burden of one of the most rapid, risky, complicated, ill-thought out and evidence-free procurements ever attempted in Government, the part privatisation and wholesale re-organisation of probation services. Here's what I wrote two years ago:
“The TR changes lack compelling rationale or evidence, are uncosted, require extremely rapid implementation of new, highly complex organisational and relational models for all participants simultaneously, use payment mechanisms that are entirely untested and carry major risks of unforeseen consequences, rely on new and untested suppliers, require high levels of competence in contracting and contract management that the MoJ has recently been shown to lack, are being implemented at break neck speed for no reason, and there seems to be no recovery plan if goes badly wrong .
It is like watching people doing their best to organise the perfect train crash.”(8)
There is not the slightest reason to think the new arrangements have brought any benefit; plenty to think they came at great cost.
3) MoJ officials adopted a bizarre and unworkable contracting model
However it would be very unfair to place all the blame on Grayling. Because it was at this point that there was a strange development in MoJ procurement which, I believe, is entirely down to officials – possibly to just one official (8A). This was the replacement of traditional 'vertical integration' of complex service contracts – so that all the work to provide a given service done in one area is contracted to a single contractor – by 'horizontal integration', by which the service is divided into different components, and all work on each element in contracted to one contractor across a wider area – thus, in one area, you have many contractors supposedly working together to deliver the service.
This was done in prisons (so that a governor had different contractors providing FM services, resettlement services, education and healthcare services in his prison, on which he must rely, but for which he held none of the contracts himself); in probation (so that in every area you have the rump of the public service providing services for high risk offenders, the contractors providing the same services for other offenders, and the public service handling the interface between all offenders and the courts); and electronic monitoring (where hardware, software, telecoms and service preparation were all contracted out separately).
This strategy was uniformly disastrous, and in fact has been condemned by Government itself (9). Not hard to see why: it means that it is next to impossible to pin down service failure, and that a great deal of energy is wasted by companies and by Government trying to integrate the service locally, usually not very well. This has been a major cause of under-performance, or delays in procurement, or both.
4) MoJ has repeatedly failed to ensure adequate competition
So why on earth did MoJ adopt it as their contracting model? The explanation suggested to me is that they wanted to reduce reliance on the big outsourcers at the heart of the tagging scandal in 2013 – SERCO and G4S. But the way to do that was, obviously, to bring in new contractors – to develop the market (and as Government is the only customer, it is wonderfully placed to do that). Yet that is precisely what MoJ has not done. On tagging, for example, the MoJ tried to use an SME, Buddi, but ended up by imposing such unreasonable terms that Buddi withdrew, publicly scorning MoJ's incompetence. Similarly it failed with another SME, Steatite. It then ended up awarding the outstanding hardware contract to – G4S, who are still under investigation for massive fraud on that very contract!
Similarly with prisons, where MoJ foolishly allowed the market to consolidate to just 3 contractors, in 2008. They then lured contractor after contractor to enter the market – GEO, Reliance and MITIE amongst them – only to continue to award every contract to the existing big 3 (10).
It is a brainless and utterly self defeating thing thing to do, because every potential contractor sees them doing it, and swears never to get involved. It makes MoJ ever more dependent on the same big contractors, hence their unhealthy dependency on G4S (11).
5) MoJ is still getting even the basics wrong
So much for MoJ's over-complicated, unworkable model for contracting. But there is evidence that even the basics of more workaday contracting are still beyond MoJ. How is one to explain, for example, the fact that the contracts for 'through the gate' services in prisons, designed to prepare prisoners for successful re-entry to the community, don't actually require the contactor to do anything to help the prisoner – the single output required is a piece of paper, a resettlement plan. That is all the CRC need do to get paid. And so little wonder the inspectors
“saw blank plans, or actions in plans which were marked as ‘completed’ when actually no work had been done. This was apparently so that the CRC minimised the chances of being in breach of the contract ...The services we saw could not reasonably be expected to impact on levels of re offending.” (1)
Or this, from the recent report on the continuing fiasco of the tagging procurement:
“internal and external reviews noted a lack of accountability to the senior responsible owner (SRO) and unhelpful disunity between operational, technical, commercial and programme staff."(2)
These are exactly the same weaknesses to which the audit of contracts in 2013 drew attention. 4 years on, nothing has changed. MoJ is very much busy not 'learning the lessons'.
Conclusion – what is to be done?
So the MoJ's weak and deficient procurement function goes back to 2010, at least; still persists; has been exacerbated by both Grayling's impetuousity and officials' enthusiasm for a flawed contractual model; and on the fundamentals, nothing has changed.
One might think the obvious conclusion from this long history of failure is that MoJ should be cautious in taking on new procurement challenges - particularly anything at all novel or risky or complicated.
Quite the opposite. .MoJ has just adopted a new operating model for prisons and probation based on quasi-contracts of the most bizarre kind, involving an involuted structure that is the stuff of nightmares. Operational line management still exists, as now, reporting to one senior civil servant at the top of the MoJ; but at the same time, another senior civil servant within MoJ will 'commission' services from each prison, decide their budget and their service spec, write a pretend contract and audit their performance.
He will also take ITC, estate and other infrastructure services away from the operational line management - a massive re-centralisation, and abandonment of the Agency concept introduced 25 years ago (12). And that includes some service contracts – thus ensuring even more distance between procurement staff and operational staff. (Indeed it appears this may include contracts for prisons and escorting – the only major MoJ contracts not bedevilled by procurement failures. Can it really be coincidence that they were the contracts were developed by the Home Office prior to the move to MoJ in 2007?).
And, icing on the cake, the guy who is playing at shops in this bizarre way, has no experience of prisons, indeed no significant experience of management at all. An arrangement introduced without the slightest reasoning or justification, without any analysis - such that even now, when it has been in place for months, MoJ are unable to explain how it works, how it can possibly work. Thus the mandarinate triumphant, seizing back control from the uncouth mechanics of the prison service – at just the point where the whole system is dissolving in chaos, and needs strong, clear management structures. It really is a spectacular mess, and entirely self- inflicted.
A modest proposal
In this crisis, I offer a modest proposal. It is not at all novel. It is the same model, actually, as Whitehall applies to all failing schools and hospitals. It is this. MoJ is, plainly not fit for purpose: its direct operations are a shambles, and its contracts are a shambles. It is a failing, or rather failed, Department. It should be taken over by another Government - the Scottish Government. The Scottish correctional services have their difficulties, sure - but are not disintegrating in violent chaos, do not reorganise every 2 or 3 years, run traditional line management, and the Scots not obsessed with bizarre contractual and privatisation models. They are ideally placed to restire order and sanity to MoJ services. Meanwhile an intensive re-education campaign would thoroughly overhaul MoJ, recruit new personnel at key levels, and change the culture.
Then, if all went well, after 5 or 10 years, we could experiment with some limited measure of devolution to Whitehall.
(1) “An Inspection of Through the Gate Resettlement Services for Prisoners Serving 12 Months or More”. A joint inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation and HM Inspectorate of Prisons. June 2017
(2) NAO 'The new generation electronic monitoring programme' HC 242. July 2017
(3) Hansard, Written Statement, 19 July 2017
(4) The Guardian, 28 July 2017, “Pentonville prison report attacks 'squalid, inhumane' conditions”
(5) NAO, 'The electronic monitoring of adult offenders1 February' 2006 HC 800
(6) MoJ 'Contract management review' 2013
7) The Oral Evidence to the PAC by the Permanent Secretary was especially revealing. More so than she intended it is safe to assume: (http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/public-accounts-committee/transforming-government-contract-management/oral/12386.pdf
(8) From my book, 'Competition for prisons: public or private?' Policy Press, 2015
(8A) An intriguing reference in the NAO report supports this.
(9) “In February 2015, the Government Digital Service stated that this tower model was “not condoned and not in line with government policy”. This is because of the difficulty in transferring responsibility to a contracted integrator and the risk of buying incompatible parts of systems and services that are then hard to integrate “ NAO report, see Note 2.
(10) The original strategy for market development – the only one, actually, since there has never been another - was set by Derek Lewis in 1992. He aimed at 4 suppliers, as the bare minimum needed for effective competition. This was achieved quite quickly, in 1997. But in 2008, merger lead to reduction to 3 suppliers. MoJ have since invited many other companies to bid, but always awarded contracts to the same big 3. They have now pretty well exhausted the pool of potential new suppliers.
(11) See http://www.julianlevay.com/articles/an-unhealthy-relationship
(12) This model is explored in my evidence to the Justice Select Committee:
It is utterly amazing that the White Paper offered not the slightest case for making such a fundamental change - yet another example of the 'dumbing down' of policy making in the Civil Service.
Faced with a coruscating indictment of Tory mis-management of the prison system today from Andrea Albutt of the Prison Governors Association, this was the response from Bob Neill, chair of the influential Commons Justice Committee:
Conservative MP and chair of the Commons justice select committee, Bob Neill, told Today he did not share Albutt’s concerns over the government’s changes, saying the split between policy and operations happened successfully across other areas of the public sector.#
The bigger problem, Neill said, was a serious disconnection and growing lack of confidence between “the top brass, if you like, of the Prison Service and the operational people on the ground”.
Meanwhile the silence from Lidington is deafening*.
Looks to me that the Tories are measuring Michael Spurr, head of the service, for the drop, should prison riots break out this summer. Exactly what Michael Howard did when he found himself in the firing line on prisons - insert your servants between you and the bullets. Worked for him!**
# Odd, since that is not at all what the Committee he chairs said in their recent report:
“it is not clear how the relationship between HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), responsible for operational management, and the Ministry, responsible for policy and commissioning, will work in practice. This lack of clarity could make it harder to see what is going wrong in prisons and why, and confusion about who is responsible for what could make prisons less safe and effective”.
* MoJ refused to appear or make any statement to the Newsnight programme on 2 August; all we have from Lidington on the crisis is his banal 'open letters'. But being new in the job will only work as alibi for so long....
** Lidington will be familar with this gambit: he started his political life as Howard's PPS. Maybe someone should ask him if he thinks 'prisons works'.
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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