The appointment of Jo Farrar to replace Michael Spurr as Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service ends a quarter of a century of professional leadership of the prison service i.e. by people who had been prison governors – Richard Tilt, Martin Narey, Phil Wheatley and lastly Michael Spurr. Prior to that there had been one total outsider – Derek Lewis, ex Granada and Ford – and before that, a succession of senior civil servants who had never worked in prisons and who in most cases had spent their working life in Whitehall.
It is a very tough job to fill, because it is at once one of the most testing hands-on management jobs where things can and do go wrong any time of day or night, and highly political, with Ministers directly personally accountable in a way they aren’t in the NHS, for example. So, you need someone who both knows prisons from deep personal experience as a manager, and who at the same time understands and can operate in the political and media world. Managing both down and up. We’ve been lucky to have had 4 chief executives who could do both.
Why the change now? There were some first-rate candidates with both senior prison operational experience, and experience outside of prisons. The decision to choose a generalist civil servant from outside the service, for the first time in a quarter of a century, could have come from two quarters, or both. Rory Stewart seemed ill at ease with a strong operational leader from the start – the body language between the two at their first public appearance together was unmistakable. Happily, it soon transpired that Stewart himself miraculously understood all about prisons and knew how to run them and, indeed, meant to run them. Spurr ceased to be visible, became an unperson, and the difference in role between minister and chief executive seemed at times non-existent. So, a civil servant used to public invisibility would suit Stewart well.
Then there is the historic tension between the Worshipful Guild of Permanent Secretaries and strong operational managers, which I saw up close in my time, and have heard much of since. Most Permanent Secretaries have never run a public service directly, I mean a service where you actually deal with face to face, serve directly, with them, the public – that appears true of Heaton, a career lawyer. They know of course that such management experience is a good thing, but up close they find it a bit challenging. There was often a tension with operational managers like Lewis and his successors, who clearly knew things that Permanent Secretaries didn’t, but for that very reason was a threat to their grip on the Minister. It was also an article of faith that mere operational oiks couldn’t possibly master the esoteric arts of advising Ministers, though when I was there, successive Ministers were just so glad to have someone around who actually knew what they were talking about and could get things done. There was also the perpetual fear that a chief executive might actually answer back.
So, Heaton’s predecessors played with such devices as having a generalist civil servant ‘mark’ the chief executive and supply suitably ‘mandarin’ advice to Ministers in parallel to that from the chief executive, and in a busy and risky service you might imagine how helpful that was. More recently it was seriously proposed that a senior civil servant next to Heaton should be in charge of ‘policy’ and negotiate ‘contracts’ with Governors which the chief executive would be bound to ‘deliver’, thus ensuring Ministers got two lots of advice all the time, from ‘buyer’ and ‘operator’. Playing at shops. Quite how long it took to knock that lunacy on the head I do not know.
So, the idea of ending professional leadership or at least subordinating it to a generalist civil servant with no prison management experience, who’s a reliable member of the club, so to speak, and who would interpose between operational managers and Ministers, must have been very attractive to Heaton.
Does the change matter? It does, for two reasons. It matters to people working in prisons, especially Governors, whose job is a lonely and exposed one, that the person at the top, the one handing down policy and performance demands and budgets, even if they don’t agree with his decisions, at least knows what the job is like, understands the dynamics of their peculiar world and the risks being run, not because they have been told it, but because they once did the job themselves. And it matters in the other direction that the person telling Minsters that such-and-such a policy or budget runs unacceptable risks, or that there is a better way to do things, or the true priorities are otherwise, has credit with Ministers. I know from experience that that on occasions enabled the chief executive to prevent Ministers making serious errors of judgements, that would in the end have rebounded on them. Good Ministers, like Jack Straw, appreciated this – weak Ministers resented it. A generalist civil servant knows when to shut up and do as told, however risky or impossible the demand. It helped too that professional heads of the service had no further ambition – they had no need to please the Permanent Secretary, just because they hoped to be one themselves one day.
So I think the change is a loss.
On top of that HMPPS has lost control of much of its business – for financial, HR, procurement legal, estates, ITC and other services, which it used to run itself, it must now rely on the centre of MoJ, to which the resources previously managed directly by HMPPS when it was a real Agency have been withdrawn. I know how important it was when I was FD that I was an integral part of the business and not outside it. Given the chaotic state of MoJ finances and its numerous procurement disasters, the end of self-management is a huge blow, and means that the chief executive no longer has the information and control required to run these services.
About Farrar I know very little. She has experience in local government at senior level, so she knows a fair bit about managing, albeit on a smaller scale. For the past 3 years she has been Director General for Local Government and Public Services in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The MoJ spin people say that in that job “she has helped local government to deal with significant increases in demand in a difficult financial climate.” That’s one way of putting it. The councillors I know put it rather differently! The cuts in local government have done enormous damage to vulnerable people. Here’s what the National Audit Office say:
None of this is Farrar’s fault, needless to say. Any more than the catastrophic cuts that have overtaken prisons is Spurr’s fault. Goes with the job nowadays. It’s just that the spin, pretending nothing bad is happening, we’re just finding ‘new ways of doing things’, is so sickeningly dishonest, and of course, no-one believes it. Reminds me very much of the history of Soviet Russia which I am reading. (1)
Anyway, one wishes her well. She will be utterly captivated by these services, as most people are. But please, not too many gimmicky initiatives. We know what needs to be done to restore safe and decent prisons: more money, more staff, fewer prisoners, stable, professional management allowed to get on with their job and sure, held to account for it.
I’ve already said my piece about Michael Spurr here. I guess he will be forced into early retirement. I wish him a long and happy retirement, a long way from prisons. And Ministers.
(1) For an uptodate, informed and objective account - by the National Audit Office - of the ways in which decisions, and indecision, by Government are devastating local services and pushing local authorities into bankruptcy, see this.
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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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