The excellent Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd – she is Plaid spokesperson for Home Affairs, Justice, Business, Energy, Industrial Strategy, Women and Equalities (what does she do on Tuesdays mornings, I wonder?) - has been pursuing inquiries about prison staffing. She seems to be one of those MPs who likes getting her teeth well into a subject and worrying away at it. Too few of those, nowadays.
She has been making a nuisance of herself in a series of Parliamentary Questions asking why the MoJ won’t regularly publish the staffing figures for privately run prisons, as they do for publicly run ones. The MoJ’s reply amounts to, ‘we don’t publish them because we don’t collect them, so it would be a change. And we don’t want to do it’.
In point of fact, the MoJ and before them, the Home Office, have justified non-disclosure before on various grounds. For many years, the main argument was commercial confidentiality: the number of staff used by a contractor was a commercial secret, and disclosure would give unfair advantage to other bidders in future. That argument fell away because Government did disclose figures in some PQs, probably forgetting that it had previously argued this were important commercial secrets. [The era when government Departments were obsessed by precedent is a distant one – nowadays, they can hardly remember last week.] So, the commercial secrecy argument no longer applies.
The argument now seems to be: we don’t set staffing levels in contracts, because that would undermine the flexibility of contractors to use staff as they want: anyway, we hold operators to account on performance, not inputs. And we don’t want to ask contractors to supply information to us that isn’t specified in the contract.
The case that the public should know the staffing levels in privately run prisons is overwhelming, and has been made in Government reports by such dangerous radicals as Lord (Pat) Carter. It is that competition entails a risk of a race to the bottom: we* know that in the past, such competitive pressure has, indeed, driven staffing levels too low on occasion (as I document in my book); we* likewise know that cutting staffing levels too low in the public sector has been the main cause of the appalling degradation of the prison system in the past decade. The staff: prisoner ratio is, therefore, one of the main predictors of unsafe prisons. As is the staff turnover rate: since high turnover means many staff are new and unconfident, also that many staff are terrified and stressed out, and choose to leave after not long in post. And new, unconfident, terrified staff make for unsafe prisons.
Therefore, the public have every right to know both the ratio of discipline staff (PCOs) to prisoners, and the turnover rate in those grades; and possibly in management grades also (admin staff, not so much).
The argument that none of this matters, because if staffing is too low, the prison will eventually fail against contract requirements, is no longer sustainable, after MoJ was taken by surprise by the collapse of Birmingham prison, in which very high turnover and high vacancy rates were a major causative factor. Besides, so many prisons, public or private, are operating, on the margins of safety nowadays, that to say, oh, we’ll find out later if staffing was too low, suggests callous indifference to human suffering and/or a desperate wish to conceal as long as possible the mess Government has made of a once-proud service. One might also add, that most contracts don’t in point of fact set performance requirements in such matters as the rate of self-harm or suicides. So the argument that the contract terms will pick up problems caused by low staffing simply doesn’t convince.
The real reason for non-disclosure is revealed by the MoJ reply:
As the Department does not currently collect workforce data from private prison providers, to publish these or require the provider to do so would require significant changes to the contracts of all private prison providers and we currently have no plans to do this.
i.e. - we can’t be bothered.
This won't do. Never mind the public - the MoJ ought to know what staffing ratios, and vacancy rates, are in private prisons, in order to know how safely they are being run. It's its job to know that, and take action accordingly. And if MoJ know, so should we.
As for the argument that this would be some huge, unnatural adminstrative burden - oh, please! This is information private operators know every week, every day. Sending it to MoJ once a month, in defined, standard terms, would be the least budnesome task imaginable.
The case that publishing this information is in the public interest is overwhelming. The MoJ should be shamed into doing so.
*‘we’ means, everyone who knows anything at all about prisons, except the Minister and his servants.
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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