Prisons and Probation Debate

14th May 2019

David Gauke responds to an Opposition Day debate on prisons and probation.

There is an important debate to be had about the involvement of the private sector and the voluntary sector in our justice system. It is right that we ask ourselves: how do we provide high-quality public services? How do we encourage innovation in order to raise standards? And how do we deliver the best possible value for money for the taxpayer? In answering these questions, there will always be debates about whether the private sector or the voluntary sector does too much or too little: do we make use of these sectors in the right way? Do we have the right incentives? And do we have the right supervision? In reaching a fair-minded conclusion, we should approach the evidence in a fair-minded way, looking at good and bad examples, and acknowledging where things work well and where they do not.

I have to say that such a balanced approach was entirely lacking in the speech we have just heard from the shadow Secretary of State. In a fairly lengthy speech, he had time to address this in a proper, balanced way. Instead, what we heard was simplistic, dogmatic and bombastic. The only thing anyone on this side of the House will remember about his speech is his abiding hostility to the private sector. Mind you, at least we will remember something from his speech, which, given his reputation, is more than he will ever do.

On prisons, the hon. Gentleman repeatedly made reference to the difficulties with HMP Birmingham. There is no doubt—I acknowledge this—that Birmingham was a failing prison and the standards at the time of the inspection were unacceptable. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service had been working closely with G4S to try to resolve the issues, but it became increasingly clear that G4S alone was not able to make the improvements that were so badly needed. That is why we took the decision to step in, doing so at no additional cost to the taxpayer. It was right that we did that. The point I want to make is that where we believe it is right to step in and where we believe the private sector is not the right answer, we will step in.

Can the Secretary of State just tell the House why it took an inspection by the prisons inspector to discover that G4S was failing in Birmingham and why this did not come from his own Department?

HMPPS did have concerns about how Birmingham was operating and the way it was working, and HMPPS was working closely with G4S to try to address this. It became clear, when the inspection was undertaken, that we were required to go further and that the level of intervention we had previously put in was insufficient. That is why we took the steps we did. We stepped in, putting one of our best prison service governors in charge, alongside a strong senior management team and 30 additional experienced staff. I would like to thank all of them for their hard work since we took that decision to turn around a complex and challenging establishment.

Will the Secretary of State admit that this is not just about one prison and that yesterday’s figures in The Guardianshowing 47% more incidents of violence in the private estate than in the public point to something greater than one, one-off prison?

When looking at prisons, it is important to compare like with like. Our prison estate contains a range of prisons doing different tasks, with different cohorts of prisoners, which creates different challenges. It is right that we look beyond just one prison, as the hon. Lady rightly says, and that we look beyond HMP Birmingham, where we see that the position is much more complex. The House should not just take my word for it: the chief inspector of prisons has highlighted many examples of excellent performance by private prisons in his inspection reports. For example, let us take HMP Altcourse, which is run by G4S. Its latest inspection highlighted how

“violence and self-harm were decreasing year on year”,

and said: “Purposeful activity was excellent”. It is worth pointing out that HMP Altcourse is not far from HMP Liverpool. They are in the same city and have the same type of prisoner, but we have had significant difficulties with HMP Liverpool. We hope and believe that it is on the mend, but it was none the less one of our most troubling prisons.

The House could also consider young offenders institutions. At Parc, which is also run by G4S, the inspectorate found that

“the establishment was characterised by good relationships, excellent multidisciplinary work and strong leadership.”

We can also look at HMP Bronzefield, which is run by Sodexo. It was described by HMIP as

“an excellent institution where outcomes for the prisoners held were reasonably good or better against all our tests of a healthy prison.”

If we put ideology to one side, we see it is a fact that privately managed prison providers achieve the majority of their targets, and their performance is closely monitored by the robust contract management processes that HMPPS has in place. Privately managed prisons have also pioneered the use of modern technology to improve the running of establishments and help to promote rehabilitation, including through the development of in-cell telephony to help prisoners to maintain ties with their families; opportunities for interactive story-time activities between prisoners and their children; and the introduction of electronic kiosks, which allow prisoners to have greater control over managing their day-to-day lives.

The public sector is only now catching up, and we are now investing in 50 prisons so that they can have in-cell phones, but private prisons got there first. Instead of ideological arguments about who provides the service, we should focus on what works to reduce reoffending and keep the public safe.

If we are talking about ideology, or lack of it, does the Secretary of State not accept that it would have been wise for the Government to pilot the privatisation that was considered before it was introduced in the probation service?

The hon. Lady brings me to probation, to which I wish to turn—

But before I do, I will give way to my hon. Friend.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Of course, the picture is complex, because there are good and failing prisons in the private sector and in the public sector. One thing that has struck me is the variation in the calibre of leadership. There are some excellent prison governors and some who are less successful. What can be done to ensure that the requisite high level is seen across the prison estate?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Sometimes, Opposition day debates can be a bit of knockabout, but there is a lot that we ought to debate and discuss in respect of the prison system and how it operates, and leadership is a really important aspect. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) and congratulate him on his promotion. He pursued with great vigour the theme of the importance of leadership—of having the right governors and leadership teams in prisons—and it is absolutely key. To be honest, that matters more than whether an institution is run by a private company or by the public sector. The quality of the leadership is a much more important factor. I hope we have an opportunity to debate that issue and others like it in future.

That is what has struck me during this debate: what matters in prisons are the standards under which people are kept and the results that are shown in stopping people reoffending, not who keeps the prisoners. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

That is exactly right. If the private sector is not working, I am prepared to step in—I have no problem with doing that—but the most important thing is that we should look at the outputs and outcomes and base what we do on that, rather than take a simplistic view that the public sector is good and the private sector is bad or, indeed, vice versa. That is the approach that I wish to take.



I will give way first to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), then to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that we need to compare like with like; will he give us an example of a brand-new prison in the public sector that can be compared with a brand-new prison in the private sector?

The most recent brand-new prison that we did was Berwyn, and it is in the public sector. The next two prisons will be in the private sector because we want to keep a mixed market and to have a range. HMP Berwyn is a public sector prison. That decision was made by the coalition Government. We are pragmatic on that point.

I shall now give way again. I hope the hon. Member for York Central will forgive me for giving way to the hon. Member for Ipswich first; Ipswich is my home town.

Quality is to follow.

On outcomes, which are the most important thing that we look at, will the Secretary of State explain why Askham Grange prison, which has the best outcomes in the country and the lowest reoffending rates and which is, I must say, in the public sector, is constantly under threat of closure? If we are looking at the evidence, surely the Government should keep the prison open.

When it comes to any decisions about prison closures, we will of course look at the evidence. We are not proposing any prison closures at this point, but we will always look at the evidence. Several factors will determine whether or not a prison closes, but its record on rehabilitation is clearly something that we would very much take into account.

Let me turn to probation. In particular, we have heard much about the transforming rehabilitation reforms that were introduced in 2014. When we consider the reforms, it is important that we recognise the benefits that the private and voluntary sectors have brought to the probation service, even if we accept that there have been challenges—and I accept that there are challenges. We need to acknowledge that with the transforming rehabilitation reforms came the supervision of 40,000 additional offenders being released from short prison sentences. Those were offenders who previously received little or no supervision or support on release, so it is a positive change for public safety. The shadow Secretary of State forgot to mention that reoffending rates for offenders managed by CRCs remain two percentage points lower than the rates for the same group of offenders in 2011. Of course, we want reoffending to be lower still, but it is lower.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his announcement earlier this year that he was bringing all probation services in Wales back into public management following the failure of the Working Links CRC. Will he commit to ensuring that that welcome and common-sense decision is resourced to succeed? Will he consider it as a possible template for bringing probation services in England back into public control, too?

First, I am of course determined to ensure that that decision succeeds. In July last year, I set out that Wales was going to go down the unified-model route, and we are accelerating that as a consequence of the failure of Working Links.

Before I turn to the wider points, let me put this debate in context. When we debate CRCs, we sometimes forget some of the good examples of innovative and dedicated work with offenders that CRCs are doing. Hampshire and Isle of Wight CRC was praised last week by the chief inspector of probation for offering a comprehensive range of high- quality rehabilitation programmes and unpaid work placements; London CRC is working closely with the Mayor of London on the safer streets partnership to tackle gangs and knife crime; and Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC is pioneering the first behavioural intervention targeted at stalking offences.

It is often when the private sector can bring wider experience and expertise to bear that it is best able to deliver value for money—for instance, in sourcing unpaid work placements, for which several of our CRC parent organisations can draw on experience in the employability sector. Dame Glenys Stacey has acknowledged that high-quality delivery is widespread. In fact, three quarters of the providers assessed have been rated as good. I was particularly encouraged to hear about the involvement of London CRC in the Grenfell disaster recovery operation: it arranged unpaid work placements with offenders who were helping local residents affected by the disaster. That is exactly the sort of delivery that we want to see: providers able to move quickly, respond to local needs and provide meaningful rehabilitation activity for offenders and for local communities.

In Wrexham, my constituent Nicholas Churton was murdered by someone who was subject to the supervision of a community rehabilitation trust that, on the basis of what the Secretary of State’s own Department says, was not performing adequately. That is a practical result of an experiment with no additional investment; it led to human tragedy. I know the Secretary of State is a reasonable man, and he needs to look again at this situation.

Obviously, that is a tragic case, and, as I have before, I express my sympathies for the family of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. As regards identifying and attributing blame, I am not in a position to comment on that. CRCs manage those who are assessed as low and medium-risk offenders.

If I can return to my comments, I want to make a wider point about the crucial role that can be played by the private sector and, indeed, the voluntary sector in supporting probation work. It is the dedication and commitment of these organisations, many of them small and community-led, that enables offenders to turn their lives around. The work of the voluntary sector, particularly with vulnerable offenders such as those with learning difficulties and other complex needs, is irreplaceable and the Government are committed to supporting it. We have been clear that the public, private and voluntary sectors all have a clear role to play in building a strong probation service. That does not mean that we cannot learn from the experience of transforming rehabilitation.

I have been clear that under CRCs the quality of offender management has too often been disappointing. I am determined to learn from what has gone well and what has not under the current system. That is why the Government have acted decisively to end CRC contracts early, invest an additional £22 million a year in through-the-gate provision, and to hold a consultation on the shape of future arrangements. I am grateful to all those who have responded to the public consultation, as well as for the work of Dame Glenys Stacey, the Justice Committee and the Public Accounts Committee in providing helpful scrutiny and challenge as we consider how best to deliver a stronger, more resilient system. It is important to recognise, as those partners have, the role of external factors in creating a challenging operating environment for CRCs, but we have also looked very carefully at their findings about the complexities of contractualising offender management and the challenges of ensuring continuity of supervision and integration among providers.

I look forward to bringing detailed plans for the future of probation to the House in due course. I will be driven by the evidence and what works. This must not be a matter of ideology or dogmatism but one of single-minded focus on delivering the probation system we need.

I think the phrase I just used was “in due course”.

It certainly is “in due course”.

Finally, as we debate these issues we should recognise that the challenges in the current system are not down to the work of probation staff. Their hard work and professionalism, in both the NPS and CRCs, is tremendous and I pay tribute to them. Probation is a vocational career, and as part of the future arrangements we are looking to establish an independent statutory body so that probation staff have the same professional recognition as their peers in health and education.

In conclusion, as I said at the beginning, the role of the private sector and the voluntary sector in the criminal justice system is an issue for debate. We should constantly examine and re-examine what the right role should be, but the approach from the Labour party is that this is the only issue that matters. We hear nothing from Labour about how to deal with repeat petty offenders and the role of non-custodial sentences. There is nothing about the measures to properly tackle drugs and violence; nothing about offender management in prisons; nothing about how we are recruiting additional prison officers or getting people jobs through our education and employment strategy. The only thing we ever hear is nationalise, nationalise, nationalise. As Sadiq Khan, one of the predecessors of the hon. Member for Leeds East, said in 2011, defending the Labour Government’s use of private sector prisons,

“our policy was and is based on what works, rather than dogma.”—[Official Report, 31 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 527.]

That is as it should be. On this side of the House, we will always work to put the public first in reducing reoffending, protecting the public and building a stronger justice system.




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