COMMONS

Prison estate management strategy produces significant savings in running costs

25 April 2014

The Public Accounts publishes its 53rd Report, on Ministry of Justice and National Offender Management Services: managing the prison estate.

The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

"The National Offender Management Service’s strategy for managing the prison estate has produced significant savings in running costs – the Agency is on track to achieve reductions of £70 million a year – and a good standard of accommodation on time and within budget. The programme has been well managed and has benefited from experienced and consistent leadership.

The strategy has not, however, done as well at creating constructive regimes in which to work with offenders to support rehabilitation and prevent reoffending by preparing prisoners for work.

Although the two new large, contracted-out prisons were constructed on time, they have not performed well since opening. They were two of only three prisons to receive the lowest performance rating last year. Neither prison gives enough priority to meeting offenders’ rehabilitation needs. HMP Oakwood does not provide enough education time, and relies too much on less purposeful activities such as cleaning. HMP Thameside has no workshops.

On the other hand, the Agency has closed some prisons that were performing well. Although it considered a range of criteria in deciding which prisons to close, such as their geographic location and relative running costs, the Agency did not take their performance into account. Three of those closed had recently been awarded top performance ratings.

Performance in reducing the number of foreign national prisoners continues to be frustratingly poor, costing the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds. While more than 1,000 foreign national offenders are deported each quarter, a similar number are convicted, so the overall number of foreign national prisoners stays at the same level of around 11,000 – 13% of the total prison population. The Agency should work with the Home Office to understand why there are delays in removing foreign national offenders, and tackle the barriers to their removal.

The Agency needs to do more to make sure prisoners are prepared for release at the earliest opportunity. There is also much room for better performance in preparing prisoners for release at the earliest opportunity. In June 2013, the prison population included more than 6,000 prisoners with indeterminate sentences who had served the minimum term of their sentence so potentially could be released. However to qualify, many prisoners are expected to attend courses like behaviour management; yet these have been cut, making it less likely for many prisoners to secure release."

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 53rd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the National Offender Management Service, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office, examined the prison estate.

The National Offender Management Service (the Agency) is responsible for the prison system in England and Wales which holds around 84,000 prisoners. The prison estate consists of some 130 prisons of varying layout, geographical location, age and state of repair. Prisons also vary in the type of prisoner they hold and the activities they offer. The prison population has stabilised since the late 2000s, allowing the Agency to take a more strategic approach to the prison estate. The main factor behind the Agency’s estate strategy, of closing small costly prisons and building new accommodation which is cheaper to run, is the need to make recurring savings. Under the strategy, the Agency had by the end of 2013, closed 13 prisons and built two new prisons and a new prison block in an existing prison. The Agency has little control over the prison population, except through its role in rehabilitating prisoners to prepare them for release at the earliest opportunity and in assisting in the removal of foreign national prisoners.

The Agency has achieved significant savings in running costs and made considerable progress towards meeting its other objectives for the prison estate. The estate strategy’s objectives are to reduce resource costs; create durable, good standard accommodation and provide an estate that better meets offenders’ needs, allowing more of them to work and be kept closer to their homes. Against these objectives, the Agency has built new, good quality, accommodation to time and within budget; is on track to achieve cost reductions of £70 million a year; and is starting to match better the geographical spread of prisons to the prison population. Key factors behind this good performance are that senior staff in the Agency have experience and knowledge and have remained in post throughout this period of change.

They have been well supported by a management team that has the necessary commercial, contract management, and estates management skills.

Recommendation: The Ministry of Justice should use examples and experience of the Agency’s management of the prison estate to develop a best practice in achieving cost reductions, which HM Treasury should disseminate widely across Government.

However, although the two new large contracted-out prisons were constructed in a timely manner, their performance has been poor and disappointing since they opened. They do not give sufficient priority to meeting offenders’ rehabilitation needs. The new prisons, HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside, were two of only three prisons to receive the lowest performance rating of 1 out of 4 in the Agency’s performance ratings for 2012-13. Neither prison provides enough quality purposeful activity for prisoners. HMP Oakwood does not provide sufficient education time and it relies too much on less purposeful activities, such as cleaning. HMP Thameside does not have any workshops. HM Chief Inspector of Prisons noted in his Annual Report for 2012-13, that the quantity and quality of purposeful activity across the prison system had ‘plummeted’ in the last year.

Recommendation: The Agency should:

  • Identify the reasons for the poor performance of the large prisons and address these as a matter of urgency, exploring new operating models to improve these prisons.
  • Work with the contractors at HMP Oakwood and HMP Thameside, to achieve a performance rating of 4 for 2014-15. If either prison fails to achieve this quality threshold, the Agency should write to the Committee to set out the reasons for the lower rating and the steps it is taking to improve performance.
  • Ensure the factors that contributed to the poor performance at these prisons, particularly HMP Oakwood, are not repeated at the new prison being built in Wrexham.
  • Monitor the level of good-quality purposeful activity provided by each prison, and use this information to improve the quality and extend the amount of purposeful activities to a level deemed acceptable by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. As a first step, the Agency should satisfy the Chief Inspector that the quantity and quality of purposeful activity across the prison system has increased by the end of 2014-15.

The Agency has closed some prisons, even when they were performing well. The Agency considered a range of criteria in selecting prisons for closure including: relative running costs; maintenance costs; potential income from selling sites; special features or facilities; and geographical location. However, it did not take prison performance into account and closed some high performing prisons, including three that the Agency had awarded the top rating of 4 in their most recent performance rating.

Recommendation: When selecting prisons for closure, the Agency should consider prisons’ performance, and the likely impact on overall performance across the prison estate, in addition to the factors it already considers.
More could be done to reduce the prison population by ensuring prisoners are prepared for release at the earliest opportunity. In June 2013, the prison population included over 6,000 prisoners with indeterminate sentences who had served the minimum period required by their sentence. They could be released if the Parole Board believed it was safe to do so. The Parole Board views offender behaviour programmes as very important to demonstrate progress, but the number of courses completed by prisoners has fallen from 8,739 in 2010-11, to 8,431 in 2012-13 making it less likely that these prisoners would secure early release

Recommendation: The Agency should provide more programmes to help prisoners on indeterminate sentences become safe to release.
Little progress has been made in reducing the number of foreign national prisoners. The Home Office aims to remove as many foreign national prisoners as possible, but while over 1,000 foreign national offenders are deported each quarter, a similar number are convicted. As a result the actual number of foreign national offenders in prisons in England and Wales has remained fairly constant at around 11,000 (13% of the prison population) which costs the Agency around £300 million a year.

  • Recommendation: The Agency should work with the Home Office to better understand the reasons for delays in removing foreign national offenders, tackle the barriers to removal, and take all steps to improve performance in this area.

Further information

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