The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:
"The National Offender Management Service Agency did well to achieve its 2011-12 savings target of £230 million, but its future savings targets are likely to prove harder to meet.
"Its strategy depends on the prison population remaining stable, something over which it has no control.
"It also depends on making significant numbers of staff redundant, but the Agency doesn’t yet have the resources to fund the redundancy payments required.
"There is also a risk that reduced numbers will result in staff being taken off offender management programmes to cover duty on prison wings. This means that training and rehabilitation activities could suffer, even though we know these reduce reoffending after release. The Agency needs to seriously consider the long-term consequences of short term cuts.
"We are also concerned about the impact of reduced staff numbers on safety and decency in prisons. Assaults on staff, self-harm and escapes from contractor escorts have all increased, and more prisoners are reporting that they don’t feel safe.
"Prison overcrowding has become institutionalised and some individuals have to be placed in prisons which do not provide the appropriate rehabilitation programmes to prepare them for release. The situation is likely to get worse as the Agency closes older, more expensive prisons in favour of newer, cheaper ones. Given that the current prison population is the maximum it considers safe, the Agency should look again at the consequences of closing these prisons.
"The Ministry of Justice is now consulting on plans to put the majority of services currently provided by probation trusts out to competition. But probation trusts don’t have the skills they need to get the best deal out of contracting services. For example, we received evidence suggesting that the UK is paying 60 per cent more for electronic monitoring than the US.
"The MOJ needs to work with probation trusts to ensure that the taxpayer isn’t paying over the odds to the private sector."
Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 35th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from HM Inspectorate of Prisons, HM Inspectorate of Probation and the National Offender Management Service Agency examined the Agency’s restructure and performance against Spending Review savings targets.
The National Offender Management Service Agency (the Agency) is an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice (the Department). The Agency directly manages 117 public prisons, manages the contracts of 14 private prisons, and is responsible for a prisoner population of around 86,000. It commissions and funds services from 35 probation trusts, which oversee approximately 165,000 offenders serving community sentences. For 2012-13, the Agency’s budget is £3,401 million.
The Committee was pleased to note that the Agency achieved its savings targets of £230 million in 2011-12 and maintained its overall performance, despite an increase in the prison population. However, the Agency’s savings targets of £246 million in 2012-13, £262 million in 2013-14 and £145 million in 2014-15 are challenging.
The Agency believes it has scope to make the prison estate more efficient by closing older, more expensive prisons and investing in new ones. The savings plans assume the prison population will stay at its current level and not increase and that no progress is made on reducing overcrowding. Furthermore, the Agency has not yet secured the up-front funding for the voluntary redundancies needed to bring down prison staffing costs.
Unless overcrowding is addressed and staff continue to carry out offender management work it is increasingly likely that rehabilitation work needed to reduce the risk of prisoners reoffending will not be provided and that prisoners will not be ready for transfer to open conditions or release. We were not reassured that the Agency has done enough to address the risks to safety, decency and standards in prisons and in community services arising from staffing cuts implemented to meet financial targets.
The Agency plans to increase the role of private firms and the third sector in probation. We are not convinced that probation trusts have the infrastructure and skills they need to commission probation services from these providers effectively.