Justice Committee Chair Bob Neill MP said:
"Governor empowerment and changes to prison performance are central to the Government's prison reform programme, which it describes as "the biggest overhaul in a generation" – but the lack of clarity about how some of these reforms will work in practice remains a cause for concern.
Without support from the people who are operating prisons the reforms are unlikely to be effective. The Government must seek productive engagement with prison staff and governors through regular meetings, enabling their concerns and ideas to feed into the implementation of the reforms."
Policy and operations
From 1 April, the Ministry of Justice has been responsible for prisons commissioning and policy, with the new HM Prison and Probation Service responsible for operational management. The Committee heard concerns that this separation could result in governors and the Secretary of State receiving conflicting advice. The report notes that this lack of clarity could make it harder to see what is going wrong in prisons and why, and confusion about responsibilities could make prisons less safe and effective. The Committee seeks clarification from the Government about how this will work in practice.
Under the new reforms, Governors will be accountable through three year performance agreements they sign with the Secretary of State. These are based on four new performance standards which reflect the purpose of prisons included in the Prisons and Courts Bill; public protection; safety and order; reform; and preparing for life after prison.
The Committee supports the principle of transparency about what constitutes good performance: Governors should know the standards by which they will be judged and the public should know what constitutes a successful prison.
However, the report notes that it is not clear how the proposed interventions in cases of poor performance differ from current actions taken, and how they will operate in future – including whether public prisons could be privatised or vice versa , and it remains unclear what processes exist to identify poor performance at an early stage.
Performance agreements were supposed to be put in place in a third of prisons from April 2017, but the Prison Governors Association advised its members against signing them.
The report seeks information from the Government in its response on how many agreements have been signed, and how it will proceed if they are not signed.
The Ministry of Justice will publish official statistics on prison performance against the new performance standards, and the report recommends that the Ministry should use these data to understand more fully the factors underpinning poor and high performance, to inform practice across the estate.
The Committee is generally supportive of the principle of greater governor empowerment but has not seen any evidence that it will lead to better outcomes for prisoners, and notes that the first six reform prisons, which began operating in July 2016, will only be evaluated after the reforms take effect across the prison estate.
Issues raised in the report include:
- Risk of increased prisoner complaints if greater autonomy and deregulation is not balanced with a need for consistently applied minimum standards;
- Availability of support and development opportunities for governors before the reforms take effect;
- Need to co-ordinate contributions of agencies involved in providing services relating to rehabilitation at a local level, including prisons and probation.
- The Committee also noted considerable uncertainty around how the Government’s plans will apply to the privately managed prison estate and how the new offender management model, with one key worker overseeing the casework of six prisoners, will work in practice.
The Committee also welcomes the principle of giving governors greater involvement in commissioning goods and services, as this could encourage innovation and lead to better outcomes for prisoners.
However, this must be evidence based and rigorously evaluated, and procurement processes as well as performance agreements must be designed to facilitate innovation.
The Committee recognises that devolution of responsibility for commissioning to governors is likely to lead to differences in service provision, and it could also lead to an increase in overall costs as economies of scale could be lost.
The report concludes that there is a need for central oversight, and recommends that the MoJ put measures in place to ensure that education, family services and offending behaviour programmes are aligned across the estate to enable prisoners to progress through their sentence and to ensure these programmes meet minimum quality standards; and that the appropriate level to commission goods and services should be decided on a case by case basis.
Finally, low morale among prison staff and governors could affect implementation. The Prison Officers’ Association and the Prison Governors’ Association (PGA) have both recently taken actions suggestive of discontent among prison staff and governors, including staff protests in November and an attempted strike in March, as well as a call on governors not to sign the new performance agreement.
The PGA told the Committee that engagement with the MoJ had been “very poor”, with very little consultation about the reforms; the POA reported that their members feel disenfranchised, do not trust Government and senior managers, and that there had not been positive engagement with the MoJ and NOMS. Prisons Minister Sam Gyimah told the Committee that he had had regular meetings with the PGA and POA but admitted that more could be done.