Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 49 of Session 2002-03, dated 2 December 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said today there is a strong case for greater co-operation and learning between publicly and privately managed prisons, and that the Prison Service should take a tough approach with failing prisons whoever manages them.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 49th Report of this Session, which examined the extent to which good practice is shared between PFI and public prisons, and how the operational performance of PFI and public prisons is measured and managed. Since 1995, the Prison Service has signed nine Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts for the design, construction, financing and operation of new prisons. Seven PFI prisons are now operational and hold 5,000 prisoners, around 7% of the total prison population.

The Committee found that the Home Office and the Prison Service should promote greater co operation and exchange of good practice between publicly and privately managed prisons. Public prisons could import good practice on the treatment of prisoners from PFI prisons, and PFI prison staff could benefit from joint training on security issues with their more experienced counterparts in the public sector. The Home Office and Prison Service should expand staff exchanges during the next two years, especially at more junior grades where day to day contact with prisoners is much greater.

In awarding contracts or negotiating Service Level Agreements there should be as much emphasis on the sustained delivery of an acceptable service as there is on contract price. The Prison Service had to put in its own management team at Ashfield Young Offenders Institution for five months in 2002. Staffing levels at recent PFI prisons and two public sector prisons now managed under Service Level Agreements have also given cause for concern. The Prison Service should not shy away from terminating prison contracts. The contractor was in breach of contractual obligations at Ashfield, but the Prison Service chose not to terminate the contract.

Some PFI prison Controllers-whose job it is to assess the prison's performance against the contract-have become too close to the contractor, whilst others have been over stringent and adversarial. There needs to be greater consistency in how Controllers approach their role, supported by improved training and clear career progression.

The monitoring and recording of performance data is at present less reliable in the public sector than in the PFI sector. The Prison Service should examine the feasibility of introducing within the next year a performance data monitoring function, similar to the Controller function in PFI prisons, throughout publicly managed prisons. And the number of performance measures should be reduced and made more consistent between the public and private sectors.

The use of Service Level Agreements should be extended to all prisons found to be performing unsatisfactorily. Service Level Agreements specifying the standard of performance expected in return for a fixed budget have been used successfully to encourage better performance in public prisons that have been failing to meet required standards. However, at present, only four failing prisons have been identified for this approach.

Mr Leigh said today:

"There is a strong case for greater co-operation and learning between publicly and privately managed prisons. Prisoners at PFI prisons feel they are shown greater respect and are better treated than those in public prisons. But the flip side is that more experienced officers in public prisons are less likely to 'turn a blind eye' and compromise security.

Failing prisons-both public and private-need a tough approach. Service Level Agreements should be extended in the public sector and the Prison Service should not shy away from terminating contracts when the contractor is in breach of their obligations, as at Ashfield Young Offenders Institute in 2002."

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