MPs demand prisons inspection investment and transparency boost
Ministers urged to take personal responsibility for implementing recommendations of HM Prisons Inspectorate in the wake of damming Liverpool report
Prison landing Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The Ministry of Justice has been told to up its game across the whole secure estate in the wake of a parliamentary investigation into the “abject failure” of those in charge of HMP Liverpool to deliver stipulated improvements in safety and conditions.
MPs on parliament’s Justice Select Committee called for ministers to be made personally accountable for seeing that improvements demanded by HM Inspectorate of Prisons are delivered, and also called for the watchdog to be better resourced, as well as increased transparency over the obligations of private contractors paid to provide prison services.
A report from the committee says national, regional, and local management failed in their oversight of the HMP Liverpool – which was the subject of damning inspection verdicts in 2015 and 2017 that detailed squalid conditions and unacceptable health and safety arrangements. MPs warned that “evidence suggests that, in varying degrees, that failure is not limited to one establishment”.
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They said reports at HMP Swansea and HMP Wormwood Scrubs demonstrated a similar lack of improvement to Liverpool and that in terms of accountability MoJ executive agency HM Prison and Probation Service was “effectively marking their own homework”.
Committee chair Bob Neill said the shortcomings identified in Liverpool were not unique but symptomatic of those evident across the prison estate, and problems that needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“It is clear that HM Inspector of Prisons requires additional resources so they can make sure that their recommendations are properly acted upon,” he said.
“I am not satisfied that existing plans to re-organise the way in which HMPPS operates above establishment level will be enough to bring about real improvement to conditions. The committee intends to ensure that ministers, officials and individual prisons are properly held to account when urgent and serious failings are highlighted."
In addition to greater resources for the inspectorate and increased ministerial accountability, MPs said private sector contractors who deliver prison services – including maintenance and repairs – needed to have their work subjected to a greater degree transparency.
“We recommend that the minister, the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS publish a plan to resolve the persistent overcrowding of the estate, so that governors do not feel pressure to house men or women in cells that are deemed unfit,” they said.
“It is clear that in order to be successful, such a plan must aim to reduce the prison population and/or increase safe and decent capacity, and we will return to this question."
Neill's committee said there ought to be a public framework that outlined expectations, performance and penalties levied against providers.
“If contractors are penalised for poor performance there should be an annual public notification of where, why and by how much, as a percentage of the value of the contract,” they said.
MoJ perm sec Richard Heaton and HMPPS chief executive Michael Spurr gave evidence on prisons contractors to a separate hearing of the Public Accounts Committee in January.
Questioned on the impact of contractor Carillion’s collapse, they admitted the firm – which was responsible for facilities management at around 50 prisons in central and southern England under a £200m PFI deal – had suffered from service shortcomings because of increased levels of violence and vandalism in the secure estate.
Spurr said Carillion and other contractors in different parts of the country had suffered because their contracts had been geared towards preventative maintenance, rather than reactive maintenance.
“We’ve had to significantly increase the amount of hours spent on reactive maintenance to deal with vandalism, etc...” he said.
Responding to the justice committee report, an MoJ spokeswoman said ministers had been “absolutely clear” that conditions at HMP Liverpool were unacceptable and would not be tolerated.
“There are around 200 fewer prisoners at HMP Liverpool compared with the inspection period, a new governor has been appointed, and the backlog of maintenance tasks is being addressed,” she said.
“But we want to be held accountable when failings persist, which is why ministers introduced the urgent notification process – demanding the secretary of state introduce tough measures to improve failing prisons. We welcome the committee’s report, and will carefully consider each recommendation.”
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