MPs warn prison governor ‘empowerment’ could increase costs

Written by Jim Dunton on 7 April 2017 in News

Justice Select Committee raises spectre of more fragmented services and weakened economies of scale from latest reform drive

Ministers’ drive to devolve more responsibility for service provision to prison governors risks pushing up costs and fragmenting service provision, watchdog MPs have warned.

A report from the Justice Select Committee says that while giving governors greater control over how rehabilitation and training programmes are delivered has benefits, services for inmates may become disjointed and economies of scale disappear.

They added that there were questions over governors' capability to effectively commission education and training services where they had not done so in the past.

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More broadly, MPs said that despite the fact that reform of prison performance and governor empowerment went live earlier this month, there was still a “lack of clarity” over how the new system would work and fears over the potential for ministers and governors to get conflicting advice, making prisons less secure and less effective.

From April 1, the Ministry of Justice became responsible for prisons and commissioning policy while the new HM Prison and Probation Service – created from the National Offender Management Service – is responsible for operational management.

Against a backdrop of crisis in the Prison Service – with low officer morale and rising self-harm and violence among inmates – increasing governors’ control over how the overall objective of offender-rehabilitation is delivered is seen as a way to drive positive change.

MPs said the biggest risk from more localised commissioning of services was likely to be a disconnect between learning opportunities for inmates transferred between institutions.

“This risk is particularly significant for education and offending behaviour courses, where current sequencing arrangements that schedule interventions over the course of a prisoner’s sentence progression, during which they may be held in several prisons, could be lost,” the report said.

It added: “The overall cost of service provision in prisons could rise if governors are given commissioning powers, because commissioning processes would need to be reproduced in different prisons and economies of scale in the provision of goods and services could be lost.”

MPs said that while the geographical clustering of prisons could be used to mitigate cost rises, the government had not announced additional funding.

The report concluded that defining minimum standards for commissioned services in prisons would help to ensure a degree of continuity for inmates moving between institutions, and urged the MoJ to introduce more central oversight.

Committee chair Bob Neill said there was a fundamental concern about the lack of clarity in the reform agenda and cautioned that low morale among prison staff and governors could exacerbate the situation.

“Without support from the people who are operating prisons the reforms are unlikely to be effective,” he said. 

“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.”

Union the Prison Governors Association said MPs had captured many of its concerns, and that it felt ministers’ desire to rush through policies would lead to lead them to “squander” a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reform.

The association said there were also “clear signs” the government was seeking to water down the powers being offered to governors.

“We have seen this in the change of terminology from autonomy to empowerment, the ability to plan financially beyond 12 months being removed, the freedoms to alter management and staffing structures not supported with the money to do it, and insufficient resources to go outside of national contracts,” it said.

The union added that it was still advising members not to sign performance agreements introduced by the government on April 1, despite changes introduced following meetings with the MoJ.

It said that while the changes demonstrated the government was listening, they also demonstrated that the agreements were “incomplete and should never have been presented for signature in the first place”.

The MoJ said its reforms were the biggest overhaul of prisons in a generation and that the committee supported governor empowerment. 

“We recognise that all prisons are different and that is why we are continuing to work closely with governors and staff to ensure clarity on expected standards and provide ongoing advice,” a spokeswoman said.

“These changes, along with our work to boost safety in prisons by employing 2,500 new prison officers, will help deliver our reforms which will cut crime and create safer communities.”

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