MoJ demands answers after prison-staffing exposé

Undercover reporter was hired as agency staff member at troubled HMP Bedford
HMP Bedford Photo: Google Maps

By Jim Dunton

28 Mar 2024

The Ministry of Justice has said it is seeking "urgent clarification" that rules on the employment of agency staff in the prison estate are adequate after an undercover reporter was hired to work at HMP Bedford.

Paul Morgan-Bentley, who is head of investigations at The Times, spent eight days working at the category-B prison last month after being taken on as an operational support-grade escort under a temporary contract.

He said the employment agency that recruited him to the role had not conducted basic security vetting and hired him on the basis that he had passed a criminal-record check.

Morgan-Bentley said that on two of the days he worked at HMP Bedford – which is currently subject to an urgent notice to improve issued by HM Inspectorate of Prisons – there was no-one manning the security scanners at the prison entrance. That allowed him and several others to walk inside the jail and through to prisoner wings unchecked.

The journalist said he was given a uniform and keys to cells for his work and could "easily" have brought drugs, weapons or items to aid an escape into the prison, if he had been inclined to.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk has ordered an investigation into prison contractor vetting, seeking “urgent clarification” on whether the processes used are appropriate.

The Times said Morgan-Bentley had been recruited for the OSG role by staff agency Hays.

Hays said it had complied with the vetting process set out by the MoJ, which requires OSG escorts to have full enhanced vetting within their first 12 weeks in the role.

"We consistently try to identify ways of improving our processes, and despite procedure being followed in this case, we will be conducting a review of our recruitment process for the supply of these types of roles," a spokesperson for the company said.

The MoJ confirmed that Morgan-Bentley had been briefly employed as a temporary agency worker. It said that as an OSG, the journalist had restricted access and duties and that his keys could not have opened prisoner cell doors.

However, the department acknowledged that agency OSGs are subject to an “abridged vetting process” and that directly employed OSGs have more training and are subject to normal prison-staff vetting.

It said Chalk is "seeking urgent clarification" from HM Prison Service that the vetting process for agency OSGs is "appropriate".

The MoJ said all jail staff and visitors are “regularly and randomly searched”. It said that last month, security scanners at HMP Bedford were in use 91% of the time during “core” hours. The department said it is reviewing security staffing to ensure that anyone manning security scanners is "adequately trained".

Morgan-Bentley's investigation suggested some staff had reported they were not properly trained to use scanners.

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