MoJ to stop 'marking own homework' on failing jails

New system of follow-up reviews will update ministers on progress with improving worst prisons 

HMP Bedford will be among the first prisons to receive an IRP visit. Photo: PA

A new system of follow-up reviews for failing and unsafe prisons will begin this month, the prisons inspectorate has announced.

HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke said his organisation would begin carrying out Independent Reviews of Progress – first reported by CSW last year – to ensure prisons have implemented its recommendations following inspections.

The announcement came the same day as the parliament’s Justice Select Committee said the MoJ and the Treasury had adopted an ineffective and costly “crisis management approach” to dealing with failing prisons as demand outstrips prison capacity.


The IRPs will aim to give ministers independent evidence on prisons’ progress towards improving when inspections have revealed safety concerns or other issues. The announcement comes just over a year after the justice committee said ministers and HM Prison and Probation Service were effectively “marking their own homework” following inspections.

IRP visits will take around two and a half days and will take place between eight and 12 months after a full inspection.

Prisons will have advance warning of IRPs, unlike most full HMI Prisons inspections. The reviews are also unlikely to lead to further recommendations, focusing instead on assessing progress towards existing recommendations.

The inspectorate said it expects to carry out around 20 IRPs a year. It will prioritise institutions that have been subject to the chief inspector’s Urgent Notification protocol, which compels the justice secretary to respond publicly to an inspection within 28 days.

HMP Birmingham was one of three prisons to be issued with an Urgent Notification last year after an inspection revealed major safety and health concerns, leading to the Ministry of Justice taking control of the institution from the outsourcer G4S. The MoJ announced this week it would continue to manage the prison permanently.

HMP Exeter and HMP Bedford also received Urgent Notifications. Bedford prison’s notice came after an inspection found “appalling” segregation conditions, rat infestations and “filthy and decrepit” accommodation.

Four other prisons have already been notified of an IRP visit: Chelmsford, The Mount, Manchester and Highdown.

Inspection reports will be published 25 days after IRP visits.

“IRPs are an important new area of work for us,” Clarke said in a statement.

“They are designed to give the secretary of state an independent assessment of whether prisons we have found to be unsafe or otherwise failing are getting to grips with our key recommendations for improvement.

“There are many governing teams and staff working hard in very challenging jails and through our IRPs we will work constructively with them to support the improvements we all want to see.”

‘Immeasurable wasted costs’

The Justice Select Committee’s report, published yesterday, called on the government to push forward with its plan to abolish short prison sentences so the prisons service could refocus its efforts on supporting rehabilitation services .

The report criticised ministers’ “political decision” to fund measures to tackle soaring levels of prison violence at the expense of the funding of rehabilitation programmes, saying that re-offending was costing taxpayers £15bn a year.

The prison population in England and Wales has soared from 44,246 in 1993 to 82,384 in December 2018, and the MPs said overcrowding and staff shortages had undermined the delivery of rehabilitation programmes including education, mental health treatment, substance misuse treatment and offending behaviour programmes.

“The committee concluded that this creates immeasurable wasted costs,” they said.

They said the government should instead follow through with a pledge to scrap short-term prison sentences. Justice secretary David Gauke said in February there was a “very strong case” for abolishing sentences of six months or less, but did not set out a timetable for the move.

Prisons minister Rory Stewart said the report effectively set out the “scale and complexity of the challenges facing the prisons system”.

“Our clear focus is on rehabilitating prisoners to reduce crime and keep the public safe, but this can only happen if prisons are safe and decent,” he said.

“That is why we are investing significantly in improving conditions and security, and developing a long-term strategy to deliver prison places and reduce violence."

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