Public sector providers will not be allowed to bid for contracts in the next competition to operate prisons, the government has confirmed, with HM Prison and Probation Service only able to provide a comparator to external bidders.
Justice minister Rory Stewart announced the launch of the competition, which support plans announced by the Ministry of Justice in June to add up to 10,000 new prisons places, in a written statement to the House of Commons yesterday.
Through the competition, the MoJ will appoint and framework of prison operators, from which it will select the operator for each new prison in shorter ‘call-off’ competitions, he said. The framework will only be open to private companies unless bids do not meet a given standard, Stewart said.
The new framework will be used to appoint companies to operate prisons that are already under private management once the existing operators’ contracts run out, and to award contracts for new-build prisons.
The first contracts to be opened to a call-of competition will be two new-build prisons in Wellingborough, in Northamptonshire and Glen Parva in Leicestershire. Construction of both prisons will be funded using public capital.
“HMPPS will not bid in the competition but will provide a ‘public sector benchmark’ against which operators’ bids will be rigorously assessed. If bids do not meet our expectations in terms of quality and cost, HMPPS will act as the provider,” Stewart said.
The MoJ announced plans for the Wellingborough facility in 2016, four years after HMP Wellingborough closed, taking with it 600 places. Construction is set to begin in December, so that the prison can open in 2021.
The construction of Glen Parva prison was initially intended to be privately-funded, but in last month’s Budget it was announced the government would fund it. The facility will open in 2022.
In a written statement earlier this month, Stewart said the public funding would “enable the prison to open earlier than originally planned to meet the needs of the growing and complex prison population.”
The announcement comes at a time when private prisons contracts are coming under intense public scrutiny. In August the Ministry of Justice was forced to take over control of HMP prison from the private contractor G4S after an inspection showed high levels of violence and self-harm.
In his statement yesterday, Stewart said the framework “should reinvigorate the prison market by encouraging new providers to enter the custodial arena”.
“It will also enable MoJ to more effectively and efficiently manage a pipeline of competition over the next decade,” he said.
Earlier this year, Stewart said the MoJ was expecting the prison population to rise by around 10,000 to 93,000. He said he wanted to reduce “if not eliminate” shorter prison sentences of up to 12 months, although there is no legislation currently in train to make this happen,
Mark Fairhurst, national chair of the POA – the trade union for prison officers and secure psychiatric workers – branded the move to limit bids to private providers an “insult” to taxpayers.
“It’s an absolute disgrace that taxpayers’ money is being used to build prisons to be run by to profiteers, without the public sector being allowed to bid,” he said. “Prisons are not for profit and we’ve proven time and time again that private providers are not fit for purpose,” he said, pointing to the example of HMP Birmingham.
He said the union would fight “tooth and nail” to prevent any publicly-run prisons from transferring into the hands of private operators, which would mean prisons officers who are now civil servants moving into private employment.
“The question that remains now, is are they going to bar G4S and Serco from bidding?” he asked. The two companies, which between them run 10 of the 14 contracted-out prisons across the UK, are both under criminal investigation by the Serious Fraud Office over their running of electronic monitoring contracts.
He also said the union would “insist” the HMP Birmingham remain under public management, and would take “all necessary steps to show our discontent” if it were returned to G4S.
Shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said prisons privatisation had been a “costly failure”, and that the statement showed the government was doubling down on its commitment to privatisation “instead of learning the lessons and changing direction”.