Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 494 - 499)




  494. Can I welcome our two witnesses this morning on behalf of the Committee. It is very good to have you along. Sir David Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, and Will Hutton, the distinguished writer, economist, general man of affairs and Chief Executive of the Industrial Society. We are trying to clear our minds about issues concerning public sector, public service ethos and associated matters and we thought you were the people who were going to help us with this. Would either of you like to say a word before we start, or shall we just have a go at you?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I am more prepared to be "have a go at" than to be got at, so . . .

  (Will Hutton) Fine. I have prepared some answers around the questions 6 to 18.

  495. You cannot give the game away like this!
  (Will Hutton) For my oral viva, yes.

  496. I think we should just start. Perhaps I could start with you, Sir David. When we had Raymond Plant, Lord Plant, in front of us a few weeks ago, we were reminded how he had resigned as the Home Affairs spokesman for the Labour Party at that time when we signed up to the idea of putting prisons out to the private sector. He thought that would be inconsistent with what the State was all about. I would be very interested to know your view about that.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) It is a very pertinent question. Of course when I came to the job of Chief Inspector in December 1995 as a total outsider, having never been involved in prisons in my life, it was clear that there was, if you like, a sort of moral debate about this; I mean, was it right or not to make a profit out of locking people up as a result of a sentence awarded by the courts which are a national institution. My job as Chief Inspector was to monitor the treatment of prisoners and the conditions in which they were held and report on them to Parliament and the public through one of her Majesty's principal Secretaries of State; in other words, the Home Secretary. Therefore, what I had to do, when going to look at the private sector prisons, was to judge how they looked after prisoners, not whether it was right or not to be actually in the business of locking them up. What I found when I went there was that actually the way that prisoners were treated and the conditions in which they were held were a great deal better in the private sector than they were in the public sector for a variety of reasons. I do not know if it would help if I went through them, but I think there were three very important principles which I believe actually have resonance for the public sector as well. The first is that every private sector prison is run on a contract and therefore the public sector is in a position to say precisely what is wanted in that prison. That does not happen in the public sector. Public sector prisons are not told precisely what is wanted of them, therefore it is very difficult to judge whether or not they are succeeding in their aim. What is their aim? This is also difficult to get at because it is not precisely laid down, but I would say the aim of the criminal justice system is to protect the public by preventing crime, and the prison service aim is very simple, it is to help prisoners to lead useful and law-abiding lives in prison and on release, keeping them secure and also treating them with humanity while doing so. In other words, it is all about re-offending. It is all about protecting the public by preventing re-offending. Therefore what I am looking at in prisons is the quality and the amount of work done with prisoners in order to challenge the offending behaviour which prompted them to commit the crime and also to put right any identified deficiencies (education, work skills, social skills, medical problems, substance abuse and so on) in order to help them to lead useful and law-abiding lives. When I was judging the private sector on that, on every count they came out better than the public sector. For example, written in the contract of the private sector prisons is the requirement to provide 30 hours purposeful activity per prisoner per week—and it was purposeful. The private sector, using its own initiative, was employing not only good education instructors but good workshops and good workshop instructors, on their own bat, going out into the market place and bringing people in who were teaching skills which might get jobs on release and so on in a way that the public sector was not doing. The contract is hugely important. One of my concerns is that I think the contract letting is one of the worst done bits of the whole operation: the contracts are too loose and therefore there is room for manoeuvre in them which there should not be. If they were tightened and made more precise then I think you would get an even better result. That is the first thing. The second thing is that built into all the machinery are sanctions. If the private sector do not meet the requirement laid down in the contract, then in fact sanctions are imposed on them. How is this done? The prison service have put into every private sector prison a contract compliance monitor. They call them "the controller". I thought originally it was "Comptroller", having a financial responsibility. It is not. It is controller because the prison service thought that if the director of the private sector prison failed, then the controller would take control and push him out—actually rather silly because the directors of public sector prisons are all people who have succeeded in governing and that is why they have been employed, whereas the controller tends to be an administrator and not really somebody who could run a prison. But that is a minor point. The fact is that there is a compliance monitor and sanctions are imposed. For example, I mention 30 hours' purposeful activity. If that is not achieved by the private sector, they risk being fined or losing part of their remuneration. If you look at the public sector—and only recently last month they published figures of the purposeful activity hours per prisoner—they were even down to 11 hours in Brixton and Belmarsh. No sanctions against them. And yet what about the aim? Is the aim really to protect the public by preventing crime? Is 11 hours really good enough for the public sector? I am all for the sanction element, for driving up performance. The third thing in the private sector is that, like the public sector, they are subject to both inspection by the inspector on a regular basis on exactly the same rules as the public sector—so it is a similar process, there is no difference—and in addition, like very other prison, they have a board of visitors who are their own self-appointed, if you like, watchdogs, who report to the Home Secretary every year in writing. So all the checks and balances are in there. Taken against that, when I looked at what they were actually doing and how they were doing it, it was actually a lot better than the public sector, not least in the way they treated prisoners. I reported accordingly to the Home Affairs Select Committee when they were doing a study of the private sector in 1996, saying, "If you are judging this on the outcomes, it is better." The Home Affairs Select Committee supported that in their report, and I think it was one of the factors that led Mr Straw to review some of the contracts for private sector prisons very soon after he took office, much to the surprise, I think, of people who had looked at it from the moral issue rather than the outcomes. I am sorry, that is rather a long answer, but I hope it is helpful.

  497. That is extremely helpful. That has set us off in the direction we want to go. I want in a second to ask Will Hutton to come in on this, but I want to be clear what we are saying. You are telling us that you came along as someone who had never given a thought to prisons, had never given a thought to whether the public sector or the private sector was better at doing this or that, and you discovered in coming to this public service that the private sector on the whole did better, for the reasons you have described. Again can I play back to you what Raymond Plant said to us. He had a very strong argument against the contract culture which you are celebrating now. His argument was that contracts only take you so far: they define an area of activity but they do not actually capture a sense of generalised public service. I think what is interesting about what you are saying is that in practice it produces a better outcome. We have had trade union leaders sitting here in recent weeks before us, telling us about what the public service ethos is: "Going the extra mile," they have called it. "Doing acts of kindness." All this kind of stuff. You are saying that really is baloney, are you not?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) No, what I am saying is that I believe the contract—because it is a document which actually specifies what is expected of the organisation and actually spells out, what it is that they are required to deliver, and it is then measured by independent outsiders such as the Chief Inspector or whoever, so it is subject to that—is in fact a very useful tool. I believe that in fact the prison service are applying it in the same sort of way. They do not call it a contract so much as a service level agreement between the Headquarters and the prison which lays down what is expected. I believe that if all the public sector prisons were directed in exactly the same way, with a very clearly laid down list of requirements on them, it would make the running of the prisons (a) easier and (b) better.

  498. There is no reason why the public sector could not operate in the way you suggest.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) None at all.

  499. Suitably reformed.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) And that was actually proved in Manchester Prison, which won a market test and then had to be run in this way. The performance in Manchester improved enormously and one of the fascinating things—and this is a sort of by the by—was that the Prison Officers Association, who could well have been expected to be totally opposed to this, were wholly involved in the contract. They felt they owned it because of course it was their performance that was going to determine whether or not the contract was renewed and therefore their jobs were secure.

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