Select Committee on Public Accounts Forty-Ninth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

1.  The Home Office and the Prison Service should promote greater co-operation and exchange of good practice between publicly and privately managed prisons. Prisoners held in PFI prisons feel that they are shown greater respect and are treated better than prisoners in public prisons. But the relative inexperience of staff in PFI prisons can compromise security through staff being conditioned by some prisoners to 'turn a blind eye'. Public prisons could import good practice on the treatment of prisoners from PFI prisons, and PFI prison staff could benefit from joint training on security issues with their more experienced counterparts in the public sector.

2.  The Home Office and Prison Service should expand staff exchanges during the next two years. The interchange of staff between privately managed and publicly managed prisons is a way to broaden perspectives and gain an appreciation of different working methods. Such interchanges have been encouraged at senior management levels but not at more junior grades, where day to day contact with prisoners is much greater.

3.  In awarding contracts or negotiating Service Level Agreements there should be as much emphasis on the sustained delivery of an acceptable service as there is on contract price. The Prison Service had to put in its own management team at Ashfield Young Offenders Institution for five months in 2002. There was a high level of staff turnover, and the contractor was unable to recruit staff to meet indicative staffing levels set out in the contract. Staffing levels at recent PFI prisons and two public sector prisons now managed under Service Level Agreements have also given cause for concern.

4.  The Prison Service should not shy away from terminating prison contracts. The contractor was in breach of contractual obligations at Ashfield, but the Prison Service chose not to terminate the contract. Although the contractor suffered substantial financial penalties, there were also knock-on costs to the public sector as young offenders had to be moved to other, already overcrowded, institutions.

5.  Some PFI prison Controllers have become too close to the contractor, whilst others have been over stringent and adversarial. PFI prisons are monitored on a day-to-day basis by Controllers, whose job it is to assess the prison's performance against the contract. There needs to be greater consistency in how Controllers approach their role, supported by improved training and clear career progression.

6.  The monitoring and recording of performance data is at present less reliable in the public sector than in the PFI sector. The Prison Service should examine the feasibility of introducing within the next year a performance data monitoring function, similar to the Controller function in PFI prisons, throughout publicly managed prisons. The cost of such an initiative could be reduced by making such monitors responsible for a number of prisons within a geographical area.

7.  The number of performance measures should be reduced and made more consistent between the public and private sectors. Public prisons have to report regularly on up to 48 Key Performance Targets and 61 Prison Service Standards and privately managed prisons have to report on a further 30 to 40 contract measures. Prisons, both publicly managed and privately managed, are overburdened with performance measures, making the monitoring of performance and prioritisation between targets difficult. The large number of measures does not lead to any better understanding of individual prison performance.

8.  There are inconsistencies between the performance measures and targets used for different prisons. For example, in areas such as purposeful activity for prisoners, PFI prisons are set higher targets than public prisons. The performance of some public prisons in providing purposeful activity for prisoners needs to improve significantly if they are to make progress in helping to reduce the rate of re-offending. Targets in public prisons should be brought in line with those used in the private sector.

The use of Service Level Agreements should be extended to all prisons found to be performing unsatisfactorily. Service Level Agreements specifying the standard of performance expected in return for a fixed budget have been used successfully to encourage better performance in public prisons that have been failing to meet required standards. However, at present, only four failing prisons have been identified for this approach. The development of the Weighted Scorecard ranking of prisons should make it simpler to identify prisons where intervention is needed.

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Prepared 2 December 2003