Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Committee Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)


9 OCTOBER 2008

  Q80  Mr Tyrie: Can you come back to us with that figure so we can see variations as between the different types of regimes in prisons?

  Mr Straw: Yes, but the answer is that it is extremely high. That is understandable because these are closed institutions with a strong internal culture.

  Q81  Chairman: When the Minister for Prisons came to my constituency and visited a prison and a young offender institution during the summer—I was very glad he did so—he got a pretty clear message about the extent to which prison officers felt undervalued. Whatever you say about the tactics employed by the Prison Officers Association, the willingness of members to become involved in those tactics reflects to some degree that sense of being undervalued. In addition to the issue of pay, they gave the interesting example of the way in which this House passed a law saying that people should not be subject to smoke in the workplace and yet they are required to be every day of the week because smoking is allowed in cells, even in groups of cells between which prisoners can move where prison officers must go. They provided yet another example of ways in which prison officers do not appear to be treated with the respect that other workers get, let alone recognition of the real difficulties of the work they do.

  Mr Straw: I accept that we have to raise the esteem of prison officers. When I have spoken to them they reasonably make the point that when there is a list of valued public servants which all of us consider from time to time—doctors, nurses, teachers and police officers—we tend to miss off prison and probation officers. I think that is wrong. It is certainly incumbent on me—I invite members of the Committee and others to follow this lead—to make that correction, as I did in my speech at the party conference. These things are important. It does not involve money; it is about esteem. It is harder to celebrate what prison officers are doing precisely because they are in closed institutions. It is very different from, say, talking about the work of doctors, nurses or even police officers, but nonetheless it needs to be done. I have also said to the POA that it has a responsibility to its own members in respect of their reputation. I was very clear on the day of industrial action, 29 August, and subsequently that prison officers would get themselves in an entirely false position if as officers of the law they were to enforce the order of the law and then break the law and place themselves on the wrong side of it. They cannot have it both ways. That is the difficulty. I accept what you say. I also think that there are niggling things in the rather antiquated system of industrial relations which we need to sort out, but that requires a willingness on both sides to change practices. From my point of view, we are certainly willing and ready to change practices. One of the issues raised by the POA—obviously, it had been grating on it for some time—was the manner in which members of the pay review body were appointed. It transpired—I did not know it—that in practice the appointment board for new members of the pay review body was chaired by the personnel director of the Prison Service. If this is an independent body obviously that is not quite appropriate. We stopped that. That is one example. I am very alive to this. At the risk of being criticised by Mr Tyrie for a long answer, what is much more difficult to deal with is their concern about pay. The POA says that morale is low because of pay, which is one argument. If you read the reports of the pay review body they point out that, first, morale as measured by the board's evidence is significantly higher and that people seem to like doing these jobs. Second, whatever their subjective feelings, they certainly stay in the job for a very long time. There is a 2% wastage rate among the uniformed grades in the Prison Service; it is one of the lowest in the public sector. Further, 50% of prison officers are at the top of their incremental scale. Over the past 10 years we have compressed incremental scales from 14 to six years which means that new entrants have benefited by going up the scale much more quickly. It is also the opinion of the pay review body, which I know the POA finds incendiary but is nonetheless a clear conclusion reached that body, that the overall emoluments available to prison officers in public sector prisons are, according to whether or not account is taken of pensions, between 40% and 60% higher than would be available to equivalent occupations in the private sector. I am sure that those factors are taken into account by prison officers when deciding whether or not to move outside the service. They are also ones which make it very difficult to argue that there is a real shortage and therefore the market rate must be raised because there is no evidence of that. That is part of the difficulty that we face.

  Q82  Chairman: You did not mention the issue of smoking.

  Mr Straw: I did not. I think the director general was entirely right to argue that we had to allow smoking in prisons. The striking thing about the prisons that I have visited—I have been to five or six since I started this job—is how much less smoking there is than there used to be.

  Q83  Chairman: We are still dealing with what is not considered acceptable in any other occupation, that is, exposing people to the health risk of working in smoke?

  Mr Straw: But if one were a smoker one would be allowed to smoke at home. Prisoners may have done wrong, but given the stress on prisoners not to allow them to smoke in their cells or in some circulation areas would be very unreasonable and would impose on the Prison Service major control problems. I know it is a problem but I think it can be handled. Interestingly enough, this matter has not been raised with me either nationally by the POA or at any prison that I have been to where I have met the POA, including two prisons that I visited on Friday. It may mean that some of the prison officers are themselves secret smokers. Who knows?

  Q84  Chairman: Being a secret smoker does not bar you from the protection that this House decided to give to people from working in that environment.

  Mr Straw: I think that we and prison officers would have much worse problems.

  Q85  David Howarth: I want to turn to the organisation of the department and the future of NOMS about which there has been some media interest. You were kind enough to write to the Chairman about the department's review. You say in your letter that work on the review is not yet complete and you are unable to provide us with conclusions now. When would you be able to provide us with conclusions, and can we ask some questions about general principles, if not specific conclusions?

  Mr Straw: I cannot give you an exact date because the work continues. Frankly, that work has not been helped by speculation in the press which I think arose because some interim conclusions went to the trade unions. They may have seeped out in that way or in other ways. The reason for the review is the government change in machinery announced on 9 May, that is, the establishment of the Ministry of Justice. The largest chunk of the Home Office where staff are directly employed, namely the Prison Service along with the Probation Service and what we call NOMS, went into the Ministry of Justice. That chunk of work has its systems, HR processes, IT systems and finance systems. It was a big challenge to fit those alongside the already existing systems inside what was then the Department for Constitutional Affairs and ensure that we got some savings out of it as well. That was one matter. The department is pretty operational because it has been responsible for the Courts Service, Legal Aid, tribunals and so on, but it is now very much a key delivery department as well as a department that deals with big constitutional issues. I suspect that even if there had not been a machinery of government change the Home Secretary might have done this and it was worth taking a rain check on where NOMS was. Intensive consideration is now being given to the precise structure. You can cut these things a number of ways. As far as concerns NOMS, I have made clear publicly that it will not be abolished. The National Offending Management Service makes sense and it will continue. There may well be some internal changes within NOMS and if so in the balance of functions between NOMS qua NOMS and the Prison Service, but that remains to be seen. The idea of having an overarching, end-to-end manager for offenders is a very important one for which I claim some credit in terms of getting its initial stages through the Probation Service up to 10 years ago and the commissioning of many of these services so that use can be made of the private sector. That is also important.

  Q86  David Howarth: I want to ask about the word "commissioning" because this gets to the heart of what the organisational differences may be. On the one side there is a commissioner/provider-type model and on the other side there is a more traditional civil service policy as against delivery, or brains against hands. I just wonder whether the internal organisation debate you are talking about is between those two models or whether you have come to some kind of conclusion on them?

  Mr Straw: That is one of the issues. You need the policy capacity if you are dealing with corrections, to use a very good American term, and offender management. That needs to be available to officials and Ministers, but the policy capacity also needs to be rooted in experience, because if you have people who come up with sentencing schemes or changes in regime which have not been thought through very well you can end up with problems. That is one set of considerations. The other is something that started under the previous administration, about which I was very sceptical at the time but which I have come to accept and regard as the central part of the framework. There must be a mixed economy in terms of delivery of corrections for the reason that I do not want to see a significant private sector, but let me give you one example that I think people will understand. These are closed institutions and you need a process to challenge their costs and get to costs in an objective way, but sometimes it is perhaps also about the attitude and behaviour of staff. To take Wormwood Scrubs in the late 1990s and the early part of this century, that prison was very difficult to handle. A series of allegations was made about overt racism on the part of prison officers towards inmates. In the end, one of the ways in which I and my successors were able to break it was literally by threatening that if changes did not occur we would close the prison and contract it out. The POA might not like contracting out, but I like racism in prison much less. That is a good example of having that possibility available to you. For example, these days a local authority can close down a school; it may even contract out the operation of the school to an adjoining local authority. Obviously, we do not have that opportunity in the Prison Service, but you must have some way to introduce into the system an element of competitiveness in terms of regimes as well as costs. That is why you need commissioning. The same is true of probation. There is great debate about the proportion and who should make the decisions on offender management, but it does not follow that the private or charitable sector has no role in the delivery of probation. There are plenty of examples where both do very well and the Probation Service can be a supervisor. Equally, there are plenty of examples where public service deliverers do well.

  Q87  David Howarth: Are you rejecting the policy implementation split on the grounds that policy without experience of implementation rather hobbles it?

  Mr Straw: I do not pre-empt the result of this review. I take an extraordinarily close interest in it which is rather different. There are two issues here. One is: what is the wiring diagram, if you like? Which bobs are in which bits? The second is: what experience and skills do you require people to have for example to do policy? You could end up with serious problems if the whole of the policy people were inside the Prison Service and they did not know anything about operating prisons. Indeed, the provenance of the previous administration turning the Prison Service into an agency and starting good, high-level career development for Prison Service staff was that too often people running the service at a senior level were senior civil servants who were parachuted into the Prison Service for a bit without knowing much about what was going on and then left. The same was true of IND. What we have tried to do is professionalise operations but also ensure that there is a greater mix of policy and operational people.

  Q88  David Howarth: You mentioned savings. What assessment has been made of the costs and benefits of the NOMS layer?

  Mr Straw: I can let you have figures. Not everything is part of the commission of Lord Carter, but he may have something to say about the organisation of NOMS. By the way, that was another reason why I thought it right to delay making decisions about the headquarters organisation until Lord Carter had reported.

  Q89  David Howarth: On the savings side, I should like to ask about the IT system, C-NOMIS, which looks like one of the normal disasters of IT procurement. What are the present estimates of the costs of that, because again it started at about £230 million and there have been some leaks, possibly also from the unions, indicating that the estimates are now nearing £1 billion.

  Mr Straw: The estimates are not £1 billion.

  Q90  Chairman: Look over your shoulder!

  Mr Straw: I have been cross-examining the gentleman to my left diagonally about this matter. I can tell you that the original business case for the system was based on a lifetime cost to March 2020 of £234 million. To the end of July of this year £155 million had been spent on the development of C-NOMIS. Therefore, 85% has been paid to contractors, suppliers and consultants, with the remainder spread across in-house civil service expenditure. Therefore, subject to receiving a note to tell me I have misled the Committee, the total cost is nothing like £1 billion. A series of meetings is taking place at the moment. It was put on hold when it became obvious that if that did not happen costs would get out of hand. Meanwhile, I am assured that it is operating properly live, not as a pilot, in three prisons, and the director general wants it rolled out as quickly as possible.

  Q91  David Howarth: But it cost £69 million in those three prisons?

  Mr Straw: It cost £6.5 million. We are vigorously pursuing work to firm up and ideally to reduce the costs, looking at a lifetime cost before depreciation and cost of capital in the range of £450 million to £500 million.

  Q92  David Howarth: That is still quite a lot more than the initial estimate, but the cost has only doubled rather than quadrupled?

  Mr Straw: It is a lot more and it is a matter of constant frustration that IT schemes start at affordable sums—certainly £234 million is not a modest amount—and then for a variety of reasons get out of hand. Various measures have been put in place over the past 10 years to improve the control of IT schemes, including the gateway reviews of the Office of Government Commerce. They are working up to a point, but to me the main frustration is that in all the departments that I have worked in so many of these schemes end up over budget and over time and are not quite up to spec. I and David Hanson are taking a very close interest in this.

  Q93  David Howarth: What are the options now? Is there an option to have a very much reduced system or just to abandon the whole thing?

  Mr Straw: There is always the option to abandon things. I did that in the Foreign Office with much complaint that the world might end. What happened was that we saved a lot of money and no one ever noticed the fact that that scheme did not exist. That was a learning process. I do not believe that abandonment of the process is a sensible option. I believe that the best bet is to modify it, make it operational across the Prison Service and then try to deal with the glitches so it can operate across the Probation Service as well. In defence of those involved, it is true that most IT systems end up being slightly over-budget and over-time because they are complicated, but in time they settle down. Nonetheless, it is very frustrating that so many people, including the private sector, are taken in by snake oil salesmen from IT contractor who are not necessarily very competent and make a lot of money out of these things. I am pretty intolerant of this.

  Q94  Mr Tyrie: Do you suggest that the public sector has been taken in by snake oil salesmen?

  Mr Straw: I am saying that we are all taken in. There are plenty of disastrous IT examples in the private sector, BP and Sainsbury being two of them.

  Q95  Mr Tyrie: I was looking at the public sector.

  Mr Straw: I was looking at both. I think we all face problems—you may be an exception—whereby unless we are total IT experts there is a danger of being taken in by snake oil salesmen.

  Q96  David Howarth: It is often the problem that the in-house team is not expert enough to judge what is being said to them and that is how these things go wrong.

  Mr Straw: It is a real problem and it is one that is inherent in IT; it is not just a problem for the public sector. The difficulty is that in the case of the public sector it is taxpayers' money, not shareholders' or customers' money, and the mistakes are much more visible, but plenty of companies in the private sector have similar problems.

  Q97  Chairman: Yesterday the Government was accused of introducing 32 Criminal Justice Bills. It asked for further offences to be taken into consideration because the number was greater than that. When Sir Igor Judge gave evidence to us he described the practical difficulties faced by practitioners in the courts because of the frequency of legislative change and its complexity, which extended to bits of legislation not being implemented and then repealed in subsequent measures, for example the custody-plus provisions and the restrictions on magistrates committing people to the Crown Court for sentencing under schedule 3 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Some of those provisions get a lot of publicity when they are enacted and a number of measures are to be repealed by the Bill that is before the House before they have even been brought into force. It is a pretty complex situation facing practitioners in the courts.

  Mr Straw: It is, and I have talked to the judges about it. That was why at the beginning of my speech I tried to deal with it. It is perhaps a trivial point that the rate of Bills has been a bit lower in the past 10 years than in the preceding 10 years. The reason for the variation in numbers, whether it is 34 which the Conservative Opposition claims or 39 as I volunteered when Mr Herbert made his speech, depends in part on what is defined as a criminal justice Bill, because the Home Office used to cover a much wider area. It is however about that number. Yesterday I accepted the concern of practitioners that we needed to slow down the rate of change—I have every interest in doing that—and have a period of consolidation. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that as the world changes the law must change as well. The difference is that many other public services have to respond to change but they can do it administratively. In the education and health services and the Department for Work and Pensions a huge number of changes is made each year but they are done by regulation, not primary legislation. Plainly, it would be inappropriate in the field of criminal law for changes that we are making to be carried out by regulation. I cannot create a new criminal offence and issue a statutory instrument.

  Q98  Chairman: It has the same effect.

  Mr Straw: It has the same effect but I think it would be wrong. We could create criminal offences by statutory instrument but I think it would be wholly improper. If the Committee takes a different view I shall think about it.

  Q99  Chairman: We do not.

  Mr Straw: When one is dealing with the liberty of the subject one must have most of the detail in primary legislation, including process since that considerably affects substantive results. That is why one will have more legislation in this field. At the risk of repetition, one has intense concern about extreme pornographic material that is now available on the internet. Ten years ago it was not an issue because the internet was in its infancy; now it is. There was real concern on the part of the mother of a victim of crime because she believed that the murder had been occasioned by the availability to the murderer of such material. There was a campaign supported on both sides of the House. It is quite important that Parliament as well as Ministers should be seen to respond to that. Another example is closure orders. Closure orders have been available at least for crack houses and they have worked. One then has the Scottish Parliament introducing a wider measure so that any premises, including private rented and owner occupied residential premises, can be closed if there is a persistent nuisance emanating from them and the people will not stop. People have been looking at this, particularly local authorities. I have been calling for the equivalent of that to deal with situations in my own constituency, because local authorities and the police can deal quite effectively with problems arising from houses where the occupiers are social landlord tenants. It is much more difficult in the case of private tenants or owner occupiers. There is then a consensus to have closure orders available for any premises, not just crack houses.

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