Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)|
RT HON JACK STRAW MP
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 summerI was very glad he
did sohe 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
timedoctors, nurses, teachers and police officerswe
tend to miss off prison and probation officers. I think that is
wrong. It is certainly incumbent on meI invite members
of the Committee and others to follow this leadto 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
POAobviously, it had been grating on it for some timewas
the manner in which members of the pay review body were appointed.
It transpiredI did not know itthat 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 visitedI have been to five or six since I started
this jobis how much less smoking there is than there used
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
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
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
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
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
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 sumscertainly £234 million is not a modest
amountand 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
Mr Straw: I was looking at both.
I think we all face problemsyou may be an exceptionwhereby
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 changeI have every interest
in doing thatand 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.