Prison Governance Contents


The prison system in England and Wales is enduring a crisis of safety and decency. Violence and self-harm are at record highs and there is little sign of improvement. This report looks at the extent to which the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison Probation Service (HMPPS) have a plan in place to drive long-term, positive change. It considers investment in leadership, particularly in the role of the governor, as well as the oversight structures in place to drive progress.

The Government recently set out a series of investment announcements for prisons. It committed £2.5 billion to building an additional 10,000 places, as well as £100 million to improve security. This investment is welcome, but must form part of a long-term, multi-year strategy, underpinned by a sustainable funding settlement. Too often we have seen what might be called “policy by press notice” without a clear vision for the future of the prison system. While new prison places are welcome, they do nothing to improve the condition of the current prison estate, much of which is in an appalling state of disrepair. There must also be a dual focus on improving safety and rehabilitative initiatives. We do not believe prisons will become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners.

We broadly welcome the greater autonomy prison governors have had since 2016, but it is not clear what governors are accountable for. Any real devolution of responsibility to governors must be accompanied by necessary training and support, and we believe that more can be done in that respect. Ensuring a strong pipeline for recruitment of future governors is important to securing effective leadership across the prison estate.

We are concerned about the condition of prisons, particularly a backlog of maintenance work currently estimated at £900 million, beyond routine day-to-day maintenance. Current arrangements for facilities management do not work, and we call for greater autonomy for governors to authorise and action some types of maintenance: initiatives, such as Q-Branch at HMP Leeds, where a team of staff and prisoners carries out minor maintenance work around the prison. We encourage the Secretary of State to look seriously at rolling out similar initiatives across the whole estate. We are also alarmed about how long it can take to get equipment, such as body scanners, into prisons and call on the Ministry to review its procurement processes to make them more efficient.

Oversight structures for health and education services in prisons are complex, and there is a need for strong partnership working between governors and partner organisations. We broadly welcome recent change in education provision that gives governors more involvement in commissioning services, but heard strong criticism of the Dynamic Purchasing System. We call for full evaluation of the roll-out of that system, as well as additional training and support for both prison staff and education providers to let them use it effectively.

Measures by which the Ministry assesses prison performance are heavily skewed towards safety and security, and we welcome the Ministry’s commitment to additional measures on purposeful activity and time spent out of cells. However, there needs to be a whole-prison approach to measuring prison performance, including measures relating to health and education provision.

We have also considered the support the Ministry and HMPPS provides to poorly performing prisons. Too often, prisons have been identified as needing extra support, but their performance has subsequently continued to decline. In the case of HMP Bristol, the Chief Inspector of Prisons invoked the urgent notification protocol following continued poor performance. There is little point in identifying poor performance and making recommendations to improve it if those recommendations are not adopted and the necessary support and resources to drive improvement not provided. We welcome the Ministry’s review of special measures for prisons and call for additional support to be made available.

Published: 31 October 2019