1.The Prison Service has been operating hand to mouth, by reacting to immediate crises rather than developing a long-term strategy for the prison estate. As an unprotected department, the Ministry has been subject to budget cuts over the past 10 years, and the settlement it agreed as part of the 2015 Spending Review was insufficient to meet its needs. As a result, it has needed to prop up funding for day-to-day operations by reallocating money from its capital budget, exacerbating the backlog of maintenance issues. The condition of the prison estate has deteriorated markedly. There is now a £900 million major maintenance backlog. 500 prison places are taken permanently out of use each year due to poor conditions. A lack of available funding also meant that the Prison Estate Transformation Programme fell badly behind schedule, with just 206 prison places delivered so far. The Ministry expects that additional funding of £156 million in 2020–21 and new prisons opening will help stabilise the situation, but this will not be enough to meet its longer-term liabilities for ongoing maintenance of £194 million each year over the next 25 years. The Ministry and HMPPS have been slow to develop a strategy for the prison estate and we are not convinced by their assurance that they now have the ingredients for a long-term strategy to come together in time for the next Spending Review.
Recommendation: The Ministry should write to the Committee within three months of the 2020 Spending Review setting out a comprehensive long-term strategy for the prison estate. This should encompass the existing prison estate as well as forthcoming new builds and include:
2.We are disappointed that the Ministry places inadequate importance on the living conditions of female prisoners. Twelve of the 117 prisons in England & Wales hold female offenders, none of which are in Wales. Despite women making up 5% of the prison population, the Ministry was unable to answer basic questions about the female prison estate or demonstrate that conditions in these prisons are adequate for the needs and safety of prisoners. The Ministry has not prioritised investing in the female prison estate, meaning women continue to serve their sentences in locations far from home. HMP Holloway, a women’s prison with a track-record of high-quality prisoner care and services, was sold in March 2019. But the £81.5 million raised was used to fund the Prison Estate Transformation Programme, which was focused on improving the male estate, and to ease pressures elsewhere, rather than being re-invested in the female prison estate. The Ministry’s strategy for female offenders focuses on community centres. It is unable to show how it ensures that its female prisons get proper investment and meet the needs of female offenders. The prison environment, including the condition of buildings and facilities, plays an important role in how prisoners behave. We are deeply concerned that women’s prisons have by far the highest levels of self-harm across the prison estate. Proper investment in the female estate is necessary to ensure female offenders do not become further marginalised. The Ministry has promised a greater focus on investing in women’s prisons and community provision for women as part of its long-term strategy.
Recommendation: The Ministry should write to the Committee within three months explaining how it plans to improve conditions in women’s prisons.
3.In 2015, the Ministry failed to protect taxpayers’ interests through its naïve approach to the outsourcing of facilities management services. The Ministry admits that its approach prioritised delivering at speed and achieving predicted £79 million in cost savings at the expense of the quality of the service provided. It outsourced a complex service without fully understanding what it was contracting out, the condition of the assets in the prison estate or the services required, and without properly testing its assumptions. Demand for reactive maintenance work as a result of poor-quality assets or vandalism has cost the taxpayer almost £143 million more than expected. In attempting to outsource a problem rather than first understand and address it, the Ministry has repeated many of the mistakes that we observed in its Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Five years after the contracts were first let, the Ministry still does not fully understand the condition of the assets within the prison estate. We have seen across government that once a fundamental mistake is made, it can take years to unpick. The Ministry’s contract with Carillion went badly wrong, but it asserts that the terms of the contract it agreed meant it was too expensive for the Department to exit early. The consequences of its poor handling of outsourcing facilities management services could be felt for many years to come. The Ministry must learn lessons from its failed approach and get a better grip on its assets and providers.
Recommendation: On completion of its asset survey across prisons, the Ministry should write to the Committee explaining how it:
4.We are not convinced that the Ministry’s plans to create more capacity will allow it to match the expected increase in the prison population whilst keeping prisoners safe under its care. Rising demand for prison places, places being taken out of use and delays in building new prisons have put significant pressure on the capacity of the prison estate. Almost two-thirds of adult prisons in England and Wales are already crowded, with the top ten most crowded prisons running at 147% or higher than their intended capacity. Demand for prison places could outstrip supply by 2022–23. A lack of capacity within some types of prison means that many prisoners already live in unnecessarily stringent security conditions while others live in low-security environments relative to their higher risks. Current demand for prison places has slowed as a result of the cancellation of jury trails during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a backlog of over 524,000 cases that will eventually flow through into the prison system. Both the Ministry and HMPSS expect demand for prison places to increase as the courts and the Crown Prosecution Service return to full capacity. HMPPS needs headroom in the prison estate to deliver its reconfiguration project, undertake essential maintenance and deal with potential further waves of COVID-19. It has so far averted major loss of life from the COVID-19 pandemic thanks in part to the heroic efforts of prison staff. It will need robust plans to manage further waves of the virus and the impact on staff and prisoners.
Recommendation: The Ministry should write to us in six months to explain how its plans to create the right type of capacity within the prison estate will be resilient to rising demand and further potential shocks from Covid-19, and create sufficient headroom to allow it to address the maintenance backlog. It should set out:
5.The Ministry’s efforts to reduce the £18.1 billion cost of reoffending are being put at risk by the absence of a cross-government strategy. Reoffending has a substantial cost to the economy, in addition to its considerable impact on the emotional wellbeing of victims and wider society. The Ministry recognises that the best way to tackle crime is to reduce reoffending, and that this must involve Departments across government. HMPPS has recently appointed a Director responsible for reducing reoffending and is working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to reduce reoffending through initiatives such as the Prison Leavers Project and the Through the Gate programme. Despite our recommendations in May 2019, there is still no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending. The way offenders are treated on their release from prison has a significant impact on how they re-integrate into society. Sustained progress in reducing reoffending relies on providing the support offenders desperately need on leaving prison, including securing stable accommodation. While the Ministry and HMPPS assure us that they have carefully sought to secure stable accommodation for those who have left prison during the pandemic, we are concerned by cases of prisoners being released without settled accommodation.
Recommendation: As we have previously recommended, the Ministry should publish a cross-government reducing reoffending strategy within three months. This should:
6.The Ministry is still reeling from the long-term consequences of its unrealistic 2015 Spending Review settlement, and bears the financial and human cost of sustained underinvestment. The Ministry admits that its 2015 Spending Review settlement was over-optimistic and fundamentally unbalanced. It over-estimated how much income it would receive and overestimated the level of savings it could make in areas such as Legal Aid. This has created an insecure financial footing for the Department over the past five years, resulting in it repeatedly going cap-in-hand to HM Treasury to ask for additional funds or having to use funds from elsewhere. Prisoners and prison staff have been forced to bear the human cost of the maintenance backlogs, lack of capacity and poor-quality services that have been created as a result. Prisoner assaults on staff have increased by 100% between 2015–2019, with one assault now taking place every hour. There were also over 50,000 incidents of self-harm in 2018; the Ministry is right to be worried by these numbers. Despite this position, the Ministry asserts it is confident that it has the necessary support from HM Treasury to deliver a safer and more sustainable prison estate.
Recommendation: The Ministry should write to the Committee within three months setting out how it has incorporated lessons from the 2015 Spending Review in its preparations for the 2020 Spending Review. This should include demonstrating that it has robust contingency plans should it fail to secure the funding commitments it hopes for.
Published: 11 September 2020