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House of Commons Hansard
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Prisons Competition
31 March 2011
Volume 526

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The House will be aware that in 2009 my predecessor announced a competition for the management of five prisons: Her Majesty’s prisons at Birmingham, Buckley Hall in Rochdale, Doncaster and Wellingborough, and the new prison, currently called Featherstone 2, near Wolverhampton, which is due to open in 2012. I am now able to announce the results of that competition process.

Let me remind the House that these prisons were selected by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for a variety of reasons. Birmingham and Wellingborough are currently managed by the public sector and were chosen after being identified by the National Offender Management Service as performing poorly. Buckley Hall and Doncaster are establishments that have been previously competed for and their contract is due for renewal. Buckley Hall is currently managed by the public sector and Doncaster is currently managed by Serco.

During the preparations for the bid it became apparent that competition could not produce improvements at HMP Wellingborough without significant capital investment to secure its long-term viability. In the current financial climate, this is clearly not a tenable proposition, so I took the decision to remove it from the competition process. HMP Wellingborough will continue to be managed by the public sector, and will need to deliver approximately 10% efficiency savings, in line with other public sector prisons, over the next four years.

I am now able to announce the results of the four remaining prison competitions. HMP Birmingham will be run by G4S plc. HMP Buckley Hall will be run by HM Prison Service. HMP Doncaster will be run by Serco Group plc. Featherstone 2 will be run by G4S plc. The new contracts will be effective from October 2011 for the prisons at Birmingham, Buckley Hall and Doncaster, and from April 2012 for Featherstone 2. I would like to put on record my thanks to all the bidders for contributing to what has been a challenging contest, which will secure significant quality improvements and savings at all the establishments involved.

The Government are committed to delivering reform in our public services. This process shows that competition can deliver innovation, efficiency and better value for money for the taxpayer, but also that it can do so without compromising standards. Before the bids were evaluated for anything else, they needed to demonstrate their fundamental ability to provide safe and secure custodial services. I can confirm that over the spending review period the new contracts will deliver savings of over £21 million for the three existing prisons. In the same period, the new Featherstone 2 prison will be delivered at £31 million less than the costs originally approved by the previous Government. Cumulative savings over the lifetime of the contracts for the three existing prisons are a very impressive £216 million.

But public protection is not just about how we manage prisons in order to punish people. It is also about how we achieve genuine and long-lasting reductions in crime by cutting reoffending. I am therefore particularly pleased to be able to announce that, for the first time, the contract award for HMP Doncaster will include an element of payment by results in reducing reoffending. Payment by results is central to our rehabilitation reform plans, because it means that we can concentrate on paying for what works to reduce reoffending. The current system funds services, but not outcomes. Providers of services face few consequences if what they offer does not succeed in cutting reoffending, and little reward if they do succeed in cutting reoffending. Payment by results looks to change this by rewarding performance against the outcomes specified in a contract. In the Green Paper I outlined plans to develop this policy further and commission at least six new pilots for payment by results. The contract for HMP Doncaster is an important first step towards fulfilling this commitment.

The new contract price for HMP Doncaster will in itself deliver significant annual savings. In addition, however, the introduction of payment by results means that 10% of the contract price will be payable only if the operator reduces the reconviction rates of offenders a year after they are discharged from the prison by five percentage points. If they achieve this, the contract will, of course, have significantly reduced crime, and for a cost of at least £1 million below what we currently pay. I regard this as a win-win approach. It translates to savings for the taxpayer, lower reoffending rates and a return for the service provider that improves their performance.

I know that Members on both sides of the House recognise the benefits of effective competition—at least I hope they still do. Today’s announcement shows it has a significant role to play in delivering value for money, better outcomes and broader reform. I encourage providers from any sector to rise to the challenge. The public are entitled to expect safety and security and better results to go hand in hand with efficiency and innovation. I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of today’s statement, and I welcome its tenor and how he delivered it. He will be aware that our policy was and is based on what works, rather than dogma. During our time in government, nine new private sector prisons were provided and three new establishments had been opened and run by the public sector, and I recognise that they have played a successful role in our prison system. It is right that we began the market testing that he is reporting on today.

I wish to ask the Justice Secretary a number of questions arising from his statement. First, he refers to the fact that during the bid preparations it became apparent that competition could not produce improvements at HMP Wellingborough without significant capital investment, so may I ask him what plans he has for such investment at Wellingborough prison? How much will be invested, and over what period? Does he understand the frustration of hard-working prison officers and other staff working in public sector prisons that need capital investment when they are compared with prison officers and other staff in newly built or refurbished private prisons? Can he confirm that the decisions on the Birmingham and Doncaster prisons are no reflection on the hard work of prison officers and staff there?

May I echo the Justice Secretary’s comments about the importance of delivering efficiency, innovation and better value for money for the taxpayer without compromising standards? Indeed, he has referred to the £216 million that will be saved as a consequence of this process, which was begun by the Labour Government. Does he therefore accept that the savings he is now championing are actually the fruits of the previous Government’s attempts to improve the efficiency of the Prison Service? Can he confirm that he will reinvest that money in the Prison Service?

The Justice Secretary’s announcement on payment by results is interesting and welcome. He will be aware that we began piloting payment by results in Peterborough, where we were trying to reduce reoffending. However, that is a pilot scheme and we recognised that lessons would need to be learnt before any full roll-out. What lessons have already been learnt from the yet to be completed Peterborough pilot? Can he confirm that Doncaster is a pilot and he will wait to see the results before the approach is rolled out further? His statement referred to the criteria for payment by results. He will be aware that 20% of offenders reoffend within three months of leaving prison and that 43% do so within a year, so will he explain further the criteria by which he will judge “if the operator reduces the reconviction rates of offenders a year after they are discharged from the prison by five percentage points”?

Finally, I wish to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman about the workers in the prisons that he listed. Staff at HMP Birmingham and HMP Doncaster will understandably be worried about their future in these uncertain times. Does he anticipate any redundancies as a result of his decision? Can he confirm to the House that public sector terms and conditions will be protected under Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations arrangements? In addition, he will doubtless have seen the newspaper reports of contingency planning by his Department to deal with any industrial action that might result from his announcement. We have read that troops have been put on alert. Will he confirm whether that is the case? May I ask what discussions he or his Prisons Minister have had with the Prison Officers Association and others who represent prison staff? Does he agree that it is crucial that he and/or his Prisons Minister should meet the appropriate representatives today and begin a dialogue to avoid the sort of speculation reported in the media from becoming a reality?

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because I was interested to see whether the Labour party was in the position that I thought it was going to be in, and I am reassured by what he said. As he said, putting competition into the system in order to ensure the best standards at the lowest cost to the taxpayer is a continuous policy, and things have moved on an awful long way since I was Home Secretary 20 years ago, when privately managed prisons were a highly controversial subject. We got the first one under way at Wolds, but under Blairism the policy was taken a whole lot further, with all the private finance initiative prisons. As I readily acknowledge, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) started this tendering process, which we have taken to what I believe to be this successful conclusion. It must be in the public interest and it must be right—I readily acknowledge what the right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) just said—that we leave aside stale ideology and dogma, and instead look at what works and what produces the right solutions for the public.

We have problems with the building at HMP Wellingborough. It is not a terribly old building—as I recall, it is largely a 1960s construction—but we are under notice that something has to be done about it and it cannot just carry on as it is. The building is not going to be adequate for very much longer. We are considering what to do about HMP Wellingborough. Its staff are responding very well to the problems that they face, but I hope to be able to come back soon to announce what will happen at Wellingborough.

The contract for Birmingham prison is now going to G4S. I acknowledge that the staff at Birmingham have made considerable efforts and that they put in a good public sector bid as part of the tendering process, but the fact is that that process is objective and the private sector bid was just better, and somewhat less costly. On the right hon. Gentleman’s later comments, the National Offender Management Service will, of course, have high regard to the interests of the staff at Birmingham. A new prison is opening not far away, which may offer some opportunities, but we will give all the appropriate support and hope to avoid an unnecessary number of redundancies.

Payment by results was indeed initiated at Peterborough by the previous Government, and we strongly support that worthwhile experiment. The only political claim that I would make is that I believe the previous Government responded to the policies suggested by the then Conservative Opposition in advocating payment by results. We suffered the fate that often happens to Opposition parties—I hope that this will happen to the right hon. Gentleman, too—of putting forward good ideas which then get stolen by the Ministers in power. However, at least we are at one on this policy.

The Doncaster scheme is another pilot. For the first time, the prison operator is entering into having a payment by results element in the contract; the operator will get extra reward if it succeeds, but it will share the risk with the Government, and will lose if it does not succeed. Five percentage points is what has been negotiated—a somewhat impenetrable figure. It means five percentage points down from the current percentage, so an 8.3% reduction from the current reoffending rate would be required for the operator to be paid.

It is indeed true that we have undertaken contingency planning in case we get the wrong sort of reaction to today’s announcement, although of course we very much hope that we shall not, because industrial action will be no more in the interests of prison officers than it is in the interests of anyone else. Contingency planning for disorder in prisons has always been done, as it has to be. It has been done for as long as I can remember, although I think the previous Government suspended it when they reintroduced the criminal law making it illegal to strike in prisons. They carried out an experiment when they lifted the legal ban, but they had a very bad strike in 2007, and put it back again. We have been bringing the contingency planning up to date, but we very much hope that that is a mere precaution. In the interests of public order, we have to ensure that we are prepared in case anything goes wrong in a major prison, but we very much hope not to have to put any of this into effect. We have had discussions with the Prison Officers Association and we are open to further such discussions, and we hope to be able to answer its legitimate queries in any way that we can.

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Order. I remind the House of the pressure on time and the consequent need for brevity.

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The Secretary of State’s announcement will be widely welcomed in Wellingborough. Is he aware that the POA there and the management worked tirelessly together, doing so against the national union policy, to come up with a bid that has driven down the cost to £19,000 per prisoner and has reduced the number of prison officers from 147 to 101? Could either the Secretary of State or a member of his team visit Wellingborough prison to see the improvements?

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I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the staff at Wellingborough, because they face a difficult situation, given the uncertainties caused by the unsuitable and deteriorating buildings in which they are operating. They certainly have succeeded, and my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister says that he can certainly take up the invitation to visit to see what they have achieved. I hope that the uncertainties will be resolved as soon as possible, but obviously it is difficult to find money for a large capital programme, which is what Wellingborough really needs.

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As the Prisons Minister at the time the decision was made to undertake the market testing, I can confirm that we not only undertook the market testing but encouraged public sector bids. Now that those public sector bids have failed in Birmingham, could the Justice Secretary tell the House what will happen to the assets of Birmingham and Doncaster prisons? What is the cost of the TUPE arrangements? Will it be borne by the private sector contractor? If there are redundancies, will it be the Ministry of Justice that bears them?

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The right hon. Gentleman was indeed involved in the competition process, so he cannot start protesting—however mildly—about the outcome. I assume that he contemplated that either the private or the public sector bids would win, and that is what has happened. The public sector has the contract at Buckley Hall and the private sector has the contract at Birmingham and the other prisons. Serco was already the contractor at Doncaster. To show how ideology is fading, the irony is that Buckley Hall, when it opened, was a private sector prison, but it has been in the public sector and this renewal of the contract has been won by the public sector again. The law on TUPE remains in place, but we are consulting on the wider implications on transfers of ownership from the public to the private sector. The outcome of this competition should be the kind of thing that the right hon. Gentleman was perfectly happy to contemplate when he was party to the decision in 2009.

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I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s decision to build reducing reoffending into the Doncaster contract, but will he assure us that he recognises that that will require the provider to work closely with a range of other organisations, and that they too increasingly need to be incentivised to reduce the reoffending that creates more victims of crime?

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My right hon. Friend is right. There are two major voluntary parties with which the provider at Doncaster proposes to be in contact, but their names escape me—one is called Catch22 and the other is something else—and there will be local voluntary and charity groups subcontracted below them. Serco will manage the prison and will be the principal contractor, but the delivery that it hopes to achieve will be effected by subcontractors. I have emphasised to those who have attended seminars on this subject that I hope that the operator will deal responsibly with the small local contractors. Serco is entitled to use its bargaining power when negotiating with the representatives of Government to get the best deal it can, but I hope that it will not overdo it when dealing with smaller voluntary and charitable bodies that are also entitled to expect to boost their funds if they deliver the results required.

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It is important to put on the record the fact that my constituents and staff at Buckley Hall prison in my constituency have been concerned about the process, but I am sure that they will appreciate the stability that should now be provided. The reason why I raise this matter is that, as the Secretary of State pointed out, there has been constant change at Buckley Hall prison, and I hope that this decision will provide some stability. May I have some assurance that the staff, who do an excellent job there, can now get on with that, and that there will be no redundancies at the prison?

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I think I can give the assurances that the hon. Gentleman requires. As far as I am aware, the public sector bid did not contemplate any redundancies; I do not have that information at my fingertips, but I would be surprised if it did. The provider has won a contract, and it is now up to it to deliver that contract on the basis on which it was won; the provider cannot now backslide from what was offered. I do not think that that is likely to happen, and fortunately, the staff at Buckley Hall now have some welcome stability for the period of the contract.

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I warmly welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s statement, and I know that he and his ministerial colleagues have been to Peterborough. May I add my voice to the calls to consider the social impact project at Peterborough with a view to extending it across the private prison estate? It could have an impact on prisoner education and in reducing recidivism.

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I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I was immensely encouraged by what I saw on my visit to Peterborough. I have discussed Peterborough widely elsewhere, and there was tremendous enthusiasm for the social impact bond that raised the ethical investment that has gone in to the project and for the determination to deliver it on the part of the St Giles Trust, which is the partner, the YMCA and the other people who are involved. We are finding this enthusiasm reflected elsewhere, and I hope—Peterborough being another private sector prison—that public sector prisons will get equally keenly involved. There are people in the public sector prison service who wish to contract on such a basis. I hope that payment by results will take off, and social impact bonds are one model for raising important capital to get them under way.

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I welcome the inclusion of reoffending rates in the Doncaster contract. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that Serco will not be allowed to cherry-pick which offenders it takes at Doncaster, so that it will be possible to make meaningful comparisons between that establishment and other institutions?

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I think I can. A cohort will be allocated rather than some carefully selected group, so a positive result will reflect some move in reoffending rates, with the consequent reduction in the number of further crimes and victims. I give credit to Serco, because when I went to Doncaster I broached the subject slightly tentatively there, because we were already in a competition process and Serco could just have proceeded perfectly ordinarily on the basis it had already agreed for the tenders with the previous Government. Yet Serco was positively enthusiastic, and I think it sees the pilot as a way of finding out whether it can enter into more such arrangements elsewhere in the criminal justice system.

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I too welcome the statement from my right hon. and learned Friend. Further to the previous question, in view of the fact that prisoners move around the prison estate, what proportion of a prisoner’s sentence must have been served at HMP Doncaster for that prisoner’s record to be taken into account in the statistics?

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I will consult those who negotiated the details of the contracts and write to my hon. Friend with an answer to that extremely pertinent question.

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The Secretary of State will be aware of the recent report on HMP Bronzefield, a privately run women’s prison. It found seven cases of self-harm per day, one woman who self-harmed 93 times in a month, and one woman who was kept in segregation for three years with very little human contact. Health care was shockingly poor, with no female GPs, and pharmacy services were tortuous and inconsistent. How on earth can it be for the public good to extend private sector prisons?

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Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons does extremely valuable work and over the years has exposed things that can be praised or strongly criticised in both public and private sector prisons. If we look back over the years, we see that no rule and no measure can be produced that shows that either sector is overwhelmingly likely to produce praise while the other is overwhelmingly likely to produce criticism. We must look at the inspectorate’s reports, take them seriously and ensure that where there are serious problems they are addressed. In my opinion—with respect—it is extremely out of date to say that what is wrong in such a case is the fact that the prison is private, whereas when another prison is criticised it somehow does not matter so much because it is public. The whole point of contracting and competition is that one specifies the quality one wants and the right price for the taxpayer, and then the inspectorate system ensures that real failings are addressed—and at the same time, we sometimes have penalties in the contract if providers fail to deliver.

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I enormously welcome the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend. Given the cross-party support for what he has just announced, what plans does he have to continue the excellent policy of the previous Administration in market testing across the entire prison estate? Will payment by results contracts be extended across other prisons? Finally, will he consider agglomerating PBR contracts in prisons with probation trusts?

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We are out to consultation at the moment on the Green Paper on sentencing in general and we floated in that the prospect, about which my hon. Friend rightly asks, of having a regular programme of competitive tendering throughout the prison system so that we can revisit quality and cost, in an organised way, gradually over the years. We have not finalised the form, but we will come back in due course once we have finished our consultations and responded, and we will answer his question about exactly what we want to do on that front. Probation trusts are equally involved, I hope, in the development of the payment by results policy. We are as anxious to see public sector bodies involved as private sector bodies. The best of the probation trusts seem to me, in my contact with them, to be quite enthusiastic about becoming involved in such a contracting process.

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The Secretary of State may consider that privatisation is no longer controversial within this House across certain parties, but it is deeply controversial among Prison Officers Association members. He should meet the POA as a matter of urgency, and should look well beyond TUPE for the protection of staff who are currently being made vulnerable by privatisation; otherwise I believe that there will be industrial conflict.

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I have every respect for the hon. Gentleman’s opinions, in which he has always been consistent. He has always been an articulate advocate, and I almost welcome him as a voice from the past. I realise that the POA is rather stuck in its traditional attitudes towards this kind of thing, but I really hope that it will reflect on what is almost a universal view in this House that we are moving on to a proper, fair, competitive basis for deciding how best to run prisons and at what cost, without being so obsessed about whether they are private sector or the public sector. Of course, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) and I will continue our close contact with the POA. We have had to have contingency plans in case anyone is so foolish as to start industrial action—but it is illegal to take industrial action. The sensible thing for people to do is to look at the tendering process and, if they are in the public sector, decide how their prisons can achieve a better score in future. They have won one this time, but it is up to them to put in the best bids as we develop the policy.

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I welcome the statement, and agree that there is consensus in the House about this. I see that three of the four contracts mentioned today are being awarded to the private sector. Could the Secretary of State please advise the House of the percentage of prisons in England and Wales that are currently run by the private sector?

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The answer is 11%, and that is one of the many things that surprised me when I started in this office. When I was Home Secretary we introduced the first private prison, HMP Wolds, which was regarded as a flaming political issue—we had crossed the Rubicon and it was a dramatic change. One way in which Britain has modernised is that we have inherited a lot of private finance initiative-financed private prisons, and now we have this open tendering between the two sectors across the country.

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To underline his claim that prisons are well run, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman remind the House of the precise number of prisons that are free of the use of illegal drugs?

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I would not like to guarantee that for any prison in the country. In far too many prisons drugs are, although more expensive, rather more readily available than in the outside world. That is a serious disgrace and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working very actively on our plans to begin with drug-free wings and then drug-free prisons. This issue has to be addressed, and people in the service are keen to do that. I hope to come back later this year—as soon as possible—with some announcement of progress on that front.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Can he confirm that armed forces personnel are being trained to be deployed to man prisons if the need arises?

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Yes, and there always used to be military contingency plans, because Governments must have contingency plans for all kinds of disasters. Unfortunately, if people are so unwise as to take industrial action in prisons, the situation can rapidly become far worse than in a normal strike because we start getting disorder among the prisoners. We have updated those contingency plans, and the military are indeed involved, but I should make it clear that no one is contemplating a military takeover of any prison. The Prison Service and prison governors would still be in charge. None the less, it is only prudent to make sure that we have the military preparedness that could, but almost certainly would not, be required. It has not been required in living memory, because one begins by using management staff and other teams that have been drafted in. Only in extremis would one start using the military for perimeter guarding and that kind of thing.

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Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), when the Secretary of State meets prison officers will he give them a guarantee regarding TUPE? He seemed a little vague at the beginning. Will he give an assurance that TUPE arrangements will apply not only in the present circumstances but in the whole period of this Parliament if there are any further changes?

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TUPE is part of the law of the country, but the hon. Gentleman probably knows that there is currently a consultation about TUPE-related agreements that have previously been in existence in relation to transfers from the public sector to the private sector. I am not anticipating the outcome of that consultation, which is why I gave the answer I did.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that localism is as important in the prison sector as anywhere else, and that there is a risk that if a very small number of very large conglomerates take over the running of all the private prisons, the voluntary sector, social enterprises and charities will be excluded from taking part in the exciting rehabilitation agenda that the Government are pursuing? How can he ensure that does not happen?

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I agree that localism is extremely important in this field, and I think it will be preserved because of the process whereby major contractors subcontract to voluntary and charitable groups. The relevant voluntary and charitable groups are different from place to place, and some of them are quite local. The people who set up the arrangements in Peterborough dealt with a collection of voluntary and charitable bodies quite different from those dealt with by the people who negotiated the contract at Doncaster, because local services and local ideas for tackling reoffending are different. I very much hope that, as the hon. Gentleman says, we shall keep that quality of local enthusiasm and commitment when we rope voluntary, charitable and third sector people into tackling reoffending.

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Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many contracts awarded to private sector contractors have been terminated due to poor performance?

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None has been terminated due to poor performance, as far as I am aware.

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I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware that not only Featherstone 2 but Featherstone and Brinsford are in my constituency. The latter two are excellent prisons because of the dedication and commitment of their prison staff. Can he assure me that the same levels of training and support offered to the prison officers at those two prisons will be offered to the staff at Featherstone 2?

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That is provided for in the contract and I very much hope it will be the case. Like my hon. Friend, I have great optimism about the future of Featherstone 2. It is very good that we have that kind of investment coming on stream so that we can help to modernise the service in all possible ways. The proper training and support of staff is a key part of delivering the contract properly.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State on his statement, and I particularly welcome the savings to the taxpayer. Some would have argued in the past that they would lead to a lower- quality service, so can he tell us whether Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons has shown any differences in recent reports between the quality of private sector and public sector prisons?

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As I have said, I do not think it is possible to draw general conclusions such as “private sector good, public sector bad”—or vice versa—in any area. The regime at the best private prisons is very good and is hard to match in the public sector, and the savings are very considerable and useful. Sections of the media are enjoying themselves by constantly accusing me of letting people out of prison, but as far as I am aware I have not let anyone out of prison. I rather prefer cutting the costs of running prisons to letting prisoners out, and we are cutting costs in an extremely sensible way that should raise quality and performance in the Prison Service.

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I strongly welcome the awarding of two of the prison contracts to Crawley-based G4S. Can the Secretary of State say how long the contracts are for, and what reviews of performance will take place throughout the contract and over which periods?

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G4S has done very well in this particular round. It had some strong competitors, which will no doubt come back in future rounds when we arrange them. The contracts are for 14 years, but are reviewable after seven years so that performance can be checked at that stage. I wish G4S well in delivering the very strong bids that it put in.

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I thank the Secretary of State and colleagues for their co-operation.