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Justice Committee

Volume 624: debated on Thursday 20 April 2017

Select Committee Statement

We now come to the second Select Committee statement. In a moment I shall call the Chair of the Justice Committee, Mr Robert Neill, who will speak on his subject for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of his statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement, and to do so briefly. I will then call Mr Neill to respond briefly to those questions in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. I reiterate that interventions should be questions, and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

I call the Chair of the Justice Committee, Mr Robert Neill.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to present the Committee’s 12th report of the 2016-17 Session, and thank you, Mr Speaker, for your kindness in calling me, and the courtesy you show to me as Chair of the Committee on all the occasions I inflict my words on the House.

It has been a pleasure to work with Committee colleagues on this report and a number of other ones. Like the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we propose to issue a set of reports at the end as a wash-up to highlight the work we have been doing in a number of areas. This report touches in particular on a key issue in relation to the Government’s prison reform programme: governor empowerment.

It has become apparent from the Leader of the House’s statement that the Prisons and Courts Bill will be lost in the Dissolution of Parliament. I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), is on the Treasury Bench, and I hope that if our party is returned to office that Bill will be reintroduced as a matter of priority in the next Parliament, as I and most of our Committee believe that it sets out broadly the right agenda, and I hope we will be able to take that forward. But of course part of the reform programme does not require legislation; it is partly about a change of culture and also a change of regulations. Much can be done without that primary legislation, so I hope the Government will confirm that they are determined to press ahead.

In this report, we support the idea that prison governors should have greater autonomy and flexibility to shape the services provided in their prisons. We support that in principle, but also draw out areas where further information is needed and risks that need to be recognised honestly and then managed and mitigated. This report is the first that we publish under what is proposed to be a wide-ranging prison reform inquiry looking at a number of such areas both in development and implementation.

This is a difficult period for our prisons, with high levels of suicide and self-harm, and with drug use and assaults on both prisoners and staff continuing to increase despite the best efforts of Ministers and dedicated prison officers at all levels. This remains an intractable problem, and we need to deal with it.

We have not addressed safety issues specifically in this report, although we did do so in the report on prison safety published last May. What we note is this: the principle of autonomy gives real opportunities, but there is as yet no clear evidence that greater autonomy itself will lead to better outcomes for prisoners. The Government have made a start on the six reform prisons, and we heard impressive evidence from governors and deputy governors of those reform prisons. But those reform prisons—which are pilots, in effect—will not be evaluated until after the reforms have been rolled out across the prison estate. We think it is important that we have reassurance from Government that there is an ongoing evaluation of the process as it is taken forward and there is enough flexibility built in to learn lessons and to make adjustments as necessary.

We also discussed structural changes to the governance of prisons. The new Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, established this month, will be responsible for the operational management of prisons, with the Ministry of Justice covering prisons commissioning and policy. We need more clarity on this, because policy and operations are not as easily separated in practice in the prison context as might appear to be the case in theory: policy decisions have significant implications for operations, and operational knowledge should inform policy decisions. One of the concerns sometimes expressed to us was a feeling among operational staff that there is a disconnect between their experience on the ground and the decisions taken by senior management at the centre. The reform programme gives an opportunity to rectify that, but it must be recognised that there is a problem there to be addressed.

Governors will get more freedom to decide how to run their prisons, and will be held to account for their performance. They will take on new responsibilities in phases, starting at the beginning of this month. As we will not be sitting in this House for some time, it is important that when a new Parliament is returned the Government give a swift update on progress made.

Most of the witnesses who gave evidence thought that giving governors greater power to make decisions would result in prison regimes and services that were better tailored to the prison population. However, we also heard evidence that many governors do not necessarily have the skills to perform their new functions. It is important that we have greater clarity as to how they will be supported, whether they will have access to training to develop these skills, and how that will cascade down through the rest of their management teams.

The reform prison governors who gave evidence to the Committee were very positive about the opportunities of their new freedoms and accountabilities. We were struck in particular by the evidence of Mr Nigel Hirst, governor of HMP Ranby, who said that he had worked with external organisations to develop new initiatives to improve prisoner-staff relationships, and several of the governors said they had recruited in more flexible ways. This could help with the well documented problems of recruitment and retention of experienced staff we heard about. That was starkly brought home to us, particularly in respect of London and the south-east, when we visited HMP Wormwood Scrubs. It is hard for prisons to recruit people when they are in competition with jobs such as loading luggage at Heathrow which pay more. Greater flexibility in the way in which we reward and remunerate our prison staff to reflect local jobs markets will be important. We will continue, if in a position to do so, to visit prisons across the country to inform our work. I hope that the new Committee will, when it is reconstituted, make a priority of visiting one of the reform prisons to see exactly how progress is being made.

All governors will be held to account through performance agreements that they sign with the Secretary of State. A third of those agreements were meant to be in place at the start of this month, but at the time our report was published the Prison Governors Association had advised its members not to sign the agreements, and it is not clear whether any actually have been signed. We need clarity on that.

Those agreements are based around four performance standards tied to the purposes of prisons included in the Prisons and Courts Bill, which we welcome. Setting out a statutory purpose for prisons is good, and the approach is broadly right. The four standards are public protection, safety and order, reform and rehabilitation, and preparing for life after prison.

The Government say that the Secretary of State can intervene if governors do not perform well against those standards, but it is not clear from the evidence we heard what that intervention means, what shape it would take, and how it would recognise that the performance of prisoners as they left prison, for example, could not be wholly controlled by any one governor, as people often pass through a number of establishments during their time in prison. Also, performance will be influenced by what happens once people have gone through the gate, as it is termed, into rehabilitation in the community. We will need to know how that will be calibrated to make sure that the whole of the prisoner journey is properly reflected and that accountability is placed in the right place, rather than in a more general and unhelpful way.

Initially, the Government announced that they would publish league tables showing prisons’ performance against these standards, and I welcome the Minister’s comment in evidence to us that the Government

“will not publish league tables; we will make the data on prison performance available…We will not rank prisons from the best performing to the lowest performing based on their performance. It is about data.”

That is a sensible approach, and we commend him for it. We think that that phrase perhaps set more hares running than was necessary, but we applaud a systematic and constructive use of data and hope we will see more information from the Government as to how the data are to be analysed and used in informing the development of policy.

We also welcome the fact that the Minister is reviewing those policies to enable governors to adopt their own approaches. I know that changes are planned for the prison regulations. A great many of the prison rules are now quite antique, and we hope that we will have updates in those areas soon. It has been emphasised to us that governors with the new powers should work closely with other service providers in the local community, including their local probation services. I hope that that will be kept under review. I was impressed that the then governor of Wandsworth had turned up to meet the chief executive of his local council to see how they could work together. We need more initiatives of that kind.

I commend the report to the House, and I should like to thank all my colleagues on the Select Committee and our staff for the support that they have given me throughout this Parliament on the constructive and enjoyable work that we have done together.

I should like to pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), not only for his work on this report but for all his work as Chair of the Committee, of which I was briefly a member. Many of the Government’s plans for prison reform might not now reach fruition. Their much heralded Prisons and Courts Bill will fail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me and my Labour colleagues that rather than calling a general election, which the Prime Minister believes to be in her interest, the Government would have done better to stick to the task of fixing the prisons crisis?

I do not think that it is an either/or, but I appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman always approached his work on the Select Committee. One sadness is that we have lost a number of Committee members from the Opposition party as a result of Labour’s rolling reshuffle. I have welcomed each of them on their promotion to their Front Bench, and I wish them a long tenure in their current positions. I do not think it is a problem that we are having an election. Personally, as a Conservative I welcome it, and I hope that we will come back with a mandate, that the Government and the Select Committee will be swiftly reconstituted, and that we can get on with the job of prison reform. Whatever the outcome of the election, I know that members of the Committee from both sides of the House will want to continue to make the case for that reform, on which the hon. Gentleman and I agree in principle.

Does my hon. Friend agree that governor autonomy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for prison reform? Does he also agree that, just as an outstanding chief constable, headteacher or hospital chief executive can make a significant difference to their institution, so governors such as Ian Bickers at Wandsworth are already making a huge difference?

That is absolutely right. As we consider the issues around safety and other matters that attract the headlines, we sometimes forget that much good work is being done in prisons, and that a great deal of dedication is being shown. It is important that we should have a roll-out of the best, but it has not always been consistent in the past. We also need a management framework that empowers and enables those governors who want to push the envelope and push the margins to do their very best. They need to have the confidence that they can do that in a system that will support them managerially and financially. There are opportunities for this in the reform programme, but we need more details of how it is to be achieved in practice.

As a member of the Justice Committee, I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) on his expert guidance of the Committee. As he said, the work that we have done together has been very enjoyable. Governor empowerment should support a number of aspects of our prisons, including ensuring that they are safe and secure, that they are decent and that they offer support and assistance. Does he agree with the evidence suggesting that very large prisons housing more than 1,200 prisoners, which the Government are now planning, are less likely to achieve those standards and more likely to create greater challenges and pressures for governors?

That issue has been raised in evidence, and there are differing views on the impact of larger or smaller units. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work and support, and for her immense knowledge in this area. Whatever the size and nature of an establishment, it is critical that there should be a proper relationship between staff and prisoners. One of the biggest problems is that there is often an insufficient sense of such a personal interface, and that can breed a sense of alienation. I personally do not have a hard and fast rule about size. The important thing is that however a prison is organised, it must be possible to build long-term relationships between staff and prisoners. That is why staff retention and morale are critical in creating the climate and atmosphere that enable people to be constructive in their time in prison, rather than falling into some of the other diversions, which can create difficulties.

I too want to raise the question of governor empowerment. I had the opportunity to discuss this with the governor of HMP Huntercombe in my constituency when I visited it recently. Does my hon. Friend agree that dealing with the risk of increased prisoner complaints which the Committee identified is actually within the control of the prison, as is happening at Huntercombe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution and for his work on the Committee, which has been tireless. Huntercombe is a good example of a prison where the governor is managing within the existing arrangements. We need to see more of that. We should not assume that everything has to be driven from the centre, although minimum standards must be adhered to in a system of complaints management that everyone, including prisoners, can have confidence in. Good governors can and do make a difference, but they must be confident that they have the support of the system and the management of the service in doing that.