Skip to main content

Privately Financed Prisons

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Justice Secretary to make a statement on the Government’s plans for more privately financed prisons.

Yesterday, I attended the Justice Committee hearing on prison populations and confirmed that, in line with the 2016 White Paper and the 2017 manifesto, we remain committed to delivering 10,000 new prison places in order to replace the places in prisons that at the moment often have old, unsuitable and expensive accommodation.

During the Committee testimony, I confirmed two things. The first was that we will be proceeding at Wellingborough with a public capital financed prison, with work to begin at the end of this year or the beginning of next, subject to the usual tests of affordability and planning. I also confirmed that at the Glen Parva site we will be continuing with the current demolition and proceeding, again subject to the normal tests of affordability and planning, to a competition for a private finance initiative construction of the Glen Parva prison. We will then continue to push ahead with the four subsequent prisons, bringing us to the total of 10,000 places.

We are also investing £16 million in further investments in repairs in the existing estate. All of this is absolutely essential because, as the shadow Lord Chancellor is very aware, much of our estate remains old, expensive and unsuitable for prisoners, and we must move to regenerate it.

Yesterday, the prisons Minister announced a new private prison at Glen Parva. Previously, the Government had announced a £1.3 billion plan to build 10,000 new prison places. Despite repeated questioning from Labour, the Government had provided only obfuscation as to how these places would be paid for—now we know why. I hope that my list of questions will finally be answered today.

The Ministry of Justice has been cut more than any other Department—it has been cut by 40%, or £4 billion per year. The flipside of cuts is a greater dependence on privatisation and outsourcing, and when it comes to our prisons it is the public who pay the price. Carillion’s collapse affected half the prison estate, where it was contracted to do basic prison maintenance. Yesterday, the prisons Minister revealed that the contract was “completely unsustainable”, costing the public millions of pounds more each year, yet now we have more private contracts on the way. There are therefore questions to answer.

How many other new prisons are the Government considering building under PFI? What is the estimated additional cost to the public ministry of building prisons under PFI? Will the new prisons have their maintenance work outsourced? Does the Minister still definitely intend to sell off Victorian prisons that do nothing to reduce reoffending? If not, does that mean less income and more privatisation in our prisons estate? Will he allow any of the companies being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office for overcharging the MOJ—Serco and G4S—to bid to run the new prisons? Will the new residential women’s centre announced by the Government today be financed by the private sector? Finally, will the new Justice Minister, who once worked in a senior role at Serco, which has £3.6 billion worth of MOJ contracts, be involved in the tendering process for any more of these private prisons?

The shadow Lord Chancellor asked a number of important questions. Let me go through the answer on the six prisons where the 10,000 places are. At the first prison, Wellingborough, the construction will be funded by public capital. The second prison, Glen Parva, will be funded through PFI. We are exploring a range of other funding arrangements, including private finance, for the remaining four prisons but we have yet to achieve a resolution on that.

On the question of who we would like to bid, of course we will be looking for legal, reliable bidders, but I wish to emphasise that the key here is about getting quality and diversity into the estate. We do not want to be overly ideological about this. We believe in a mixed estate. There are some excellent public sector prisons. I had the privilege of visiting Dartmoor prison recently, where prison officers within the public sector estate are delivering excellent services and getting very good inspection reports. At the same time, Serco is running a difficult, challenging prison at Thameside, which has 1,600 places, and is innovating. It is bringing in new technology, it is bringing computers into cells and it has had a real impact on violence and on drugs.

At Liverpool’s Altcourse prison, G4S is running a prison where there are fantastic employment facilities and workshops in operation. The inspectors have clarified that in Liverpool the private sector, drawing on the same population size, is outperforming the public sector. This is not a question of a binary choice between the private and the public sectors; it is a question of a diversity of suppliers, who can often learn a great deal from each other.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the question of whether a prison is publicly or privately financed and operated is an ideological irrelevance to the very many problems he faces? While accepting my congratulations on all the announcements he and the Secretary of State have made this morning, will he confirm that he will continue to give priority to reducing the numbers in prison, where possible, by removing those who are merely inadequate, those who are mentally ill and who could benefit from rehabilitation elsewhere? Will he also ensure that he gets rid of the older, slum, overcrowded prisons and that the new prisons can provide the quality of security and rehabilitation that the public deserve?

That question comes from someone who was of course a very distinguished Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. My right hon. and learned Friend makes a powerful point: we need to ensure that prison is there primarily for the purposes of punishment, the protection of the public and turning around lives in order to prevent reoffending. We have to be absolutely clear that people who ought to be in prison must be in prison and properly housed there, and we must work to turn their lives around. He has put his finger on the fact that we have inherited a very challenging estate. Almost a quarter of our prisons are buildings that stretch back to the Victorian era or, in some cases, to the late 18th century. That causes unbelievable problems of maintenance, and it contributes to problems of overcrowding and to issues of decency. All of that gets in the way of our ability to provide the conditions that allow us to turn around prisoners’ lives. Therefore, it unfortunately gets in the way of preventing reoffending, which, ultimately, is the best way of protecting the public.

In the same week that the east coast line trains began running under public ownership, following the third failure in 10 years of the privatised model, we now have the Tories moving to privatise yet more of the Prison Service. We know it was the then Justice Secretary—he is now Transport Secretary—who awarded Carillion the £200 million outsourcing contract for prison maintenance. What due diligence did he complete on Carillion before signing off on that? Why was it allowed to underbid for the contract by £15 million? The prisons Minister said that the Carillion deal was “completely unsustainable” and a “real, real lesson” for the MOJ, so why does he think that yet more privatisation is the solution?

Lastly, the MOJ confirmed in a written answer on 21 June that the Government hold contracts worth £3.6 billion with the private firm Serco, despite the firm having been the subject of an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. Does he honestly think that will reassure the public that we are not heading for a repeat of what happened with Carillion?

To some extent, we are going over old ground again. The key, I believe, is to focus on the results on the ground. Let us start with the hon. Gentleman’s final question. We should really be judging Serco’s, Sodexo’s and G4S’s performance in prisons by what they are currently doing in prisons. Nearly 25 years of experience now lie behind this. We have a highly experienced Department. There are 14 privately run prisons with very clear key performance indicators. The inspection reports on those prisons are strong—some are among the cleanest and best run in the country, with very good scores from the inspectors on decency, purposeful activity and resettlement.

To clarify on the issue of Carillion, yes, the company was losing approximately £15 million a year on that contract, but the taxpayer was not losing that money. Carillion was bearing the cost. The taxpayer was effectively saving £15 million a year on that contract. At the same time, I agree that we need to take a lesson from what happened, look carefully at the financial viability of these companies and look at their performance in prisons.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, as I did everything that he said about the Government’s approach to prisons at the Justice Committee yesterday. Does he agree that anyone who takes an interest and has regularly visited prisons will be aware that the successes and failures within the prison estate have nothing to do with ownership? He has cited two examples of excellent private sector provision; as a south-east London MP, I am well aware of Thameside myself. Does he agree that what we really need to do across the House is make the case that prison reform is in the interests of society and victims, rather than going down ideological side tracks?

I think that is something we share across the Benches. Both sides of the House share a common desire: to reduce crime and reoffending, and turn around people’s lives. It is a terrible waste that nearly 40% of our prison population have been in care, that nearly 50% have been excluded from school, and that the literacy level of nearly 50% is lower than that of an 11-year-old. The rates of reoffending have been stubbornly high for 40 or 50 years.

We need to work together to crack these problems. Decent, clean, well run and well managed prisons are part of the key. Another part is getting cross-party consensus on the difficult and brave political choices required to begin to reduce the prison population and protect the public through a reduction in reoffending.

Yesterday, the Minister confirmed that the Carillion contract for facilities had not been managed well by his Department and had resulted in additional costs to Carillion. What guarantees can he give the House that the contract for the new prison will be managed in an effective way? Will he ensure that the contract is published and subject to freedom of information, so that we can scrutinise his decisions?

The right hon. Gentleman has enormous experience of the issue, having been the prisons Minister responsible for managing private prisons. He is therefore aware that one reason we can stand up in front of the House and say we are confident we can do this is that we have been doing it for 25 years.

Some 14 private sector prisons are operating, with good reports from the inspectors. We have a lot of experience of how this is done. This is not a new area of Government activity; the right hon. Gentleman himself managed exactly these prisons. The key is balancing proper competition, which brings in diversity and innovation, with the right key performance indicators to make sure that we stay on top of that performance.

Unsurprisingly, I add my congratulations to the Minister to those of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke); I absolutely endorse his non-ideological approach. In considering what he will put in place in future, will he look carefully at prison maintenance contracts? I think it would be better if the prisons themselves had greater control over such contracts, rather than there being one contract let centrally to maintain very many prisons.

Getting the balance right on maintenance will be central. We are talking about three different kinds of maintenance: big structural maintenance, the daily replacement of fittings and so on, and the basic cleaning and facilities management. We need new approaches to all three, but in relation to the last, I pay tribute to the governor of Leeds prison, who is showing that prisoners, by focusing on such things, can get qualifications themselves, improve living conditions for prisoners and prison officers, and take those skills back into the wider community to find employment.

In the spirit of developing a cross-party consensus on prisons, I welcome the Government’s apparent conversion yesterday to the Liberal Democrat policy of axing the vast majority of prison sentences of under a year. When will the policy be implemented? Has the prison building plan that the Minister announced yesterday to the Justice Committee factored in such a policy change?

The argument that I was making yesterday is that the recent evidence from our Department shows very clearly that people sentenced to short prison terms are more likely to reoffend than somebody with a community sentence—in other words, they pose a greater threat to the public at the moment of release. They also pose a destabilising factor in prisons: they are disproportionately connected to drugs and violence.

At the same time, as has been pointed out, we have an obligation to protect the public and be careful about who exactly we are talking about within this category. An enormous amount more discussion needs to take place. I would be very happy to sit down with the right hon. Gentleman to discuss ideas. This is not an easy one to resolve, but the data is driving us in a particular direction.

When it comes to fixing our prisons, what matters is what works. Does my hon. Friend agree that HMP Altcourse is an example of a private sector prison doing a good job? As we embrace the future, the approach should be about pragmatism, not dogmatism.

Absolutely. We are very much open to both types of ownership. While praising some of the performance of private sector prisons, I take this opportunity to reiterate that prison officers in public sector prisons are astonishing individuals. On Thursday, I was lucky enough to attend the prison officers’ annual awards, where we heard extraordinary stories about their work, courage, resilience and dedication on long shifts in some of the most challenging environments in this country. They need real tribute. Our public sector prisons are wonderful examples of public service.

The Minister speaks of the prison population who have been in care, and I know he is well aware of the high proportion of women in the prison system who have been abused in other relationships and settings, but Baroness Corston pointed all that out 11 years ago, which led to the Labour Government setting up what were often called “Corston projects”, such as Eden House in Bristol East, which has suffered, I am afraid, from cuts under successive Tory Governments since 2010. It is a bit rich to hear this morning an announcement that coming up with residential alternatives to custody is a new idea.

In addition to what the Minister has said this morning, will he please update us on how facilities for women in the criminal justice system but outside prison are going to be brought back up to scratch, as Baroness Corston intended?

The Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor met Baroness Corston yesterday and they had a constructive conversation in which they welcomed each other’s points. I absolutely accept the hon. Lady’s basic point—that it often feels as if there is nothing radically new in criminal justice; I have just been looking at reports from 1962 on HMP Albany in the Isle of Wight and saw a lot of echoes with what, unfortunately, is still going on in many places today. That is because prisons for offenders are very difficult.

The hon. Lady is also absolutely right that nearly 65% of women in custody have experienced some form of domestic abuse. That is why we are very proud, whatever the cross-party discussions, that we are pressing ahead with the female offenders strategy today. The Lord Chancellor is leading on this, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), the Minister responsible for the female estate.

I thank the Minister for visiting Chelmsford prison with me a fortnight ago and seeing at first hand the challenges of running the prison in what are, let us say, the more antique wings. Does he agree that rather than there being some public/private ideology, we should focus on prisons that are well built and managed, on making sure that our staff are well supported and on ensuring that prisoners do not reoffend and return after they leave?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I believe has visited Chelmsford prison no fewer than seven times, and to the staff at Chelmsford. When I visited, they had had a very difficult three nights, up night after night dealing with a difficult incident. Chelmsford prison represents one of our local prisons that is going through a huge transition. There is a lot of focus on training new staff and one of the keys here is balancing the right physical infrastructure in prisons with getting the training and leadership right, in particular for new prison officers.

Last week, a Defence Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that the Government had awarded a contract to Capita, despite the Ministry of Defence saying it was the highest risk possible for failure— 10 out of 10. I just wonder whether this Minister might be able to reassure the House that if Capita comes forward with a bid for any of these contracts and scores a risk of 10 out of 10, it will not be awarded a contract.

The general point the hon. Lady is making is difficult to disagree with. Obviously, we need to look at the viability of particular companies. I cannot comment on Capita, or on what exactly the MOD is doing, but when assessing bids the Ministry of Justice will very much take into account the financial viability of the company bidding.

To maximise the efficacy of any contract, one needs a devoted and focused contracted business, but one also needs expertise in the management of that contract. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the skill set among his officials monitoring contracts on a daily, in-real-time basis is as sharp, professional and focused as it needs to be?

That is absolutely right. It has traditionally been a challenge to bring those private sector skills into government and to make sure we have a critical mass of people who really understand how to stay on top of those contracts, as my hon. Friend says, not just annually but day by day. We are very proud of our director, Ian Porée, who focuses on this procurement, particularly in relation to probation, and has those private sector skills. As I said, we also have 25 years of experience here.

I appreciate there are major issues around funding prisons and keeping staff and prisoners safe. The Minister wrote to me about drug scanners in Holme House prison in Stockton North, but he did not address the issue of scanners to detect drugs concealed in prisoners’ bodies when they leave one prison for another. Will we get one soon, or is there not enough money?

There are, as the hon. Gentleman points out, two different types of scanner. There is a straightforward x-ray scanner, which will generally pick up on bits of metal and things outside a body. Then there is a millimetre wave scanner, which is able, in certain of our prisons, to detect objects inside the body. These are expensive pieces of kit: in certain cases, they can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. We are now beginning to roll them out across the estate. I absolutely agree that that is the technological future and we will be piloting them in 10 prisons to see that they do what we both believe they should do.

Glen Parva prison is in my constituency, and I commend the Minister for his welcome announcement yesterday with regard to investment. He said at the Dispatch Box that he welcomes quality and diversity of supplier. May I invite him to speak with his officials to ensure that, wherever possible, local suppliers are invited to bid not just for the construction, but for the maintenance and ongoing supply, of Glen Parva prison?

As right hon. and hon. Members are aware, in tendering for public procurement contracts we can look at social aspects, including local supply. I very much look forward to sitting down with my hon. Friend, who is a real champion for local suppliers in his constituency, to see what we can do to make sure, in this and in other contracts where we are putting a prison in a local area, that local businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, have a fair chance to participate in those contracts.

In public or private procurement, what attempts will be made to stop the overuse of solitary confinement as a punishment? My constituent, a young man in his 20s, has on several days been locked up for 23 hours a day. He could well take his own life.

We are very aware of the seriousness of solitary confinement. Segregation should be used only in the most exceptional circumstances. It is sometimes unfortunately necessary, but we want to minimise its use. We want to make sure that segregation, above all, is used for rehabilitation and that that opportunity is used to turn someone’s life and behaviour around, so they can get back on to the prison wing and into education and purposeful activity. We will be underscoring, just as the inspector does, the fact that segregation is a last resort.

What my constituents and taxpayers care about is that the prison system delivers value for money, and that when people come out of prison they are equipped to contribute to society and become citizens again, with a second chance at life. Will the Minister say more about how these contracts will help that agenda?

This is a very good question. All the 10,000 additional spaces we are bringing in are for category C resettlement prisons. That has been one of the real gaps in the system. We tend to have too many people in local reception prisons and not enough in resettlement prisons, preparing people to make sure they have housing, employment and the right kind of support when they leave. That is vital to getting them a job and stability, and will ultimately prevent reoffending. The entire design of the contracts is to ensure that the prisons, in their architecture and purpose, work for resettlement.

Responsibility for prisons in Northern Ireland, as the Minister well knows, is a devolved matter. He will also be well aware that we have not had a functioning Assembly in Northern Ireland for 18 months, so we have no Justice Minister. Given those circumstances, will he please give reassurance to the Northern Ireland Prison Service—its members are enormously courageous and face risks daily in their jobs—that the prison estate in Northern Ireland will not be neglected in the continued and unfortunate absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and in particular that the UK Government are well aware of those daily risks run by members of the Northern Ireland Prison Service? Two of its members have been murdered in recent years. No one has faced justice yet, but I live in hope.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay huge tribute to the Northern Ireland Prison Service. Our permanent secretary works very closely with the permanent secretary of the Department of Justice, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working hard to try to bring the devolved Assembly back. We really do feel this. The Northern Ireland Prison Service has very, very unusual conditions, which in some ways makes its work even more challenging than the very challenging work undertaken in England and Wales. These are very courageous individuals doing a very difficult job day in, day out. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

I welcome the Minister’s recent statement and his overall progressive approach towards prisons. I welcome, too, the gratitude and appreciation he shows for all who work in the Prison Service. Will he confirm whether, under the previous Labour Government, the use and number of private prisons increased or decreased?

This is a beautifully framed question that is clearly teeing me up for something I am unable to use. I am afraid I am not entirely sure, Mr Speaker, what the answer to that question is. I apologise—it is such a beautiful question.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement. Like the Chairman of the Select Committee, I welcome his approach and that of the Secretary of State to our prisons and to offenders more generally, in particular the female offender strategy and the renewed focus on rehabilitation. Will he consider in due course rolling out the female offender strategy more widely to other prisoners, in particular young offenders?

This is a matter for my colleague who has responsibility for the youth estate and the female estate, but there are certainly elements in the female offender strategy that have absolute application not just to the youth estate, but to the adult estate. The basic principles, particularly of a trauma-informed approach to the individual still in custody, should have an effect on everything we do in prisons across the board.