A packed house at the REFORM Think Tank event yesterday in Westminster, who hosted a keynote speech by the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor David Lidington.
The early morning news bulletins had forecasted the crack down on the illegal entry into prisons of USB size ‘beat the BOSS’ (chair) mobile telephones and the SoS for Justice did not disappoint here; although it was a pity that he didn’t indicate a reduction in call charges for prisoners trying to use legitimate phones to keep in touch with their families. I understand that the HMP costs are on a par with those run by SSCL for NPS staff having problems over pay and pensions, so it’s no wonder that a prisoners weekly wage can be blown in just a few minutes.
Anyway, the expectant audience of major stakeholders in the criminal justice system had gathered to hear the latest news in terms of Prison Policy, delivery and reform hoping that we would learn about some big ticket ideas that might actually reduce the HMP population and find alternatives to short term sentences, but those media and other contacts I spoke with afterwards agreed that this was something of a recycling job with a few ‘newish’ ideas chucked in.
As well as the plea for suppliers to stop selling the notorious USB phones, there was a nod to the Lammy Review findings on the impact of the CJS on members of the Black and Asian communities (which in fairness the Justice Secretary followed up on this morning with a bit of a plan, more on this later in the week) and an emphasis on the need for prisoners on release to be able to access accommodation and employment opportunities. No problem with any of that of course, but Mr. Lidington’s claims that the employment of new Prison Officers had almost reached its halfway target didn’t seem to enthuse my POA colleagues in the room who have constantly gone on record to say that not much is said about the almost corresponding high levels of natural reductions in staffing, let alone the attrition rate from graduates who find the HMP environment a bridge too far once they get a taste of reality on the Prison Wing.
As is often the case at these types of event, one needs to listen carefully to what is said and take note of what is not. For example, it seemed very clear that the MoJ are placing huge bets on the Offender Management in Custody review (OMIC) to help deliver their planned reforms and their expectation that Key-Worker Prison Officers will deliver tailored rehabilitation support while ignoring the fact that aside from the cultural and managerial differences between us and our brothers and sisters in the POA, they have a few pressing priorities of their own: namely keeping themselves and their clients safe, having more available properly trained staff out on the floors and the daily struggle against the import of various substances and contraband into the HMP estate.
Small wonder then that the POA response to OMIC ranges between the cynical and the incredulous. This leads me to question just what sort of advice Ministers are getting from their top people in the MoJ and HMPPS, especially when a Minister tells me that a newly qualified Probation Officer should be able to handle any case that comes their way; this just the day before the Panorama expose that caused a hastily reissued instruction on case allocation and newly qualified officers to the effect that actually, they cannot and must not.
This may all seem a bit harsh but if I have seen one speech full of doubtless genuinely held belief in the need for a major shake-up of our decrepit justice system I have heard twenty more.
It’s great to hear as I did, that there is to be a concerted crackdown on organised crime syndicates and even more ingenious methods to intercept ‘Drones’ but unless something is done to reduce the prison population, which includes providing the up to now non-existent Through the Gate support that the taxpayer has paid for, and until more is done to find a structured and effective rehabilitation solution that starts in the community as an alternative to prison then there will be plenty of recidivists ready and willing to step into the gaps vacated by the crime lords.
Some useful words from the SoS for Justice about urgent action in responding to criminal assaults on Prison Officers and working with Governors to open up new facilities to encourage learning and parenting skills among prisoners, but no mention of where the money is coming from. I guess that’s another PFI project waiting to happen where the likes of Sodexo or OCS (currently doing their best to make a pig’s ear of the Approved Premises Waking Night Cover project) will gladly help out.
Whilst Mr. Lidington surpassed his personal best by mentioning Probation three times in his speech, and how dedicated he thinks you all are, he failed to take the opportunity to reinforce the importance of the role of Probation practitioners in community based interventions. It would have been great to hear something about the huge contribution to public safety by effective management of clients and the vital interface between our members, third sector providers and potential employers to overcome the perennial stigma of a prison sentence which follows an individual for the rest of their life when returning to the jobs market. A chance also to comment on the shortcomings of Unpaid Work in all too many areas of England and Wales and how he intended to make this operate better to reduce the numbers of prison sentences, but no, none of the above.
Needless to say I had a juicy question lined up but the REFORM minder avoided eye contact and had obviously had me made as soon as I walked through the door along with a few other disruptive sorts. Maybe I should wear a disguise next time?
Below is the full text of what was said.
NAO weigh in with another highly critical report on TR costs
Also in attendance at the REFORM event were senior representatives of the National Audit Office, affectionately known as the public accounts committee’s (PAC) finance detectives.
Much in the same way as Dame Glenys Stacey and her team, the NAO do some very diligent research and analysis and were the authors of an earlier report into the procurement process for the TR contracts which exposed what we described at the time as a very dodgy exercise indeed. Our media release last night in response to the Investigation into changes to Community Rehabilitation Company Contracts said that Napo members have been “vindicated” by the findings of this latest NAO report which reveals that the MoJ has handed over an additional £342m of the public purse due to “unforeseen challenges” after Transforming Rehabilitation was enacted in order “to reflect more accurately the cost of providing critical frontline services”.
The NAO says that the 21 CRCs still stand to lose £443m over the duration of the contracts owing to the payment by results mechanisms originally built into them.
As of June this year, the CRCs had met only one third of their performance targets, despite the number of offenders being supervised actually increasing. The major debating point from this report will be how the value of the contracts were estimated as being worth £3.7bn over their lifetime, but why and how the MoJ has now had to revise this figure to £2.1bn based we are led to believe on client throughput and services delivered. Just as we have known for some time, the CRCs have categorically stated that they will be unable to maintain existing levels of service if paid at this lower rate and I suspect that they are already queuing up, Oliver Twist style to ask Mr. Bumble for more.
The NAO also say that part of the problem is that the MoJ and contract bidders had overestimated the ability of CRCs to reduce their costs. It was originally assumed that only 20% of the CRCs costs were fixed – this figure has now been revised to 77%.
As an exercise in even basic financial planning it is right up there in the list of spectacular failings that we see all too often from central government, but of course TR was not so much about getting the sums right, but more about political imperatives and the self-aggrandisement of its woefully inept driver, before his subsequent release to a new train set.
I especially welcomed the statement from the Chair of the Committee for Public Accounts Meg Hillier on the back of the NAO report which strongly suggests that a few people will have some uncomfortable questions coming their way.
I will keep you posted when I learn more about the PAC scheduling meanwhile here are the links to the NAO report itself.
Dame Glenys and the independence factor
I copied out the links to the Annual HMI Probation report last week and Tania Basset and I were able to have an informal word with Dame Glenys yesterday where, as usual she listened intently to what we had to say about the NPS and CRC landscape as our members see it, and where we were helpfully provided with some further clarity about her plans for reforming the future inspectorate reporting model which was sent out for consultation a couple of months ago.
Discussions between Napo and the Inspectorate are not the same as those that we have with our regular customers across 24 employers and it was agreed some time ago that our exchanges should remain confidential in order that there can be no public misunderstandings about Napo’s campaigning agenda and the vital independent role that Dame Glenys and her team undertake which reports on the position that they encounter on the ground without fear or favour to employers or trade unions.
What I can say is that HMI Probation have a very big provisional list of prospective inspection work next year which, once finalised, will once again be an important part of the ongoing transparency and accountability process.
I am sure we wish them well in their deliberations.