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Tagged In:  Ministry of Justice

The Government has been asked to deliver more detail on its plans for prison reform, particularly in the area of extending governors’ power and monitoring prison performance.

As changes come into effect, the Justice Committee reviewed the plans as part of its “overarching inquiry” into the prison reform programme and held a “short sub-inquiry” to examine what risks will need to be mitigated.

Concerns remain

Described by the Government as “the biggest overhaul” of prisons in a generation, committee members remained concerned that there was a lack of clarity about how some reforms will work in practice.

The review focused on areas including policy and operations, performance agreements, governor empowerment, commissioning and industrial relations.

Whilst broadly supportive and welcoming of the reforms, the committee wants to see further evaluation and also published a series of recommendations in its report, “Prison reform: governor empowerment and prison performance.”

Staff engagement

Key to any progress, it said, was better engagement with those working within the prison estate and improved industrial relations.

“Without support from the people who are operating prisons the reforms are unlikely to be effective,” committee chair Bob Neill said. “The Government must seek productive engagement with prison staff and governors through regular meetings, enabling their concerns and ideas to feed into the implementation of the reforms.”

Performance agreements

An important reform was in the accountability of governors via three-year performance agreements but the committee felt it remained unclear how interventions in cases of poor performance would change. The committee also wanted to know how many agreements have been signed so far.

In welcoming greater powers for governors, the committee said it had not yet seen evidence that it would lead to better outcomes for prisoners. It also recognised that the changes could lead to differences in service provision and recommended that the Ministry of Justice put in place measures that would deliver consistency, particularly in areas such as education, family services and offending behaviour programmes.

Conflicting advice risk

With the Ministry of Justice becoming responsible for prisons commissioning and policy and the new HM Prison and Probation Service responsible for operational management, the committee said this separation could result in governors and the Justice Secretary receiving conflicting advice.

It felt there was insufficient information currently available to reach any conclusions on the appropriateness of the management structures and has now sought clarification from the Government about how this will work in practice. There was also uncertainty around how the Government’s plans will apply to the privately managed prison estate.

Evaluating impact

The committee has asked the government to publish an evaluation of the impact on performance of granting greater autonomy to governors by next April. It also concluded that league tables are not a useful means to compare prison performance or drive improvement and would rather see the Ministry seek to understand the factors underpinning poor and high performance.

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