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Publication of the Prisons and Courts Bill has heralded moves to give prison governors greater autonomy, particularly in the realms of reforming offenders.

With that empowerment, however, comes accountability - with more details about those changes revealed by Justice Secretary Liz Truss in a written statement to Parliament.

More focused prison system

The Prisons and Courts Bill is part of the wider structural reforms announced in the Prison Safety and Reform white paper last November and sets out how reform of offenders is a key aim for prisons. It also provides strengthened powers to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

For governors, it sees a new commissioning structure and new powers, creating a “more focused prison system where governors are clear what they need to deliver and are empowered to do so.”

Performance agreements

Three-year performance agreements, signed by the Secretary of State and all governors, will include standards which governors will be held to account for. They are:

- Protecting the public – with the number of escapes from closed prisons, absconds from open prisons and compliance with key security processes such as searching, measured.
- Reforming offenders - measured by time spent out of cell in the prisons where the technology to track this has been introduced; progress made in breaking patterns of substance misuse, progress in health, maths and English, and progress in maintaining or developing family relationships.
- Preparing prisoners for release - based on measuring the rate of prisoners released to suitable accommodation, rates of sustainable employment (including apprenticeships), and education.
- Improving safety - measured by assaults on staff and prisoners, disorder and self-harm, and staff and prisoner perceptions of safety.

Empowering governors to deliver

From April 1, key operational policies will be devolved to governors giving them greater flexibility and less bureaucracy to deal with. Governors will have the freedom to: design their regime to meet local delivery needs and target training and work in prisons to match the local labour market; decide their workforce strategy, including their staffing structure, to support meeting the standards; control how they spend their resource budget; and plan and take decisions about health services jointly with local health commissioners, through a co-commissioning framework.

Supporting governors

To support delivery of these reforms an operationally-focused executive agency, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, will be responsible for all operations across prison and probation and with a refocus on supporting, rather than micro-managing, governors. 

So, what next?

Over the next few months, governors will receive control of the education budget and from autumn this year, they will also be handed control over budgets for family services, including visitors’ centres and parenting skills classes. 

The Justice Secretary has also emphasised the importance of transparency in reviewing how prisons are performing with regular official statistics expected to be published starting in October this year. 

The prison community is also expected to hear more about the devolution and deregulation within six reform prisons, which continue to identify options across the entire prison estate. The MoJ has already commissioned a formal evaluation of this work to inform policy development, which is expected to be completed in early 2018. 

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