Prisons and Probation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:58 pm on 14th May 2019.

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Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice 12:58 pm, 14th May 2019

My hon. Friend is completely correct. The statistic she refers to demands a constructive response from the Government in this debate. Given statistics such as those revealed in The Guardian yesterday, the Government cannot just dismiss this Opposition motion as an ideological fixation.

Last year, the Sodexo-run Peterborough Prison became the first women’s jail in years to be deemed insufficiently safe, showing that the problem goes far beyond the failings of one company—the aforementioned G4S—because this is about the failure of an entire ideology. Serco, where the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Edward Argar, once worked as a spin doctor and which has Ministry of Justice contracts worth £2.5 billion, was forced to repay millions of pounds after scandals involving separate contracts for tagging and for escorting prisoners to court. Despite repeated failures, the 13 private prisons currently managed by G4S, Serco and Sodexo are set to be added to, starting with Wellingborough and then Glen Parva. The new prisons are to be built using the Birmingham model—built with public money and then handed over to the private sector to make profits at public expense.

Who will run the new prisons? Have the Government learned lessons from the failings of G4S and the like? Sadly, in response to my written parliamentary questions, the Government have refused to tell me who is most likely to run them, hiding behind the cloak of commercial sensitivity. However, the Secretary of State has indicated that G4S, Sodexo and Serco are all interested, so I wonder whether he will say today that he will exclude the companies that currently run prisons from bidding, given their record of failure. I have already asked him this question in writing, but why have the Government decided to ban the public sector from even bidding to run new prisons at Wellingborough and Glen Parva? Given that most prisons are in the public sector, it seems strange that the public sector is to be banned from competing in the bidding process. Some may conclude that the system has been stacked in favour of the private sector again.

There is a lack of openness about who will be running the private prisons, something which I have come up against time and again when raising my concerns. Requests for information about a key public service that should be available are denied due to commercial sensitivities, which is surely not right. One method of cost cutting for private prisons is obviously to cut staffing levels, even though understaffing is a key driver of prison violence, and there are real fears that that is happening. However, the Government refuse to reveal how many officers are employed at private prisons, despite numerous parliamentary questions and even requests from members of the Select Committee on Justice.

The prison officers’ union has raised concerns that private prisons have higher prisoner-to-officer ratios than public prisons, yet the Justice Secretary recently told me that his Department

“does not mandate staffing numbers in privately operated prisons. It is the responsibility of the contractor to determine and maintain the number of staff necessary to discharge the requirements of the contract”.

It is simply bizarre that state prisons have to publish staffing figures quarterly but private prisons do not. Again, we see how the private sector is allowed to hide in a shroud of secrecy while delivering public services.