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June 2015 — Prisons And Probation: Opportunities And Risks

Minutes of the Annual General Meeting of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group held on 23 June 2015


Michael Spurr, Chief Executive, National Offender Management Service (NOMS)


Lord Ramsbotham, in the chair
Fiona Bruce MP
Kate Green MP
Dominic Grieve QC MP
Lord Harris of Haringey
Baroness Healy of Primrose Hill
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
Earl of Listowel
Baroness Masham of Ilton


Mark Day, Clerk to the Group, opened proceedings and welcomed everybody to the first meeting of the new Parliament, which was also the Group’s AGM. This had been advertised in the All-Party notices, and to all members of the Group. He was pleased to say that the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP and Lord Ramsbotham had both indicated their willingness to stand as co-chairs for the coming year.  No further nominations had been received.  Therefore he was delighted to declare them both duly elected, and to hand over to Lord Ramsbotham, who would be chairing the rest of the meeting.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the meeting, and went on to propose the election of the Vice Chairs.  Sarah Champion MP, Kate Green MP and Sir Edward Garnier QC MP had all indicated their willingness to stand, he was delighted to say. The Group’s Secretary, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, had indicated his willingness to stand again. There had been no further nominations.  The meeting was content, and all were duly elected.

The accounts were audited as part of the Prison Reform Trust’s accounts, and it was agreed they could be taken as satisfactory. He thanked all the members and the officers for their support.  On behalf of the Group, he thanked the Barrow Cadbury Trust for their continued commitment to funding the secretariat.   He recorded members’ thanks to Mark Day, the Clerk to the Group, and Julia  Braggins, who produced the minutes.

The meeting was fortunate to have as its AGM speaker Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of NOMS. There was no subject more pertinent to the interests of the Group.  He had known Michael Spurr, from his previous role as Chief Inspector, as a quite outstanding prison governor, and he was very grateful that he had been able to join the group for this meeting.


Michael Spurr thanked the group for its kind invitation.  He said how much he appreciated the interest so many members of both Houses showed in the work that NOMS undertook.  He continued:

‘This is not work which has great public appeal, or, if people are interested in it, they are always interested in the wrong things – in things that are humorous or things that they don’t like.  Not always do they appreciate the depth and complexity of the world we deal with.  Yet the reality is that when you explain to people, as I have done many times, about the type of work we do, and talk to them about the realities of the offenders we deal with and their backgrounds and issues, actually their views are very different from the way our work is caricatured in the media. I believe that the work that we do is very important, and I am so grateful that colleagues across both houses share that view.


What I thought that I would do is to share some reflections about where we are today, and some of the challenges and opportunities for us over this parliament.  You all know, because you are interested in this work, that we have been on a difficult journey over the last five years, in both the Prison and the Probation Services. We were not a protected department in the Ministry of Justice, so we have had to make our contribution to the significant financial challenge the country faced, and that did mean, and has meant, for us a genuine 24% reduction in our budget over that period.  We have saved just short of £900 million over the last four years, since the last spending review.  That is quite a significant amount of money and meant that we have had to make major changes to the way we operate in prisons and indeed in probation.  There has been added major change in probation because of the restructuring to expand the service to look after all those with short sentences who previously exited prison with no supervision.


That has meant a major change programme over the last parliament.  We have saved the money but it has not been easy to do that.  We have tried as we have been doing it to save the money in a way that provided a foundation for doing the things that we are required to do: to protect the public and to help prisoners and offenders in the community to change and to reduce reoffending.  Those two key objectives remain in place, for the agency and for all those working within our world.  It is worth saying a little bit about that change process.


In prisons we achieved the savings through a range of different measures: what we called ‘restructuring the estate’ most people would call ‘closing about sixteen prisons’.  That enabled us to operate with fewer establishments.  Inevitably the establishments we operate with are now larger than they were before.  But that enabled us to save some money.  We have implemented the benchmarking programme in public sector prisons, which effectively took the best practice we could find for any activity in one prison and required establishments of a similar type to operate in that way.  Benchmarking is sometimes misunderstood.  There is an assumption for some people that it means there is one way of doing things across the service.  In fact there are eleven different benchmarks to take account of the different types of people we have to look after in different types of establishment.  There are different types of benchmarks in women’s establishments compared to high security prisons, as against prisons for young adults, or young people, or adult medium security prisons and those in local prisons.


That programme has operated at an incredibly fast pace over the last two years to introduce significant changes to the way we operate, significant changes to the terms and conditions of prison officers, and  it has changed the numbers of people we require to operate. In broad terms there has been a reduction in total staffing of just short of 12,000, over the last parliament. In 2009, the Prison Service and NOMS headquarters, not counting probation, employed 51,000 people, looking after a prison population lower than today’s.  Today we employ just short of 35,000 people, and the prison population is higher.  Some of those people have moved to work for others, such as Sodexo or G4S.  You can only manage that scale of reduction by changing the way you operate, which is why we had to go through that benchmarking model.  We have also introduced a different approach to competition.  In prisons now we have a mixed model of delivery in all our prisons.  We have different providers delivering services in all public sector prisons.  Education is commissioned by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills and is delivered by colleges.  In health, similarly, services are now commissioned by the NHS. We have just transferred responsibility for all our facilities management, works and maintenance to two new outsourced providers and we have a mixed range of provision for catering and a range of other services. So that’s been a significant programme and it would have been difficult to deliver in any circumstances.  We were delivering it pretty well. But what happened in 2013 when the prison population rose very sharply, above what had been projected, really made that even more difficult to deliver. We also had the reality of the pick-up of the economy in the South East in particular, and difficulty in terms of shortfalls of staff particularly in London and the South East.  It is fair to say that we should probably have anticipated that rather better than we did.  We didn’t let lots of staff go in London – there are over 5,000 staff in London and we let around 100  go on voluntary exit – but actually the turnover in London prisons increased significantly.  Also people who didn’t like the new ways of working chose to leave when they had the opportunity to do so. It has taken us a long time to be able to recruit people back into those posts.  We are not there yet in London and the South East.


So the combination of population pressures and staff shortfalls particularly in the South East and London meant that the pressures we had in implementing change were greater than they might have been. And there has been a significant change in the dynamic of how prisons operate and the type of offenders we have got and the threats that have been created, operationally, in prisons. There has undoubtedly been a greater level of violence from younger more challenging offenders, many of whom have got gang associations when they come into prison.  There has been a growing concern about a small number  of individuals who have a disproportionate impact, with the potential to radicalise others, because they are extremists.  And there has been a significant rise in the threat caused by new psychoactive substances, which I know are being discussed in the House of Lords today.


It is worth saying how quickly the supply of these new illicit substances into prison has become a problem. I went to Ranby prison about eighteen months ago and I was aware that these substances were around but that was the first time that I realised the extent to which prisons were being targeted with psychoactive substances.  Some incidents there were really worrying. The reality is that those substances have been freely available in communities. You can go and buy them from shops.  That has changed the dynamic of supply into prisons, because they were bought legally in the community.  You can have ordinary friends and relatives buying drugs thinking they are legal, because they get called ‘legal highs’ – which many of them are not – and individually being pressured to supply them.  They are relatively cheap in drugs terms. But in prison their market rate is much higher. You don’t just have individuals who might try to supply drugs in that way, but organised criminals equally recognise that market, and have targeted some prisons.


You might say: how do drugs get into prisons to this extent? A lot of the medium secure prisons have had so much of these drugs thrown over the fence which shows the market rate that you get.  Whilst we retrieve a lot of it, some of it gets in.  The pressure of that type of drug has been particularly problematic for us because at the moment you can’t test for these drugs – although we are developing tests.  There are 3,000 different compounds that compose these synthetic materials, and finding a test that differentiates between legal medication-type drugs, and synthetic cannabinoids, is incredibly difficult. We equally had difficulty with our drug dogs who can detect the drugs although again we now training dogs to detect these materials. So we have been in position effectively where drugs can be easily obtained outside prison, supplied into prison where the market rate is much greater than anything you would get outside, while we are struggling to be able to combat it in security terms.  And there is the misnomer that these are somehow safer than other drugs, so people were using them not realising the impact.  It took us some while to respond to that.  We are still responding, and developing the test. I think we will have that shortly. We have trained a significant number of drug dogs.  We are now being able to combat this threat more robustly,not just with security but with a campaign to try to make clear to prisoners the dangers they put themselves in when they take these drugs.  They are illegal now, clearly illegal for use in prisons, following recent legislation. We are tackling this with a campaign as well, through the prison radio system, through health, and others, saying how dangerous these drugs are. That combination of a population rise, some staff shortfalls, a change in the way that drugs enter prisons – prisoners have always tried to smuggle drugs into prison – has created significant pressure.


On probation, the reforms that took place over the last two years in Parliament were massive for the Probation Service as you’ll be aware, causing a restructuring of the whole service. That was very difficult to take people through. It was done and in place by February of this year, and the new system is now working.  That new system, as I mentioned earlier, has extended supervision to 50,000+ offenders each year who had previously got short custodial sentences and had no supervision when they left custody.  But in order to achieve that we had to change completely the way that the Probation Service operates.  The service, as you know, was restructured with the National Probation Service, and 21 community rehabilitation companies established, with the National Probation Service providing advice to the courts and managing high risk offenders, the companies managing medium and low risk offenders, and paid for partly by the results they achieve in reducing reoffending.


That system is in place, but it needs to bed down and work effectively. We have moved to the new arrangements but it is very early in the cycle of a major change. The ‘through the gates’ part of that system, which meant that in every resettlement prison a community rehabilitation company would be present to support resettlement only commenced from May 1st.  That again is a positive development but it’s very new. So that has been the reality of what we have been managing over the last few years.  Whilst we have been managing that, it is worth saying that overall rates of reoffending remain lower than they were ten years ago.  7.4% reduction in the last one-year annual reoffending rates compared to ten years earlier.  The highest rates remain that under twelve month group who get short term custody, and are constantly in and out of prison. That’s why the reforms to probation were aimed at addressing those particular offenders and that is a good thing.


We have managed, through all the difficulties we have had, to maintain the resources that we were spending on education, on health, on programmes and on drug treatment.  That’s a really important thing to say.  Some of that is because those resources were, over the last ten years or so, transferred to the NHS, to the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  It is worth saying that in 2005 we in the Prison Service were spending £56million on education.  Last year BIS spent £147 million.  That has been maintained and that is good.  On health, similarly, and on drug treatment, that spending has been maintained.  And in some areas we have been able to do small but important things.  Particularly I am pleased with the work that we have been doing with the Department of Health in supporting diversion and liaison to divert mentally ill offenders from the criminal justice system early.  That is work that is still continuing.  And particularly the work we have done to restructure the funding that was available for supporting those with personality disorder, where a lot of health funding that was spent in special hospitals has been redistributed to support a much wider group of offenders in prison and in communities.  That is really important work: we have managed to recycle £50million plus, to have a much better targeted impact on those types of offenders.


The scope for further efficiency savings within prisons and probation is now much more limited.  We have reduced prison unit costs overall by about £2,200 a place.  I think there is a general acceptance that, while we will always, like any organisation, seek to drive further efficiencies, big change can now only happen in two main areas.  Either there is a change in the demand that comes – we can reduce the prison population and make change in that way; or there is a further consolidation of the prison estate and an ability to save funding by a new for old prison building approach.  Whilst we will continue to look to achieve savings internally, and indeed are required to do so like any public body, the scope for significant savings given the work we have to do and the challenges we face within prisons and probation is much less.


So where does that leave us today? Some of those difficulties are behind the reasons why Pentonville’s inspection report, which you may have read today, was so poor.  It was unacceptably poor and I wouldn’t want to deny that.  But they had become overwhelmed by most of the issues that I have discussed in terms of prisons: it’s worth just saying that, they are not entirely typical.  You never hear of the very good prison reports.  Styal prison for women has just had an excellent report. Manchester, a very big local prison has just had a good prison report, as has Belmarsh – the best it has had in many years.  But you wouldn’t hear about that.  And of course it is proper that we focus on where things are not acceptable, as they were not at Pentonville.


So we have had those difficulties.  But as to where we are and where we are going, I will say quite genuinely and honestly that I am quite optimistic.  It seems to me that we have had so much change within the system that actually there is an opportunity now to focus on how we make that system work better.  Whilst concentrating on restructuring how we operate, in both prisons and probation, we have not had the time to focus on how we can improve what we are actually doing with offenders in practical terms, in evidence based terms: the way we work with them.  I think that now is the focus for where we are as an agency.


Lord Ramsbotham has often said that the National Offender Management Service isn’t a service it’s a system.  He’s right, and my job is to make the system work better, to enable prisons and probation, and all those with whom we work for offenders, to work better.  And if you say to me ‘where are we going over the next few years?’ it’s to concentrate again on what the National Offender Management Service was established to do: to concentrate on the offender, and to do the work we need to do across the whole system, to support offenders to change. I am optimistic because there is a willingness to do that, amongst all the people who work in the agency.  One of the things that was most gratifying, with all the changes, was that one of the biggest push-backs we had from staff was a feeling about the inability to do all the things we really wanted to do whilst we were pursuing restructuring in working with offenders.  When we have had to lock prisoners up for longer than I would wish to do, I have gone round prisons and prison staff have been complaining to me about the unfairness on prisoners.  Ten years ago that wouldn’t have been the case.  But the fact that they were, demonstrates a cultural change, which it’s important to acknowledge.


The biggest issue that most probation staff had about the reforms was a feeling that their vocation to work with offenders was being challenged.  Actually that vocation still remains, whether they are working with a community rehabilitation company or with probation. So I believe we have got a group of people who want to make a difference.  And I believe there is a desire, after all of those changes, to concentrate on the things that really matter. We have developed in NOMS a rehabilitative triangle about what we would look to do to try to create an effective prison.  It has at the bottom: safety.  If you are not safe you can’t do anything.  In the next block about that, it has ‘developing a rehabilitative culture’.  Then there is ‘dealing with the needs of individuals’ – drugs and alcohol.  If you can’t get people stable, you can’t work with them.  Then we have ‘providing the type of things that can make a positive intervention’, like education, offending behaviour programmes and support.  Then there is ‘helping individuals into employment and resettlement’.  If you go into lots of prisons that triangle is there, prominently.  I didn’t tell them to put it there – it was just a piece of work we were doing. It has had a real impact.


Similarly in probation: now we have gone through the reforms, making the system work matters to the new National Probation Service, and  it needs to work if the benefits of having that extra 50,000 in supervision are really going to be realised.  With a new government, and a new desire, inevitably, to try and make things better, there is opportunity to do that.  The new Secretary of State, Mr Gove, spoke this morning.  You may have heard his speech. He was primarily speaking about the justice system rather than Prisons and Probation but made one reference to Prisons and I want to quote him, because this gives me hope and optimism about where we are going: He explicitly sets out an ambition ‘To make our prisons places of rehabilitation, which give those who have made the wrong choices opportunities for redemption, to help offenders when they leave custody to make the right choices and to contribute to society, to rescue young offenders and those who are on a path to offending from a life of crime.’ I think most people, whatever their political persuasion, would say that those are admirable aims.  They are aims that I share and lots of people in the agency share.  And that means that I think our concentration on operating with a significantly reduced resource, and looking to do the absolute best that we can with that resource, to support the offenders, to change their behaviour, to reduce re-offending, is absolutely what our focus is going to be.


So that is why I have some hope about where we are going, and why I have optimism, which I have been sharing with colleagues across the agency.  I think there is a role still for us in the National Offender Management Service, because the reality is that it is a system, with lots of different parts.  Now 40% of what we do within the agency is being done by others, outsourced to different types of providers.  The new prison that is being built in North Wales exemplifies that. It is going to be run by the public sector but a third of the work will be done by others.  It requires a significant amount of work to ensure that all the different parts work effectively. The focus has got to be on what the needs of the offenders are, in order that we can address those, keep the public safe, help them to change, and reduce victims.  That’s what we aim to do, and will continue to aim to do over this parliament.  Thank you.’


Lord Ramsbotham thanked the speaker most warmly for his presentation, stating that he was particularly interested in the spirit of his address. That hope and drive were most encouraging.  He threw the floor open for questions.


Kate Green MP agreed that there was wide-spread support for the idea of supervision for short-custody offenders.  However she drew attention to a project in Manchester, for which the initial results had appeared encouraging, but which had resulted in a disappointing evaluation over time.  What needed to be put in place to improve things? Michael Spurr replied that he too had been excited by this project. However a measured approach needed to be taken to assessing the findings. It was not uncommon for the early results of new work to outperform results over time.  It was important to focus on what had worked well, particularly the interagency work, and the focus on family work.  Accommodation was the biggest worry for offenders coming out of prison.  The rehabilitation companies could not resolve this alone: working with others was essential.


Lord Harris mentioned his report on young people in prison, which was soon to be published.  However his question concerned the other end of the age spectrum, particularly those facing end of life issues including dementia.  What was the logical direction of travel with this age group?


Michael Spurr welcomed this question. The prison population was still predominantly young, but there was now a larger number of older prisoners.  Whilst these prisoners used to be looked after in a number of discrete sites, older prisoners were now accommodated across the estate, where facilities were less suitable and staff less attuned to their care.  It was important to involve local authorities. He was clear that staff would have to devote increasing attention to this issue over coming years.


The Earl of Listowel raised the issue of young people in prison from a care back ground.  In particular, he wondered about the future of therapeutic communities, which had done such good work in the past.


Michael Spurr began by saying how much he welcomed the PRT review by Lord Laming, announced that day. In terms of therapeutic work, Grendon Prison, despite a relatively high unit cost, did a very good job, and there were a number of other therapeutic communities within other establishments. He mentioned the work with personality disorder, and the development of PIPEs (Psychologically Informed Physical Environments).  It was resource-intensive to operate in that way, and it did not work for everyone, but he would like to expand that type of approach.


Baroness Masham endorsed the speaker’s remarks about the difficulties with legal highs, on the basis of a recent visit to a prison.  However her main concern was that she had been told about a down-grading of training for prison officers, in a context when the suicide rate was rising and experienced staff were retiring.  Was that the case?


Michael Spurr said that the six week initial training residential course was being extended to ten weeks, and professional development was being maintained for the first year. He would like to do more, especially on-the-job training, following the restructuring exercise.  Over the past year there had been a concentration on new officer training to fill the gaps, particularly in the South East. Now that staffing levels were almost up to strength it should be possible to do more, although financial constraints would always be a problem.


Fiona Bruce MP wanted to know what more could be done to utilise those volunteer groups who wanted to work in prisons, particularly those which couldn’t evidence the effectiveness of their work in the ways required.


Michael Spurr responded that one of the unintended consequences of the new ways of working had been that a whole range of good groups that had been working in prisons had been squeezed out.  He emphasised that ways should be found to involve them, wherever possible.  As regards evidencing, he said that some organisations were seeking to evidence their work in the wrong ways – maybe they would not reach accreditation standard, but that did not mean they were not making a difference.


Lord Ramsbotham mentioned that some voluntary organisations were worried by the emphasis on payment by results.


Michael Spurr said that there was a clear differentiation between those not-for-profit organisations that were delivering contracted services, often in partnership with others, and those smaller voluntary organisations delivering other things on an ‘additionality’ basis. Those two categories had to be treated differently.  One example would be the Shannon Trust.  Toe by Toe (the Reading Plan) involved prisoners teaching other prisoners to read, and was additional to the contracted service provided by the education departments.  There was no problem with NOMS supporting this.


Lord Ramsbotham said that sadly time had run out and he would have to bring the meeting to a close. He thanked the speaker most warmly for his presentation and particularly for his honesty and freshness of approach. He recalled an officer, during a visit to Onley prison whilst he was Chief Inspector, who told him that the one thing he would appreciate was time with each young offender.  He expected that Michael Spurr might make the same wish, for time, to allow the changes of the past two or three years to bed in.  On behalf of the meeting, he wished him good luck in the months ahead.