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April 2012 — Working In Prison

Minutes of the All-Party Penal Affairs Parliamentary Group, held on 24 April 2012 at 5.00 pm in Committee Room 6

Speakers: Eoin McLennan-Murray, President, Prison Governors Association and PJ McParlin, National Chairman, POA

Lord Bradley opened the meeting, explaining that he had been asked to chair the session in the absence of the Co-Chairs. He was very pleased to welcome the speakers, Eoin McLennan- Murray, and PJ (Peter) McParlin, and invited them to address the meeting.

PJ McParlin said that he would begin, but first he wanted to thank the meeting for inviting them both to offer their insights on working in prison. He continued: ‘You see before you an unusual sight – the POA national lead and the PGA lead on the same platform, singing from the same hymn sheet, supporting the concept of working in prisons. That might come as a surprise to you, and I’m sure it would to many of our members. So don’t tell them that you have seen us. We had a rather tempestuous history in the past, before I was chairman and before Eoin was president, and we have some history to get over. But we’re going to try and get over that together. And if we disagree on some issues we hope we’re big enough and ugly enough to say, well, we disagree, and move on. It’s a new working relationship, and we are there together, partners in the criminal justice system. And I think that’s what’s necessary.

When I’ve finished, Eoin will give you an overview of working prisoners from the perspective of the person in charge. Because it will be prison governors who have to source contracts, follow directives from the centre, overcome practical obstacles, and create the working prison. It seems to us that prison governors, who are more used to having a degree in criminology, will have to have an MBA in the future. How that marries together will be interesting to say the least. Eoin will also discuss incentives for the workers – I am not talking now about my members, but about the prisoners – and he will also touch upon reparation for the victims. But I’ll just give you an overview, as an introduction.

I’m sure that everyone in this room will be aware that prisons have always been places of work and endeavour, and prison rules require prisoners to engage in ‘useful work’ and on occasion privileges can be used to encourage compliance in that useful work. No-one is compelled as such to work, and many do not, because the opportunities for work simply don’t exist. As we all know, although there is some very good work being done in prisons, in most cases prisoners are released still unprepared for work in society. Sections of the popular press, and indeed some commentators, seem to hanker for the days of work in prison when it was treadmills, and breaking up boulders in Dartmoor-esque quarries, overseen by brutal warders.

In reality, prisons have been known in the past for a variety of work. There have been productive farms and gardens, although I am afraid those have been reduced in number over recent years.  There has been this need to make savings throughout the estate and they have been sold off. There has also been a variety of what I would describe as mostly low-grade, repetitive, menial work in workshops, such as brush shops making shaving brushes, or packaging a variety of goods. Alongside that there has been production for prisons, such as furniture for cells, laundry services for prisoners’ clothes, and of course essential jobs such as producing meals for 88,000 prisoners – that’s a bit of a daily miracle in itself – and of course wing cleaning. It’s all done by prisoners. It’s not done by people brought in to do it from the outside.

There have been examples in the past of attempts to put prisons on a commercial industrial footing.  Coldingley is an example, and I am sure Eoin will discuss the lessons from the demise of that experiment. There seems to have been a mixed view on why that failed. Was it because the Treasury became involved and wanted their ten penn’orth, or their twenty penn’orth or their forty penn’orth? or was there an issue about human rights for prisoners, who needed to have the rights that ordinary workers have?

In 2005, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee reported that there were 24,000 working places across the prison estate. But in that same report the Prison Service accepted that prison industries had got rather left behind by all the developments in the system. It went on to say that the provision of work was no longer a central part of that system.  Education, education, education, drug and alcohol abuse sessions, etcetera. I think that tide is starting to change.

In March 2011, 10,000 prisoners were deployed in workshops and of that 10,000, 161 were women, which seems a remarkably low figure. In addition to that number there were approximately 500 on daily license from open prisons working in the community. I can recall being in Latchmere House when it was open and being somewhat surprised to see a bus driver having his hair cut. And I thought what’s this bus driver doing here? And then I realised this was a prisoner about to go out of the gate and drive the number 39 bus.  So that sort of work does take place. Again in 2009-10, according to Hansard, the number of hours per week that a prisoner was working was 11.8. That becomes important when we listen to what Ken Clarke says, that he wants a working week for prisoners of 40 hours. There’s a bit of a distance to travel there.

The case for change, to try this experiment, is easy to make. Obviously there is an annual prison bill of some £3 billion. On average it costs £40,000 a year to lock up a prisoner. Then there’s the unacceptably high rate of reoffending. According to the Independent newspaper in 2011, 36% of released prisoners went straight into a job or a training scheme. Encouragingly, of that 36%, only 22% went on to reoffend. They saw that as a success, and of course that compares with the 70% rate of recidivism among those with no employment. To all that, we need to add the intention of the government to save £2 billion a year from the penal system by 2014-15.

So what do Ken Clarke and his ministers tell us that they want?  They want a full 40 hour working week, across the prison estate. They want it to be meaningful work, with the discipline of regular working hours, and the development within that of new skills to prepare for employment on release. They also want to see reparation to victims, not to individual victims, but money to be put into a general pot, to be distributed as they see fit. They also want prisoners to be able to build up savings for their release. A cynic would say that that would enable them to avoid paying a discharge grant.

Eoin and I were invited in a personal capacity to be members of the Working Prisons Business Advisory Group. On that group are a number of commercial companies. For example, the chief executives of Ford Motor Company, Virgin, Timpsons – many of us will know of their work with prisons – and Amaryllis, a PFI firm. We’ve got to the stage now where there is an official launch scheduled for May in Number 10 Downing Street. There is a sales company called 131 Solutions. (Why? Because apparently there are 131 prisons. That’s not correct – but that’s their working title). The subtitle is: Justice Working for You.

Of course the two big things that prisons can provide for prospective companies are space and labour.  There is lots of space in any number of our prisons. It might be restricted in Pentonville, but Lindhome, for example, is absolutely huge.  It’s the biggest site of any prison in Western Europe. It’s an old airfield, and the hangars are still there. So space and labour are there, and they are concentrating on those traditional industries, but wanting to put them on a commercial footing: printing, engineering, woodwork, textiles and laundry, no longer for the internal market of prisons but for outside. And we are assured by the captains of industry – that’s how they describe themselves – that the quality is fine.

I started by saying that we are broadly supportive, and we are, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the problems.  For example, a full working week is somewhat ambitious. I wish that Ken Clarke had spoken to us before he went out with wanting a full working week. 11.8 hours per week is what it is at the moment. If they had said 20-25 hours, that would have been a more realistic aim, at least initially.   Then there are of course some prisoners who will never be able to work, and not because of security risks.  There is a lot of good commercial work taking place at Frankland, a dispersal prison, for example. But of course there are prisoners who have mental health issues, and issues of addiction.   Then there are the practicalities of prison life. The need for security, and the need to make sure that prisoners can attend for court appearances, for medical, legal and social appointments, for visits, and counselling and so on.  As I have mentioned, this is a workforce with a number of dependency issues.

Prisons are not currently structured for a nine to five working operation. Moving the gym, medical facilities, and counselling appointments to the evening, the time when the staffing is at its lowest, would mean the complete reversal of the structure of the current prison service today. And of course within that we have been quite clear that they have to continue with their education services, and their addiction therapy. If you can’t read the safety notice, you are going to have a problem in the commercial factory setting. That’s something that people sometimes don’t think about. If you listen to Dr Mary Harris of the National Grid, which has employed a number of ex-prisoners very successfully, it is very simple. She says she wants somebody who is now safe, and who is literate. That is something we should be able to provide. There is no point in just throwing somebody into a workshop environment with these issues. Work has got to run alongside the addiction therapy and the education services.

And of course, the reason I’m on the advisory group, as a trade union leader, is so that I can liaise with the TUC.  It would be a dreadful own goal if the law abiding public outside were going to lose jobs because of this initiative, especially in a recession. And of course that brings in issues of pricing. The TUC are broadly supportive. The Government are are now talking about being able to bring back into prisons work that has been outsourced, for example from Czechoslovakia, because prisoners can do it more cheaply. Fine, however when you look at the issues with regard to Remploy, for example, I am sure the TUC will cast a weather eye on that, and they will be concerned about where we are going. They will want to see a code of practice, and they will want to be able to see, as we do, that prisoners are not exploited. They still have to abide by health and safety legislation, and there has to be a legal framework, and we have to know how prisoners will address their concerns, and be treated with respect, in a commercial working environment. We must be quite clear that this experiment has to be a commercial success. Yes there are social benefits for prisoners and for society, but are they equal to the economic benefits?  Britain, the Prime Minister tells us, is open for business. We will all have a view about that. But I will tell you that it would appear that prisons are now open for business.  That’s more than enough from me. I will now hand over to Eoin’.

Eoin McLennan Murray began: ‘Before I talk about working in prisons with prisoners, just a bit more about the staff. PJ spoke of how we are working together, and discussing common issues about which both our associations are concerned.  The context within which this sits, at the moment, is that the Prison Service itself is restructuring. So working in prisons, for staff, is going to change dramatically. That’s being driven by competition. Prisons are being privatised, and we have to compete with the private sector. As a result of that, new working practices and management structures are coming in. New wage structures are coming in. The biggest change is that the starting salary for new entrant prison officers, since 1st April 2011, has dropped by about £5,000 and is more comparable to what the private sector pays their prison custody officers. Of course, over a fifteen year contract, if you factor in that lower wage bill it makes any public sector bid far more competitive. Managerially, the Prison Service is restructuring all management across the service, and it is slimming down, to mirror, again, what you see in the private sector.

This will be a new area for us. It’s bedding in at the moment. We are just going through the transformation stage as I speak. But that level of change sets up enormous uncertainty among staff. Those prisons that are being competed will often have a surplus of grades. They will have the old management structure. Yet when they go into the competition, they will have to adopt a new structure, either one run by the Prison Service or by the successful winning contractor, and we will have surplus staff.  If we retain the prison, the surplus staff will be protected in employment. If we lose the prison the surplus staff will face redundancy. So that’s the uncertainty many of our colleagues are facing. And it isn’t an even uncertainty across the country. In certain parts of the country it’s exacerbated; in the North East of England for instance it’s really dire. In the South East, and in London, it’s not a problem. But that is the backdrop to the emotional state of prisons at the moment, with all these changes going on.

Looking at work in prisons as far as prisoners are concerned, as PJ has very eloquently said, that stems from the Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle. Prisons are going to be places of hard work and discipline. We don’t actually disagree with that. There should be good constructive work in prisons. We know that if prisoners have employment skills and can get employment on release it reduces the likelihood of them reoffending. That has to be a worthwhile objective, and it is one which the Government recognises. So in order to get more prisoners into a position where they could gain work, we have to change our whole culture in prisons. We have in the past seen work as an activity, something to occupy prisoners during the day, because idle hands, as they say, make work for the devil.  We have to change from seeing work as an occupation to seeing it as a commercially viable activity which would generate an income. The whole prison regime will have to change to accommodate that.

So where are we now? The figures I have are slightly different from PJ’s. We’ve got 400 workshops at the moment, which employ 9,000 prisoners. Within those workshops the average hours are around 22 per week. I think the 11.8 hours that  PJ mentioned is if you looked across the whole estate and averaged out what prisoners were doing, in terms of time out of cell.  At best, some of our workshops are doing 33-35 hours per week. They tend to be in the less secure prisons where there is greater flexibility, and the governors have more scope to run a fuller regime. Our local prisons have the poorest figures. They are lucky to reach mid-teens in terms of activity hours and workshops in the week. So it’s a real stretch to go from 14 or 15 hours in a prison like Wandsworth up to 40 hours a week. In fact it’s impossible in Brixton, which doesn’t have any workshops at all. The service is so disparate that it seems madness to us to have a one-size-fits-all policy. It’s just not going to happen.

Really the only way this proposal can be successful is if it’s done in certain parts, and to a certain degree. There are some prisons which can accommodate longer working hours, have the space and have the capacity to meet the needs of industry. But some of our inner city locals are so packed, so old, and have such poor infrastructure that you are just not going to be able to develop to a state where you can run any financially viable enterprise. And those are the prisons that hold the section of the population, the short termers, who create the most offending, and are responsible for the highest re-conviction rates. Ironically, they are the people we should be targeting to try and inculcate work skills, to reduce their levels of reoffending. But these proposals will probably not be able to achieve that at all. I suspect we will be concentrating on those prisoners who serve longer sentences, and who tend not to reoffend so much. They are the population who I suspect will benefit from this working in prison scheme, while the people who really need it most of all are going to be left behind.

The big prison industries that we have, as PJ said, are laundry, printing, furniture engineering, and textiles. Just to give you some idea, the turnover is about £36 million a year. The plan is to increase that to something like £60 million, and they want to do that within the next four years. They plan to do that by extending the length of the working week. This is all being done, not with more resources being given, but with resources being taken away: the £2 billion savings that PJ spoke about. So the money has to come from private enterprise. That’s the only way that it can be funded. If you are going to extend the working week you are going to need to employ more staff to supervise it. Or you are going to have to restructure your regime, so that you close down some bits and allow other bits to expand. That would be quite a managerial challenge, and the detail hasn’t yet been worked out.

If you just increase your staffing, and you can pass that cost on to someone who is investing in your prison, that would be the best scenario. But if they want to make a profit, and you are going to buy in extra staff and put in infrastructure, those are heavy overheads. So, for the prisons where it will be viable, there will have to be an investment made by the company to ensure the numbers stack up. And if the numbers don’t stack up it isn’t going to happen, because private business isn’t out to make a loss. They want to make money. They also want to create new business opportunities. As PJ said, we’ve got space, and we’ve got labour. So what they are hoping for is that a company will come and say ok we want to take over that hangar at Lindholme, we want to invest in it and put in some capital equipment, we want to employ a number of prisoners, we want to produce a product and we want to sell it. And we will fund all of that. If that’s what they can do, that’s wonderful. Everyone wins in that situation. However, as I said, not every prison could accommodate that kind of approach.

There are other initiatives whereby we will just increase the contracts that we currently service. Let’s take laundry as an example. We may be able to provide laundry services for the NHS, or for hotel chains, and bring in those contracts commercially, because our laundries probably don’t work very efficiently.  As you can see if we are doing 22 or 25 hours per week, a lot of money goes into laundry equipment.  If you run it 24 hours a day you can take in a lot more work. I am sure there is scope for private industries to get involved in using our facilities in what would be down time for us. That might be a way to boost income and also to increase the number of hours that people work.

PJ spoke about the business advisory group that we sit on, and these captains of industry, who are obviously successful in their own fields, will be casting a very watchful eye on the financial viability of some of the schemes that are being suggested. So what’s emerging at the moment? There are certain givens, and the captains of industry have made this quite clear. Industry will pay the market rate for labour. So if you are marketing high quality furniture, and the commercial rate outside is that you pay £25 per hour, that’s what they will pay for every prisoner that they employ.  That’s not to say that the prisoner would get that amount of money, because what is envisaged is that the prisoner would get an allowance. That hasn’t been set yet, but it’s likely to be in the order of £20 to £25 per week.  The additional money that is being paid to the prison for the prison labour, and for renting the facilities, would go to cover the additional costs of that undertaking, because it is anticipated that the security and accessibility of the prison will add on-costs for any outside contractor, and therefore they could be reflected as legitimate costs to come off the bottom line. So the idea is that there should be sufficient income generated to pay the prisoners, and to provide for a rehabilitation fund for the prisoner, for his eventual release, as well as a fund for  reparation to victims. That would go to a charity like Victim Support.

The Minister is clear that it has to ‘wash its own face’. There can’t be a cost. It has to at best be cost-neutral, and that would include, of course, the contractor making some profit. There are some issues that it throws up. The Treasury will take the view that, if you are earning an income in a state-funded prison, then that money should come back to the tax-payer, or off-set the cost of running that prison.  So the MoJ will have to square with the Treasury some flexibility about whether they can keep that money, because it should go back to the public purse. That’s a battle that has yet to be fought.

From September last year, a new scheme was brought in  for prisoners who are working currently for real wages outside, on temporary release, whereby their earnings are not paid to the prisoner any more, but are paid to NOMS, into a shared service centre. The prisoner then pays national insurance and tax. His or her net income is then reduced by a further 40% and that money goes to Victim Support. There is no rehabilitation fund for these individuals.   PJ spoke about incentives, and I can best illustrate this with a case example. If you’ve got a man from a place like Blantyre House, working in London for a little above the minimum wage, he has to fund his own transport into London. A season ticket from Staplehurst to London is something like £4,500 a year. He pays tax and national insurance. What he’s left with, if you reduce it by a further 40%, gives him a level of income which he could almost earn if he stayed in a prison workshop. So there is a big question about whether you can incentivise prisoners to work if they don’t see that there’s anything in it for them. There is currently no rehabilitation fund for the prisoner, and what he is left with is not sufficient to make provision for his future accommodation needs. So in some ways the objective of helping prisoners resettle and steer away from crime is being undermined by the very policies we are now following.

Another interesting issue which might arise is this: what is the position with industry in privately managed prisons? Are they going to be subject to the same restrictions? Will the Treasury have the same view about money that they make as profit? I don’t think that will be the case. So I think there are a number of things that have yet to be thought through here, and the Government should think very carefully about making statements that are so generalised about what they are going to do across the prison estate, because it’s not really going to be achievable. As PJ said, in broad terms we very much support these proposals, in terms of increasing work in prisons, and  improving prisoners’ chances of successfully resettling, but we have got to be realistic about it, and  it has got to be done in a way that is practical and will work. What concerns us is that the rhetoric will create an expectation that the reality will not be able to deliver.  We will caution them about that. I’m going to stop there because there may be some questions about some of the detail’.

Lord Bradley
 thanked both speakers most warmly for their presentations and invited questions.