Public Accounts Committee highly critical of prison building programme

Work with offenders looks into another MoJ/HMPPS failure

In a report published last Friday (11 September), the Commons Public Accounts Committee condemns the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service’s “failure” in its attempts to improve the condition and suitability of the prison estate, echoing the “Transforming Rehabilitation” probation reforms of 2014 that were finally abandoned and reversed earlier this year, which the Committee has already labelled as “disastrous”.

The Committee says that “the Ministry has once again exposed taxpayers to higher than expected costs as a result of inadequate planning, unrealistic assumptions and poor performance whilst managing facilities within prisons.” Readers will remember that the MoJ outsourced prison maintenance to the multinational companies Amery and Carillion in 2014/15 only for Carillion to go into liquidation in January 2018.

The Committee has taken the Department to task for its failure to fulfil a promise to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020. Just 206 new places have been delivered so far, and prisoners continue to be held in unsafe, crowded conditions that do not meet their needs. Though women make up 5% of the prison population, in evidence to the Committee the Ministry was unable to answer basic questions about the female prison estate or demonstrate that conditions in these prisons are adequate for the needs and safety of prisoners.

Rather than delivering even a fraction of the promised places, HMPPS has allowed a staggering backlog of maintenance work to build up that will cost more than £900 million to address and means that 500 prison places are taken permanently out of action each year, due to their poor condition. The Committee makes the point that the poor condition of many prisons, coupled with high levels of overcrowding, are contributing to the dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm in prisons frequently covered on this site.

The Committee acknowledges that COVID-19 has eased pressure on demand for prison places in the short-term (the prison population has fallen by over 4,000 since lockdown was introduced across the custodial estate at the end of March), but says it remains concerned about the Ministry’s ability to both improve the condition of the estate, and meet rising demand through building new prison places in the medium to long-term.

The MPs on the Committee were blunt that the Ministry of Justice’s track record does not inspire confidence, and there is limited headroom in the prison estate to allow the space for vital maintenance work. The Ministry claims to be optimistic about both its capacity and capability to improve the prison estate and its future financial position. However, the Committee has challenged the MoJ to demonstrate it has learnt lessons from its past failures and that it has a coherent long-term and fully funded plan in order to make genuine progress.

In addition to its litany of criticism about the poor state of the prison estate, the Committee also noted with some irritation that there remains no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending. 

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, did not seek to conceal the Committee’s frustrations by resorting to diplomatic language in her summing up:

“The scale of failure, in our prisons and in the disastrous probation reforms, is really quite staggering. The apparent disregard for the position of women in prisons is just another indictment of a clearly broken system.

The Ministry is still reeling from the long-term consequences of its unrealistic 2015 Spending Review settlement, but our whole society is bearing the financial and human cost of sustained underinvestment. Even now, we are not convinced MoJ and HMPPS have the ingredients for an effective, sustainable long-term strategy.

We now expect a set of reports to be made to us over the coming months, assessing the realistic costs of their mistakes to date and how to fix them, and a credible new plan for a working prison estate and system that can reduce re-offending – not just lock people in to this cycle of violence and harm.”