Thursday, 16 May 2013

How Not to Run a Prison

Everyone agrees that two of the biggest winners from privatising probation will be G4S and Serco. Yesterday I highlighted how G4S was getting on with their MoJ asylum-seeker accommodation contract, and today I thought we'd look at how Serco was doing running the new HMP Thameside in London.

As it happens yesterday was Serco's AGM, ironically held almost within a stones-throw of the brand new, but failing prison. We know it's failing because that's the conclusion that must be drawn from the unannounced inspection carried out by HMI staff in January:-

"Information we received about Thameside suggested a need to bring forward our first inspection of this establishment and, as a consequence, we inspected the prison when it had been open for just 9 months. Our findings overall were very mixed and improvement was required for most aspects of the prison - in particular, safety, the provision of purposeful activity and meeting the resettlement needs of prisoners.

Prisoner's reception into custody was reasonable if a bit chaotic and our survey findings suggested prisoners felt safe. Levels of assaults however, were too high and of concern - prisoners semed to lack confidence in what in fairness was an inexperienced staff group, to deal with and protect them from violence or delinquency. In the autumn, and as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the usual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality.

The prison's regime was one of the most restricted we have ever seen. Time out of the cells was very limited. We found 60% of prisoners locked up during the working day, and some spent 23 hours in their cells. There were far too few activity places for the needs of the population, and much of the provision required improvement. There was too little vocational training, and most of the work available was low skill." 

Apart from excellent accommodation (it is a brand new prison) it's hard to see much in this report that's positive. No wonder private prisons are keen to supply Sky subscription channels to prisoners as a way of keeping them 'occupied.' I'm also intrigued by Nick Hardwick's opening words "Information we received....One could speculate about the HMI getting shoals of letters from angry inmates, but that must be routine, or possibly a whistelblower?

Maybe the answer is a bit more straight forward than that. With all private prisons, NOMS/MoJ don't just hand the keys over, they always install an official 'spy' who I suppose is there to ensure contract compliance. Now I'm not an expert on these matters, but I could speculate that Serco might well have had reason to feel that they were indeed performing to what was specified in the contract - and we all know how good the MoJ's track-record is on drawing-up contracts - but that might not be the same thing as running an efficient, effective and safe prison regime. I wonder if the official MoJ spy just gives the HMI a call? Anyway, the Howard League for Penal Reform were quick to make comment on the report:-

“This is what happens when you hand the justice system over to vast multinational corporations, who put cost-cutting and the interests of their shareholders ahead of concern for public safety." 

Of course Andrew Neilson is right and should serve as a warning to us all as to what we can expect if Serco win significant probation contracts. The OurKingdom website covered the story in some detail and picked up on the money Serco was making out of lucrative government contracts:-

"Thameside is run by Serco, the company that inspects Britain’s schools, trains our armed forces, runs our prisons, maintains our nuclear weapons, and is taking over big chunks of our NHS. Shareholders met in London this morning to hear about a 20 per cent increase in their dividend payouts.

That's especially good news for chief executive Christopher Hyman who has amassed close to one million shares in the company. At today's price his stake is worth £5.8 million. The dividend payment alone will make him £91,702 richer.
That's on top of his annual remuneration of £1.9 million. On top of that is his "performance share plan" which adds another £1.5 million. Plus, to ease the chill in his retirement, he's got a pension pot that is already valued at £2 million — Chris Hyman is 49 years old."
They also picked up on the fact that healthcare provision at the prison has been contracted out by the NHS to a campany called Harmoni for Health. This sort of sub-contracting doesn't sound promising for what will be the norm in a privatised probation service:- 
"The head of health care was a nurse; she was supported by a clinical lead. The team structure under them was described as being ‘in transition’. There were several vacancies, and long-term agency staff were used. Staff training was appropriate but clinical supervision was in its infancy."
But we shouldn't be that surprised should we, because it's supposedly all about a more efficient and cost-effective service isn't it? The first thing Serco did when they took over the London Probation Community Payback contract was make a whole load of staff redundant, thus reducing the supervision of offenders on CP. 
As for Harmoni for Health, well that gives yet another bit of insight into the privatisation going on in the NHS as this Guardian article highlights:- 
"Harmoni's finances are complex, with hundreds of shareholders and different classes of stocks. According to an analysis of documents filed with Companies House, five GPs figure prominently and own a quarter of the company between them. If each share has an equal stake, the GP founders of the company, David Lloyd and Nizar Merali, would share £2.8m. This could easily more than double, if just their preference shares are valued, to £6.3m.
Harmoni was the largest private firm providing out-of-hours services for the NHS and funded by the taxpayer. Although it was set up in 1996, it began its rapid growth in 2004 when GPs were allowed to opt out of out-of-hours care. Harmoni proved successful in picking up contracts to provide the service, relying in part on its network of GPs. In five years its revenue has grown fourfold, from £23m to almost £100m in 2012.
The company's success in winning the 111 contracts has made it even more valuable. From April 2013, people seeking urgent healthcare advice will dial 111 – the service replacing the nurse-led NHS Direct helpline in England. Care UK recently lured a top civil servant from the Department of Health – Jim Easton, who oversaw the NHS 111 procurement process – to become its managing director."
You know, I can't help feeling we're all going to hell in a handcart. Better sign the No10 petition here. 


  1. G4S's incompetence over the Olympics cost them £50m, including the costs of paying for the military to cover the bungled contract. We can highlight private sector failings in the delivery of public services but things are far from perfect in the public sector. There are poorly performing prisons in the public sector and we all know about the appalling standards at the Mid Staffordshire hospital. One difference here is that when the private sector is held accountable it bears the cost, not the taxpayer.

    The zeitgeist supports an expanding role for the private sector and this is supported by public opinion. A Populus survey ( in 2011 found that 'the public generally are relaxed with private sector involvement in public service delivery. More than two thirds (69 per cent) agree that if a private or voluntary organisation can deliver a public service more efficiently than the state, then they should be allowed to do so. Less than one-in-five (19 per cent) believe voluntary organisations and private contractors have no role to play in delivering frontline public services'.

    Arguments for keeping probation public, in my view, lack persuasive power and it is difficult to see why there will be second thoughts by this government when that has not been the case with other services. We know there is a political consensus to privatise, so apart from warm words, nothing substantive is likely to come from Labour – the party that liked to privatise!

    I don't think banging on about probation having won gongs for 'excellence' is going to cut much mustard. Gongs are ten a penny and at the time Mid Staffordshire was leaving wretched patients lying in their faeces and thirstily drinking water from vases, the hospital was getting star ratings and winning foundation status. No, I don't set much store by gongs.

    I think there is limited mileage in going on about reconviction data – such statistics are dizzying and defy simplistic assertions. Probation has no magic wand on reconviction, despite its one hundred years of experience.

    The strongest card is supposedly risk management. Low and Medium risk cases have mostly been supervised by unqualified probation officers (PSOs) anyway and risk reviewed by PSOs. I don't see why this can't continue under the auspices of the private sector. There will be new networks and working relationship to build, but we are forever being told how good probation is at integrated and multi-agency working alliances.

    What I am looking for are compelling arguments to keep probation public and I don't see them. The zeitgeist is against us, the service, with its growth in unqualified staff over the past decade has deproffesionalised itself, it has effectively parcelled itself for delivery to the private sector. Will it be a rump that is left behind, or a nucleus of professionally trained probation officers whose reputation may in the years to come be enhanced. It will be viewed perhaps as the service with greater expertise in risk assessment and management through its association with high risk cases.

    Didn't the probation service get too big for its own good, too management heavy and punitive? At one time probation's efficiency was all too apparent in breach courts. Probation would do anything Whitehall decreed. So lets not be too precious about the present probation service – it is not the organisation it was once, it really did sell its soul to managerialism.

    I don't think the roof is going to fall in if PSOs have new employers. Conditions of service for the majority will deteriorate but anguish about staff conditions and wages is not a winning argument for public probation. The public don't care if wages fall as so many are already in worse employment situations than probation staff.

    1. It’s a simple matter or principal that some functions of the State should be provided by the State. Criminal Justice is one of those functions where it is just plain wrong to involve the private sector in supplying services for profit.

      You can’t rely on public opinion on these matters, if we did the UK would still have the death sentence, we’d withdraw from the ECHR, we’d be out of the European Union and assisted suicide would be legal.

      We all know that we can get a public surveys to say anything depending on how you ask the question.

    2. Solicitors work in the criminal justice system and operate with a profit motive. And with the cuts in legal funding and contracts, it's likely that some of these legal functions may be managed by companies such a G4S.

      The point about citing public opinion is that the public are not against the private sector delivering public services. I may be, you may be, but many people don't mind, don't think about it. Their only concern is that the service, as in the NHS, stays free at the point of delivery.

      It is not a simple matter of principle that some functions should be provided by the state. Principles are not immutable. It was once considered principled to have the coal, gas and other utilities under public control. People hold to different principles.

    3. It's a different thing. A defendant can currently pick and choose their solicitor if they wish. If they don’t like the service they receive they get another one. But a person cannot pick and choose their arresting officer, their prison, or their probation officer.
      Profit is fine and healthy when a customer can choose. Someone who doesn’t like Asda, can go to Tesco or Sainsbury’s . Asda have to work harder to get that customer back and maintain and increase their profits or they go bust.
      The public sector is completely different. The criminal justice system is a service which the State is obliged to maintain - it cannot go bust.

    4. Actually under the new arrangement for legal services it is likely that a legal advisor will be allocated, not chosen. In some GP practices patients are being allocated doctors on the day and losing the continuity of a named doctor.

      This is not about choice, it is about outsourcing. The principles you cite are laudable, but the principle that it is OK to make a profit in the delivery of criminal justice service is now fairly well established - tagging, private prisons...and much more to come.

    5. Trouble is, from what I’ve seen service always drops over time and costs nearly always increase.

      Here’s some examples.

      *PFI, the great initiative to improve public buildings etc, will cost the nation over 300 billion over the next 30 to 40 years and at the end of the contract, its either re-negotiated or the company keeps the buildings and the public service has to find new premises.

      *Hospital cleaning, contracted out to save money. Private company cuts wages on short contracts with no benefits, employees are demotivated with no initiative and we end up with dirty hospitals and super bugs running rampant.

      *Hospital catering, contracted out meaning that hospital food has no nutritious value at all. Patients don’t get the diet they need, so stay unwell for longer taking up a bed..

      *Private run care home for the disabled, poorly paid staff mistreat the patients and the care home closes and the patients have to be re-homed by the Public sector.

      *Private carers, given massive workloads for little pay, so can’t spend enough time with each patient meaning nobody gets the care they either pay for or deserve.

      *Private security in hospitals, watch on as fights break out in A&E and do nothing to prevent it apart from calling the police.

      *Private security in mental health units, watch as vulnerable patients walk off the premises, making no attempt to stop them, call the police after the patient has gone.

      *Tagging of offenders, well known that private firms abuse the system terribly to meet targets. When they do get a breach they write statements which are so poor they have no evidential value what-so-ever, meaning public sector time is spent sorting it all out, retaking statements etc.

      *Management of the waterways contracted out, so less maintenance and more flooding.

      *Drug testing for those in custody introduced by the government. Public sector staffed custody blocks just get on and do it. Private sector staffed custody blocks need a renegotiated contract and extra pay per test.

      *Rail companies privatised, but still get massive subsidies from the tax payer while imposing successive above inflation annual ticket price rises, with no real improvement in service.

      *Parking enforcement was a public sector job. A traffic warden was available to take care of parking, but would also help with other things like traffic control and be a person of authority who could provide a visible presence and had police back-up in doing the job, which meant there was effectively 24 hour cover. Now private firms take on the role and discretion is lost, tickets are issued no matter what the circumstances (parking officers got bonuses for numbers of tickets issued). Staff only work during contracted hours meaning no 24 hour cover and won’t take on any other role.

      I haven’t even mentioned G4S and the Olympics.

      The public sector is by no means perfect, but the fact is that when you out source to a private company you have to write a contract. But the public sector has to deal with unforeseeable circumstances which can’t be accounted for. A true front-line public sector staff member or agency will adapt and deal. A private sector company will demand re-negotiation and payment. Hence, in the long run, service is reduced and cost go up.

    6. Wow - thanks for the concise but comprehensive demolition job! You are absolutely right, there are loads of examples, but some people clearly wish to remain oblivious to the evidence for one reason, or other. As I highlighted the other day, there are serious flaws when 'market' philosophies are applied to public services, not to mention moral flaws too.

      Thanks again for what must have been quite a time-consuming response - but it will serve as a very useful 'aide-memoire'



  2. No-one has ever said that the public sector Probation Service was perfect but all the evidence suggests that the involvement of the private sector results in a deterioration in service. Efficiency is an attractive term but the efficient production of an ineffective product is indefensible. Rumours are already circulating of Serco running out of money in London and going back to the Government for more - despite the suggestion that they are not delivering what they said they would in their bid.

    The rhetoric rhetoric of the private sector as innovative and efficient does nor bear close examination. Everyone knows it, including the providers. But everytime anyone cries foul, they disappear in those intermittent nights of the long knives that are common in companies like SERCO, SODEXO et al. The public don't mind until it is their turn to get the second rate services on offer. Professional standards are eroded and service usets lose out. They know it because they have seen it happen again and again.

    1. We can go on until we are blue in the face about how the private sector does not deliver on promises and may be less effective and efficient than the public sector. We can cite evidence of failings in the private sector and how it delivers second rate services and drives down costs and conditions of service of staff, while amply rewarding its senior managers. But all this counts for nothing if the driving force behind privatisation is ideological. It has taken probation a long time to wake up to the fact that its all ideological. It all fits into a neoliberalism template. We may not like it and we may believe it could be better if the state remained the provider of services but that has not been the pattern of the past thirty years, starting with Thatcher, expanded by Blair and turbocharged by the present government. An added impetus in times of austerity is to get rid of liabilities for future taxpayers in respect of employment costs and pensions. Another factor is that politicians get work with these private companies – look at the number of ex-Labour ministers who caught the gravy train to the companies that are taking over in the public sector. Remember the former home secretary John Reid who lambasted the probation service in remarks made to prisoners, condemning the service for letting people down and saying it needed fundamental reform. Reid is now a G4S director.

      The fate of probation will not be determined by who is on the right side of rational arguments, it will be determined by politically - where might is right!

    2. Well guys that's quite a good summation of the argument and analysis of the situation. Unfortunately due to the limitations of this blog site, I have no idea how many anonymous persons have contributed, but very many thanks to you all for taking the trouble.

      I'm absolutely clear this is ideological and yes all three main political parties basically want to 'shrink the state', feather their own nest and line the pockets of their mates. I'm tempted to say 'a plague on all your houses' and sincerely hope that the march of UKIP scares them all witless.

      I have absolutely no confidence in any politicians at all and that includes my own clueless MP. But politics is a very funny business, and so is public opinion. Remember what Harold MacMillan said about 'events' - it's events dear boy.

      A week is a long time in politics and this blog is not just dedicated to trying to win the argument, it's about causing a degree of mischief in order to win the battle. That's what politics is all about in the final analysis - the art of the possible and this omnishambles may prove impossible to implement for a whole host of reasons.

      We have a long way to go yet dear readers before it's a 'done deal' and I'm in no mood to roll over and have my tummy tickled, even if that's what a majority of the public might want and even if that's what a majority of Chiefs want!

      Anyone else feel the same?



    3. I am sure this is right – the future of probation is set for the next few years. Probation staff will feel cross, and let down I am sure. They will feel that they know better and if there was any ‘justice’ then the Justice Secretary would not be doing what he is doing. But this is to misunderstand the rules of the game. I personally cannot see how this is going to be resisted. There is no platform. Public protection not profit is not going to get any traction – certainly not until it’s too late. If it makes you feel better - by all means sign a petition, or run a blog on why it’s so unfair and immoral and misguided.

      Resistance will have to be much more nuanced. Small victories may be all that can be achieved. But don’t expect sympathy. If you don’t like it – then get a different job – it’s what we will all have to do in the world of the private sector. It’s like that for most people already. Don’t expect them to care if you have to join them.

    4. I repeat - governments do not always get what they want and this coalition government has quite a track record of u-turns. There are loads of things that can and will go wrong and the mood of the public can change overnight in response to events.

      Everyone has to make an individual decision whether to roll over or resist these proposals. I'm resisting.



  3. Signs of the coalition collapsing reported in the papers today (Tories wanting to 'ditch' the Lib Dems). Add in the EU u-turn and UKIPs rout and I guess anything could happen at anytime.

    Your life in their hands, huh?

    1. Exactly - politics is a very funny business and the best laid plans can be scuppered at any point. History is littered with plenty of examples.