Friday, 2 February 2018

Phil Wheatley on Prison Crisis

Continuing with our theme of evidence to the Justice Committee's TR inquiry, yesterday's blog post flushed out mention of Phil Wheatley of NOMS fame and in particular a piece he wrote for the Guardian in December 2016 that we don't seem to have covered before. So, thanks go to the reader for bringing it to our attention and this is what he had to say:-   

It took years of Tory cuts and wild policy swings to create this prisons crisis

The situation in jails is now so bad it can be resolved only by a prolonged period of stability and investment, and allowing managers to do their jobs.

The current crisis in our prisons is a matter of deep concern. It is an indictment of government policy in recent years, and will not be easily put right. It is vital that politicians understand and address what led us here if it is to be repaired. Without that, the crisis will deepen – with inevitable and dire consequences for prisoners, staff and the public.

I retired as chief executive of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) and director general of the Prison Service in June 2010, at which point the service was performing strongly. Suicides, escapes and serious incidents of disorder were at an all-time low, and the published statistics showed there had been more than 10% improvement in reoffending since 2000.

This was achieved despite the distraction of significant organisational upheavals initiated by ministers as they created and then reformed the National Offender Management Service.

The government’s unwillingness to fund the increases in the prison population that were driven by their obsession with pursuing populist law and order policies also caused problems. Ministers saw no problem with overcrowding to dangerous levels despite advice on the risks, making it necessary for me to refuse outright to comply with their wishes.

My successor, Michael Spurr, has faced even bigger challenges as a consequence of the severe budget reductions. This has been compounded by successive Conservative lord chancellors introducing their own radically different policies for prisons. Ken Clarke, the first lord chancellor in the coalition government, accepted a budget for justice that required substantial savings. He did so on the basis that it would be manageable if he both reduced the prison population and competitively tendered all public sector prisons over the lifetime of the government.

Just over two years later, David Cameron removed Clarke after political and tabloid press criticism of his proposals to reduce the prison population and his apparent unwillingness to be tough on prisoners.

Chris Grayling came next, with a brief to toughen up prison conditions without reducing the numbers and with no additional funding. The competitive tendering process was immediately abandoned. In its place, Grayling announced a programme of significant reforms across the prison and probation service.

The plans threatened the stability and safety of prisons but they were essential to meet the short-term political objective of managing within the planned budget while not reducing the prison population and not attracting tabloid criticism in the run-up to the 2015 election. It is a tribute to the skill of the Noms leadership and management that it delivered what Grayling required.

He was succeeded by Michael Gove, who charmed penal reformers by rubbishing most of his predecessor’s policies and making clear he had no taste for firm, centralised management. Ignoring the predicament prisons were in, Gove’s seductive policy vision was of liberal treatment for prisoners and freedom for individual governors to do their own thing.

Yet another major reorganisation of Noms was required: the third such upheaval in five years. Gove, of course, was gone before he had to take responsibility for the disruption caused both by his abandonment of Grayling’s policies and his abject failure to engage with their consequences.

Liz Truss now has the misfortune to inherit the operational disaster that is the direct result of these continued budget reductions and wild swings in government policy. The policies pursued by her predecessors have led to the loss of experienced prison managers and staff, too few prison officers of any sort, wages that make it difficult to recruit and retain staff, and a reduction in privileges and access to treatment interventions and regime activities that have been corrosive for prisoners. The situation is now parlous and will only be resolved by a prolonged period of policy stability and investment. It will take years to put right.

It is to Truss’s credit that she has quickly recognised that prison staffing levels are too low to maintain safety or security. It remains to be seen whether she also understands that prisons work best when they are not subjected to fluctuating political whims and have strong, effective management.

So far she has proposed league tables, more budgetary freedom for prison governors and accountability for hitting agreed performance targets, all of which is sensible and marks a return to the system we operated prior to 2010.

The organisational changes she is making are less encouraging. The process of recovery from the current crisis will require effective support services geared to meet the operational needs of prisons so that personnel, finance and procurement are integral to the management effort to resolve the problems faced. The minister however has transferred control of these services to the Ministry of Justice, so they will be managed by staff who have no experience of the operational challenges faced by prisons. It is highly likely that this will hamper the recovery effort.

There are no quick fixes that will easily rebuild the morale and confidence of staff. It is essential that ministers now refrain from whizzy political initiatives, and create a period of organisational and policy stability. This will allow the very competent managers of our prisons to concentrate on the core business of restoring order and constructive activity in our prisons.

This current crisis is a failure of major proportions for the government. Managing prisons is a difficult and highly skilled task that requires adequate resourcing, and a stable policy environment.

In the period since May 2010 the government has failed on both counts. The current leaders and managers of the Prison Service have struggled to deliver what has been required of them by politicians who have been told what risks they were running. The responsibility of ministers in bringing our custodial system to the brink of collapse needs to be understood and openly acknowledged if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster.

Phil Wheatley was chief executive of the National Offender Management Service and director general of the Prison Service


On a completely different topic, but connected to the mention of Liz Truss, I see she's getting the blame for a key decision made when Lord Chancellor and in relation to the staggering cost of medical negligence claims against the NHS, up from £24billion in 2014 to an estimated £65billion in the future. This from the NHS Executive website:-

Payments doubling

The principal reason for the rise in claims costs is the ever-increasing size of awards in high-value cases. The causes of this are outside NHS control. An obvious example is the Lord Chancellor’s decision to cut the discount rate (the interest rate used by courts to calculate the size of lump sum compensation payments) to a historic low of minus 0.75% from 20 March 2017. This dramatically increased the size of all compensation awards for claims in the pipeline and future claims, including those arising from incidents that have already happened but where a claim has not been made. Many higher-value cases more than doubled in size overnight, with some individual cases now valued at close to £20m. Although further proposals have been announced which would see this change reviewed and the discount rate adjusted, this is unlikely to make enough of an impact on overall claims costs.


and I wasn't aware of this, highlighted as a need for reform:-

Repeal outdated clinical negligence law: A law that pre-dates the NHS (Section 2(4) of the Law Reform (Personal Injuries) Act 1948) requires all personal injury defendants to disregard the availability of NHS care when paying compensation. Patients who have been injured while receiving NHS treatment must be compensated on the basis that they will receive private treatment for life. This outdated legislation costs the NHS (which is often best placed to provide care to these patients) billions of pounds. The law should be changed so that defendants could compensate patients by paying the NHS and local authorities to provide damaged patients with specially designed public health and care packages. This would boost NHS funds for the benefit of all patients, including the majority needing long-term care and treatment for severe injury which has not resulted from negligence.


  1. Everyone at blog hq must be exhausted!

    I keep wondering what Grayling, *unt & the other revisionaries are up to when they're 'oh so quiet'. What have they sold to whom while we've been distracted by May en Chine & Brexit bollocks?

  2. Copywrite issue???

    1. London review of Books (LRB)

      On Probation
      Eleanor Fellowes 1 February 2018

      The probation service has a Cinderella complex: misunderstood and overlooked next to its more attention-grabbing siblings, the police and prisons. It does more than its share of legwork but gets little thanks. Many people seem to have a loose sense of probation as the do-gooding counterpart to the prison system, but little grasp of the detail.

      Probation is different from parole. The Parole Board is a decision-making body; it works a bit like a court, independent but sponsored by the Ministry of Justice. It decides whether certain prisoners – the minority who aren’t released automatically halfway through their sentences – can be released or progress to an open prison. It holds hearings in prison, taking written and oral evidence, questioning the prisoner, his (much less frequently, her) probation officer, prison officers and perhaps mental health staff. Victims should also have the opportunity to provide a statement. If the Parole Board decides release is safe enough, the probation service steps in to take the lead from the prison service. People on probation are still serving their sentences and can be returned to prison at any time. With indeterminate sentences – such as John Worboys is serving – that remains the case for ten years; if they go back to jail, re-release is never guaranteed.

      The probation service was founded in 1907. Its history can crudely be divided into three: Christian-infused charity at the start; welfare-oriented alternatives to custody in the middle of the last century; and a hard swing to managerialism and public protection since the 1990s. Any remaining social work roots had been fully severed by 2000 when the Home Office defined it as a ‘law-enforcement agency’. Ever since it has been subject to restructure after restructure. The most recent was the most radical – 70 per cent of the service was privatised in 2014, against all advice, and the public barely noticed. The Justice Committee is now conducting an inquiry into these changes. The chief inspector of probation, Dame Glenys Stacey, published a highly critical report in December.

    2. Against this backdrop, the graft continues. Probation staff work with people on community orders (sentences that don’t involve custody); they work with people in prison and after; they write parole reports and guide sentencing in court; they support victims; they run approved premises (hostels) for people just out of prison; and they play a central role in the multi-agency public protection arrangements that surround those who provoke the most fear. All important work, but not uncontentious. For one thing, it adopts a model of crime that places individual (as opposed to social) pathology front and centre. For another, it combines an offer of care with surveillance and correction. This leads to such confused organisational straplines as ‘Preventing Victims, Changing Lives’.

      Anecdotally, a lot of probation officers say that they’re in the job because they think it matters and, that what matters most are the relationships they try to build with the people on their books. It may sound sentimental; it isn’t. Probation officers also say that the systems they’re working in compromise their ability to offer the most basic elements of these relationships: consistency and availability. Caseloads are enormous and bureaucracy is fetishised.

      The 2014 changes split the service according to risk assessment. People judged to be low or medium risk are now supervised by private ‘community rehabilitation companies’. There are 21 of these, covering different areas of the country, and they are struggling to cope. Some probation officers have as many 200 cases on their books, and are reduced to talking with people over the phone or in an open office. People who are assessed to pose a high risk of serious harm to others – around 30,000 a year – are supervised by what remains of the state probation service. Beyond the alarming implications of privatising an arm of the criminal justice system, the most obvious flaw in the model is the idea that people can be put into low, medium or high-risk categories, and stay there. As Stacey said on the Today programme recently, people aren’t like that. David Ramsbotham, a former chief inspector of prisons, once suggested that the phrase ‘people are not things’ be ‘emblazoned on the hearts and desks of every minister and official with any responsibility for probation’.

      Our approach to justice is caught between demands for care and a focus on endemic injustices, on one side, and, on the other, reminders of the harm caused by crime and a desire to punish and control the guilty. Probation officers know that both sides are on to something: the pain someone is capable of inflicting is bound up with their need for help. The task is to negotiate this tension, not imagine it can be removed. It makes for difficult work under any circumstances. As it is, the service has been divided, officers are going without adequate supervision, and we’ve just got our fifth justice secretary in three years.

  3. AL Kennedy, R4, Point of View - Winning!

  4. Ben and Ian representing and presenting to the Justice Committee. Excellent presentation by them both:

    Well done, keep it up.

    1. I'm afraid I don't agree - I'd describe Ian's performance as perfunctory - what do others feel?

    2. Notes on Ian's performance as-it-happened

      * well-meaning but missing the necessary gravitas & impact

      * answers seemingly without structure

      * too eager to impose his own agenda rather than weaving it into the JSC format

      * evidently very pleased with himself - big mistake

      * overall, an underwhelming & disappointing performance


    3. I thought Ian's performance was made worse by the fact that Ben's was pretty impressive.