Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence





  1. Good morning, Mr Narey, Mr Wheatley. We are very sorry to have kept you waiting. We are very grateful to you for re-arranging your diary at very short notice to come to discuss your speeches with us. We were extremely interested in all that you said and you were kind enough to let us have the notes on your wind-up speech as well. May I just start by asking what prompted you to make that speech now rather than six months ago or in six months' time.?

  (Mr Narey) The annual conference is a very important event for the Prison Service. I made my first speech as Director General when I had just got the job and last year, a year into the job, it was a reflection on the first year. This was very much a reflection on the two years I have been Director General (DG) and Phil has been Deputy Director General (DDG). The speech was much more optimistic than has been suggested by some of the press coverage. What I was saying was that I felt we were on the verge of doing something which most of us joined the Prison Service to do which was to run decent and humane places. I was sensing, as I went around and visited prisons and from our discussions with colleagues in the Prison Governors' Association, that some governors were saying we were making life too hard, too difficult. I was trying at this point, at the only forum in the year when I speak to every one of our governors, to say that actually we are on the verge of something which is incredibly important.

  2. That certainly came over to me in the speech you made. I was all the while as well asking myself a question and I shall put it to you now, if I may? How is it that prisons can get into that state in the first place?
  (Mr Narey) Not all prisons are bad. I am extremely proud of a lot of prisons right now and I mentioned some of those separately. I intentionally mentioned those which have been poor for as long as I remember; certainly for all the time I have been associated with the Prison Service. There are clearly some very difficult problems for the Service which include resourcing, which include Victorian prisons, major problems with maintenance, overcrowding and so forth. I have become ever more convinced, certainly in my time in this job, that sometimes we have used that as an excuse for not making more of what we have got. Yes, overcrowding is a problem; I dearly wish we had less overcrowding. I do not think that the fact a prison is overcrowded does not mean you cannot treat prisoners with dignity and you cannot keep the recesses clean and so forth. What I have seen in the last couple of years at places like Leeds, for example, is the leadership of an inspirational governor making it a much more decent and humane place. We just have not quite proved it.

  3. I understand all that and indeed in Mr Wheatley's speech he went out of his way to say none of these were reasons for not delivering decency. I really do want to understand this. You say that you have known bad prisons for ever. How can they get to that state. I genuinely do not understand this.
  (Mr Narey) A major part of the explanation is a belief by those who work in the prisons and those who manage the prisons that they have to accept the unacceptable, that that is just the way things are in places like Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs. It is the way things are. We as a Service have sometimes allowed our managers to set levels of decency at too low a level. We are beginning to make a breakthrough on that. It has been a difficult couple of years but by getting the right managers in the right place—and neither Phil nor I thought we had the right managers in the right place when we took over together in these jobs—by getting our very best people in the most difficult places, we have started to see dramatic change. It is by raising the standards and by leadership, by saying to staff that we can do much better than this.

  4. You singled out one of the issues as POA opposition. Would you say something about the impression, which I am sure I am not alone in having, that labour relations, let alone human relations in the Prison Service are at best very mixed and certainly not what they should be?
  (Mr Narey) There is no doubt at all that relationships at local level between governors and trade unions are sometimes not what they should be. The POA have been a traditionally restrictive organisation who have fought very hard and very successfully to protect the interests of their members. I have never blamed the POA at large for that. Sometimes we have failed to manage the union as effectively as we might and we have failed to assert management's right to manage in some institutions. We have started to tackle that. Nationally at the moment the POA is being very well led and there is a genuine commitment nationally to a better industrial relations future and we have just agreed to another pay review body. The POA, I hope, are just about to sign up to a voluntary commitment never again to take industrial action and to a disputes procedure which will allow change to take place much more quickly. These are huge advances. I would be dishonest to suggest that there are not pockets in individual branches who are still very, very resistant to change and we have had to manage them very, very hard.

  Chairman: It is the same in this place.

Mr Winnick

  5. Your contract is coming up for extension, is it not? In 11 months' time, am I correct?
  (Mr Narey) Yes; I hope so.

  6. In your speech you indicated that you may not be interested in staying on. You made the point that you needed the unequivocal support of Ministers and the backing of an outstanding, committed and cohesive board. You say you believe you have that. Otherwise, you went on to say, no doubt you would find an easier way of earning a living. At this moment, can you be quite frank? Have you made up your mind whether you want to stay on in the Prison Service or not?
  (Mr Narey) I desperately want to stay on. I was trying to make the point that we cannot do this job from London. We need the support of every single governor and I need to know that they are behind me in wanting to effect and sustain the changes we so desperately need.

  7. Would it not be true to say—and I speak as a politician—that conditions in prison and prison reform are not the sort of vote-catching measure? None of us—and I suppose that includes me—when the election comes will be knocking on doors and emphasising the importance of prison reform. In the absence of that sort of political climate, how do you think you can persuade politicians—and that includes obviously both the Government and the Opposition—that conditions in hell-hole prisons—you used the word, did you not?—must be improved, that some of the prisons are a disgrace at the moment and politicians must face up to what is necessary?
  (Mr Narey) First of all, I certainly agree with your general point that prisons are not paramount in people's thoughts in terms of winning votes. I had better be fair and say I have had a very fair deal from this Government in terms of the investment I have enjoyed apart from sufficient money to keep pace with the population growth so that overcrowding is at least not getting any worse. I have had very, very significant investment in regimes, so we have been able to make some quite astonishing progress in literacy and numeracy. We are making some prisoners employable for the first time before they leave us. We have tripled offending behaviour programmes, £75 million in the past three years into drug treatment. Despite it not being a vote winner, I have had some very, very important investment and clearly I hope that whatever happens, whenever it comes up that will continue. I need the investment; the investment has been sufficient to convince me that there cannot really be any excuses for not improving prisons where we have had an investment which I believe is unparalleled.

  8. Do you believe there will be any change as a result of your speech?
  (Mr Narey) I am very self-conscious about saying this because I am sure director generals have believed this before. I honestly believe that we are making some awful places reasonable and on a much larger scale making a lot of places which were just about tolerable much better. I believe that the reactions I got and responses I got from governors last week, particularly at the end of the conference, were sufficiently warm to convince me that the overwhelming majority of them are committed, however hard the job is and it is a very, very hard job and the job is an incredibly difficult job. However hard the job is I am convinced that the overwhelming majority are fully behind me. I think we will see steady improvements in our care of those in custody over the next few years. I know the Committee are coming to visit some young offender establishments. You are going to see a mixed bunch of them. You will see some which are still inadequate, but you will see one or two in which there have been quite extraordinary improvements.

  9. You referred to hell-holes. How many prisons would you say are in such a condition as to warrant that description?
  (Mr Narey) I was using that description in the past tense. I was referring to places such as Scrubs, Wandsworth, Brixton and Leeds, all of which are improving. Brixton is late in that list but even at Brixton the fact that there is association every weekday evening for 450 prisoners is quite remarkable when one looks back at the history. Those places are fast improving but there are still places which Phil and I are both worried about. Birmingham, Winson Green, on which the Inspector's report has yet to be published, is in my view the worst place I have seen and where standards of care, particularly in health care, have plumbed depths I have not seen before. We already have a talented governor in there, a very able deputy, good management team and we will turn Birmingham round.

  10. You are quite optimistic about that.
  (Mr Narey) I am absolutely positive .

  Chairman: I am very pleased to hear that.

Mr Stinchcombe

  11. May I declare an interest at the outset in that I am on the Board of Trustees of the Prison Reform Trust? I was at Lord Woolf's lecture a week or so ago when he called prison overcrowding an AIDS virus within the prison system. You have previously called it a scourge. A former Chair of the Prison Governors' Association has called it an obscenity and Lord Woolf previously called it a cancer. Those are all accurate descriptions, are they not, of the problems caused by overcrowding?
  (Mr Narey) Overcrowding is a very considerable problem indeed and you are right that I called it a scourge. The reality of overcrowding for male adults is that 12,500 or so men are sharing a cell meant for one, which means in most circumstances they are sharing the toilet in the cell, they have to defecate in front of one another, they have to eat their food in that cell. It is pretty hideous. I do not believe it is an excuse for not nevertheless making the custodial experience as constructive as it can be. At one or two prisons, Altcourse in Liverpool, for example, where they do have overcrowding, they have such a good regime, they have so much time out of cell, prisoners at work, in education, for so long through the day that that overcrowding becomes much more tolerable because it is not 23 hours a day, it is four or five waking hours a day.

  12. May I go through some of the problems which are directly caused by overcrowding? Lord Woolf in his Strangeways report called, for example, for an end to slopping out. Slopping out still continues in certain establishments, does it not, because of overcrowding?
  (Mr Narey) Barely at all. When slopping out was abolished in the mid-1990s there were four wings which were intended to be mothballed in which integral sanitation was not installed: Bristol, where we are now installing integral sanitation; Swansea, Exeter and Dartmoor are the three others. There is no integral sanitation and they are occupied by prisoners. We do have staff on duty through the night to unlock prisoners to go to the lavatory.

  13. Does slopping out not take place in Strangeways itself in four wings?
  (Mr Narey) No.

  14. Lord Woolf said it took place in Strangeways.
  (Mr Narey) I was at Lord Woolf's speech as well and I did not hear that and it certainly does not.

  15. Community prisons. Lord Woolf also recommended in his Strangeways report that we should hold prisoners as close to their home town as possible for the very sensible reason that whether they have a solid family to go home to is the single greatest factor in determining whether they are likely to re-offend again. We currently hold 26,000 prisoners more than 50 miles from their committal court town, do we not?
  (Mr Narey) We do indeed.

  16. We hold 11,000 more than 100 miles away.
  (Mr Narey) I am not sure about the figures, but certainly we have a real problem with closeness to home. Ideally we would have prisoners in prisons much closer to their home, but I have to say that I sometimes think closeness to home is exaggerated. If my son or my daughter were in prison, I would be much more interested in them being in an institution in which they were given decent treatment, reasonable access to education and other activity, even if that were some distance from home. We do make stringent efforts to make it economically viable for people to be visited. We pay about £3 million a year to those on benefit to visit people in prisons.

  17. Which could otherwise be spent on crime prevention or on re-offending behaviour strategies in prison.
  (Mr Narey) Indeed. I am not advocating not having people close to home, but it is something which we can get around. I do not think if we suddenly had a redistribution of the estate and necessarily were able to have prisoners close to home that on its own would make much difference. It is how people are treated within the institution which counts.

  18. I accept that but, for example, in my constituency of Wellingborough the youth bench send their young prisoners to Huntercombe which is miles away. So mums and dads cannot easily go to visit those kids and cannot provide the kind of support that those youngsters will need.
  (Mr Narey) That is true but as an example we do have a particular problem with those who are 17 and under because we only have 13 establishments now specialising in that age group. It does mean that some young people are further away from home that they would otherwise be. The counter to that is that they are enjoying a regime of unparalleled quality. They are unlocked for up to 14 hours a day, they are in at least 15 hours of education every week and that is a good example of where there is a balance which needs to be drawn between closeness to home and quality of regime and treatment for an offender.

  19. How long are offenders locked up in Northallerton per day? Nineteen hours?
  (Mr Narey) I do not think it is 19 hours. Northallerton has a very unsatisfactory regime. I do not think it is 19 hours but it will certainly be more than I want. They have association at Northallerton only on limited evenings.[1]

  (Mr Wheatley) I do not have the figures.

1   See Annex. Back

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