Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Good afternoon. Welcome to the Committee of Public Accounts. This afternoon we welcome Mr Martin Narey, Director General of HM Prison Service, who is going to discuss with us the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Prisoner Reoffending. Would you like to introduce your colleague?
  (Mr Narey) Nigel Newcomen, who is Head of my Sentence Management Group in Prison Service Headquarters.

  2. Thank you very much. I have to say that I did find this a very depressing Report and it seems that we are not making adequate progress, the sort of progress we would have looked to. Let us try and be positive and look at things in more detail. Could you start by looking at page 22 please and paragraph 2.17, and you will see there there is a phrase: "This is also the reason why the programmes available are still largely directed at male, adult prisoners serving sentences of one year and more. Those serving short sentences are generally not in custody for long enough." This seems to highlight to me what comes through again and again in this Report that so many of your programmes are directed at longer-term prisoners but it is the short-term prisoners that are so much of a problem in society who need to be addressed and are not being addressed. Can you tell us more of what you are doing to try to prevent these young men (because they are usually young men) from embarking on a life of crime?
  (Mr Narey) In terms of specific offending behaviour programmes, it is true that we have very few programmes for short-term offenders. The most important reason for that is that we have not yet found programmes which we think will work for those who are with us for only a few weeks. The offending behaviour programmes are very expensive. We know that if they are to work they have to be delivered meticulously and intensively, and those coming to us for quite short sentences their time in custody with us is frequently too short a period for us to put them on a programme which we think will work. One of the things we have tried very hard to do through the development of offending behaviour programmes is not compromise on quality but to try to make sure that what we do adheres strictly to the evidence we have of what will work. We are working on that very actively and we are trying to export things that will work. My own view is that one thing we could do for short-term offenders, if sentencing practice changes, is for them to be prepared for courses in custody but for them to complete them in the community.

  3. One of the problems is, is it not, that if you go to prison for less than a year you do not get probation afterwards?
  (Mr Narey) That is correct.

  4. It seems this is a problem. I understand to make a course work really well you may need up to 20 months to do it but surely some sort of course for some sort of period is better than nothing? Are you not setting your standards too high? From reading this Report, one has the general impression that these young men are put in there and the key is thrown away.
  (Mr Narey) I do not think we are setting the standards too high. We may have found something which might work. I can speak separately about drug treatment programmes and education programmes where we can do more for short-term offenders, but in terms of offending behaviour programmes, we think we have found something both for general offenders and sex offenders which will work. However, the research suggests not only that programmes have to be intensively and meticulously delivered, it also suggests that sloppily delivered programmes or programmes which do not adhere to the "what works" learning may have a detrimental effect. They can teach offenders pat responses, help them to deal in future occurrences in a way which might suggest they are complying with offending behaviour programmes when they are not. We are trying to prevent this, trying to do it properly and we are trying to make it work.

  5. I hear what you say but other colleagues can come back. Can we now refer to these very important figures, Figures 15, 17 and 18, which I suppose are at the heart of the Report on Pages 30, 32 and 33. You will see that the provision of all the programmes that we will be talking about this afternoon varies very, very markedly between prisons, between regions. Can you explain to me why these discrepancies on all these programmes have arisen and what you can do about it?
  (Mr Narey) We have only really started any sort of serious investment in any of these programmes in the last few years. With offending behaviour programmes, for example, although the distribution of them is still uneven, since 1993 there has been a seven-fold increase in the number of programmes which we have successfully delivered. Originally when we got the first money to expand programmes in 1998 we were very much putting them into places where the ground was fertile, where we already had psychologists in post for example and where we thought we could demonstrate that it could work. Essentially we were piloting them.

  6. If you go to Figure 33, I found in the Report that it was appalling that at one prison you are spending as little as £89 a year on education for prisoners. I think that is just extraordinary. I found that on paragraph 12, page 8. There seems to be such a difference in levels of expenditure between the highest and the lowest. It beggars belief really. You will see there it says, if you look at the bottom of that paragraph: "Similarly, annual average expenditure per prisoner on education varied significantly within prisons of the same category, ranging, for example, from £89 to £1,493 amongst male open prisons." Do you not think that a sum of £89 is just so low as to be shocking?
  (Mr Narey) Yes I do, I think it is very low. There is some explanation for that which partly explains it. First of all, funding varies greatly because in the 1990s prisons grew in size very fast indeed without there being any further investment in education, so the spend per head was very much reduced. Some prisons have always specialised in full-time work and very little in education whereas others have specialised largely in education. Open prisons—and I notice the £89 is for an open prison—and some of our resettlement prisons do spend very little on education but a lot of their prisoners go out to FE colleges and study outside. So although the range is very wide, and we have got a comprehensive review to try to balance that, I think some of the outliers are explained by the nature of the prison and the fact that the prisoners may not study inside the prison. In Latchmere House in London, for example, nearly all the prisoners in education go out to local FE colleges. If that is safe for prisoners to do that is very much the best place for them to be.

  7. Alright, others can come back on that. Can we look at prisoner transfers on page 34 now. If you turn to page 34 you will see there in paragraph 3.20: "In 2000-01 there were at least 60,000 transfers amongst the prison population of 65,000. The Prison Service has no data on how the prisoners are transferred whilst on courses and therefore unable to complete them." Again I find that an extraordinary figure. It is going to make it very difficult to have any idea of what is going on, how well the prisoners are performing, to give an opportunity to prisoners to do programmes. What can you do to address this problem of prisoner transfers?
  (Mr Narey) First of all, Chairman, I do have data on the way we have successfully expanded these programmes in terms of offending behaviour programme completion, in terms of a huge increase in educational qualifications and a massive increase in prisoners on drug treatment programmes, which have exceeded our targets, but there is a very real problem with transfers and I have to say right at this moment the problem is acute. The prison population has grown by 1,300 in the past fortnight during a period in which my statisticians advised me the population would not grow at all. The population has reached another record high today. I am shipping people up and down the country to wherever there is a bed. We are trying extremely hard while seeking to protect people on offending behaviour programmes and on drug treatment programmes, and I think we do that pretty successfully. We cannot offer the same protection to those on education programmes and many prisoners' training and opportunities for a decent and constructive time in prison are being significantly disrupted by the population pressure, which is simply overwhelming.

  8. I think Members will be deeply depressed by this latest information that once again we are at a record level of prisoners. There is no point in having ever greater numbers of people in prison if, as this Report shows, nearly six out of every ten you release will commit a crime again within a couple of years.
  (Mr Narey) Perhaps I can share with the Committee a key statistic which shows the struggle we are having, not to suggest we cannot do better. On purposeful activity we have increased hours spent by prisoners in purposeful activity since about 1993 by 25 million hours a year but, because the population has increased, the time spent in purposeful activity per prisoner has barely moved at all.

  9. Let's look at this purposeful activity. If you now go back to page 33 and look at paragraph 3.15 you will see this comment about Level 1. I think something like 76 per cent of the prisoners you discharge fail to reach Level 1. Level 1, for those watching, in terms of literacy is the level of an 11-year-old. Do you not find this rather alarming, that 76 per cent of your inmates are in prison with the literacy skills of an 11-year-old?
  (Mr Narey) I find it very alarming that I am having to provide a lot of young prisoners with the first education they ever get. I find it astonishing that in some of my establishments who care for those 17 and under, up to 75 per cent of the young men there have been permanently excluded from school from the age of 13. 60,000 educational qualifications were gained in prison last year. We are on target to provide, in prisons alone, ten per cent of the Government's target to improve the literacy and numeracy of 750,000 adults. We could do an enormous amount more and I would clearly like more funding, but we are attacking education deficits in a way which has never been done before. As I visit prisons, I meet countless individuals whose life chances by being in prison have been transformed. That is not a call for more to be sent to prison, I do not want a greater market share! I met a young person very recently who had come to us both illiterate and innumerate and was leaving with qualifications in literacy, numeracy, parent craft and bricklaying and had written a book which at the Koestler Awards this year won the Puffin Book of the Year award.

  10. How long had he been in prison?
  (Mr Narey) He had been in prison for about two years in Castington Young Offenders' Institution.

  11. If you turn to page 39, let us see if they are getting work experience that is useful to them outside. If you look at paragraph 4.15 ". . . the Directorate of the Home Office found that less than half its sample of 88 former prisoners obtained work in the months following release, and in only five cases out of the 88 did the work bear any relation to their jobs in prison workshops." What are you doing to try and equip your inmates for a useful job outside?
  (Mr Narey) We are doing a number of things. First of all, we have an absolute emphasis on improving basic education. We have not only invested more money in education (although I need more, I would argue) we have an absolute focus on improving literacy and numeracy and IT skills. Secondly, we are trying to realign vocational training. We have done a lot of research into the job market. We know the four areas for which jobs are available for typical discharged prisoners—in the construction industry, in catering, in leisure activities (work at leisure centres) and I forget the other one for the moment,[1] and we are trying to realign our vocational training to train in those areas. Our workshop work is as much to do, particularly when we have a very, very large population, with giving prisoners, particularly in overcrowded prisons, a break from the monotony of being in a cell. In some prisons in Durham for example in Mr Steinberg's constituency, we have intentionally had to put in very low-quality work. We have had to balance the choice between perhaps take a dozen prisoners and giving them things which will really teach them skills and taking 50 or 60 prisoners out of their cells for the afternoon packing charity bags. That is a choice I wish I did not have to make. But there is a need to look towards order and control and basic decency and get some prisoners unlocked otherwise they are going to be in their cells for 23 hours a day.

  12. That is another area colleagues can cover. Lastly, can you look at page 38. You will see there it says that the Prison Service has no national record of re-settlement activities. What comes through again and again when you read this Report is that so much of what has been achieved appears to be the result of initiatives by local governors. There seems to be a dearth of information you have centrally, a lack of central control to try and get consistent standards throughout the Service in terms of all the things that I have been talking about.
  (Mr Narey) I do not think that is quite the case. We are pulling together right now a full record of re-settlement activity around the Service. We have centrally driven those programmes which we know work in preparing people for release in the hope and anticipation that they will offend less. Re-settlement has been very much the theme of the past year in the Service, building on for example the education and literacy programmes and trying to get people into jobs, and we have agreed with the Home Secretary a target to significantly increase the number of people who leave us and get into jobs. I have to say from a point where we believe the accurate figure for those leaving us and going into jobs in the late to mid 1990s was ten per cent, we believe we have more than doubled that already to about 23 per cent, and we plan to increase it further.

  13. I will let colleagues come in on that. I just wanted to say that I felt very depressed by this Report. I am sure that you are trying to and you are making progress but at the end of the day everybody in this room has suffered from crime. I have been burgled a couple of times. We have all suffered. If we read this Report we find out that within two years nearly six out of every ten released prisoners will be reconvicted; eight out of ten admit to having taken drugs within a year of going to prison; out of the 135 prisons rehab courses were only available in 50; in some prisons, as I have said, as little as £89 was spent on education per person per year; 76 per cent of prisoners were discharged with the literacy level of 11-year-olds; 60,000 out of 65,000 inmates move every year. In some prisons, Belmarsh for instance, people work as little as 13 hours a week. This is a deeply depressing picture and sums up the picture of our prisons simply not working. That is my conclusion having read this Report.
  (Mr Narey) If I may respond, Chairman, I would agree with much of that in terms of my desperately wanting to do much more. I believe that prisons can be decent and constructive places and I think with the right prisons we can transform life chances. There is a lot of evidence right now that we are giving people an education for the first time, we are getting them off drugs for the first time and into drug treatment courses, we are putting them through offending behaviour programmes, we are making a difference to some lives, but we have started from a very low base. The first serious investment we had for drug treatment programmes was in 1998. Since then we have expanded the number of drug treatment programmes very significantly and we now have 50. I would like there to be many more. I would like much greater investment in education. I understand your dissatisfaction with this Report, but from the base at which we started a number of years ago I think it shows that investment in the Prison Service could have a dramatic effect on people's lives and can cut crime because the people we are dealing with are volume offenders. We know that when they are not in prison they are committing anything up to 30 or 40 offences a year. It is a hugely valuable investment and I hope very much in the forthcoming Spending Review I will get much more investment than we currently have because we have only just begun to play at the edges of this; we could do so much more.

  Chairman: I agree with everything you have said. Thank you very much. Mr Gerry Steinberg?

Mr Steinberg

  14. You are obviously aware that I have three prisons in my constituency, and I have a great interest in this topic. To some extent what the Chairman has said I agree with, but I think it is because of the way that it appears that you are tackling the problem. Can I pursue what the Chairman was talking about in terms of who takes these courses and the difference between accredited courses and non-accredited courses. I understand that the Prison Service has a system of sentence planning which is to be updated in the very near future. Is that right?
  (Mr Narey) We hope to replace the sentence planning system with a joint system shared between us and the Probation Service.

  15. Will the new system be carried out on prisoners serving less than 12 months, and if serving more than 12 months have at least six months to serve?
  (Mr Narey) At the moment we do not do sentence planning for that category of prisoners and I will only know the answer to that when the Government decides its firm response on the Halliday Report. One of the things in the Halliday Report on sentencing suggests that there should be a sentence of "custody plus". If that were established that would involve a much closer working relationship between prisons and probation and a short time in custody followed by a much longer period of supervision in the community, and sentence planning would then apply to that group.

  16. So is it correct that 75 per cent of prisoners do 12 months or less at the present time?
  (Mr Narey) I think the figure is nearer 60 per cent who serve 12 months or less.

  17. My figure says 75 per cent. Whatever you say, there is still quite a considerable number?
  (Mr Narey) Table 10 suggests that it is 56 per cent.[2]

  18. Okay. Tell me if I am right: most accredited courses are for 12 months or over?
  (Mr Narey) Suitable for prisoners serving that sort of period.

  19. That has got to be a very small percentage who are taking the accredited courses.
  (Mr Narey) About 56 per cent of the population serve more than a year. The reason why that may seem very high is that, for example, if somebody gets a sentence of a year, they may have done a couple of months on remand, after sentence, the sentence is halved to six months, they get two months off on remand, that is four months. If they get home detention curfew they are with us for about eight weeks.

1   Note by witness: The fourth area for which jobs are available is industrial cleaning. Back

2   Note by witness: Using receptions, for 2000, 71 per cent of sentenced adult prisoners arrived to serve sentences of 12 months or less. Switching to average total population for 2000, sentenced adult males serving sentences for up to one year accounted for only 9 per cent of the total population (whereas sentenced adult males serving longer accounted for 56 per cent of total average population). Back

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