Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500 - 519)



  500. Without the private sector competition, you do not think that would have happened.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I do not think it would have happened. I think that actually the private sector competition was an enormous stimulus to see whether in fact the job could be done differently and better and more effectively.

  501. Did you come to a view as to whether the problems which you encountered in the prison service were somehow distinctive to the prison service for the reasons that we think we know about?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Oh, yes.

  502. Or that there are more general lessons here for the public sector?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Oh, yes. I am quite certain that, for example, the system in which the private prisons were run was very much in their favour. For example, if we went round on an inspection and found something that we thought could be done better, we would mention it to them and by the next day it was done. There was no question of it having to be referred into committee and goodness knows where. It was very interesting to observe the approach to prisoners—and the word "humanity" I have mentioned, which is in the prison service statement of purpose. I shall never forget watching in Doncaster, the first time I went, to a prisoner being taken in control and constraint to the segregation unit. He was struggling and one of the custodial officers—I do not know whether he was an ex-miner or an ex-soldier—said to him, "Please stop struggling Mr So-and-so, you will only hurt yourself" and the man went limp with astonishment. The attitude, calling them Mr So-and-so and treating them as such, was very much recognised by the prisoners, who referred to the public sector prisons as POA prisons. It was interesting to me that the directors who had put this way of dealing with prisoners into practice were all people who had worked in the public sector. When I said to them, "Why did you do this?" they said, "Well, we had been longing to do this when we were in the public sector but we just could not get it through the system."

  503. This reference to POA prisons, another argument we have been exploring is one that has been given to us from a number of quarters, that the public sector is intrinsically self-regarding; that is, it works in its own interests not in the interests of users. Is that what you are essentially saying in referring to POA prisons?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I think in some prisons, it is not in all. There are two types of prisons. In the old Victorian local, where it is in the stones, and somehow in the large young offender establishments, and I do not know how it has crept in there, the POA attitude to prisoners is in charge and has not been stamped out by the prison service as effectively as I would have thought. You compare that with the attitude in the private sector prisons such as Altcourse in Liverpool, and compare Liverpool Prison up the road. I mean they are on a different planet as far as the way they do their work, because the private sector will not stand for that sort of behaviour by its employees to prisoners.

  504. Mr Hutton, taking my queue from the prison guard, you are an apostle of the public realm. When you hear this kind of indictment of what it is like in practice, how do you react to that?
  (Will Hutton) First of all, I think what happened in the prison service in the post-War period was—I would be interested to hear whether Sir David agrees—a calamitous organisational and leadership failure within the public sector. That things could have got to such a pass and that at present exercise, the rehabilitative period, in some of these public sector prisons is 11 hours a week, compared with 30 hours in ones which are privately run, is a real failure of public sector leadership and public sector organisation. The big point is: Is the only change agent that one can imagine, to introduce the private sector in the way it has been introduced? Two things need to be said to the Committee. There are, what, 80 prisons? How many prisons are there?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) 139.
  (Will Hutton) Sorry, there are 139 prisons, with five or six . . . How many of them are privately run?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Nine.
  (Will Hutton) Nine. You are talking about a very small part of the prison service which is actually privately run. You need to know that actually a couple of very difficult prisons recently the private sector have not bid for.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Yes.
  (Will Hutton) You need to know also that there are other ones where the change agency in the private sector has led to a quite significant change in the leadership of these prisons and they have begun to win back contracts. I think that actually tells you quite a lot. I do not use it as a case for contract culture and privatisation of the prison service, as it is sometimes rawly expressed. What I think has been quite cleverly done is actually using the private sector as a change agency for what should be a publicly run, owned and organised service, but there are major leadership problems. I would have made this point in the introductory remarks, one of my strongly held views on this now, particularly having been at the Industrial Society for just under two years, is that I think there is a way in which one needs to reconceptualise this argument, that it really is an argument, not at heart but there is a dimension of it, about efficiency. A lot of private sector organisations in Britain are very inefficient. Our productivity is poor in the private sector and our productivity is poor in the public sector. I would argue that as a culture Britain does not take the organisational structure, management and leadership issues as seriously as it should in either the private or the public sector. It has become more acute in the public sector over the last 30 to 40 years and, because occasionally interventions of the type of the prison sector have produced the very good results they have delivered, there is almost an ideological response, which is to say, "Right, that means the wholesale case for privatisation or this kind of contract," when actually, as Sir David said, you could import this notion of contract specification within the public sector. The Home Office could write these kind of contracts as a public sector organisation, for publicly owned and run prisons, and build in incentives for the resulting performance and penalties for it not being met. The big question to ask is why that has not taken place.

Mr Prentice

  505. Maybe I know. We hear about the exploding prison population. Maybe Sir David can clear this up. Is there any cap on the number of prisoners that can be sent to a private sector prison? If there is such a number and it is breached, presumably the private company running the prison gets more money.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) They do. The private sector prison gets paid so much per so many prisoners. But it is interesting that, for example, Altcourse, which was designed for 600 had 900 in it almost immediately because they were asked to take another 50 per cent. They said, "Yes, we will take 50 per cent, but it will cost £x, because, in addition to having a bunk or bed to sleep in, we have got to provide the activities to occupy them by day." So the private sector will, yes, take the extra numbers and will charge for them.

  506. If money is no object, yes. I mean, they are out to make a profit. "600 prisoners specified, give us 900, we will bring in people to ensure that prisoners have `purposeful activity'," in your words. The private sector is happy but it is the Treasury that is doling out the cash.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Yes. That is part of the contract. The Treasury has control over how much profit the private sector company makes. That goes into the contracting procedure. I do not know what the margins are but the private sector companies tell me they are not very big. I think there is the scrutiny of various committees who look at the contracts. The other day, when the private sector lost the renewal of Blakenhurst, the prison service won by saying that they could deliver 12 per cent better treatment for prisoners at 13 per cent less cost over 10 years. Those maths are a bit too precise for me and I am not quite certain that one can measure that.
  (Will Hutton) You have heard Sir David's reply to this, but of course Group 4 run prisons and my understanding is that their approach to this is significantly different from the American corporation Wackenhurt that runs prisons. This is a point you raised in some of the questions that you put to us to consider. I do think it matters what the culture is of the organisation that actually has the contract. Wackenhurt come from an American culture where there have been 1,000 prisons built in the last 20 years in the States. They are there. The whole question of them being privately run, they are nearly all of them privately run and managed and actually the conditions in them are not like those in Britain. Their amount of rehabilitation has collapsed, some of the treatment of prisoners is unbelievably callous, they are treated utterly as commodities, and actually there is a general view in the States that the privatisation of prisons has led to a callousness and a very high recidivism rate. They have an enormous prison population, as you know. It has built up over the last 10 years. The supply of prisoners going on to the streets is now half a million a year. The recidivism rates are calamitous and there is a generalised view that actually we need to get the public sector back into the US prison service. A firm like Wackenhurt that comes from that culture—and here, once again I would not wish to say this is . . . I am talking impressionistically now, so be careful, because I do not want to libel Wackenhurt, but there is a definite distinctiveness in the two companies' approaches. In consequence, one of the points that you asked us to consider is whether it matters whether a firm is committed to the social order, to corporate social responsibility, or how it takes public interest matters, whether the structure of the private company within the public sector engages with matters in the protection and delivery of public services, and I would argue very passionately that it does.

Mr Anthony D Wright

  507. On this particular point, surely it is the case that in the private sector they view the prisoners as commodities. You said back in June, Sir David, that: "Prisoners are people not commodities and must be treated as such. Any firm that uses these methods would go bust." Surely the opposite is the true analogy; that if they did not use them as commodities, then they would not. You mentioned that at Altcourse there was room for 600 and they took 900. Surely that was a commodity process aimed at making extra profit.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I do not think I can agree with that because what happened at Altcourse was when they built the cells they actually built them to be big enough to be able to take two if necessary—because quite sensibly we are looking at the overcrowding factors and overcrowding has been endemic in the prison service for too long. They realised that this might happen. The same happened at Park in Wales: the cells were big enough to be able to take two. Because the condition of taking two is not size so much as facilities: Are there two beds, two chairs, two lockers? Is there a screened lavatory and a washbasin? and so on. If they are big enough for that, then you can take two. To say that they took more for more money, I do not think is right. They were asked to take more by the prison service because the prison service has the problem of where are they going to put these people. If they put them in police cells, at the price of £300 a night, and nothing is done—which is what was happening before—then they are thrown right back into the situation that existed in 1995.

  508. Is the system using them as commodities, then?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Yes.

  509. Because, quite clearly, if a prison is built for 600, they should turn round and say, "Sorry, we can't take any more in."
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) The system is treating prisoners as commodities, yes, it is. This is one of my concerns. What is the aim? This is where I go back to the aim of actually protecting the public by preventing re-offending. That means full, purposeful and active days for everyone. If somebody is locked up all day doing nothing, then you are not achieving the aim. You are just regarding it as a number you have to keep for a period of time and then send back to the public, and you are not protecting them. That is wrong. I would have expected the prison service to be making a great noise about the fact that they are having all these numbers of people pushed on them. When I left my job in July there were 66,000 people in prison, there are now 68,500. It has gone up by 2,500 in four months. That is the speed they are doing. If they are really thinking about them as people, they should be pushing and nudging and shoving to be given the resources with which to look after them. They cannot. They cannot build the prisons and so they are going out and in fact they are letting contracts to the private sector to do the building for them because they cannot compete. The public sector cannot compete in the time required.

  510. Would the difference between the private and public sector be, if they were approached to take more prisoners the private sector would say they would want more resources in terms of finances to provide more facilities for the prisoners, whereas the public sector would say they would take the extra prisoners and reduce the facilities. Is that what you are saying?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) That is what I am saying. You will find that the private sector makes a point about having extra workshops, extra education centres and so on, which the public sector does not. Brixton is a classic case in point where last year Mr Boateng, the Minister, said that Brixton was failing and he was going to market test it. Brixton had no workshops, it had no education centre, the gym was outside the wire so only people who were qualified for open conditions could use it, it had had four governors in four years and the strategic plan had been ditched. So Brixton had been failed by management and failed by ministers and was not able to do the job. Quite rightly, when it was let out for private sector firms to tender for, they all said, "We are not going to tender for this unless it is given the resources with which we can do the job" and so that market test collapsed. To my mind, it was a wrong use of the market test.

Annette Brook

  511. Sir David, have you any evidence of re-offending rates. I know it is going to be rather limited evidence, given the proportion of private prisons, but it is all very well having the facilities and so many hours but is there actually a measurable outcome, a way of measuring the rate of re-offending?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) No. This is the thing I find quite extraordinary. The first question I asked on my first day in office was: "What are the re-offending rates? Which prisons are making the best fist of it?" No-one knows. Nobody measures it. It seems to me to be absolutely extraordinary that it is the one statistic that you really need to know in order to measure success and all they can tell you is that in general terms 55 per cent of adults, 80 per cent of young offenders re-offend within two years. The reason they know that is because when they are rearrested they are asked whether they have been offenders before. I think this is madness because that must be the key question for any form of quality assurance, either private or public, and both could be subjected to the same examination.

  512. Is the answer here, whether it is private or public sector, actually to have clear measurable targets and perhaps objectives in the first place for the culture and so on, the people working within it, and everybody, signing up to the objectives?
  (Will Hutton) It does seem astonishing that a very simple measurement of success like that has never been introduced or established. The numbers are non-existent. I am as set back as obviously the members of the Committee are by that. I think that is a commentary really on the way much of the public sector has been managed and run. Again, I have to be very careful, it is like the curate's egg. Some impact of 20 years of reform has begun to show through but there are still areas where basic management information systems do not exist and basic knowledge about the costs and outcomes do not exist by which you can make real sensible decisions about resource allocation. I think there is also too frequently an unwillingness to confront practices which in parts of the private sector absolutely would not be tolerated. Speaking as somebody who passionately believes in the public realm, you have to say that actually internal organisation and leadership of the public sector has let us badly down. I really think it would be good to open up the issue of why it has been for so long that actually internal public sector organisation and management and leadership has been so indifferent. Full stop.


  513. Sir David, can I take you back to ethos. You were Adjutant General in the Army and you then went into the prison service from 1995 until this year. The ethos of public service within the military and the prison service, what do you see as the great differences in ethos between the two organisations in which you have been heavily involved?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) May I say I am writing about that at the moment.

  514. Could we have a transcript!
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I am very interested that the word "accountability" appears so often in your questions here. Because it seems to me that the thread that runs through the military organisation are the two words "accountability" and "responsibility": everyone is accountable to someone for what they are responsible. That goes right down to the soldier on the ground right up to the Minister at the top. Everyone knows to whom they are accountable and they know for what they are responsible, and they are held to account if that does not work. If you look at the prison service, that simply does not happen. It is not there. There is no clear line of accountability and responsibility from top to bottom. Line management is fudged and it does not work. I went to Parkhurst Prison last year and I asked the Governor what was the aim of Parkhurst Prison and he said, "To save £500,000 from my budget by the end of the year." I said, "That is not my question. My question is: Why should a prisoner be sent to Parkhurst and what are you meant to do with and for him during his time here?" He said, "It's all very well for you to speak like that but my line manager tells me that my first priority is to save £500,000 from my budget." When you look at the management of the prison service, it is not about telling the prisoners exactly what they are to do. They are not directed on functional lines, except for the high security prisons (which are the ones which cause most embarrassment to ministers if there is an escape: witness, Whitemore and Parkhurst). All the others are run in a geographical way by area managers who are responsible for all the prisons in a particular area. They have the budget for those prisons and they adjudicate between the various prisons, but there is no consistency about looking at the treatment of women in Lancashire and women in Kent, or young offenders in Staffordshire and young offenders in County Durham. This is what I think is wrong, because I believe that that management structure is not accountable and responsible. The blame culture is in full swing: you make absolutely certain that you are not accountable. I think what you have got to do, in order to get the public sector working—and, like Will, I am a passionate believer in the public sector running the prisons—and they can have private sector ones on contract, but they are their prisons, they are Her Majesty's prisons run by Group 4 as opposed to the public sector, but until you get a clear line of accountability and responsibility into the management structure—and that is all about the delivery of the aim and not about exact compliance with every regulation, performance indicator, target, rule, operating structure and so on—until you get accountability and responsibility straight, you will continue to have flawed management.

  515. Is it not then, thinking along that line, that you, as a commander, give your order and it goes down to the bottom and you expect the bloke at the bottom to carry that out as it has gone straight down the line?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) But I would also have a mechanism in there to make certain that it happens.

  516. That is what I was going to come on to.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) You must have supervisory, to see that it happens. You cannot go on just issuing masses of orders and instructions and rules and piles of bumph, assuming it is going to happen.

  517. So it is change that is the cause of the problem without thinking through the logical conclusion to the change.
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Yes. And the system that they have which floods the governors with bureaucracy. The Governor of Holloway in July told me that 80 per cent of his time was taken up with bureaucracy. What organisation can function if the leader who has to be out there is so constrained by bureaucracy? This is again a difference with a private sector prison because the management of the private sector is not nearly so constrained by the bureaucracy. Fortunately, a lot of the prison service bureaucracy goes to the controller and not to the director, but if you do not have a clear line of responsibility . . . I am responsible to the Director General for what goes on in all women's prisons and I must have a machinery for making certain that what has got to happen, happens consistently everywhere. This does not happen at the moment. I think this is one of the reasons why over and over again I have found in prisons exactly the same faults that I have found in other prisons somewhere else years before, because the machinery was not there for ensuring that it was eliminated everywhere.

  518. I am not being flippant, but I love the lucidity with which you have described this. I mean, we have spent hours trying to work out what accountability is and then you come along and in a very crisp and simple way tell us it is about being accountable for things for which we are responsible—and there you have it distilled. Why do we not hand the whole shooting match over to soldiers?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) Well . . .

  519. They would get it sorted for us, would they not?
  (Sir David Ramsbotham) I suppose soldiers are simple people and you have to have a simple concept for them. I wish to goodness one could just cut through a lot of the nonsense that is going on because it wasting so much time and money.

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