The Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service have failed in their attempts to improve the condition and suitability of the prison estate, according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee.
Despite promises to create 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020, just 206 new places have been delivered so far, and prisoners continue to be held in unsafe, crowded conditions that do not meet their needs, states the 26-page report published last week.
Budget cuts imposed at a time of much-promised reform across the department have exacerbated the challenges to these ambitious programmes, which have been on the cards for over a decade.
The report also states that the Ministry of Justice’s “inability to successfully contract out services during probation reforms” has meant it has “once again exposed taxpayers to higher than expected costs as a result of inadequate planning, unrealistic assumptions and poor performance whilst managing facilities within prisons” and that HMPPS “has allowed a staggering backlog of maintenance work to build up that will cost more than £900 million to address”.
This means that 500 prison places are taken permanently out of action each year because of their poor condition.
Prisons play “a crucial role in supporting prisoners to stay away from crime on their release and reduce the £18.1 billion cost to the economy of reoffending each year”, says the report.
The poor condition of many prisons, coupled with high levels of overcrowding, are contributing to dangerously high levels of violence and self-harm in prisons, it adds.
Despite the PAC's recommendations in May 2019, “there is still no sign of a cross-government strategy for reducing reoffending”, it says.
It adds that “although Covid-19 has eased pressure on demand for prison places in the short term, we are concerned about the ministry’s ability to both improve the condition of the estate and meet rising demand through building new prison places in the medium to long term”.
The report concludes that the ministry’s track record “does not inspire confidence, and there is limited headroom in the prison estate to allow the space for vital maintenance work".
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “We are investing £2.75 billion to modernise the prison estate and deliver 10,000 new prison places – strengthening security and boosting rehabilitation. Work is already under way on two modern prisons at Glen Parva and Wellingborough which will create 3,360 new places over the next three years.”
She added: “We are developing a long-term, credible, prison estate strategy. This will ensure we meet our public protection obligations, put the estate on a sustainable footing and deliver the places we need. Plans are already under way to deliver 6,500 of the 10,000 prison places with four more new prisons, to be built across England over the next six years. In addition, work at Glen Parva and Wellingborough is making good progress. These prisons will create an additional 3,360 modern, safe and secure prison places.
“We have recognised the need to invest in maintenance and safety and are spending an additional £256 million to improve these over the coming year. Contractor performance has improved over the last year and is robustly monitored. We take prompt action where standards fall short and will work closely with facilities management providers and prison governors, to deliver further improvements to the existing contracts and services. On private providers. The government is committed to maintaining a balanced approach to the running of our prisons, building on the strengths of the public, voluntary and private sector.”
A National Audit Office report published earlier this year also said that the government is failing to provide and maintain safe, secure and decent prisons and its flagship initiatives to address this have not delivered results.