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Prison © iStock
Government is “failing to maintain” prisons, says NAO © iStock

10 February 2020 | Herpreet Kaur Grewal 


The government is failing to provide and maintain safe, secure and decent prisons and its flagship initiatives to address this have not delivered results, according to a new National Audit Office report.


More than 40 per cent of inspected prisons were rated as “poor” or “not sufficiently good” for safety in the last five years.

Inadequate safety in prisons has reached all-time highs. 

Over the last decade, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has taken 1,730 cells permanently out of use and it expects to lose 500 places a year because of the poor conditions of the remaining estate. Over 40 per cent of prisons need major repairs or replacements in the next three years. 

There is currently a backlog of major repairs that will cost £916 million to fix.

There is a surplus of 18,700 places in local prisons for people serving short sentences or on remand awaiting sentencing. 

However, there is a shortfall of 15,000 training and resettlement places. Local prisons are intended to hold prisoners for a short time. However, they are increasingly holding longer-sentenced prisoners because of the lack of places to support prisoners’ transition into the community.

Unsuccessful outsourcing initiatives

The government has tried to improve conditions by contracting out prison maintenance and creating new prison places through its flagship Prison Estate Transformation Programme. In 2014-15, HMPPS decided to outsource facilities management and expected to save around £80 million by contracting out to the firms Amey and Carillion, but it has failed to achieve this.

HMPPS has had to spend £143 million more than expected over the last four years. It had an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of prison conditions and the services needed. It also severely underestimated the need for reactive maintenance work due to vandalism and breakdown.

HMPPS has struggled to create new prison places. In 2016, it committed to build 10,000 new prison places but only 206 have been built, with 3,360 under construction.

The main reason behind these failures was the delays in agreeing and receiving funding to build new prisons. This meant construction work began later than planned. In addition, HMPPS was not able to close old prisons and replace them with new ones due to high demand, which meant it received less money from sales income.

HMPPS has been focused on sorting out the immediate needs of the prison estate, investing its resources to address prison population pressures and deteriorating prison conditions. The report recommends that HMPPS develop a long-term strategy to set out what conditions prisoners should be held in and minimum levels of investment needed to ensure a safe and decent environment.

MoJ, Treasury and HMPPS need to work together

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO said: “HMPPS has not been able to create enough prison places, in the right type of prisons and at the right time to meet demand. It has failed to deliver the savings it hoped for by contracting out prison maintenance services. Prisons remain in a poor condition, poor safety has reached record levels, and there are huge maintenance backlogs.

“The Government has recently committed to creating 10,000 new prison places and needs to learn lessons from its recent experiences. Crucially, HMPPS must work with the Ministry of Justice and Treasury to develop a long-term, deliverable strategy that will provide prisons that are fit for purpose.”

An MoJ spokesman said: “We recognise the pressures facing prisons which is why we are taking action to improve the estate and ensure sufficient resource is in place.


“We will always have enough prison places to keep offenders behind bars and the Government’s £2.5bn investment will create 10,000 modern places, on top of the two new jails already being built.”


He added that the government had "recognised the need to invest in maintenance and safety and will spend an additional £256 million to improve these over the coming year – allowing us to further reduce violence and focus on rehabilitation".

The MoJ also said it was "developing a long-term, credible, prison estate strategy" to meet “public protection obligations, put the estate on a sustainable footing and deliver the places we need".