Earlier this week, Justice Secretary Michael Gove told the House of Commons, not for the first time, that he wanted to see prison governors given more freedom along the lines of Academy Principals or NHS Trust CEO’s. Gove believes that with increased autonomy in a structure of clear accountability, significant improvements can be achieved in the prison service (whose dire performance was once again indicated by the latest data on deaths,self-harm and assaults).
At the same time a mile or two away, Michael Spurr the Head of the National Offender Management Service was telling the Annual General Meeting of CLINKS (the umbrella organisation for prison charities) just how difficult it was going to be to make Gove’s governor autonomy policy happen in practice.
In an admirably candid talk, Spurr said he had hoped for a period of consolidation after the substantial changes to prisons and probation wrought by the last government. But Gove’s refreshing reform agenda offered huge opportunities, with 10,000 new prison places in 9 new prisons enabling a new model of imprisonment in which overcrowding and idleness could be, if not eradicated, then much reduced.
But as for the governor autonomy agenda, Spurr admitted there were many thorny issues to resolve. In a perhaps too candid example, he pondered aloud whether a governor who wanted to introduce overnight family visits would be allowed to do so. A lot of head scratching in Whitehall seems to be going on about where the limits to freedom of action should lie. But don’t bet on conjugal visits surviving the first ministerial briefing or outing in the Daily Mail.
In education, freedom from local authority control has brought with it the ability to depart from the national curriculum, set pay and conditions for staff, change the length of school terms and school days. Along with greater control over budgets principals have responsibility for their buildings and their management. Could prison governors be given these kind of powers?
Take the analogy with the national curriculum. Would Gove’s brave new world allow governors to disapply Prison service orders or instructions if they so wish? As things stand, even private prisons which seem to be Gove’s model, can’t do that. A recent study of competition illustrated the weight of prescription by showing 15 pages of a contract specifying how prisoner can use their own cash to buy goods. Are these to be ripped up and if so how many of the pages? Will newly empowered governors be able to opt out of the ACCT suicide prevention scheme or relax security procedures? Or decide to dispense with accredited offending behaviour programmes in favour of activities of their own liking? These standards are there for a reason. They reflect the fact that prisoners are in a uniquely vulnerable position and both they and society have the right to expect they are cared for in an ethical and principled way.
Presumably some standards will be required to be met (and inspected) in the new regime, but in prisons unlike schools the price of failure is counted not in not poor exam grades but escapes, reoffending and human rights violations. If things go wrong, ministers will not be able to stand idly by. Spurr took some flak yesterday for his honest appraisal of the way the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms have weakened the ability of the centre to intervene in probation services now contracted out and paid by results. CRC’s who have failed to engage with third sector providers, whatever promises they may have made, look untouchable. Will that be the case for Gove’s Governors in his nine new prisons?
In existing jails, education, health and, since last year, resettlement activities are all outsourced. Prison Governors haven’t had a say in how those contracts have been let. Of course they could do so in future. There’s a lot to be said for concentrating commissioning responsibility in the hands of the governor but unless Gove can buy out existing contracts he’s stuck with the existing choreography for several years to come in the bulk of his system. With Wrexham opening next year and the new facilities scheduled during the lifetime of the parliament there are opportunities for the new model to be introduced. But by the time it starts to happen, there’s a fair chance Gove will be out of government and by the time it’s finished his party may be out of power.
But what his scheme will enable in the short term is a bonfire of headquarters, with no longer a need for policy development, learning lessons, monitoring outcomes or system wide planning. Devolving power will provide a pretext for big cuts at the centre and the eventual disappearance of NOMS. Gove said today that his reversal of Grayling’s legal aid cuts had been made possible in part by economies he has made elsewhere in his department. This is probably one of them.