National Chair

February 2015 | 06.04.2015



HMP Wrexham will be the largest prison in the UK and will accommodate up to 2,106 category C prisoners. The prison will also provide a remand facility. It is expected to bring around £23m a year to the regional economy and a thousand new jobs will be created.

In terms of rehabilitation outcomes, all the evidence accumulated and provided by academics and penal pressure groups points to the success of small-scale prison establishments. The recommended size for a prison is 500. If you exceed that figure you warehouse prisoners. So despite protestations by ministers to the contrary, that this is not a titan prison, there can be no doubt that the model for HMP Wrexham is driven by the economies of scale. It is a cost cutting exercise. Again, the announcement confirmed that 34 percent of services will be outsourced to provide facilities management, resettlement services and workshop spaces.

I can fully understand that given the staff reductions and levels of violence within the wider workplace, many will be underwhelmed by this announcement. I suspect that if the announcement had been for a competitive tendering process, with or without a public sector bid, and with the most likely result being a private provider, then the reaction would have been somewhat more voluble.

Understandably given the state of the Criminal Justice System, we are a Union that has a glass half full at times and half empty at other times. Nevertheless, the announcement should be welcomed as it supports and validates the POA strategy, as directed by you, the membership, to prevent the privatisation and competitive tendering of prisons.

At the time of the announcement the Director General stated that: “We would not have achieved this without ‘pulling together’ and I want to pay tribute to trades unions and colleagues across the service who have worked tirelessly to achieve this success.”

As National Chairman, I make no apology for confirming that we have worked tirelessly to ensure that the biggest prison in the UK will be a public sector prison with public sector prison officers in control of prisoners. In 2013, accompanied by Larry O’Callaghan, the then Group Secretary for the PCS NOMS, I met with Carwyn Jones, the First Minister for Wales. Following this meeting a spokesperson for the Welsh Government stated to the media that: “The First Minister confirmed in a meeting with the PCS and the POA that he would prefer the prison to be run by the public sector.” The First Minister went on to say that he “unequivocally backed” our view that Wrexham should be run by the public sector. Members of the Executive have travelled to Wrexham to meet with local politicians and the public and attended numerous meetings with politicians and NOMS. As was said by a delegate from the rostrum at Annual Conference in relation to market testing, “you have to be in it to win it.”

So is justice still for sale?

You will recall that the first private prison in the UK opened in 1992. Private prisons now make up approximately 14 percent of the estate, although it was originally stated that it would not exceed 10 percent. Again, the original stated aim to improve performance and efficiency had changed some time ago into an ideological obsession with the market and then into a cost-cutting exercise to pay for the excesses of the banking sector.

As recently as 2012, the Coalition Government had planned to announce that 25 public sector prisons were to put out to competitive tendering. Performance would no longer be the criteria for selection. This was the long expected tipping point and the POA had to regroup and adapt to this defining moment, to accept that engagement within this context, should not be seen as a sign of weakness but as a strategic and pragmatic approach to the challenges we face.

As recently as 2013, in a published report entitled “The case for private prisons” the think tank organisation, Reform, stated: “Twenty years of private prisons have created an effective market which is ready to grow. Evidence shows that a greater role for the private sector will advance the rehabilitation revolution which ministers want to deliver.”

These advocates of wholesale privatisation, alongside their strident calls for a reduction in the size of the state, will not go away. In 2014, we saw the privatisation of the postal service and most recently, the privatisation of 70 percent of the probation service. In my opinion, these privatisations should concern us all given the increasing levels of influence that private companies can exert on elected politicians and their policy decisions.

You will recall that in November 2012, NOMS and the POA persuaded the Justice Minister and by default, the real power brokers, the Treasury, to provide a moratorium on prison competition in the current Parliament. Within this time-bounded moratorium, the Treasury insisted that there would be a need to revisit the viability of competition within three years to coincide with the new Parliament in 2015. To comply with this stricture, through their Prison Unit Cost Programme, NOMS have been assessing, analysing and comparing public and private sector costs in the prison estate in England and Wales.

I am well aware that some among the membership see the benchmark model as the preparation for wholesale privatisation.

As you might expect, I have to disagree with this interpretation and my understanding is that the comparative cost analysis to date is in favour of the public sector. Meanwhile, to try to find any examples of success in overseas jurisdictions in the operation of custodial services is somewhat difficult but the French model of public sector prison officers and the outsourcing of facilities management would now appear to be the preferred model. There can be no guarantees going forward that justice is not for sale, but Wrexham is a good news story and reinforces the benefits of engagement.

As you would expect, the POA continues to remind the employer that the benchmark approach must provide a safe, secure and decent working environment. Again, you can expect the outsourcing approach to facilities management to be scrutinised in depth by ourselves and by necessity the PCS.

PJ McParlin
National Chairman