Clarke’s vision for private sector involvement stokes rebellion

Home secretary Charles Clarke is pressing ahead with plans to make public, private and voluntary sector providers compete to manage prisons and probation services, despite a growing tide Charles CLarke 125x125of rebellion.

The criticism shows no sign of waning – 69 MPs have backed a parliamentary motion to keep the probation service in the public sector after widespread opposition to the plans from professionals.

Campaigners fear Clarke’s vision of a “vibrant mixed economy” could result in increased involvement of the private sector – squeezing out public and voluntary sector providers.
They also argue that private companies must be made more accountable if they are to bid to run more services.

A joint report on the draft Corporate Manslaughter Bill by the House of Commons home affairs and work and pensions committees, published just before Christmas, expressed concern about exemptions from corporate manslaughter charges for private companies running prisons and custody suites.

The report’s publication came as the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to charge anyone over the death of young offender Gareth Myatt in a privately run secure training centre (news, 5 January).

Gareth, 15, died in April 2004 after being restrained by three staff at the Rainsbrook centre, near Northampton. His family are now waiting to hear when an inquest will be held.

The case has reinforced campaigners’ concerns that accountability in the UK’s four privately run secure training centres and 11 private prisons is “insufficient”, while quality of provision remains mixed.

Research by the Prison Reform Trust last year found most staff in private jails had no previous experience in a prison setting, and wages and conditions were “inferior”.

Recent reports bear out the findings. A Commission for Social Care Inspection report on Securicor-run Oakhill secure training centre, published last month, found that “inexperienced” workers were “stretched to capacity” due to understaffing.

William Higham, head of policy at the Prison Reform Trust, says: “Prisons must maintain safety, and private companies should be required to demonstrate that any efficiency savings they offer are not merely due to a decreased investment in staff. Otherwise, we risk a race to the bottom between private companies and the public sector that jeopardises safety and resettlement.”

In addition to fears over standards, campaigners say vested corporate interests could hamper effective management of offenders if more private companies were contracted to run services.
Sally Ireland, a senior legal officer at campaign group Justice, says: “The possibility of increased private sector involvement in prisons and probation under Clarke’s plans for contestability is worrying.

“If private company employees are to advise courts on what sentences offenders should receive, there may be a corporate vested interest to send people to facilities or programmes that their company is running.

“We don’t want to see a situation developing similar to the US, where the corporate custodial lobby is becoming increasingly powerful.”

Higham also points to concerns over the lack of transparency shown by the private sector.

“Far too often, legitimate questions about the workings of private sector prisons are refused on grounds of commercial confidentiality. It is vital that the flow of accurate, well-tested, independent information about prisons and probation is maintained and extended.”

Ireland adds: “If the government is to allow the private sector greater responsibility in prisons and probation, there must be clear and detailed regulations and independent oversight.”

Claudia Wood, research fellow at public policy think-tank the Social Market Foundation, says standards must be enforced from the top down. “In probation services, providers will not be affected by user choice, so service providers are unlikely to be motivated to improve their services or be more responsive to user needs,” she says. “Quality control in the form of contractual relationships and targets are all-important.

“The key features of the contracts drawn up between the National Offender Management Service and its providers will be crucial to ensuring the quality and efficiency of services. If Noms fails in its responsibility to set and maintain high standards there is an increased risk, with more private providers, of a levelling down of quality.”

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