HL Deb 21 February 1996 vol 569 cc1055-8

2.55 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What effect the cuts in the money allocated to the Prison Service will have on the numbers of prison staff over the next three years.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, it is too early to say what the effect will be. The picture for 1996–97 will start to emerge by Easter when establishments' and headquarters' business plans are agreed. Further planning will be needed for future years.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may, as usual, congratulate the Minister on evading the Question. Is she aware that in the past three years the prison population has increased by about 10,000; that, on present calculations, it will rise by another 5,000 in the next few years; that if the Home Secretary has his way the prison population will increase by about another 20,000 in the years ahead; and that the Latin quotation which the noble Viscount would not wish me to give in Latin, because he would not like my pronunciation, is: Whom God would destroy He first sends mad".

Is she aware of that quotation?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Earl asked me what would be the effect. I told him that it is too early to say. He must desist from impugning my integrity when I come to the Dispatch Box to give honest Answers to his Questions. Having said that, the Prison Service is asked to find 2.2 per cent. worth of efficiency savings this year. The intention is that they should be efficiency savings and not affect frontline staff so as to put at risk either security or control. Staffing increases have gone along with all the increases to which the noble Earl referred. Even given this year's budget, over the next three years there is still funding for an extra 3,500 places. There is also funding for a drugs testing programme and for the Woodcock recommendations.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the morale of those serving in the Prison Service is very low at the moment? Who is responsible for supporting, helping, and encouraging prison staff, in particular, prison governors?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. The present acting director-general, Richard Tilt, has said that concern and sensitivity must be shown for the staff and governors in these challenging times. He has also said that priorities during this period should be the maintenance of stability and the preservation of order in prisons, supporting the confidence of staff and avoiding non-essential expenditure, and that the aim should be to preserve balanced and constructive regimes for prisoners as the surest foundation for maintaining control.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the Minister explain how the Government arrive at the figure for what they describe as efficiency savings while being prepared to state publicly that they do not know what effect the cuts will have on the service? If the cuts were further to demoralise Prison Service staff, would the Government find additional money given that they have admitted they do not know what will be the result of their actions?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the sum is specific; it is 9.5 per cent. efficiency savings over the next three years. I have already said that in the meantime money is being put in for essential services. I have also said that it is for the governors to produce their own programmes of how they can find the efficiency savings. They present those programmes to their area managers who make a judgment about the impact on the operational service and the way in which that impacts on the Prison Service itself. Only after that will the programme be approved. Therefore, it is not possible to say now precisely what the effect will be except that we have said that the priority must be for front-line services and the stability and control of our prisons.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not understand how the Minister can talk as though efficiency savings and cuts in prison staff are mutually exclusive. Surely she knows what the total budget of the Prison Service is and what the staff costs are. Therefore, she must know within the figure of 9.5 per cent.—otherwise it is a meaningless figure—the certain expected savings which are not staff savings. The only missing figure is the staff cost. If she cannot give the number of prison staff to be reduced, can she tell the House what saving in money as regards staff costs is expected as a result of the cuts?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may give the noble Lord some examples of where we believe efficiency savings can be found. Better shift systems in some establishments will avoid the wasteful deployment of staff. Some prisons employ over-qualified staff on routine tasks. More use can be made of part-time and contract staff to reduce costs. There are often too many management layers in prisons. In fact, the Learmont Report drew specific attention to that. Flatter management structures would improve efficiency and reduce costs, and specific guidance on that has been issued to the Prison Service. There will be reductions at headquarters and in central services. The report recommended that there could be a reduction of some 500 staff at headquarters and from central services. Therefore, there is great scope for efficiencies which will not affect the operational efficiency of the service.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some of us are a little puzzled by her reference to the need for greater efficiency in the Prison Service? She and her colleagues have now been in office for 17 years. Was it not possible to get this matter right earlier? Is she aware that as a result of the cuts there are indications of a reduction in the number of probation officers working in prisons? Is she further aware that a consequence of that will be to deny inmates the specialist advice and guidance which they require in order to be reintegrated into society?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, perhaps I may deal first with the noble Lord's second point. He is right in saying that there is anxiety about the number of probation officers working in the Prison Service. However that issue is resolved it is clear that the function should be carried out either by the Probation Service or the Prison Service. Together they cannot ignore that the function needs to continue. In some cases, prison officers can do the work just as well as probation officers but we are concerned about that and we are watching the position very carefully. We now have some private prisons and we are able to make real comparisons in terms of running costs and the operational efficiency of prisons. The figures are about to be updated but I can say that so far there is an efficiency saving of between 15 and 25 per cent.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that had she said that everything was all right she would have been accused of being complacent but that when she says that improvements can still be made she is saying the right thing?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that comment. Anyone who has run an organisation knows that management and organisational development is a dynamic. All people in management are constantly striving to achieve greater operational efficiency.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will the Minister indicate whether the additional 9.5 per cent. in resources over the next three years is in cash terms at current prices or in real terms?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I did not say that there was 9.5 per cent. extra; I said that the need was to find 9.5 per cent. efficiency savings over the next year. That is based on this year's costs, and the first year effect would be to increase efficiency and reduce the cost by 2.2 per cent. A view has been taken that that is achievable. We shall be watching the situation most carefully. As the noble Lord knows, budgets and operational efficiency are looked at and reviewed every year.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that no one in the Prison Service will have any use at all for the kind of argument she has supplied today? Is she further aware that the policies of the Government are detested throughout the Prison Service and that therefore the figures she gives will be regarded with contempt?

Lord Molloy

My Lords, will discussions be continued with the prison staff associations, who are eager to talk to the Government in order to give of their knowledge, so that we can have a satisfied and efficient prison staff?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, for asking that question. Consultation is a very important part of the process. Governors will discuss their proposals with unions and staff and the acting director-general will be meeting with the national trade union. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary met the Prison Governors' Association on 8th February. Meetings have been held about the proposed voluntary redundancy programme with the Prison Governors' Association, the Prison Officers' Association, the prisons' trade union side and the Prison Service Joint Industrial Council.