Tories have brought prisons to 'brink of collapse', says former chief

Posted On: 
13th December 2016

Conservative Lord Chancellors have presided over an “operational disaster” in the prison service that will “take years to put right”, a former head of prison services has claimed.

Peter Wheatley said successive Lord Chancellors had led the system to the "brink of collapse".
Credit: 
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Phil Wheatley siad Ken Clarke, Chris Grayling and Michael Gove had contributed to the failings by introducing budget cuts and “radically” different policies in a short space of time.

Mr Wheatley, who was Director-General of HM Prison Service from 2003-2010, said the Government have overseen “a failure of major proportions”, with a loss of prison managers and staff, too few prison officers, unattractive wages, and cuts in prisoner programmes.

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“Managing prisons is a difficult and highly skilled task that requires adequate resourcing and a stable policy environment. Since 2010 the government has failed on both counts,” he told The Guardian.

“The responsibility of ministers in bringing our custodial system to the brink of collapse needs to be understood and openly acknowledged if there is to be any chance of recovering from the current disaster,” he added.

Mr Wheatley said Mr Clarke, the first coalition Lord Chancellor, accepted deep budget cuts for the justice department on the basis he could reduce the prison population and put public sector prisons out to tender, but was removed by Prime Minister David Cameron for failing to be hard on prisoners.

He said Mr Grayling tried to be a “tough” justice secretary without cutting jail numbers and no extra funding, but said he “threatened the stability and safety of prisons” by abandoning the prison competition plans and instead announced his own reform programme.

He said his successor Michael Gove “charmed penal reformers by rubbishing most” of Mr Grayling’s policies, but failed to deal with the consequences of the rapid changes he tried to introduce, including more autonomy for prison governors.

Mr Wheatley said current Lord Chancellor Liz Truss, should be credited for recognising that prison staffing levels were too low to maintain safety or security, following her pledge to add an extra 2,500 prison officers, and launching a prison safety reform programme.

“The situation is now so parlous and will only be resolved by a prolonged period of policy stability and investment. It will take years to put right,” he said.

He added that when the coalition came to power, prisons were already dangerously overcrowded “despite advice on the risks, making it necessary for me to refuse outright to comply with their wishes”.