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July 2019 - Jo Farrar

Minutes of the Annual General Meeting of the All-Party Group on Penal Affairs, held on 16 July 2019

Guest speaker

Jo Farrar, Chief Executive Officer, HM Prison and Probation Service, with
Phil Copple, Director General of the Prison Service


Lord Ramsbotham (in the chair)
Earl Attlee
Sarah Champion MP
Rt Hon Dominic Grieve MP
Lord Hailsham
Christine Hardman, Bishop of Newcastle
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots
Baroness Howe of Idlicote
James Langstaff, Bishop to Prisons
Lord Low
Lord Ponsonby
Baroness Masham of Ilton


Mark Day, Clerk to the group, started the AGM by announcing that Dominic Grieve MP and Lord Ramsbotham had both confirmed their willingness to stand again as Co-Chairs. No other nominations having been received, he was delighted to confirm them both in post. Lord Ramsbotham then took the chair.

Lord Ramsbotham said that there had been four nominations for Vice Chairs: the existing vice chairs Sarah Champion MP; Kate Green MP; Norman Lamb MP; and Andrew Selous MP. He and Dominc Grieve MP also wished to nominate Victoria Prentis MP, who had accepted their invitation. He formally proposed that they should all be elected, seconded by Baroness Masham, and this was agreed. Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbots had been nominated again as Secretary, was thus elected. In accordance with the rules on all party groups, an income and expenditure account for the year had been produced and circulated to officers and signed by the registered Chair, Dominic Grieve MP. He thanked fellow chairs, officers and members for their support during an interesting year.

Lord Ramsbotham thanked the trustees of the Barrow Cadbury Trust for their continued funding; the Prison Reform Trust for providing the secretariat; Mark Day, clerk, and Zoe Burton, Administrator; and Julia Braggins for preparing the minutes. He then welcomed the guest speaker, Jo Farrar, the newly appointed Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, and Phil Copple, Director General of the Prison Service. It was an important time, because the Secretary of State for Justice had made a number of moves, including overthrowing the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals of his predecessor.

Jo Farrar agreed that there had been a good deal going on, and she would be happy to cover anything that she did not mention in the discussion to follow.

‘I am really pleased to have been invited to meet with you tonight and to have the opportunity to talk to you about my reflections over the last four months since I joined HMPPS. I have spent much of this time learning more about what everyone does in prisons, probation and youth custody to inform what I think we need to do in the coming years.

Many of you will be aware that early in my career I was in the parole unit at the Home Office, working on rehabilitation programmes for young people, which motivated me to ensure that my subsequent career was in the public sector in central and local government. My role in HMPPS is the ideal opportunity to bring together all that I have learned throughout my working life. I have been a chief executive in two local authorities, and I have worked in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I’m really pleased to be now back in an area I feel passionate about, and one in which we can really make a difference to those in our care and to society more widely.

Phil and I were both here earlier on talking to our Select Committee about decency and safety, and the working and living environment. I know that we cannot deliver everything we want to, particularly around security, and safety and decency, without improvements in our estate. I have been to a number of prisons in particular, and probation premises, and can see the challenges we have there in terms of the investment we need in our estate. I am really pleased that we have some investment for the estate, and we are able to make some improvements, but it will be a priority for me to continue to make them.

As regards other priorities for me as I undertake this work, I’d like to start with reducing reoffending, working really closely with colleagues in the MoJ so that we can do all we can to help people in our care to reduce their offending behaviour. We are not in control of everything, and will have to work closely with our partners in education, housing and healthcare, but it is really important to me that we make a difference to the people we work with. I am really keen that we work with other government departments, with local partners, so that we can help people to have a place to live, to have a job, to build stronger family ties and to access the education and healthcare they need to live productive lives. I want to help our governors and probation leaders to work together and to reach out into their communities with local authorities, with the police, with communities to deliver this shared purpose. There is quite a bit of that going on, but I think that bringing offender management together, with the changes we are making in probation, will really help us to build stronger local partnerships.

In probation, we have a lot to do if we are going to deliver professional development and improvements across a reformed probation agenda. Probation, as I know from working in local government, can be a very powerful voice in the community, and I want them to help them to grow that voice.

I also want to help prison leaders. We are talking a lot in the agency about leadership, and how we can help leaders in reaching out into communities, join up across our systems and work with offenders to address their offending behaviour and stop them coming into or returning to custody.

I am also interested in the needs of young people in our care. I began my career with young people, and I have had an interest in young people, particularly when running two local authorities and providing services for children in care. In our youth custody services I want us to really think about how we can be child-centred, and how we can build a rehabilitative environment where everyone can achieve their full potential. I was really pleased to be at Feltham before GCSEs this year, and to meet the GCSE group, and I am so proud that we have managed around 100 GCSEs for that cohort this year. I am really looking forward to the results in a few weeks’ time.

Another priority for me is our people. I have been so impressed, as I have been going round the service seeing many prisons, YOIs and probation areas, at the amount of dedicated staff we have, who have committed their careers to working with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Their jobs are not easy but they show real resilience and strength to make sure people have the proper support. I want to make sure, as chief executive, that I am giving our staff the support they need, so that they will continue to work for our agency and feel that they are able to give something back.

We do have a lot of challenges in the service, but I can see that the staff that we have are providing some really positive things. Phil and I were at the Prison and Probation awards a few weeks ago, and the number of amazing things that are going on across our service was truly inspirational. It would be great for us to spread that best practice and make sure that we are delivering great things across the range of our service.

One of my non-negotiables as a leader is diversity. If I look out across our service, particularly in our senior leadership, it is not as diverse as I want it to be. It is not as representative of the population in society, never mind the population that we serve. We are doing a lot to think about how we can improve diversity, how we can bring the Lammy recommendations to life. There is a lot that we can do to make a difference in that area. We have seen the leadership of our service change, as it has with gender in recent years.

I will finish by saying that I feel hugely privileged to have this role. I am very excited about it. I genuinely believe that we can make a difference. I have a great team working with me, including Phil, and I am really looking forward to the future, and to doing some of things that we are setting out to do.’

Lord Ramsbotham thanked Jo Farrar and asked Phil Copple if he wanted to say anything. Phil said he was happy to respond in the question and answer session to follow.

Lord Ramsbotham mentioned the future model of probation, produced a few weeks ago, which he described as long on ideas but short on detail. He had seen a paper by the Labour group of police and crime commissioners, who wanted to get involved in local commissioning. He wondered when we could expect to see details of the commissioning process.

Jo Farrar said that it had deliberately been a high-level statement, to show the direction of travel. There had been a number of conversations, including with PCCs, about how the model would operate, which would lead to a more detailed outline for consultation. She was keen that it should remain a mixed model, including both private and public sector provision.

The Bishop of Rochester mentioned a recent conversation with Sonia Crozier about the role of the voluntary sector in probation. It was disappointing that many smaller organisations had been squeezed out from providing services. Could the speaker give an indication of future plans? Would it be more about commissioning rather than competitive tendering?

Jo Farrar agreed that it was important to keep the conversations going, to see how this could work. She was anxious not to pre-empt ministerial decisions, but hoped to find an inclusive way forward.

Lord Ponsonby mentioned that in his role as a JP in the Youth Court he would be meeting Oasis, who would be providing the new secure school. He was keen to know the timing, and the aspiration, of the proposed new school. Was there an aspiration to change the sentencing model?

Jo Farrar said she would have to come back on the timing. She was excited about the appointment of Oasis to run the first secure school. Some changes needed to be made at Medway, and she needed a timetable for the works. However, she wanted to start the new school as quickly as possible, to supply a new provision for young people, and to test the model for the future. As to sentencing, this would be a decision for ministers.

Baroness Masham wanted to ask about prison food, which she thought was unhealthy and had a high carbohydrate content. She had been visiting a prisoner, who had developed diabetes and cancer after release, and she thought that prison food had contributed to his health problems. Prison canteens also featured largely unhealthy foods. Could fruit be made available? She wondered if this could be looked at, and also whether young offenders could be given more health education.

Phil Copple responded that as regards prison food, the point was taken. The service had become more aware of some of the health disbenefits of traditional prison food, and the diet was monitored, not only internally but also by IMBs and the inspectorate. There were also interesting innovations in some prisons to discover whether changes in diet could help to reduce levels of frustration and distress and improve safety. As regards health education, there was provision to address some of these issues, and governors had part of the educational budget to use at their discretion.

Lord Ramsbotham said this was a hobby horse of his too. He was President of the Institute of Food Brain and Behaviour, which nearly 20 years ago had carried out an experiment in HMYOI Aylesbury into the right mixture of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. This had reduced antisocial behaviour by 40%. They had tried for eight years to persuade the Home Office and the MoJ to replicate the trial, which had been picked up internationally, but failed in England because the Prison Service kept moving people. There were good results in Scotland however. They had hoped to get into the mother and baby unit in Bronzefield, through Sonia Crozier, but they had subsequently got into Cookham Wood. This was important because of the importance of diet for the developing brain. He recommended the services of Professor John Stein, brother of the television chef Rick, who was the greatest living expert on this.

Lord Hailsham wanted to know more about officer recruitment and retention, both in respect of maturity and of ethnic diversity. What progress had been made since this topic was last discussed in this group?

Jo Farrar said she was pleased with the steady increase in new prison officers: over a thousand recruited in the last twelve months. There was a question about experience. Extra training, coaching and mentoring had been introduced to help the young officer recruits, and she had been very impressed with some of those she had met. As regards diversity, there had been some success too, particularly with the Unlocked Graduates scheme. In the most recent intake over 20% of people were from a BAME background: she had met two of them recently, one on an accelerated scheme, and the other who had already been promoted.

Phil Copple added that it was important to see this in the context of the workforce reforms which had taken place earlier in the decade, and the changes to pay scales for future prison officers. There were still more than 7,000 officers on the old pay scales, which, for main grade officers, went up to just under £30,000 a year. The new scales were roughly £5,000 a year below that. That was partly about making savings, and partly about bringing public service pay rates into line with what the private sector were paying. The service was driven to do that to remain competitive. But this meant that new recruits were predominantly younger men and women. Nevertheless the service had done well in most parts of the country, although in more competitive labour markets they were struggling. Consequently they had introduced market supplements to boost salaries in 30 prisons. That had been relatively successful. Resignation rates had increased, but that was to be expected: both because salaries were more market aligned, but also because they had recruited more than 4,000 new officers in the past three years, some of whom would have decided the job was not for them. Any organisation would expect that sort of attrition rate, with that sort of increase. He hoped that would reduce that over time. There had been some success in recruiting BAME officers in London, but to get the level of workforce representation needed, the Prison Service had to be better than representative of the local labour market.

Jo Farrar added that she had launched a coaching programme for people from BAME backgrounds. Such initiatives had been well received.

Earl Attlee mentioned his close involvement with prisons over the past two years. On diversity, HMP Brixton had a good story to tell. He had also developed a high regards for staff of all grades. However he asked why prisoners were still being released to no fixed abode, and they were being released on Fridays, to face the weekend with no support.

Jo Farrar responded that this was a question she herself had asked. A change of legislation would be needed to release prisoners on a different day, she had learned. They were looking at ways to help prisons assist with this problem. As regards housing, she had led on homelessness for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, where there was a joint project and significant investment to tackle the problem. She hoped that a solution would be found.

Phil Copple said that legal advice had indicated that release dates falling on normal working days had to be adhered to in practice. However, he shared the concern, and this issue was being actively considered.

Earl Attlee said that because Brexit dominated the parliamentary agenda, there was no immediate prospect of a new criminal justice bill. He would take this forward if he could.

Lord Ramsbotham said that NACRO had proposed no release on Friday, and had had a meeting with Rory Stewart when he was minister. He had promised to take that forward. Lord Ramsbotham also asked whether there had been any progress on the CLINKS-led enquiry into Universal Credit and the speeding up of benefits, and the discharge grant. It defied common sense to expect someone to live on £46 for six weeks.

Jo Farrar and Phil Copple both responded that the service was working with the DWP on the issue.

The Bishop of Newcastle said how impressed she had been with staff at HMP Northumberland and HMP Low Newton. She asked Jo Farrar for her early reflections on the women’s estate, especially its buildings. She had been told that, in comparison with the men’s estate, the women’s estate had been underfunded.

Jo Farrar responded that this was a priority, because conditions across the estate were not where she would want them to be. Some initial investment had been welcome but she would work with the MoJ to try to secure more in the next spending review. The women’s estate faced some particular challenges, particularly the rate of self-harm, and this was being addressed currently.

Lord Ramsbotham threw the meeting open to all attendees.

Peter Dawson, of PRT, said that he had recently visited a gleaming modern prison, and at 4pm he had observed people wheeling trolleys from the kitchens to the wings to serve the evening meal, so that prisoners could be locked up by 5.30 to allow staff to go home at 6pm. There had been much talk of decency in prisons, and he wondered whether this was allowing a decent way of life.

Jo Farrar said she had been much involved in discussions about decency and purposeful activity in prisons. She was still forming her thoughts, and would like to discuss this further.

Phil Copple said that two things could be behind this apparently old-fashioned approach. It could be that the regime was being run in the interests of staff, or it could be a case of ‘regime creep’ – perhaps the meal should have been served at 5pm but the timing had crept forward. Both things suggested not having sufficient grip on the details of what it meant for people’s lives, day to day. However a higher priority for him as regards decency would be to tackle the minority of prisons where prisoners did not have access to a daily shower.

Earl Attlee said he endorsed the point that had been made about the core day. A limiting factor was surely the staffing, as a longer day would mean a significant extra funding cost.

Phil Copple agreed that the longer the core day, the higher that staffing cost. Existing funding would allow serving meals at a reasonable hour, having time for free association, and access to showers and telephones, but it required choices to be made, and less attractive shift patterns for staff.

Baroness Masham asked what the present situation was regarding drugs and assaults on staff.

Jo Farrar mentioned that new statistics would be released the following week. Anecdotally, it appeared there had been some improvements. The key worker scheme had proved beneficial, and some new initiatives were being tested through the Ten Prisons project. It was early days, but she hoped things were going in the right direction.

An observer noted the high turnover of prisons ministers. What were the speakers’ views?

Jo Farrar said it would not be appropriate to answer. She had been pleased with the commitment shown by Rory Stewart MP and Robert Buckland MP, and also the amount of continuity between them, which had been helpful.

Phil Copple added that when prisons ministers had told him that the service turned over its governors too quickly he always managed to keep a straight face.

Lord Ramsbotham said that Richard Burgon, shadow justice minister, had asked him to do a review of the return of probation to the public sector. They had gone to see David Gauke, Justice Minister. Richard Burgon had appealed to the Minister to facilitate a cross party review, since every government had a duty to protect the public and this was clearly a cross party issue. David Gauke said he agreed, although we had yet to see it happen.

Lord Ramsbotham went on to thank the speakers, Jo Farrar and Phil Copple, and wished them well. The next meeting would take place in October, date and topic to be confirmed.