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Serving Time: Prisoner Diet and Exercise

Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported today that significant improvements have been made in HM Prison Service’s catering arrangements resulting in financial savings and improved quality of service. Since 2003-04, savings of some £2.5 million have been made each year from expenditure on food and some £1.7 million a year on catering staff – mainly through civilianisation of catering staff posts. Other savings have arisen from more efficient procurement and reduced stockholdings of food. In addition most prisoners are offered full and varied programmes of physical education activities.

Expenditure on food is determined by each prison governor who sets a daily food allowance per prisoner. The average is £1.87 for three meals a day but there are wide variations ranging from £1.20 at an open prison to £3.41 at a young offenders’ institution. Young offenders have some of the highest daily food allowances because juveniles eat more than adults.

Although today’s report found that the Prison Service had made improvements, it also finds scope for further savings. There is for example, potential for financial savings if prisons with particularly high daily food allowances (“outliers”) were to reduce them.

Prisons are not meeting all of their own catering standards. In 2004-05 prisons were fully compliant with some two thirds of standards, partially compliant with 32 per cent and non-compliant with two per cent. Prisons are least compliant with the standard which requires them to be clean and in good repair. On the whole, kitchens are clean and hygienic but many facilities have come to the end of their working capability and the state of the fabric in kitchens is poor.

On the whole, food offered to prisoners is in line with the government’s recommendations on healthy eating. Prisoners are offered a variety of foods and different dietary requirements are catered for. There is a variety of choices such that prisoners who wished to eat vegetarian one day, halal the next and a standard diet the next could do so. At least one meal option labelled as healthy is offered at lunch and in the evening.

The NAO found that meals contain recommended quantities of most vitamins and minerals but with some notable exceptions which could affect prisoners’ health. Average levels of salt, for example, are up to 93 per cent more than recommended levels and offerings of dietary fibre, which could be provided by fresh fruit and vegetables are low. Prisoners’ meals rely heavily on convenience foods, such as pies, burgers, tinned food and frozen vegetables, with little use made of seasonal produce.

All prisoners have the opportunity to spend time in the open air at least once a day but participation in organised physical education at some prisons is low. Although on average some 43 per cent of prisoners participate in some form of organised physical education activities, there are wide variations ranging from 11 per cent at Bristol Prison to 87 per cent at Huntercombe Prison. Take up rates are affected by the range of facilities available. Older prisons tend to have fewer facilities and the capacity of older sports halls and gymnasiums can be restrictive. On the whole newer prisons have much better facilities. Most, but not all, prisons have outdoor sports pitches.

Prison governors prefer to employ officers as fully trained physical education instructors because of their leadership skills and the assistance they provide in controlling aggressive behaviour. However, cost effectiveness should be a consideration as to whether officers should be employed as instructors. There is scope for making financial savings by employing civilians in prisons where the risks to security are less, such as open prisons.

"Prison catering has improved since we last examined it in 1997 and the Prison Service is more responsive to prisoner needs. The challenge now is for the Service to provide prisoners with food and opportunities to exercise which meet the government’s recommendations on healthy eating and exercise, whilst keeping costs firmly under control."

Sir John Bourn

Notes for Editors

  1. The NAO last examined prison catering in 1997 [HM Prison Service: Prison Catering HC 277 Session 1997-98] when we reported on the quality of catering, the diversity and timing of meals and the cost of catering, especially the arrangements for providing prisoners’ meals economically and efficiently.
  2. In 2004-05 the Prison Service spent £94 million on catering, the largest components of which were food (£43 million) and catering staff (£32 million). The Prison Service spent around £60 million on physical education of which £29 million was on staff.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the National Audit Office website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office at or on 0870 2422345.
  4. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the National Audit Office are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.

PN: 18/06