The government is failing to provide and maintain safe, secure and decent prisons and its flagship initiatives to address this have not delivered, according to a new National Audit Office report published today.

More than 40 per cent of inspected prisons were rated as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ for safety in the last five years.1 Poor safety in prisons has reached all-time highs. Over the last decade, HMPPS (Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service) has taken 1,730 cells permanently out of use and it expects to lose 500 places a year because of the poor conditions of the remaining estate. Over 40% of prisons need major repair or replacement in the next three years. There is currently a backlog of major repairs that will cost £916 million to fix.

There is a surplus of 18,700 places in local prisons for people serving short sentences or on remand awaiting sentencing. However, there is a shortfall of 15,000 training and resettlement places. Local prisons are intended to hold prisoners for a short time. However, they are increasingly holding longer-sentenced prisoners because of the lack of places to support prisoners’ transition into the community.

The government has tried to improve conditions by contracting out prison maintenance and creating new prison places through its flagship Prison Estate Transformation Programme. In 2014-15, HMPPS decided to outsource facilities management and expected to save around £80 million by contracting out to the firms Amey and Carillion, but it has failed to achieve this.

HMPPS has had to spend £143 million more than expected over the last four years.2 It had an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of prison conditions and the services needed. It also severely underestimated the need for reactive maintenance work due to vandalism and breakdown.

HMPPS has struggled to create new prison places. In 2016, it committed to create 10,000 new for old prison places. So far, only 206 have been built with 3,360 under construction.3

The main reason behind these failures was the delays in agreeing and receiving funding to build new prisons. This meant construction work began later than planned. In addition, HMPPS was not able to close old prisons and replace them with new ones due to high demand, which meant it received less money from sales income.4

HMPPS has been focussed on sorting out the immediate needs of the prison estate, investing its resources to address prison population pressures and deteriorating prison conditions. Today’s report recommends that HMPPS develop a long-term strategy which sets out exactly what conditions prisoners should be held in and minimum levels of investment needed to ensure a safe, decent environment.

“HMPPS has not been able to create enough prison places, in the right type of prisons and at the right time to meet demand. It has failed to deliver the savings it hoped for by contracting out prison maintenance services. Prisons remain in a poor condition, poor safety has reached record levels, and there are huge maintenance backlogs.

“The Government has recently committed to creating 10,000 new prison places and needs to learn lessons from its recent experiences. Crucially, HMPPS must work with the Ministry of Justice and Treasury to develop a long-term, deliverable strategy that will provide prisons that are fit for purpose.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Improving the prison estate

Notes for editors

98% Proportion of adult prison places in use in December 2019 (around 82,300) against HM Prison & Probation Service's (HMPPS) usable operational capacity of around 84,200 60% Proportion of adult prisons in England and Wales which were crowded, as at December 2019 41% Estimated proportion of prisons needing major repair or placement in the next three years to remain operational, as at January 2019, with 2% of prisons Maintaining the estate 1,730 prison cells taken permanently out of use between 2009-10 and 2019-20 £450 million estimated annual investment needed in the public sector estate over the next 25 years, as at January 2019 (in 2018-19 prices) 63,200 maintenance jobs outstanding in prisons, as at April 2019 £143 million payments to facilities management providers by 2018-19 for reactive maintenance jobs above HMPPS's expectations at business case stage in real terms (in 2018-19 prices) Transforming the estate 3,566 new prison places HMPPS expects to deliver by 2023-24 against its target of 10,000 new-for-old prison places by 2020 £104 million sales receipts achieved by HMPPS by 2018-19, out of an original target of £321 million by 2020-21 13% of the Prison Estate Transformation Programme’s capital budget spent (£119 million) by end of 2018-19, against its original budget of £928 million in real terms (in 2018-19 prices) 10,000 new prison places announced by the Government in August 2019, in addition to the 3,566 planned to date  

  1. HM Inspectorate of Prisons rated over 40% of inspected prisons as ‘poor’ or ‘not sufficiently good’ for ‘safety’ between 2015-16 and 2019-20. Research commissioned by HMPPS found that the prison environment, including the condition of accommodation, plays a considerable role in how prisoners behave.
  2. HMPPS expected to pay its facilities management providers £17.7 million for variable costs at business case stage, but by 2018-19 it had paid £160.4 million, a difference of £142.6 million.
  3. HMPPS has built a new wing at HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) Stocken, in Rutland, and is building two new prisons, in Wellingborough (name not yet confirmed), in Northamptonshire and Glen Parva, in Leicestershire which are due to complete in 2021 and 2023 respectively.
  4. This money was meant to have been reinvested to fund new prisons but HMPPS only sold one. High demand for places from a growing prison population alongside the reduced supply of cells from deteriorating conditions meant old prisons had to be used rather than sold.
  5. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  6. The National Audit Office (NAO) helps Parliament hold government to account for the way it spends public money. It is independent of government and the civil service. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether government is delivering value for money on behalf of the public, concluding on whether resources have been used efficiently, effectively and with economy. The NAO identifies ways that government can make better use of public money to improve people's lives. It measures this impact annually. In 2018 the NAO's work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery,