Reform Scotland

Ideology overruling outcomes on HMP Kilmarnock nationalisation – Brian Whittle MSP

When we think of prisons, most of us rely on TV to have an idea of what they’re really like and, in most cases the fictional version isn’t the most accurate depiction. Over my years as an MSP, I’ve made fairly regular visits to HMP Kilmarnock, one of only two prisons in Scotland currently run under contract by a private sector firm. In the case of HMP Kilmarnock, it was built under a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and has been operated by Serco since 2002, when they bought the previous provider, on a 25-year contract which expires in March this year.

As long ago as 2019, the then Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf was pledging at a meeting of the Prison Officers Association that both HMP Kilmarnock, and HMP Addiewell (the other private prison in Scotland) would both be brought into public ownership when their contracts expired. Now, for Kilmarnock, that time is approaching rapidly, and the question being asked by Serco, the prison staff and many of my MSP colleagues is, why?

For the Scottish Government, the answer is obvious. “We have always maintained that prisons should be managed by the public sector and not run for profit by private companies. That is why private prisons will come into public ownership after their contracts expire.”

That’s a comment from a Scottish Government spokesperson in 2019, when the decision to nationalise HMP Kilmarnock was first announced, and it’s still the line taken today. No suggestion that the prison’s performance is worse than it’s publicly run counterparts. No indication that the taxpayer would save money if the prison was publicly owned. Just a flat statement that amounts to “Private = bad. Public = good.” If ever there was a more obvious example of ideology overruling outcomes by this Scottish Government, I’ve yet to see it.

The inherent belief in the superiority of public ownership has always been a theme for the Scottish Government and one that’s not always borne out by evidence. From Ferguson Marine to BiFab, to ScotRail to Prestwick Airport we see entities which could, and in my view should, be in the private sector, nationalised only to see their performance suffer and vast quantities of public money ploughed into them. I fear the same will be true for HMP Kilmarnock.

Unlike many of the other nationalised entities I mentioned above, HMP Kilmarnock is no failed business. Far from it, it is widely recognised by politicians of all colours, as having done excellent work. For years it has worked with various community organisations, such as Centrestage and Recovery Enterprises, bringing them into the prison and allowing them to work with prisoners before and after their release. The prison also supports the community more widely, with a contractual obligation to spend 10% of its revenue in the local area; a commitment which ends with the contract in March. And years before the Scottish Government spent millions trying to give prisoners access to mobile phones during the pandemic, HMP Kilmarnock had long since installed landlines in all its cells; an action which helped to reduce re-offending and improve the mental health of prisoners and something that Reform Scotland had been calling for.

It’s worth noting here too that the departure of Serco from the prison doesn’t come with a seamless transition for staff. The Scottish Prison Service has said it doesn’t pay Serco for the 56 body worn cameras used at the prison so when Serco goes, so do the cameras. That means the number of body worn cameras available across Scotland’s 17 prisons will drop from 84 to 28. At the same time, the in-house psychology, education and housekeeping staff currently on payroll will become sub-contractors, as will the prison’s 4 drug detection dogs.

Nor will the transfer save the public money. HMP Kilmarnock is one of the least expensive prisons in the UK to run at a cost of around £16m to the Scottish Government annually. It’s been reported that the nationalisation will increase costs by up to £5m and that because of differences in staff contracts, the prison may need to recruit dozens of extra officers. At the time of writing, there are also serious questions about when current Serco staff will be moved over to be paid at the same rate as their existing SPS counterparts, with suggestions the transition may be slowed to save money.

Perhaps most frustrating of all to me is the fact that Serco had previously offered to build a new block at the prison at no cost to the public, but this was summarily rejected by the Scottish Government. Considering the rising costs for new prisons in Inverness and Glasgow and the prison inspectorate reporting that 6 prisons providing accommodation for about 35% of our prison population are “ill-suited to a modern prison system”, that is a decision which verges on negligence.

To be clear, I am not advocating wholesale privatisation of everything that isn’t nailed down, but I reject this notion that the private sector has nothing to offer in the delivery of some services. This ideologically driven belief that public ownership, even if it costs more and the outcomes aren’t as good, must be the preferred route, is not only illogical, but also pretty clearly putting the political interest above the public interest.

While I recognise there are always going to be those who simply cannot abide the idea of any public service being delivered with a profit motive, first and foremost, governments must prioritise achieving the best outcomes. In prisons, that must be the protection of the public, reducing reoffending and rehabilitating prisoners. HMP Kilmarnock has achieved all of these outcomes, and it’s done so at a lower cost to the taxpayer than other prisons in Scotland, often by being well ahead of the Scottish Prison Service in its actions.

I know how easy it is for any debate on public vs private to end up with the hardliners on either side trading examples of each other’s failures or accusing the other of wanting to nationalise or privatise everything. However, to allow that to be the extent of the debate we have on this subject is letting the public down.

In recent weeks I’ve held a members debate in Holyrood about HMP Kilmarnock and asked the Justice Secretary directly what evidence was for the Scottish Government’s decision to nationalise the prison rather than re-tender the contract. On both occasions, she could cite nothing but the Scottish Government’s policy against prisons being run for profit. At a time when the Scottish Government is struggling to finance much needed improvements in the prisons it already operates, opting to spend more funds nationalising another which is working well risks looking more than a little self-indulgent.

The Scottish Government are constantly at pains to talk about how much budget pressure they are under, but at the same time, they’re intent on making this decision to spend more and very probably get less.

Privitisation is far from the solution to every problem, but I see no evidence to suggest that nationalisation of HMP Kilmarnock will solve any problem, even if it was clear what problem the SNP were trying to solve.

As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Brian Whittle is a Scottish Conservative MSP for the South of Scotland region