Jail wins council contract jobs

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Channing Wood prison in Devon has won a ground maintenance contract at a primary school and intends to put convicts to work under the supervision of jail staff.

Guidelines issued by the Prison Services Agency allow jails to enter the compulsory competitive tendering process and use inmates to do the work, it emerged yesterday. Prisoners earning as little as £9 a week could be used more widely to undercut council workers bidding for local authority contracts.

A prison official said pressure was coming from the Home Office to generate income by competing in the open market. The Devon case was the first identified by officials at Unison, the public service union, and they believe that thousands of its members' jobs could be put at risk if the practice spreads.

Billions of pounds of local authority services are put out for bids under the statutory compulsory competitive tendering process. Ironically, Channing Wood's bid at Denbury school was higher than the one submitted by Devon Direct Services, the county council department.

Len Peach, head of the school, said the bid was chosen by governors because the prison was close-by and could therefore be more responsive to the school's needs.

It was also able to perform the work outside normal hours so that it did not interfere with the children's activities. "My responsibility is to look after the best interests of the children, but I understand the union's point of view."

Richard Jewison, Unison's senior regional official in the South-west, argued that prisons should not be allowed to bid for contracts and use prisoners to do the work. "If a large prison decided to enter compulsory competitive tendering, then it would have very serious consequences for Unison members. They cannot be expected to compete with £9 a week."

Alan Jinkinson, Unison general secretary, said prisoners were being exploited. "They are being paid extremely low wages to undercut existing workers. It is a worrying development which must be stamped on."

The Home Office said the contract was small - worth £800 - and prisoners would always be supervised. There was no question of undercutting council employees. A bigger contract or one where prisoners were used on a systematic basis would be assessed on its merits.