Letter: Commercial and public duty in privatised prisons

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Sir: The Home Secretary must be right when he argues ('Prisoners with private means', 22 December) that there is nothing intrinsically improper in having people not on the public payroll running prisons. What matters in that context is not who employs prison staff but to whom they are accountable.

That, of course, is where problems could arise. For while the prison service is currently accountable solely to the Secretary of State, the directors of a company contracting to run a prison are answerable to two masters. They must account not only to the Secretary of State, with whom they have a contract to deliver certain services at a certain price, but also to their shareholders, with whom there is a different sort of contract to deliver growing profits. Those interests can conflict, and when the directors put shareholders' interests first, it may be to the detriment of prison conditions.

The Home Secretary's public duty is thus to make sure that he maintains prison conditions according to the standards in the contract by exercising his accountability effectively. This will not be easy if his principal response to a breach of the terms of a contract is a financial penalty applied after the event and without being sure that the cost to the company of the penalty is more than any saving from the breach.

The Secretary of State needs early warning of potential breaches of contract and accurate information of their effect. Perhaps he should insist that any company contracting to run a prison should have as a non-executive director a senior member of the prison service who can act as his eyes and ears. It would, at least, bring a new meaning to corporate governance.

Yours sincerely,

NIGEL PANTLING

London, N5

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