Prisoners with private means: As a TV executive becomes head of Britain's jails, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, defends his free-market policy

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SURELY anyone campaigning for more humane conditions in prisons would give three cheers for a new remand prison in which prisoners spend 15 hours a day out of their cells, there is access to at least six hours of tuition a week, meals are served at normal times and clean clothes and hot showers are available.

But there is little cheering to be heard from the reforming pressure groups. The reason is that the prison in question is being managed by the private sector. Too many traditional campaigners get extremely confused in distinguishing between the key issue of the quality of service inside our prisons and the much less important question of who should provide it. Personally, I find it odd when people argue that there is something improper in having people not on the public payroll running prisons, even if it results in better regimes.

The 1991 Woolf report into the riots at Strangeways and other jails set an agenda for reform. The Government accepted that agenda almost entirely and produced a timetable for its implementation, extending into the next century. It was then said that the programme of reforms was too slow.

In order to speed things up, we decided to introduce a contracting out and market-testing programme into the prison system. The service I require on behalf of the taxpayer, the public and the prisoner, is effective custody, enlightened regimes and a genuine reformative content delivered efficiently at a reasonable cost. I have no ideological prejudice about whether those standards are delivered by public sector or private sector employees. There is no public interest or policy reason why the prison service should not have to demonstrate that it can compete with the private sector in delivering decent conditions and a quality regime, day in day out, at a price which demonstrates good value for money.

Lord Justice Woolf and Judge Stephen Tumin proposed greater delegation of responsibility to governors and a prison service code of standards. He recommended that each prisoner should, on arrival, be able to enter into a 'compact' covering his expectations and responsibilities; that transfers of disruptive prisoners between local prisons should be minimised and that there should be greater access to education, physical education and work; that staff uniforms should be less militaristic, and that staff should wear name badges. That remand prisoners should receive more visits, that more cardphones should be installed as soon as possible. In other words, the kind of conditions for prisoners that have long been demanded of us by reformers. These are the conditions now being delivered in the first remand prison to be operated under a private sector contract, at The Wolds in North Humberside.

We have recently signed a contract for the management of Blakenhurst, a local prison near Redditch, Worcestershire, due to open in April 1993. No matter which of the tenderers had been successful, the Government could have been sure that prisoners at Blakenhurst would have an absolute minimum cell-free period of 12 hours a day, access to at least six hours of education a week and similar opportunities for physical exercise. Great care will be taken in providing high standards for medical and suicide screening, including the involvement of such agencies as the Samaritans.

These are not proposals dreamt up as a response to the Woolf report, to be implemented over years to come: they are in place at The Wolds and will be in place at Blakenhurst next year. Indeed, our experience has been so encouraging that I have decided to put to competitive tender any new prisons, starting with one to open at Doncaster in 1994.

We are also beginning to market-test existing establishments, allowing the prison service to compete with the private sector in providing the best service. This process will begin with the refurbished Strangeways. Prison service management is fully committed to the in-house bid, and staff have decided overwhelmingly to support it. The winner will be the organisation with the best proposals for a cost-effective, high-quality regime that can be delivered without interruption. But the real winners will be prisoners, taxpayers and all of us who want to see a more civilised prison system.

Opening up the prison service to a wider range of potential providers has quickly brought many of the improvements we would like to see across the prison system as a whole. Those improvements have come now, and they have come at no additional cost. Market testing will, I believe, cause the prison service to examine its own performance in the light of competitive pressure and encourage the spread of those reforms across public sector prisons much more quickly than would otherwise have been the case.

Despite this progress, however, there remains a nagging doubt in many people's minds. Reformers with liberal aims but conservative attitudes want these reforms and they want them now, but not with the involvement of the private sector. The argument runs that it is a collective duty of society to deprive people of their liberty, to decide the conditions in which they should be confined and that this duty should not be delegated to the private sector. But this ignores the facts.

The courts continue to decide who goes to prison, civil servants decide which prison it should be and the Home Office specifies in a contract the conditions the prison must offer. A Crown servant oversees the contract and the prison has an independent Board of Visitors and is subject to inspections by the inspectorate.

If the conditions specified are not delivered in any way, then I have a sanction. Financial penalties can be imposed on the contractor that will eat into his profits. This will be more effective than anything I have available for a directly employed service.

To me this is the final answer to the moral question. It cannot be more moral to lock up prisoners for long hours a day with little chance to associate, limited opportunities for visits and little access to education, work or PE than to see them unlocked all day with access to a full programme of useful activities, simply because the poor programme is provided by staff directly employed by the state and the better programme by staff employed by a contractor of the state.