MOVES to privatise a prison in the North East could be a repeat of the West Coast rail disaster, a leading MP last night warned.
Ministers announced yesterday that HMP Northumberland will be privatised along with three other prisons, though Durham – which was also in the running for privatisation – will stay in the public sector.
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith joined unions and prison reform groups in criticising the move, describing it as a kick in the teeth for staff.
HMP Northumberland is the combination of former young offenders’ institution Castington and the Acklington adult training prison.
“This decision is a kick in the teeth for the prison staff and management who have successfully merged two prisons into one,” said Sir Alan, who is chairman of the Commons Justice Committee.
“It was a serious mistake to subject the prison to market testing while the merger was still taking place. I do not want to see the mistakes and disasters of the East Coast and West Coast rail contracts repeated at HMP Northumberland.”
Prisons Minister Jeremy Wright excluded the public sector from progressing to the next stage of the competition, with only private companies Sodexo and MTC/Amey considered when the Government makes its final decision next spring.
Management of three South Yorkshire jails – Lindholme, Hatfield and Moorland – will also be included in the contract.
The current public management of the prison entered a bid to keep control of the institution earlier this year.
G4S, which failed to provide adequate security for the Olympics this summer, also entered an unsuccessful bid.
The company learned yesterday that it will lose control of Wolds prison in East Yorkshire.
HMP Durham, which the Government was also considering for privatisation, will remain in the public sector.
A report on the prison published on Tuesday said it was inexcusable that a third of inmates were unoccupied there while workshop spaces went unused.
However, inspectors praised management for overseeing a smooth merger of Castington and Acklington.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said competition between the public and private sector. would lead to better value for the taxpayer.
“The cost of running our prisons is too high and must be reduced,” he said.
“We can do this by being more innovative and efficient, and without compromising public safety.”
The Ministry of Justice said Sodexo and MTC/Amey had “produced a compelling package of reforms for delivering cost reduction, improvements to regimes and a working prisons model in these prisons”.
Matt Spencer, governor of HMP Northumberland, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the Government’s decision to hand over prisons to the private sector was “a mistake of Olympic proportions”.
And Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union, said: “The privatisation of our prison service ought to be a national scandal and that this has happened without any public debate is shameful.
“It is morally reprehensible that companies are profiting from locking people up and we urgently need an independent review to look at the impact on our communities, staff and prisoners.”
I do not want to see the disasters of the rail contracts repeated at HMP Northumberland