September 21 2023

A farewell to NOMS: We need more than a name change

A farewell to NOMS: We need more than a name change

A view of D wing at HMP Wandsworth Prison. Pic: Andy Aitchison

A farewell to NOMS: We need more than a name change

D wing from at HMP Wandsworth. Pic by Andy Aitchison of Prison Image as used in Proof magazine

As Secretary of State Liz Truss announces the demise of the National Offender Management Service, few will mourn its passing.

NOMS, known as the Nightmare on Marsham Street after its initial prestigious Westminster location, was born on 1 June 2004 following a review by Labour peer Lord Carter.

There was a prison crisis even then with the prison population having risen by over 60% in the previous decade. Home Secretaries Michael Howard, Jack Straw and David Blunkett had seen to that with their ever more ‘tough on crime’ policies and sentences. Blunkett’s kafkaesque Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection was perhaps Government’s most grotesque act of penal mismanagement, the effects of which still plague the prison system today.

The first NOMS Chief Executive was Martin Narey, rapidly succeeded by Helen Edwards, the first and last person in a senior position in the organisation with a probation service background.

For those of us running prisons at the time there was some initial enthusiasm. Declared principals of ‘end to end offender management’ made sense. Many prisoners were repeat offenders, most would eventually be released at some point, so bringing together prisons and probation, the custodial and community parts of the justice system, seemed eminently sensible.

We were however, naive over other key phrases emanating from Carter’s report: commissioners, providers and above all contestability. We had little idea what was to come in the form of contracted services that we as Governors would have no control of. Over the early years we had Regional Offender Managers (ROMS) which were quickly replaced by Directors of Offender Management (DOMS). The management of public sector prisons however remained under a separate prison service director, Phil Wheatley.

The prison crisis continued unabated with the prison population continuing to increase and controversies over foreign national prisoners seeing the end of Home Secretary Charles Clark’s career. John Reid succeeded Clark, by May 2007 Government had concluded that the Home Office was too unwieldy and disaster prone. Courts, prison and probation were hived off to form a new Ministry of Justice with Jack Straw back in the driving seat for justice.

By January of the following year, Phil Wheatley became CEO of NOMS with responsibility for all aspects of prison and probation. The prison service effectively annexed the probation service and probation expertise became increasingly marginalised. Michael Spurr replaced Wheatley in 2010 at which point the coalition took charge. Ken Clark briefly talked sense on reducing prisoner numbers and was summarily sacked for his efforts. While Clark had seen mass privatisation as the way forward his successor Chris Grayling demanded more rapid cost savings and  slashed staffing numbers. The result is well documented and the prison system is now in its most parlous state for decades.

Politicians must take some of the blame but under them NOMS became a bureaucratic behemoth emasculating prison governors under a deluge of dictates. Demands for a better prison system have conflated sentencing and prison reform. They are separate; the former political dynamite, the latter long overdue. David Cameron and Michael Gove showed in the 2015 Queen’s speech that they understood that NOMS was part of the problem. The architects of top down managerialism were hardly likely to effect the change to governor autonomy and localism that was now recognised as essential. Swept away on the Brexit tsunami, Cameron and Gove have handed the baton to May and Truss.

For Truss the jury is still out. A few thousand new staff is a mere sticking plaster on a gaping wound. The establishment of a National Prison and Probation Service may just herald the cultural change so desperately needed. But as Truss has acknowledged, it is a long way back. Grayling’s treatment of probation was tantamount to going on to the battlefield and bayonetting the wounded. Community Rehabilitation Companies are slowly being revealed as the car crash everyone predicted.

And we now have flagship prisons such as Manchester and Belmarsh that no current prison governor wants to take on and at a basic salary of £65K remain unattractive to outsiders. If we are to have safe and decent prisons it will be Governors who will deliver them. Some out there are already doing so. Other are struggling. There are individuals working in health, education and business who we need to attract to a vital service. They need to paid at least as much as head teachers and above all be allowed to look downwards to their staff and prisoners and outwards to the communities they serve but not upwards to crushing bureaucracies intent on command and control.

NOMS was never an organisation that its employees proudly declared they belonged to. Creating a National Prison and Probation Service that people aspire to join and importantly to stay in and develop skills and careers is an important step forward. But it must be much more than just name change.