Sector News
Pedro Telles and the Public Procurement Podcasts – Dr Amy Ludlow on Prison Services

In the fourth episode of the Public Procurement Podcasts, Dr Pedro Telles speaks with Dr Amy Ludlow about the intersection between labour law and public procurement. Dr Ludlow is a fellow at the Gonville and Cauis College in Cambridge and is an Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Law.

She has recently published a book called Privatising Public Prisons: Labour Law and the Procurement Process. The book explores competition in public services in terms of the economic and non-economic interests, and how both factors can co-exist to create social prosperity. Specifically, her work focuses on how the way in which we procure services affects the employment cultures and practices of the staff who deliver those services.

She studied this in the context of Birmingham Prison, which became the first operational public sector prison to be privatised back in 2011. She says that the pre-existing workforce at the prison was going to be transferred across to G4S, and so from a social perspective, the Birmingham competition became an interesting ‘testing ground’ for law. After conducting her study, Dr Ludlow believes that we should be more ambitious in managing the social aspects of the procurement process, such as pursuing living wage policies, promoting trade unions that represent staff, and increasing employment of marginalised groups.

Dr Ludlow spent a year in Birmingham Prison immersing herself with staff to really understand what their jobs entailed. Her fascinating descriptions of the experience can be heard in greater depth in the podcast. She says that since her initial study at Birmingham, there has been a policy change meaning prisons are now benchmarked instead of being put out to competition, and private sector costing is being applied to public sector prisons. The significant staffing changes and restructuring that took place at Birmingham as a result was the subject of an additional three-year longitudinal study into the prison’s progress and performance.

Dr Ludlow said that while the original Senior Management Team at the prison had been fairly diverse in terms of gender and race, the shift to private sector saw it become an all white middle-aged male team. Despite the fact that equality issues received the most amount of coverage in procurement documents, she says this didn’t translate into practice post-transfer. Dr Ludlow says this shows that the procurement team just focussed on survival mode and cutting costs, and didn’t form an active strategy in terms of social policy. (Of course one issue here might be a disconnect between the procurement process and the ongoing contract management process, something that is very common in public sector contracts – and indeed, in the private sector too!)

Many of the prison’s staff were encouraged to leave, particularly older staff with more expensive contracts. Dr Ludlow says that empirical findings cast doubt on protection of employment regulations, especially when a commissioner knows about envisaged staffing changes when signing off the bid. Finally, she states that one of the purposes of the procurement exercise in Birmingham was to “break” the Prison Officers Trade Union, which had “too much power.”

All in all, Dr Ludlow believes that this shows inadequate attention is given to social policy and that the procurement process was solely aimed at cutting running costs, and inevitably cutting staff as a result. She says that this should be disclosed, or at least intentions around staffing disclosed, as part of the bid.

In the podcast, Dr Ludlow concludes that if we continue to procure prison services from the private sector, it needs to be done much more intelligently. She says she is less convinced about the benefits of privatising the sector than she was before conducting the study. However, she admits that privatisation has almost been a “necessary evil” in how it has helped to motivate improvement in some of the public service publicly provided prisons because of contestability.

There have been various studies by the National Audit Office and others on private prisons, which have not produced clear evidence one way or another as far as we can see in terms of whether private or public sector is “best” – getting true like for like comparisons is one challenge when every prison is different.

Back to the podcast – it is well worth checking out, and in the final segment, Dr Ludlow discusses her methods and gives advice to future multidisciplinary researchers. You can listen to it here.

Dr Ludlow is on twitter –  @ACLudlow.   Pedro Telles can be found at his blog or on Twitter – @Detig for general discussion and @publicprocure for public procurement related topics.