[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
I am delighted to have secured this debate, but I am more delighted to have the opportunity to introduce it under your distinguished chairmanship, Mr Crausby. You have already informally warned me to behave, and I promise that I will.
This is an important debate that will be of vital interest to Members, whatever their constituency. I intend to direct my remarks to the consultation paper, “Transforming Rehabilitation,” which the Government see as a revolution in the way we manage offenders, with particular emphasis on the problem of reoffending.
Before I go into detail, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the probation service’s extremely professional, dedicated and hard-working staff. Those words exactly describe the staff in West Yorkshire. I find the Leeds staff to be first class, and they do a first-class job. I am sure Members echo my comments for the staff in their areas. It is difficult to reconcile the proposal to transfer some 70% of the probation service’s work load to other providers with the quality of its present endeavours. In 2011, the probation service met or exceeded all the Ministry of Justice targets. In October 2011, the service won the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence, which is given to an organisation in recognition of its
“continued commitment to sustained excellence over a number of years.”
The award came with a commendation:
“The Probation Service comprises 35 independent probation trusts annually supervising a caseload of some 247,000 offenders. The successful pursuit of continuous improvement has confirmed that they are on the right path to achieving and sustaining excellence and essentially to being the best providers of these essential services.”
The award was noted by the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), who said:
“This prestigious award recognises the professionalism of probation staff and the excellence of their work. This very public recognition of not just what they do but, perhaps more importantly, how well they do it, will be a source of pride for probation staff.”
Members might be even more impressed when they learn that all that excellent work was carried out against a background of falling staff numbers. In 2011-12, there was a fall of just under 7%. A total of 1,313 full- time equivalent staff were cut from the service, and there was a 10%, or £80 million, cut in resources over a slightly longer period from, I think, 2009.
I will address the Government’s proposals against that background of a dedicated, professional service. The proposals include privatising some 70% of probation service work; introducing, for the first time in the field of criminal justice, a payment-by-results scheme for private companies that receive the new contracts; and abolishing the 35 probation trusts and replacing them, initially, with 16 geographic units. [Interruption.] The Minister shakes his head. It is rumoured that the figure is now down as low as six or eight.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I shook my head because, as he will know from his close reading of the consultation document, the 16 contract package areas are a starting point, and not necessarily a finishing point. We will listen carefully to what people say to us during the consultation.
I will touch on that later in my speech, but I am interested in the Minister’s comments.
It is interesting that the private sector will be commissioned, not locally by the individual probation trusts, but from Whitehall. The Government justify decimating this 105-year-old, well regarded service—which has received all the commendations I have read out—at considerable risk to public safety, on the specific grounds of reducing reoffending rates.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate.
Humberside probation trust has a gold award, too. The current level of trust and information exchange between prisons, probation staff, police and others involved in the management of risk has taken a long time to establish, and they fear that that might be compromised if medium-risk and low-risk offenders are managed outside the public sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that such fragmentation of risk management is a real difficulty for the future?
My hon. Friend has taken a page out of my speech, to the great relief of everyone present. Levels of trust and information exchange are key, and they have grown bit by bit as the relationships, and the benefits of those relationships, have grown. That is now to be swept aside, with private sector firms being forced on the trusts.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I hear what he has to say, but does he not recognise that reoffending rates are far too high and that, as a result, we need to consider the structural reasons why that is happening? We must consider how to bring about change and innovation in the way the probation service functions.
Further to the previous intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is the premise on which the Government are making their judgments? On 9 January 2013, The Guardian reported that the Secretary of State for Justice had said that
“a radical overhaul is needed to tackle the high reoffending rates with 58% of short-sentenced prisoners reoffending within a year and half a million crimes committed each year by released prisoners.”
The actual reoffending rate of those subject to state supervision—they are not short-term prisoners but those sentenced to more than 12 months—has dropped by 1.55 percentage points to below 10%. Does that not underline the wrongness of the Government’s approach?
My hon. Friend has taken the second part of page 2 by making an important point that I was just about to address.
It is no secret, and it is accepted, that reoffending rates are high. The figures for the period between April 2010 and March 2011 show that more than one in four criminals reoffended within a year, which is a reoffending rate of 26.8%, marginally up from 26.3% in the previous year. Over the 10 years in which records have been kept, the reoffending rate has gone down.
It is sad but interesting that the Secretary of State used a higher figure when making his statement to the House. He said that, in 2010, “nearly half” of those leaving prison reoffended. He was correct—the reoffending rate for those leaving prison is around 47%— but that suggests the overall reoffending rate is double what it actually is. It would have been more straightforward had he used the 26.8% figure to justify the programme.
It is interesting that the Ministry of Justice’s annual figures break down those figures. Some 26,000 of the 56,000 people who left prison reoffended, but 18,000 of those 26,000 were not covered by the probation service because they were serving sentences of less than 12 months, which is the point my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) made. If the aim is to eliminate or reduce reoffending, why must the Secretary of State use a figure attractive to him rather than giving a true reflection of the situation?
I commend my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and I apologise to him, to Members and to you, Mr Crausby, for not being able to stay all the way through. Does my hon. Friend think that that is why the Treasury is so worried about the proposal? Would it not have been more logical to have tested and piloted the proposal for offenders serving less than 12 months with the probation service, given its growing expertise in working with the social enterprise and voluntary sector, in defined areas that coincide with police areas, so that people could work together? Instead we have prime contracts, detached from the community and the problem, with Serco and G4S taking over virtually all public services.
My right hon. Friend raises a number of points that I hope I will have time to touch on. They are all valid, not because they are in my speech but because they are important points about the attack on the probation service.
Any real scrutiny of the Ministry of Justice figures demonstrates that the reasons for our disappointing reoffending rates are complicated and numerous, but it is wrong and unfair to place them at the door of the probation service. As I have said, a major proportion of reoffending is outside the statutory remit of the probation service. I pay tribute to the proposal in the White Paper to bring it within the probation service’s responsibilities for the first time. It is one thing that I straightforwardly applaud.
Although I wish for improvement, due to those facts, and because of the quality and professionalism of the probation service, I am not convinced that there is a pressing need for the upheaval suggested in the consultation document, or for the pace and scale of change. I want to make it absolutely clear that reoffending figures should unarguably be improved, and that the proposals to address short-sentence prisoners are long overdue and welcome. I have no dogmatic opposition to the use of the private and voluntary sector in rehabilitation. My concerns are overwhelmingly about public safety, protecting the existing good work of the probation service, questioning the suggested and untested payment-by-results methods that will be introduced to the private sector, ensuring that management and structure changes are sensibly modified to suit the proposals and, importantly in this age of austerity, ensuring that the costs are acceptable. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the costs are starting to worry the Treasury.
Against that backdrop, it is critical that these large-scale reforms of our rehabilitation and probation policy are well thought through, investigated from all angles and brought together on a basis that puts evidence first. What is before us is none of those things. It is hasty, ill thought through, dogmatic, cobbled together and risky. I have indicated my concerns, and I will expand on them.
First, the Secretary of State describes the approach as revolutionary, but there is a clear need to demonstrate that the policy changes are evidence-based. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), started a number of pilot schemes in that area of work, which were abandoned within days after the present Secretary of State took office. When questioned by the Select Committee on Justice, the present Secretary of State admitted that he was unable to provide MPs with any evidence to support his change in policy. He excused his peremptory ending of the pilot schemes by stating that it
“will take us much of the rest of this decade to see through to a conclusion, evaluating the data and coming up with an analysis. We are talking about the core principle of trusting the professionals and making them take a bit of the risk themselves”.
We are less worried about the professionals than about the public taking the risk of the proposals.
When pressed by the shadow Secretary of State to produce evidence to justify, for example, the controversial payment-by-results proposal, the Secretary of State derided what he termed the Opposition’s obsession with pilots, saying revealingly:
“Sometimes those in government just have to believe in something and do it”.—[Official Report, 9 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 318.]
That warms the heart, but it worries us to death.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that it is especially concerning that the Justice Secretary has decided to proceed without gathering the evidence, given that perhaps the best example of a similar programme under this Government—the Work programme—seems to be performing spectacularly badly?
I agree with my hon. Friend; this is a bad example of a politician and a Department feeling right in proceeding on such a sensitive matter involving so much public risk. If the Minister feels that I am being unfair, the Select Committee and I would welcome it if he produced the evidence to justify the risks inherent in the policy changes.
The more the proposals are scrutinised, the more apparent it becomes that giving the majority of work to the private sector is the major objective. To my mind, it is also a major cause of the opposition to the proposals and of some of the difficulties in the consultation paper. I said earlier that I saw nothing amiss in involving the private and voluntary sector—it is, of course, already involved, and such arrangements have grown and are appreciated—but the scale and spread proposed are entirely different. The proposal to hand over 70% of the work load of existing probation officers so quickly to firms untrained in and unused to the work raises obvious questions.
The division of the work distribution—low and medium-risk to the private sector, high-risk to the probation service—looks clear on paper but ignores what professionals in the service say happens in real life. Medium-risk individuals can move dangerously quickly to being high risk. If the signs are not spotted immediately, high risk may escalate into dangerous behaviour with harm to individual and general public safety. That is a reality that experienced probation officers live with every working hour, and it is a tribute to their skill and dedication that it does not happen on a wider scale.
It would be wiser to introduce the private sector, if it must be introduced on this scale, to deal initially with the low-risk group alone. Even if that were seen as weakening the proposals’ profitability for the private sector, it would have the opportunity to take on the new work load of prisoners serving less than 12-month sentences. That would create a clear division and stop the overlap, which will certainly cause a problem. It could also help with the vagueness of the relationships and objectives of the differing cultures.
The private sector has the responsibility to ensure that court or licence agreements are adhered to. Obvious situations arise when individuals are in breach, and they are processed by the probation officer, but in areas of work where trust and relationships are all-important, the probation officer will have to accept the judgment of private sector personnel and haul the offender back to court. On the one hand, we have a public servant—a professional—who has no monetary motivation and whose only objectives are public safety and working with integrity with the person on probation. On the other hand, under the proposals, we will end up with large private companies tied to a scheme of payment that will pay largely on results.
Is it impossible that, to protect or maximise payment, the person on probation who could be a difficulty and a danger to that payment might necessarily be passed back to the probation officer? The probation officer would then have to pick up the relationship and process the matter through court.
If the Minister does not accept that argument, he should at least consider the divisions of the responsibilities proposed. A more distinct role for the private sector is needed, but one that allows distinct accountability, which is paramount in this sector. Every day, there is the possibility of something going wrong, and any ambiguity in responsibility is unwelcome.
Another reason to suggest that privatisation is uppermost in the Secretary of State’s mind is the winding up of the 35 trusts. Why are they being wound up? They have just been praised as excellent; they have been doing the job for 10 years; they have built themselves into the area and built up their relationships; but now they are being converted into 16 or perhaps six geographical areas, with all the dangers to the relationships that lie with that. Can the Minister spell out the reasons for cutting the trusts and the agreed criteria for the number of replacements?
My hon. Friend touched on the benefits of having longevity in a service, so that the contacts are built up over time. Longevity should never be unchallenged by those of us who are public scrutineers, but it builds up valuable expertise, as his own service has shown. One of my concerns is that the reducing offending and supervision hubs—in the emerging jargon, ROSHs—could be open to competition every three or five years. Surely, different organisations will therefore run the hubs every few years and the connections locally will be broken when they have to start again. Is that a good thing for local public safety?
It is a very harmful thing. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point and allows me to take further chunks out of my speech. I will not go further into the relationships, but I worry about how the contracts will be procured and the effect on the existing small companies and voluntary organisations that work with the probation service. I warn them that small companies and voluntary organisations often cry out for privatisation or for procurement or break-up of public services, in the belief that they will get the work, but they are dreaming. The Minister has provided some arrangements and money to assist small companies to bid, but the reality is that the big international and national companies will get the contracts, while small companies will be pressed to the margin.
I underline that point. I have observed probation working locally in the Scunthorpe area, and it is doing so effectively with voluntary initiatives such as MPower—small activities, voluntary organisations and private companies that are locally based. That local anchorage is crucial in dealing with the work and in keeping our communities safe. I share my hon. Friend’s concern, which he is right to express.
My hon. Friend makes another page of my speech unnecessary, which is a blessing.
One of the main things that we want the Minister to consider is the question of commissioning from Whitehall. The urge to privatise and to bring in the big companies is distorting the remaining parts of the service and causing real questions to be asked, one of which is about procurement. Why are the contracts being specified from Whitehall? We would welcome an answer. Why are the existing public trusts not able to set up the contracts? Whitehall setting up contracts for probation trusts’ computers fills them with some worry, given its record on computers.
A real problem is the business of payment by results, which is allied to the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett). Payment by results has not been a feature of the culture or practice of the Ministry of Justice, and the general feeling was in favour of pilots if it were to be done; the Secretary of State, however, cancelled the pilots. The Minister would do everyone a favour if he indicated why that was so, apart from the mystical belief that the Secretary of State knows best. The introduction of payment by results in so sensitive an area is extremely worrying. The pilot schemes wisely set up by the previous Secretary of State to test that out have now been scrapped, and it would be good to know on what basis other than that mystical belief.
I am sorry, Mr Crausby, that I have overrun my time, although I have taken a few interventions. My last point, however, is on costs, which I make not so much to the Minister but to the Treasury. It has been confirmed that the Treasury is looking at costs. I understand that, and as a member of the Treasury Committee, I hope that that is a good look. When the Ministry of Justice budget is under severe threat, however, the Secretary of State is suggesting the pulling in of the 30,000 people who leave prison after small sentences; he is also suggesting doing that rapidly. That 25% increase in work load will involve a fair cost, especially as he is talking about individual mentors and so on. Can the Minister tell us whether that policy has been agreed with the Chancellor? Is the money available? It will be surprising if it is; it will also be surprising, because the Treasury has publicly voiced worries about whether the rest of the business has been tested and costed. Untested payment by results could cause not only operational but financial problems, yet the Secretary of State has committed himself.
I welcome the fact that people on 12-month sentences will be included and looked at for the first time. That will have a good effect on lowering the reoffending rate, but I find little to enthuse about in the rest of the proposals, other than recognising that they are another dash for privatisation and an attack on public services and public service finances.
I shall be brief, Mr Crausby. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) for securing the debate, which is important because our probation service faces an imminent threat from a Government intent on cutting budgets at any cost to the service.
I will set out three core reasons why I am so concerned about the reforms: the cancellation of pilot schemes; the effects of payment by results; and the removal of probation trusts. To start, I concede that I am somewhat perplexed by the Government proposals. Our probation service is staffed by a dedicated army of workers, who do an important job keeping our community safe. It is vital and unglamorous work, away from the spotlight of public and media attention. Indeed, as has been mentioned, in 2011 the probation service deservedly won the British Quality Foundation’s gold medal for excellence in recognition of its outstanding and continued commitment to sustained excellence over several years. That is not to be taken lightly. The probation service is a proven success story and I simply do not understand why the Justice Secretary is intent on its dismemberment.
The previous Government recognised the importance of a secure and properly funded probation service. Funding rose by 70% in real terms, the number of offenders supervised by the probation service rose by 53%, and there was a rise in staffing of more than 7,000. During the Labour Government’s time in office, we proved our commitment to the probation service and its important work. The present Government are proposing to undo the hard-earned gains made under the Labour Government. Cuts to staffing and office closures will be the only way to achieve the deep cuts, and that will mean fewer probation orders made and the risk of an increased prison population.
I welcome the spread of best practice and the introduction of innovative ideas, such as bringing in outside expertise, but experience shows that a headlong rush to privatisation risks breaking up the system unnecessarily. Whatever the Justice Secretary might believe for reasons of expediency, a pilot is not some half-baked measure, nor a dirty word. It is how proper, well thought out, empirically driven policy is developed. Without it, we have what the Justice Secretary calls “believing”, and what everyone else calls “a step into the unknown”. Impervious to criticism from the Treasury, the National Audit Office and the probation service, he is taking a risk with a system that deals with vulnerable and sometimes dangerous offenders, and in doing so is taking a risk with safety.
Similarly, payment by results carries risks that the Government seem to be ignoring. It is primarily dependent on accurate data, which are not always easy to produce. Furthermore, the data, when available and correct, are often crude. If the Government believe that offenders least likely to reoffend and those most likely to reoffend are equals, private companies will simply focus on those who pose the lowest risk to people, and ignore the most prolific offenders, to turn a profit.
The system of payment by results is likely to lead to fewer, larger corporations in the hunt for those contracts. Many smaller organisations, such as charities and local groups—the very people with the experience and networks to work with offenders most effectively—will be unable to risk non-payment and will have to withdraw. That would be a disaster, yet it is already being played out under the guise of the Government’s Work programme, which for many people has been a contradiction in terms. One reason for the Work programme’s failure is that smaller organisations have been squeezed out by larger firms, citing lack of viability.
Finally, I am worried about removal of probation trusts. Northumbria probation trust is my regional trust and covers my constituency. It was given the highest performance rating for 2011-12 by the National Offender Management Service, and was declared to be exceptional. The success of my local trust should be celebrated and copied; instead, it is being dismantled. The irony, which is lost on few, is that a Government who proselytise localism are replacing local trusts with Whitehall centralisation. These reforms represent yet another false economy from this Government, and I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to think again.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) on securing this debate. I come to it from a slightly different perspective. There is no doubt that the probation service plays an important role in our criminal justice system, and particularly reoffending. I have already said that we all agree that reoffending levels are far too high. I believe the Government deserve great credit for focusing on reducing reoffending. It is extraordinary that 58% of criminals who are sentenced to less than one year in prison are convicted of further offences within 12 months of their release. That says something about all Governments, whether red, blue or coalition. The issue has not been given sufficient focus and emphasis.
We all agree that the reoffending rate overall is too high, but the 58% of short-sentence prisoners who reoffend are not under the supervision of the probation service. The figure for those within the probation service has fallen. Any reoffending is too much, but it has fallen. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that?
I do not, because at the end of the day we must also think about the other side in the criminal justice system: victims. The point is that all the figures are far too high and not enough has been done historically to tackle reoffending. Victims are hit hard and they suffer most from reoffending. They never feel satisfied if they are hit again and again by serial criminals who reoffend.
Reoffending creates significant financial cost. The National Audit Office has estimated that the cost to the economy could be as high as £13 billion, and as much as three quarters of that could be attributed to the cost of short-sentence prisoners who served less than a year in prison.
Reoffending is a serious problem. We have heard from the two speakers thus far that there is concern about the future of the probation service and its structure. It needs improvement, because if reoffending rates are too high we must look at what has not been working in the service. There are serious concerns, and we should look at previous reports. In November 2009, inspectors looked into failings in the probation service in London in the aftermath of the Sonnex killings, and found that barely half of its cases were being handled at a level to ensure that the public were protected.
Only 20% of offenders are in employment at any stage during the 13 weeks following their release, and 40% claim out-of-work benefits in that period. We must look to the future and the structural improvements that the Government are introducing to reduce reoffending.
I am about to close. We must bring others into the system to add value. We have heard about so-called privatisation, but it is right that the Government are encouraging new providers not just from the private sector, but from the third sector, to deliver services under the payment-by-results model.
Charities have a role to play, with small and medium-sized enterprises. We should not speak disparagingly of the role that SMEs can play. The sweeping generalisation is that corporate players will automatically obtain contracts, but I believe that SMEs and the third sector, including charities, can provide innovative support to help offenders. We should not exclude opportunities for them to improve services. The Prince’s Trust, the Apex Trust and other trusts are doing great work, and I urge the Government not to be put off by some of the comments thus far. We should not generalise at this stage. Consultation is taking place and I urge the Government to encourage all participants and players to come to the table and to be part of the solution.
It is a pleasure, Mr Crausby, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) on securing this important debate. I have spoken several times in the Chamber to raise concerns about the Government’s latest reform proposals, and I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak further about them.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) who made some incredibly important points, and highlighted the performance of her probation trust. We are discussing a high-performing part of the public sector and the criminal justice system. We are not saying that the probation service could not be better, and we all agree with the hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) that we want it to be better, but the core of my argument, which my hon. Friends are also making, is that we should build on what is good and successful in the service and not disrupt it as the Government’s proposals will.
The hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel) talked about not making assumptions, and not dissing the idea that the voluntary sector and others might play a part. The Opposition are not doing that. In fact, changes made over the years introduced other players to work alongside the probation service. My concern is that there will be a wholesale sloughing off of people with talent and of local co-ordination. Nothing in the hon. Lady’s speech identified what the future would look like under the new model; it was about hope, rather than evidence. Would my hon. Friend like to comment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I want to talk about how such local organisations are working to good effect in Northamptonshire and about my concern that that will be disrupted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East made clear, our concern is that payment by results in the criminal justice system is untested. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), was responsible for the Work programme, which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has said, a contradiction in terms. Will the Minister explain why the Government are rushing headlong into the changes and ignoring the pilots, rather than learning from them and developing reforms from them?
Our probation service does a good job in difficult circumstances and on stretched budgets, and the Government rated the performance of every probation trust as good or exceptional in 2011. After the proposed changes, probation will deal with an extra 60,000 offenders a year. Will there be additional funding or will the current money be spread even more thinly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East suggested? Poorly resourced support for rehabilitation will not effectively help to reform offenders, and that poses a serious risk to our constituents’ safety.
The proposals have been strongly and widely criticised. The National Association of Probation Officers said that they were
“being rushed through without proper thought to the consequences.”
NAPO pointed out:
“Although these offenders are deemed medium and low risk of harm, they include…offenders at high risk of reoffending, such as prolific burglars, chaotic drug users and gang members…who require professional expertise in their management.”
In Northamptonshire, such offenders currently receive that professional expertise. The Howard League for Penal Reform calls the proposals “untested and opaque.”
Does my hon. Friend share the concern that has been expressed about the Government’s plans? If contracted providers carry out supervision, but probation takes the final decisions where there is a breach, probation officers will be taking decisions about whether there has been a breach, and how to respond to it, without having had the benefit of a long-standing relationship with the offender. To some degree, they will be making such decisions in the dark.
I agree with my hon. Friend. One problem with the reforms is that they will threaten the co-ordination and the relationships that different agencies and professionals in the probation system have built up.
I want to share the views of three of my constituents who are officers in the local probation service. They are
“shocked to hear that the Justice Secretary intends to put out to tender the majority of the Service’s core work”.
They are “astonished”, particularly because
“the probation service is currently performing extremely well”.
They also believe there is “no evidence” that the payment-by-results scheme will deliver, and they feel that the decision
“has been made on purely ideological grounds”.
One of the probation officers stated:
“I am fearful that if this plan proceeds it will be chaotic and will compromise public protection”.
The probation service is operating in the context of serious budget cuts, and we have to bear those in mind as we consider the potential additional costs of the reforms. The budget allocated to probation trusts was cut from £820 million in 2011-12 to £814 million in 2012-13. That is part of a 23% cut to the Ministry of Justice over the spending review period. Probation services face serious cuts, and the total number of staff fell from 19,000 in 2010 to 17,800 in 2012. The Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed yesterday that another spending review is looming on the horizon, and we expect staff numbers to be squeezed further.
I am concerned that, as public bodies, trusts will not be allowed to bid on their own or with partners for commercial contracts for the delivery of probation services, because they will not be able to bear the financial risks involved in taking on a payment-by-results contract. The financial objects of trusts specifically forbid them from taking on such a financial risk. I have spoken to the Minister about that, and I look forward to his response. Trusts have worked on the assumption that they could get around that impediment by setting up arm’s-length commercial vehicles to take on the financial risks involved, but now I understand that the National Offender Management Service has told trusts that that is ultra vires. Will the Minister clarify whether that is correct? Under right-to-provide legislation, individual staff may bid if they can set up an independent mutual, but such a mutual would have to compete alongside other providers. As I understand it, probation trusts may not take the lead in the development of a mutual. Will the Minister tell me whether that is correct?
I have a number of specific questions, on which I will write to the Minister. However, will probation trusts, as public bodies, be permitted to bid, either on their own or with partners, for commercial contracts? Can they set up special-purpose vehicles? Can they set up mutual delivery organisations? Staff, including those in my constituency, are proud of their probation service. They want to know what future they have, and whether they will have opportunities to work around the reforms to sustain the good work that has been done. If probation staff were to set up their own mutual delivery organisation to bid for commercial contracts for the delivery of probation services in the community, would they have to resign from their employment with the probation trusts to take part in the competition?
According to informed estimates from various commentators, the reforms will result in the contracting out of about 70% of the work of a local probation trust. The Ministry of Justice claims that there will be a role for a surviving public probation service, but will that not be a tiny outfit of perhaps 3,000 staff—similar to the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, for example—which will operate as a courts and public protection service? I am concerned that a rump of 3,000 staff will simply become a national agency of NOMS, and the probation service as we know it will disappear.
Finally, I want to touch on the success story in Northamptonshire. The Minister will be aware of the high performance of Northamptonshire. I do not want to dispute the claims that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central has made about the performance of her probation trust, so let us just say that they are both excellent. The Northamptonshire probation trust is small, and it provides offender management services for the benefit of people across Northamptonshire. It excels against the Ministry of Justice performance targets, and the county has one of the lowest reoffending rates in the country.
The trust has certain features that are worth highlighting. The staff work very effectively in partnership with other local organisations. For example, operational probation and police staff work closely in the Northamptonshire integrated offender management team to monitor the most prolific offenders and to intervene where necessary. The trust’s strong working relationship with the police is reflected in the multi-agency public protection arrangements, and issues relating to the most serious offenders are well managed in Northamptonshire. There is strong strategic partnership working with the local authorities, with health providers and in areas such as housing and education. The offender management approach in Northamptonshire, which is working by reducing reoffending, is about really strong local partnership working, and that points the way to the approach for the future. The hon. Member for Witham mentioned reform, which we all agree is needed, and I believe we need to build on the incredible, strong local success story in Northamptonshire.
My time is running out, but I point the Minister to proposals that I made in a publication called “Primary Justice”, on which I worked with several Members of Parliament, including the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), as well as Lord Ramsbotham and other eminent professionals in the area. That report, which I believe was excellent, proposed a model that would build on a public sector success story. It would be far better to adopt that model than to proceed with the current proposals, and I commend it to the Minister. I look forward to his answers to my specific questions.
It is a pleasure to be able to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) on securing this important debate and on his comprehensive critique of the Government’s proposals. I am sorry that several pages of his speech were lost, owing to interventions, but that shows the strength of concern about the proposals.
My speech will be relatively brief, and I want to focus on some of the concerns of the South Yorkshire. Without wanting to compete with those of my hon. Friends who commented on the trusts in their areas, I will mention the fact that it recently received a five-star accreditation in the British Quality Foundation’s Recognised for Excellence programme, on the strength of its organisational performance. I hope therefore that regard will be paid to its views. We can all agree that we need to increase rehabilitation levels, to support a reduction in reoffending, but the South Yorkshire probation trust’s concerns deserve proper consideration.
The trust points out that although the Justice Secretary is looking for improvements in the reoffending rate, such improvements are already being achieved by the probation service. According to the Ministry’s figures, performance in relation to offenders under statutory supervision has improved year on year over the past decade. The data show that adult proven reoffending was 3.1 percentage points lower in 2010 than in 2000; 66% of offenders subject to statutory supervision by the probation service do not go on to reoffend. Those include a range of offenders with a mixture of complex and demanding needs who are assessed as being at low, medium or high risk of both harm and reoffending. Conversely, according to National Audit Office figures, 60% of offenders who are not subject to statutory supervision by the probation service—those who receive a prison sentence of less than 12 months—go on to reoffend.
A key concern of the South Yorkshire probation trust about the new proposals is the proposal to split responsibility for offenders between public and private providers, depending on the level of risk. Its concern is that that could introduce a dangerous, artificial divide, which would fail to take account of how risk levels fluctuate. It sees the management of medium-risk cases in particular as a “fundamental threat” and points out that there seems to be a belief that medium-risk cases are assessed as such on the basis of the seriousness of the current offence. However, that is not always the case. Medium-risk offenders have already caused, or are assessed as having the potential to cause, “serious harm”. They can include those on life sentences, individuals who have a history of domestic abuse, members of gangs, and individuals who pose a risk to children.
The proposed model fails to recognise that circumstances can change abruptly. Thus, someone who is deemed to be of low or medium risk could subsequently become high risk, and the staff in the contracted organisation might not be equipped to recognise that. Even if they did, they would then presumably need to arrange a hurried transfer back into the public sector. That would clearly be nonsense, and a bureaucratic nightmare.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is a significant financial disincentive, which underlines what nonsense the proposal is at every level.
The South Yorkshire probation trust also considers that the proposals show a failure to understand the complexities of accountability in the criminal justice system. If a judge or magistrate has concerns about the supervision of a contracted-out court order, with one or more organisations involved, whom should they ask to appear before them? Information sharing, particularly with the police, will become complicated and relevant information in relation to risk issues will be lost. Only a qualified probation officer should be the offender manager of medium-risk cases: that is how the trust operates, and it believes it is a reason for its high performance. I would underline the importance of learning from high performance to reduce reoffending. The model that the trust believes fully supports the Government’s plans to bring other sectors together is based on the approach of the offender manager and offender supervisor relationship; it builds on current successful practice in working with many agencies from the public, private and third sectors, often in the same premises, to manage difficult and dangerous offenders in the community.
Like many of my hon. Friends, I am concerned about the proposal to reduce the number of trusts. South Yorkshire had also raised that matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), who is no longer in his place, talked about the importance of local anchorage. The proposals for a reduced number of trusts would make it more difficult for the probation service to retain local links and a local profile, and what my hon. Friend called anchorage. Those changes to structures, coming at the same time as changes to who provides services, and how they provide them, will be such an upheaval that it will put the success of the Government’s scheme at significant additional risk. I ask the Minister to listen not only to all my hon. Friends but to the professionals in the field; to take account of the responses to the consultation; and not to rush through changes that would increase the risks to public safety.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this important debate, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) and thank him for the opportunity to speak on a subject about which I care deeply. I have cared about it for many years, having served as a magistrate from 1993 to 2009, when I got to know probation officers closely. I am concerned that the Government’s proposals are based on no evidence that a payment-by-results model will work in the context. By contrast, Greater Manchester probation trust, which supervises offenders in my constituency, has a good track record. Other hon. Members have also spoken about the successes of their probation trusts this afternoon. The Justice Secretary himself has, indeed, recognised Greater Manchester’s innovativeness, and has said he wants to consider the lessons learned there. I hope that that is sincere.
As others have pointed out, we need first to be clear about who is currently supervised by probation, and about the fact that we cannot assess the service’s performance in relation to offenders whose supervision was never in its remit. The probation service does not supervise those who leave custody after receiving sentences of less than 12 months. That group of offenders has been missed by public policy to date. The Government are right about that, and I welcome their intention to introduce new supervision for that group. However, the Minister will be interested to know that Greater Manchester probation trust has already experimented with a programme to look after that group of offenders. The Choose Change programme, a through-the-gate initiative for those serving shorter custodial sentences, offered support and supervision before and after release.
The evaluation of Choose Change shows the scale of the challenge in dealing with prisoners who have had short custodial sentences, on release. They were people with long histories of offending behaviour, and often chaotic lives. It is clear to me that one reason why Choose Change was less successful than we all hoped was that it was necessary to intervene much earlier in those offenders’ lives. For those with 10 or 15-year histories of offending behaviour it was far too late to start looking at through-the-gate solutions. However, we should also recognise that Choose Change offered support to an extent that was both intensive and costly. It is not clear to me that such intensive through-the-gate supervision can be made attractive to the private sector. In the absence of any wide-scale national provision against which to measure it—that group of offenders has not been supervised on a national scale to date—I am curious about how the Minister intends to specify the provision, and about the sort of pricing model that he envisages, to make it viable for commercial providers.
Secondly, Greater Manchester probation trust has led the way in important initiatives such as intensive alternatives to custody and integrated offender management. Crucial to those programmes and, indeed, to Choose Change, as other hon. Members have said, has been effective inter-agency working, founded on long-standing close relationships. I visited the Spotlight team at Stretford police station, shortly after I became a Member of Parliament, where police, probation, the local authorities, social services and so on are co-located. Workers are very effective and are a well targeted, integrated team that spotlights—as the name says—follows, tracks and intervenes constantly on offenders who are either living during or post-sentence in the community. It is absolutely vital that the success of that programme, which is founded on those inter-agency relationships, is protected. I know already that Greater Manchester police are expressing concern that those relationships could be disturbed by the roll-out of the Government’s proposals. I would be grateful if the Minister could say how he envisages those inter-agency relationships being sustained and protected when new private providers appear on the scene.
Thirdly, we would all rightly acknowledge the importance of employment in preventing reoffending; it is well understood to be crucial in keeping offenders out of trouble in future. I very much welcomed the Government’s decision to introduce “day one” entry to the Work programme for those leaving custody, but we have to acknowledge that the Work programme has not, so far at least, been a roaring success.
By contrast, the Achieve programme, developed by the Greater Manchester probation trust, has proven very successful both with those on community sentences, who make up 70% of the Achieve caseload, and with those leaving custody, who make up the other 30%. Achieve is a programme that works with partners such as Procure Plus, which is a social enterprise based in my constituency, to offer real work and real wages to offenders. It has been very successful in getting offenders into sustained employment. Some 13.5% of those going through the Achieve programme have remained in employment. As I think the Minister would agree, that is a much better result than we have seen from the Work programme, and we want to build on that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) said, we are now deeply uncertain about the future for programmes such as Achieve.
The Secretary of State for Justice has talked of probation staff forming co-operatives or social enterprises, and, as my hon. Friend said, probation trusts—including Greater Manchester probation trust—have been anticipating, over the past 12 months or so, the need and opportunity to create separate non-public sector provider organisations, but with the probation element integral to their success. It seems now as though probation services, such as GMPT, that have created those models will not be able to use them to bid for contracts, and we really need to understand from the Minister whether that is right, and if so, why on earth is it right? There is a situation of total confusion out there now. We do not know whether it is considered anti-competitive for those bodies to bid, or whether them bidding is considered ultra vires, as my hon. Friend mentioned. We do not understand why the Justice Secretary seemed to be so positive about it but now seems to be rowing back. I would be really grateful if the Minister—I am glad that he is shaking his head—could put it on the record clearly this afternoon that they will have the opportunity to bid.
Fourthly, the Minister will not be in the least bit surprised that I want to raise concerns about programmes for women in the contracted-out model, because as he is well aware, they have special needs and circumstances in the context of the criminal justice system. I welcome the appointment of his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), as champion for women in the criminal justice system. I very much regret that this afternoon, we see the Government rejecting the amendment that was passed in the House of Lords to the Crime and Courts Bill, proposing that there is a champion for women at the heart of the criminal justice system. I am very pleased that the Select Committee on Justice is conducting an inquiry into women in the criminal justice system, and I encourage the Committee to look at how payment by results would work for women offenders, because that is not at all straightforward.
In Greater Manchester, we have developed the Women MATTA programme, which is a partnership between the Pankhurst centre and Women in Prison. It offers holistic support for women offenders or those at risk of offending, and it has been able, by wrapping holistic support around those women, to deliver substantial savings to the public purse. Again, it is founded on a network of carefully developed relationships between different non-governmental organisations, but it is very hard to see that that voluntary approach would fit easily into the payment-by-results model, and I worry that that very good, specialist work could be lost.
The problems are that the number of women in the criminal justice system is relatively small, as everyone knows; their needs are high and often very complex; they are often mothers, so there are extra dimensions to the support that is needed, because children are involved; and they have often also been victims of crime and abuse over a very long period of time. We can already see services to support women offenders and women’s centres being squeezed. Ring-fenced funding that had been provided by the Ministry of Justice is now being spread more thinly across more women’s programmes.
The conclusion I draw is that it could be very costly for private providers to develop the kind of dedicated programmes that are necessary to meet the special needs of women. There is a real concern, therefore, that they will not do so and instead, we will see women shoehorned into the standard offer. I am sorry to draw yet again on the analogy of the Work programme, but that is exactly what is happening there, where we can see particularly poor outcomes for lone parents, because again, their special needs as women and mothers are simply not being regarded in that programme.
I am really grateful for the opportunity to raise those concerns at this early stage, as Ministers are considering how they intend to roll out the model. My concerns are very real, in terms of holding on to the good practice that we have. Nobody in Greater Manchester probation trust is against competition, or against the appropriate involvement of the private and third sectors, but I know that the Minister will not want to choke off successful initiatives and programmes that already exist. I am very concerned that top-down, large-scale, nationally let contracts will prove especially problematic, in relation to the very effective local programmes that have been developed. The voluntary sector will be squeezed out, as has happened again in the Work programme, and the outcomes will be poorer as a result.
I urge Ministers to proceed with their plans with great caution. We are proud of our track record in Greater Manchester, and Ministers must provide us with the assurance and the evidence that the private sector payment-by-results model will do better. It is not good enough to say that it will do okay, because we are not at all clear at this stage that that evidence exists.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. It is also pleasing that many Opposition Members are here to attend this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) on securing it and on providing us with such a comprehensive opening speech, which flagged up very effectively many of the major issues that I and other Members have touched on.
Most Members who have contributed this afternoon recognise the hard work and high degree of professionalism in the probation service. It is worth pointing out that in October 2011 the probation service was awarded the British Quality Foundation’s gold medal for excellence, which was an eloquent tribute. The then Minister with responsibility for probation, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), said
“This prestigious award recognises the professionalism of probation staff and the excellence of their work… This very public recognition of not just what they do but, perhaps more importantly, how well they do it, will be a source of pride for probation staff.”
That was an important statement and an important award.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) underlined the fact, as did others, that real improvements have been made on reoffending rates. We all recognise that there should be no complacency, and we need to ensure that those reoffending rates are significantly reduced. We believe that the way to do that is to build on the work that is being done, not to undermine it with a set of proposals that are untried, untested and a leap in the dark.
I would suggest that payment by results is ideologically driven. If we are going to improve the probation service and tackle reoffending rates, it is absolutely vital that improvements are based on empirical evidence objectively collected and that we have a well tested plan for improvement on which to work.
It worries me that two pilots were established, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), for example, pointed out—there was one in Wales and one in Staffordshire and the west midlands—yet both were scrapped by the new Justice Secretary within weeks, I think, of his taking office. I would like to know why that happened. Why did the Government not believe it necessary to collect objective information and then plan properly their response in relation to the work that still needs to be done on reoffending issues? He seems to have based his thinking on his experience as a Minister of State in the Department for Work and Pensions and what has been experienced so far in the Work programme. That is seen as the model, but it is worth pointing out that only 3.5% of people on the Work programme are in work after six months. When that goes wrong, it is bad for the people who are unemployed, but it is extremely worrying when potentially dangerous offenders may go without proper support and monitoring because this scheme is based on that scheme, which is certainly not succeeding. That is bad for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. The bottom line for many people is that there is not a great deal of public confidence in G4S. In many ways, that is stating the obvious.
Other questions have been raised by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby, for example, posed a number of important questions, and I will be one of the Members who leave this room today and go to the Library to get a copy of his report, “Primary Justice”. I am sure that it is well worth reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) also posed a number of important questions. I would be more than pleased to hear the Minister’s response to those questions.
I would like to ask five questions in particular. They are in part an elaboration on what has already been stated. First, it is a very real problem if there is a division of responsibility between the private and public sectors. We must acknowledge that the risks can change, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said. Prisoners are not the same individuals always; the risks can change. That is a genuine concern, but the Government’s proposals will lead to a lack of co-ordination between the private and public sectors. There is an inherent incoherence, therefore, in the Government’s proposals.
My second concern is about resources. To be fair, I think that it is good that resources will be allocated for those on sentences of under 12 months. It is good that they are being catered for—let us be clear about that—but where is the extra money coming from? We are talking about cuts in the public sector generally and in this area in particular, so where are the extra resources for this important work to come from?
Thirdly, what we have in the Government’s consultation document is a highly centralised approach. It is very much being driven and will be driven from Whitehall, and it does not recognise the important co-operation and networking that exists at grass-roots level, at local level, among the private sector, the public sector and, indeed, the voluntary sector. Moreover, this is happening at a time when probation trusts in England and Wales are being reduced in number. There is bound to be—it is inevitable—tremendous turmoil. To introduce these changes at the same time as that fundamental change in the structure of trusts is very worrying indeed.
Fourthly, a very big question to be answered is how success will be measured. It has been suggested by some—I think by some of the Government’s own Back Benchers—that full payment will be given to private companies only if individuals commit no more crimes within a given period. Is that the case? Will the Minister confirm that or state the position otherwise? That would be welcome because mixed messages are coming from the Government on that point, which is central to their proposals. We want coherent answers, at least, to be provided, so that everyone knows where they stand. The Government must do something to address the very real risk that the private sector will cherry-pick; it will seek to work with the offenders who are easiest to rehabilitate, not the rest.
My final question is about the sharing of information, which is central to tackling reoffending. At the moment, the police and the probation service share information. Generally, they do that very well indeed. What will happen when the private sector has a large stake in the system? Will the police and G4S, for example, share information on the same basis? If the answer is yes, certain implications stem from that and they need to be addressed by the Government.
In essence, the consultation document that the Government have produced is not sound. It is essentially based on dogma. It is motivated by abstraction rather than hard facts. I very much hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will listen not only to what has been said in the debate but, more importantly, to what has been said by people who are actually involved with the probation service from day to day. I hope that the Government will listen to those comments, display some common sense and think again about this programme.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds East (Mr Mudie) on securing the debate. I thank him and all the other hon. Members who have spoken in the course of what has been a good debate. I shall try to deal with as many of the points as I can in the time that I have.
The first thing that I want to say is that it is no part of my case today, or the Government’s case for reform, to make the argument that there is not good work going on in probation trusts already. Clearly, there is. I have seen it, and other hon. Members who have spoken have seen it for themselves, too. However, I am also sure that the probation officers whom they have seen and I have seen would agree—as many of those who have spoken in the debate agree—that we can do better than we are doing at the moment.
The hon. Member for Leeds East was right to accept that reoffending rates are too high and that we need to bring them down. That has been a common theme in the debate. The truth is that despite significant extra investment, of the order of 70% over the past 10 years, reoffending rates have not come down by as much as they should have. I think that it was the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) who said that the rate of reduction in reoffending—we are talking now not about short sentences, but about the overall rate of reduction—was 3.1%. That is 3.1% for a 70% additional investment. We can do better than that. I think that people in the probation service accept that, too. It is therefore sensible to consider how we can do things differently.
Bringing prisoners serving sentences of 12 months or less into the ambit of rehabilitative services is another thing that also has widespread agreement in the debate, and I do not think that it met with disagreement in the consultation or beyond. We will include such offenders in the cohorts dealt with by those taking on the work across a set geographical area. The crucial question, which was raised a number of times is, how do we pay for those extra offenders? It is a fair question, so I shall start there.
The truth is that payment by results and competition for the rehabilitation of medium and low-risk offenders will release the savings that enable us to pay for those additional offenders. The difficulty we have, which is again widely recognised, is that we are not in a position to expect large amounts of extra investment to pay for the additional offenders, so we need to find another way of doing so. If the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) has a way in which he intends to pay for them, beyond releasing savings from the existing budget, it would be interesting to hear what it is, but we do not believe that such funds are available.
The Government have made disappointing progress with community budgets, which are precisely the kind of approach, building on Total Place, that would enable us to look at the kind of interventions that would release funding though better social outcomes to make the investments we all want to see.
I very much hope that the kinds of projects the hon. Gentleman describes are successful, but we do not believe that the funding necessary to do what we are discussing will be released quickly enough in this case. The best way to do it is to engage in exactly the course of action we have set out. Payment by results is not, as some believe, ideological at all. It is very practical. It is about paying for what works and investing taxpayers’ money in it. After all, taxpayers expect us to invest their money wisely in effective outcomes. In this case, the outcome is simple: the reduction of reoffending. That is what we are after. It means fewer victims, less misery for communities and lower costs to the taxpayer.
An argument has been made about pilots. Why not pilot? Why not spend more time exploring and experimenting? It is a myth that we do not already have learning on payment by results—we do. We have learning from pilots undertaken and stopped early. It is not the case that one can learn nothing from a pilot unless it runs its full course. It is equally not the case that one can learn nothing from a pilot unless it succeeds; sometimes you can learn as much from what does not work as you can learn from what does.
I shall change the subject entirely. The Work programme has also been mentioned. Of course, I do not accept that the Work programme is a failure in the way it has been characterised, but it is true the programme is a source of learning for this project. We do not intend to lift the Work programme from the Department for Work and Pensions and deposit it into the Ministry of Justice, because it is different. There are differences because we expect those who take on the work to carry out the orders of the court and meet licence requirements, which is why such contracts, under any payment-by-results arrangement, will not be 100% payment by results.
I suggest, in passing, that it might be sensible to wait for the Work programme to demonstrate its successes before using it as a helpful model to run ahead with this programme. Some Work programme providers will undoubtedly bid for contracts for probation provision and supervision provision. Given that we have identified employment as a key way out of offending behaviour, are those providers likely to be paid twice, once as an offender’s Work programme provider and a second time for providing their criminal justice supervision?
In our system, we will look for justice outcomes under the payment-by-results contracts. We will be interested in whether people have reoffended. I shall come back to some of the difficulties with metrics, which were mentioned, in a moment. The Work programme is different in that providers are rewarded for getting people back into work. On the hon. Lady’s first point, I must say that if we should wait two years to find out whether the Work programme is a success, she should wait two years before she deems it a failure. Until we wait for those two years, she cannot say what Opposition Members have been saying loudly for some weeks.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I was talking about what else is needed to make a PBR-based system work. For a start, the areas over which contracts operate need to be large enough to enable the PBR figures to be meaningful. That really is why we cannot continue with the same number of probation trusts that we currently have. Probation trusts, by their nature, are not capable of taking on the financial risk that PBR requires. That is why existing trusts, as they are currently constituted, cannot participate.
That brings me on to the questions asked by the hon. Member for Corby about what options are available to those who are currently working in the public sector probation service. We are keen to see the opportunity made available to them to be part of either mutuals or other types of vehicle that will enable them to compete for the rehabilitative work. Many people currently working in probation trusts will want to consider the alternative option, which is to work in the public sector probation service and look after high-risk offenders. There are a number of complexities around that, and I hope, in view of the time, that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I write to him on the detail. I hope to reassure him that opportunities will be available.
Concerns have also been raised about central commissioning. Payment by results requires particular commissioning expertise, and it is difficult to see how that can be done successfully on the existing local commissioning model. However, I have made it clear throughout the process that if there are ways in which PBR-based commissioning can be effectively done at a local level, or at least a less national level, we are open to hearing about them. We will see what comes out of the consultation.
There is the crucial point about local partnerships. I accept entirely what has been said by many, that it is vital to have fully effective local partnerships that bring together a variety of agencies to work on the re-offending challenge. We will want to ensure that all bidders for the contracts can demonstrate that they will be able to sustain those local partnerships.
There are a number of significant design challenges, and I would not wish to minimise them. We are already looking at a number of those challenges through the consultation and the responses to it. The consultation closed on 22 February, and we are still going through a number of detailed responses. I cannot therefore give specific answers about how we will address all those challenges, but we will address and find ways round them.
Let me highlight one or two of the challenges that have been mentioned. The first is the direct management of offenders. The proposals currently say that we wish to separate direct management of those who pose the greatest risk of serious harm and reserve them for the public sector probation service, while the management of medium and lower risk offenders would be competed for.
The point has been made about the dynamic nature of risk, which I entirely understand, because people might not stay in the categories in which they are initially placed. It is therefore important that public sector probation officers—they will retain responsibility for the management of risk of serious harm for all offenders, not just the highest risk ones—have the opportunity to do that job, which involves the transfer of information and good relationships between those engaged in what I might describe as the life management part of the job and the public sector probation officer who has oversight of risk of serious harm.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) was right to highlight that as a significant challenge, but it is important to recognise that, in the world we are in now, probation officers often have to deal with people in the voluntary sector who provide particular interventions. They must have a good relationship with those people and make sure that the flow of information is effective. When I talk to probation trusts, I always ask whether that flow of information is good and gives them what they need, and the answer is invariably, “Yes, it does.”
The concept is not therefore entirely alien, but we will ensure, in the design of the system, that the flow of information is good. I stress that the decision whether a defender remains as a medium-risk offender or is transferred to a higher risk category will be taken by a public sector probation officer based, as I have said, on the information flows that they receive.
Another concern is about opportunities for smaller voluntary and community sector organisations in the new landscape. Again, we entirely understand and share that concern. We want such organisations to play an important part in rehabilitation. Clearly, much of the expertise and many of the skills that have the greatest effect are located in those organisations.
We will want to look not only at the bids when they come in—assessing them for quality and price—but at the sustainability of the relationships that they put forward. It is highly likely that organisations, including smaller voluntary sector ones, will come to us with a bid, and we will ask, “How do you demonstrate that you will maintain those good relationships over the course of the bids?” We will also want to have contract management mechanisms in place to ensure that that happens.
Of course, we must design a system that avoids the perverse incentives around cherry-picking and choosing to look after only those offenders who are easiest to turn round. We are very conscious of that challenge, much of which, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly said, relates to exactly how we measure and pay for success. We are exploring several options for that at the moment, and carefully considering what people have told us during the consultation, so that we can introduce a solution that will avoid those perverse incentives.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston was quite right to mention the specific needs of female offenders. I am glad that she welcomes the appointment of the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), which is a significant move because it will bring together management and responsibility for female offenders in the criminal justice system more broadly. As the hon. Lady will recognise, we will ask a specific question about that in the consultation and consider carefully what people say. We will also include those specific offenders in our plans.
I will finish where I started—with the basic premise about making sure that we do better on reoffending than we currently do. We can do that only if we include in our proposals the 46,000 offenders a year who now receive very little statutory intervention and support. It is vital to extend that intervention and support to them and that we find the money to pay for that. That brings us to payment by results, which is a sensible concept. It is a common-sense principle to pay for outcomes that work in driving down reoffending, which are highly valuable because they mean fewer victims of crime, less misery for communities and lower cost to the taxpayer.
On that basis, we believe the proposals are well worth pursuing, but we will carefully consider the many design challenges, what we are told during the consultation and the points made during this debate.