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Probation Service

Volume 577: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2014

We are making good progress with our transforming rehabilitation reforms, which will realign current probation structures to address the gap that sees 50,000 short-sentenced prisoners released on to the streets each year with little support. The new structures will come into effect on 1 June. The process of reallocating staff to those new structures is now complete.

The Secretary of State has a reputation for making policy based on ideology rather than evidence, as we saw with the shambolic Work programme that he bequeathed to the Department for Work and Pensions. Now his own officials have warned him that

“an unacceptable drop in operational performance”

is causing

“delivery failures and reputational damage”.

Why is he continuing with the reforms when all the informed opinion is shouting at him to stop?

The Opposition continue to refer to the planning document at the start of the project, and they cannot explain what they would do instead. Their policy is to leave 50,000 people walking the streets and likely to commit serious offences again with no support post-prison. Until the Opposition tell us what they would do to address the problem, which they identified when in government and did nothing about, they will have no credibility.

In some large areas, there have been only a small number of bidders for the service, and the award-winning Northumbria probation trust is down to three bidders. Can the Secretary of State tell us exactly how many bidders have dropped out since the process started?

We have a strong slate of potential bidders in every part of the country, with a good mix of private and voluntary sector expertise and some attractive partnerships that can deliver real results for us. We will see later in the summer who emerges successfully from the bidding process, but I am completely confident that we have a strong candidate in every part of the country.

The Minister accuses us of looking backwards, but his transforming of rehabilitation services programme is controversial and fraught with difficulties. Does he agree with his permanent secretary, Ursula Brennan, who told the Public Accounts Committee last week that if the Ministry of Justice was not ready to take the next steps, it would not do so—or would he press on regardless?

It is precisely because we are confident in the process that we are moving to the next stage. We will take it a step at a time, and we will always take steps to address issues of public safety. The Opposition, having identified the problem of offenders going without supervision, and having legislated to deal with it while in government and then done nothing about it, are now attacking us for wanting to do something about it. They have no ideas themselves.

Will the Lord Chancellor clarify what the procedure will be if a bidder fails, withdraws from a contract or has to be replaced?

The benefit of having a national probation service that sits under the umbrella of the Department is that, were a bidder to fail, it would be possible for the Department to take operational control of that area while we retendered the contract. There are proper mechanisms in place to ensure that coverage would continue.

Each year, about 600,000 crimes are committed by people who have already committed criminal acts. That is a shocking level of reoffending. What is my right hon. Friend doing to bring that number down?

My hon. Friend is right, and this is at the heart of our reforms. Crime in this country is falling, which is good, and the number of first-time entrants into the criminal justice system is falling, which is also good. Crime is increasingly being committed by those who are going round and round the system. My hon. Friend has put his finger on the rationale for our reforms. If we do nothing about this, there will be more and more victims of crime. I do not want to see that happen, although the Opposition are clearly happy to do so.

The Government support a greater role for mutual organisations in the provision of public services, and there has been welcome interest from mutuals in the rehabilitation contracts. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that mutuals will be well placed to participate in the provision of those services?

We have had some strong bids from employee groups within the probation service, and we have sought to provide them with as much support as possible. There is a unit in the Cabinet Office that has provided financial and professional support during the bidding process. I have no say in the final decision making process, but I have every hope that staff groups will be involved when those decisions are made in the summer.

18. My constituents cannot understand why the Government are seeking to use unproven, untested people to carry out this work when Humberside probation service does such a good job. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give to my constituents that he is not taking a risk with public safety? (903111)

The guarantee I can give the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is that we are not removing the people who are doing the job at the moment. We are freeing them operationally to innovate, and we are bringing new skills to the task of rehabilitating offenders. A much greater danger to his constituents would be to do nothing, and to leave all those thousands of offenders with no support or supervision, walking the streets, including in his constituency, and able to commit more crimes.

The fact is that the Secretary of State has had to delay his plans already. His work force are going out on strike, he has a payment-by-results model that pays regardless of results, and 200,000 offenders do not know who will be supervising them. Has he not become so enamoured of his project that he can no longer see, let alone deal with, its many serious flaws?

What a load of complete nonsense! The reality is that the Opposition have no idea how to deal with the problem of reoffending. They are in opposition, and we are now less than a year away from a general election, yet I have not the slightest idea of what they would do in our place. I am not prepared to allow a situation to continue in which people are left to walk the streets with no post-prison supervision, resulting in thousands of them reoffending, when we know from the experience of the pilot that we set up in Peterborough that mentoring those offenders can bring down crime significantly.