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House of Commons Hansard
27 February 2018
Volume 636

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered private probation services.

    It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the role of private probation services in our justice system, an extremely important topic that I have wanted to raise for some time, particularly in the light of the reported failings of community rehabilitation companies in the probation system. The Select Committee on Justice, of which I am a member, is discussing the future of rehabilitation this morning, but the complexities of the parliamentary timetable have meant that I am here instead.

    The current situation stems from the splitting of probation services into two parts in the coalition Government’s attempt to transform rehabilitation. Given the issues that I will address in my speech and the problems created by the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, it is fair to say that justice policies have regressed since 2010. Probation services are now split between the national probation service, which is public and deals with high-risk offenders, and the outsourced, private community rehabilitation companies, which work with medium and low-risk offenders. The 21 CRCs were divided geographically and opened up to bids from the private sector and the third sector. Originally, 800 organisations—half from the voluntary sector—expressed an interest, but only one CRC is currently run by an organisation outside the private sector.

    The primary objectives of the 2013 “Transforming Rehabilitation” initiative were to reform the system and reduce reoffending overall, partly with a Through the Gate method of enhanced rehabilitation that aims to provide prisoners with support and help in their resettlement as they make their transition back into civilian life. A prisoner in the transition stage at the end of their sentence usually requires assistance with accommodation, financial support and employment. However, as I will describe later, the original objectives are yet to be met. The reality is that the toxic privatisation of probation services has meant that CRCs continue to fail the people they were set up to help.

    At the time of the reforms, Ian Lawrence, the general secretary of Napo, warned about organisational difficulties, cost and impact on communities and public safety. Furthermore, a leaked Ministry of Justice memo about the reforms said that there was a risk of

    “an unacceptable drop in operational performance”

    during the programme, which might lead to

    “delivery failures and reputational damage”.

    Those concerns were well founded. Since Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation began inspecting CRCs in summer 2016, it has found the majority to be operating below expectations. By the end of June 2017, CRCs had met an average of just eight of the 24 targets set under their contracts, and the worst-performing CRC met only four. If CRCs are incapable of reaching basic objectives, it casts great doubt on the ability of the whole exercise ever to reach the aims set out in the 2013 “Transforming Rehabilitation” consultation.

  • Our CRC in Gloucestershire, BGSW—Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire—is owned by a European finance bank. It has had a number of poor reports, yet it seems to just carry on getting in the way of the voluntary sector, which does genuinely good work with ex-offenders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is completely crazy that BGSW is allowed to continue?

  • I agree that there are companies with little accountability, in which good work is not carried out and offenders are not properly managed. Often contact is made by telephone and probation officers do not contact offenders for months on end. I will address those points in more detail later, but I agree that the situation is unacceptable.

    Probation is turning into a tick-box exercise, but it is not a profession that should be driven by targets; it requires a well-rounded approach centred on individuals and their needs, not—as we see all too often—on offenders’ ability to provide profits to the CRC. In October 2016 and June 2017, joint inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorates of probation and of prisons led to reports on Through the Gate resettlement services for short-term prisoners and for those serving 12 months or more. The picture was described as “bleak”, with inspectors noting that CRCs are making little difference to prisoners’ prospects on release. The latest annual report from Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons states that

    “too many prisoners continued to receive a poor resettlement service”,

    that resettlement services provided to prisoners before and on release were generally poor, and that they made little, if any, difference to the life chances of those who received them.

  • Some private companies, especially in Wales, are supervising low and medium-risk offenders with periodic phone contact, as my hon. Friend mentioned. That would never have happened before; it is obviously a cost-cutting exercise.

  • I agree. If offenders are contacted only by telephone, if appointments are missed without any follow-up and if months pass before there is contact from the probation service, the system is not working; it is driven by profit, rather than by the need to rehabilitate and prevent reoffending. That is all too often overlooked.

    The HMIP report stated that in almost every respect, the quality of probation work was noticeably better across the national probation service than in the body of CRCs. That highlights the point that outsourcing and privatising probation services is just not working. It is clear that the fragmentation of services has led to an overall decline in communication and co-operation between stakeholders. The report is clear in its criticisms of CRCs and their pitiful attempts at Through the Gate rehabilitation. The conclusion of the chief inspectors was damning:

    “The gap between aspiration and reality is so great, that we wonder whether there is any prospect that these services will deliver the desired impact on rates of reoffending.”

    They also noted:

    “If Through the Gate services were removed tomorrow, in our view the impact on the resettlement of prisoners would be negligible.”

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that the failure of CRCs’ Through the Gate services will lead to more serious offending and therefore to more problems higher up for the national probation service?

  • Yes. If the Through the Gate system is not working and if offenders are not resettled in the community with employment, housing and engagement with probation services to get their lives back on track, we know that they are more likely to reoffend. The CRCs are not getting reoffending rates down—they have failed to deliver that.

    The “Transforming Rehabilitation” programme was not just about rehabilitation, but about protecting the public—a linchpin of any justice system. However, in a recent BBC “Panorama” documentary, Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, stated that she could not say for certain that every private probation company was managing to protect the public as well as it should. In its investigation, “Panorama” spoke to an offender who was released from a short sentence in May. He said that he had not met his probation officer for almost a month after release, and that probation services were deteriorating; in the past, he knew exactly who his probation officer was, but now it was hard to tell. The CRC in that instance was MTCnovo, which covers all medium and low-risk offenders in London.

  • From what my hon. Friend is saying, it seems that the current system is potentially putting the public in danger and, furthermore, the leaked memo shows that the Government must have been aware that that might happen. Is that the case?

  • That is absolutely the case. If ex-offenders are released from prison but have no contact, or only very sporadic contact, with the probation services, how can the public be assured that they are being kept safe? The chief inspector has made that point and other people made it when the reforms were going through, but still no action has been taken and these CRCs continue to operate, which puts people at risk.

    “Panorama” went on to say that it has records from MTCnovo that reveal that 15,000 appointments were missed by offenders over a 16-month period, a problem that was compounded by probation officers failing to take any action over missed appointments. A whistleblower from MTCnovo said that CRCs are employing fewer staff, so individual members of staff have higher case loads. That probation officer says that he now only has 20 minutes a month with the offenders he has to deal with, which is simply not enough. He had inherited cases where 20 to 30 appointments had been missed by offenders, and in addition he said that staff were instructed by the CRC to alter records, so that missed appointments were wiped if they were more than two weeks old.

    It seems that public protection is not at the heart of this programme, and the toxic climate created by this ill-judged privatisation has clearly had a detrimental impact on staff and services too. Following the creation of the National Probation Service and CRCs, existing staff were redistributed between the two organisations. From the start, CRCs had smaller case loads than predicted, which resulted in reduced levels of income, followed by restructuring with substantial job losses. Fewer staff can deal with fewer cases and the added focus on restructuring has often meant that the quality of core service delivery suffered. Low-risk offenders were often only supervised by telephone, as we have discussed, and work on safeguarding and domestic abuse was often substandard.

    Three and a half years since the CRCs were created, it is clear that staff morale is low and individual case loads are too high. There are not enough staff, and many of them lack the experience and resources to do the job properly.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that there are a large number of highly skilled and experienced probation officers who have been lost due to their being placed in the private side of the organisation, which is not always through their own choice?

  • I agree with that assessment and there is now a situation where there have been substantial job losses, so that a lot of very experienced probation officers are no longer in post. The system is one where staff are overworked and do not necessarily have the skills and equipment that they need.

    I will come on to some of the findings of a Unison survey. Unison has 3,500 members working across CRCs and the National Probation Service. It carried out a survey of members who work for CRCs and the 215 responses that it received make for really shocking reading. Twenty-five per cent. of staff said that they only occasionally had the equipment, resources or systems they needed to do their jobs properly; 41% said that they never experienced a manageable case load; 25% said that their CRC never or only occasionally completed community orders within the required time; and 43% said they never felt valued by their CRC.

  • Does the hon. Lady share my concern that CRCs received extra funding from the Government that was worth £37.15 million in the 2016-17 financial year, but because of the secrecy of the contracts between the Government and CRCs we cannot break that down to the level of individual companies or even receive the details of those contracts?

  • I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. After I have said a little bit about staff and morale, I will go on to talk a little bit about the financial bailout of CRCs, because it is really important that we recognise the additional money that has gone into propping up these failing companies. However, I will complete my points about staff morale and then move on to that issue.

    I want to flag up some of the things that probation staff said in response to the Unison survey. One said:

    “Chaotic, frustrating and exhausting. Caseloads are too high and I don’t feel as if I do anything to protect the public anymore, I simply process people. Service users…often comment as to how impersonal our service is now and that they feel telephone contact with offender managers is inadequate. Very sad knowing that I used to do good work.”

    Another said:

    “I have inherited a new caseload since early 2017—many cases have not been contacted for months—one case today I managed to contact had not heard from anyone at Probation for 16 months in a 24-month suspended sentence. It is not good enough.”

    Perhaps the most damning response was this one:

    “I feel stressed, de-professionalised and ready to give it up. This government have transformed rehabilitation alright. They have ruined it.”

    Probation is ultimately a caring profession and it should be viewed as being a bit like teaching or social work. However, it is clear that those who work within the service are being hugely let down by privatised and profit-driven CRCs. That is summed up by the underlying tension between CRCs meeting contractual obligations and their responding to the needs of offenders, with the latter receiving much less attention than the former. Shockingly the Government, are now in a position where, as has already been said, they are bailing out CRCs at a cost of millions of pounds. As things stand, CRCs are paid for the volume of rehabilitation activity.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does she agree that linking payment to demand has not only affected service in times of low requirement, but has made the position of the Work First employees, whom she has described in such detail, much worse, so that many of them are suffering from low morale and are in precarious employment?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, and she is absolutely right. If a system is introduced whereby people are paid by results, that turns probation into the tick-box exercise that we have seen. It is not focused on rehabilitation and public protection but on making sure that all the right boxes are ticked, so that the CRC can generate profit. Profit-driven rather than people-driven is what has happened to the probation service.

    CRCs are paid for the volume of rehabilitation activity that they carry out, rather than for the number of offenders that are supervised. The Ministry of Justice originally claimed that it would transfer the commercial risk of future volumes of rehabilitation activity going down, as well as up, to CRCs. They are paid in a complex way, with different payment bands for the provision of different types of rehabilitation service. However, the current volumes of activity that CRCs are paid for are far below the levels expected when the contracts were awarded.

    According to National Audit Office figures, in 2015-16, the activities undertaken by CRCs ranged from 8% to 34% less than originally anticipated. In the first quarter of 2017-18, volumes of activity ranged from 16% to 48% less than anticipated. At the same time, the number of offenders supervised by CRCs increased by 20%. In effect, CRCs have to look after more offenders but do less work.

    Moreover, as has become common across many private sector initiatives that have been put out to tender, CRCs underestimated their fixed costs when bidding for contracts. However, the MOJ agreed that the taxpayer, not the private companies, should shoulder that cost as well. So far, this is predicted to have cost the taxpayer an additional £342 million through a bailout of companies that was followed by adjustments made to the payment mechanism last year. It is not as if the MOJ is beyond rectifying the situation, as it has many tools at its disposal. It is entitled to fine the CRCs for poor performance, but it has either waived or allowed CRCs to reinvest 71% of the total fines due to the taxpayer.

    One option that the MOJ considered in respect of poor performance by CRCs was to terminate some, or all, of their contracts. However, it decided instead to let the taxpayer take the strain of the failing contracts by amending the contract payment mechanisms to give the CRCs more money. It is clear that the privatisation of probation services has failed, and the overarching point, which repeats itself time and again, is that this is yet another example of Government-led privatisation that has gone wrong. The original arrangement and subsequent contracts were not fit for purpose in the first place, and what we are left with is a system driven by the ideological desire to privatise key elements of our justice system and defend the cause even when it evidently fails.

    The idea of a Government bailing out a private sector service when the prison and rehabilitation services are in crisis should concern us all, particularly given that ageing, dilapidated prisons are falling apart—HMP Liverpool has been described as having the worst conditions inspectors have ever seen—services within prisons are grinding to a halt, with mental health assessments taking far too long, prisoners are denied access to education and rehabilitation facilities, and a quarter of prisoners are accommodated in overcrowded conditions. Notwithstanding the cost of CRCs on the public purse, how many more reasons do the Government need before they take the prisons crisis seriously, take control of the rehabilitation of offenders and make our justice system fit for purpose? Rehabilitation in the community, if executed correctly, can be a key factor in reducing reoffending, but how can services that continue to be rated as poor by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation continue to qualify for these massive payments from central Government while not even doing the job they are paid to do? It is time, once and for all, to bring the failed schemes back under public control, so that we can get to the root causes of reoffending and provide rehabilitation services that are fit for purpose.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this important debate and introducing it excellently. I declare an interest as co-chair of the justice unions and family courts parliamentary group.

    In the 2010 coalition agreement, the Government promised a rehabilitation revolution, but with the privatisation of probation companies, we have instead had a fundamental erosion of the humanitarian principles that underpin meaningful rehabilitation. The Government refuse to acknowledge that their blinkered ideology of privatisation has failed and, in so doing, they are failing with regard to the basic premise of justice as a common good for all of society.

    Good offender management is inseparable from quality probation supervision. In its most recent report, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation warns that it had found

    “CRCs stretched beyond their capacity”

    and that, in many CRCs,

    “case management itself is insufficient to enable good enforcement decisions”,

    which statistics in the report confirm—only 37% of CRC enforcement cases sampled involved good-quality assessment of the likelihood of reoffending, compared with 83% in the public sector national probation service. It is said that we should not compare CRCs with the NPS, but the most serious crimes lie with the NPS, and when we see figures of 37% versus 83%, there are questions to be answered.

    That is wholly unsurprising when we look at how CRCs supervise people, with infrequent meetings, and sometimes only by phone, which breaks the face-to-face relationships that are vital to successful probation work. That lack of meaningful engagement has led to poor decisions in managing breaches of orders. The recent HMIP report also reveals that, in more than half of all inspected cases in which CRCs had returned service users to court, the decision to enforce was not appropriate, compared with just 14% of NPS cases. It appears that CRCs were “seldom” making such decisions on the risk of harm posed or the likelihood of reoffending.

    CRCs are private companies. At best, they are motivated by the detail of contract compliance, rather than by the true quality of supervision. The ethos of public service and motivation of care are not their primary drivers. Does the Minister finally recognise that dismantling the probation service and replacing it with a part-privatised model has failed, and will he commit his Government to listening to the professionals when they call for an end to profiting from probation?

    It is all very well to talk in statistics, but the failings have real consequences for real families. Almost three years ago, in March 2015, an innocent young man was murdered by an offender who was meant to be under the supervision of Working Links, the CRC operating in Wales. Conner Marshall, an 18-year-old, was staying with friends at a caravan site in Porthcawl, Bridgend when he was attacked in a case of mistaken identity. High on a cocktail of alcohol and drugs, his killer stamped on his face, kicked him in the ribs, stripped him naked and hit him repeatedly with a metal pole. The individual has been jailed for life after having been found guilty of murder. Conner’s killer was on community probation for a string of offences, including domestic violence and animal cruelty. He was on curfew and ordered to attend anti-drugs and alcohol meetings, but failed to turn up to several of them. Procedures were not followed. There were eight missed appointments, six of which were without valid reason. That was eight missed opportunities to rein in the murderer and implement the breach conditions. The opportunities were never taken, and he was not stopped. On behalf of Conner’s mother, Nadine Marshall, I emphasise that at present there are no representation policies for the families of victims in such horrific and tragic circumstances.

    The system as it currently operates is not fit for purpose. Less than a decade ago, we were promised a rehabilitation revolution. Will the Minister confirm whether, and if so when, the wheel will finally turn beyond this failed revolution?

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this important debate. I want to make some brief remarks about what people who work in probation in Plymouth have told me. We owe them a debt of thanks.

    The Government’s part-privatisation of probation has been a colossal failure. The broken system is putting the public at greater risk and increasingly leaving taxpayers out of pocket. Ministers knew before the privatisation was put in place that the system would not work. Experts told them that it would conflict with best practice and put added pressure on staff, yet they went ahead. When it was obvious that the early CRCs were failing, the privatisation continued, meaning that people who relied on probation services to be professional and of high quality were being failed and, as a result, so were the public. Ministers must now know that it is unacceptable for the Government to continually bail out CRCs. It is time to draw a line in the sand. With our prisons in crisis, we need probation to perform without hindrance, organisational chaos and uncertainty.

    The whole criminal justice system needs to be improved because it is not working. CRCs are not working. I fear that Ministers, not for the first time, are defending a broken system made worse by privatisation. Probation cannot wait for a Labour Government to end the shambles and bring the contracts back into the public sector, so we must put pressure on Ministers to act now. I fear that Ministers are conforming to type. When privatisation goes wrong they first defend the failure of the privatised services. Secondly, they reward the failure, as we see in the bailing out of CRCs. Finally, there is a continued failure to tackle the root causes of the problem: putting profit ahead of people, fragmentation of the services, and the way in which the system undervalues staff and misses results. Defending failure, rewarding failure and failing to tackle the root causes are the hallmarks not only of what has happened to probation services, but of the privatisation of our NHS, and we need to call it out. Probation is too important to let privatisation fail. We must make the system work, and if that cannot be done by bringing the contracts back in house, Ministers need to get a grip on the system.

    Probation staff in Plymouth have told me a variety of stories about their experience of working in the system and about what it means for the people they are trying to help. It is worth remembering that people who work in probation do so because they want to make the lives of the people they work with better, reduce reoffending and protect the public. They show a genuine, caring devotion. They do not go into probation because they are looking for big pay cheques—they would be looking in the wrong place—but because they want to make a difference. That good will and the hard work of the staff is possibly the only thing that is holding the probation system together.

  • Following privatisation, probation officers in the national probation service have carried ridiculously high case loads of offenders who pose high or very high risk of harm. Probation officers working in the public sector do not have a balanced case load of medium and high-risk cases any more, as there was before the split. The pressure and stress of those cases together with the insufficient number of probation officers to do the job has resulted in unmanageable case loads and higher levels of sickness among staff. Has that been found in Plymouth?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Having about 60 cases per individual maintains professionalism and a safe level of contact with offenders. It is now being reported that, in some cases, probation officers are handling 200 cases. The Minister has a famously good memory, but not everyone who works in probation has that. Remembering the details of 200 cases is asking too much of those who work in our probation system.

    The staff I have spoken to in Plymouth have told me that they feel undervalued and overworked. The best practice that they spent years developing has been taken out of the system and good methods of rehabilitation have been stripped back. Staff have told me that they are worried that things are only going to get worse. One member of staff told me that she went into the profession because she cared. She told me that she loves her job, but all too frequently she is going home at night and crying because she knows that the level of care and professionalism she is able to offer is not what she would like. That damages her feeling of self-worth and of being valued by the system. These are precisely the type of people we need to retain and support in our probation system. It is a poor way to treat the people who keep our public safe.

    In Plymouth, the failures of our probation system were brought home on new year’s day 2015 by the murder of Tanis Bhandari in Tamerton Foliot, which is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). In Plymouth, there has been a debate, led most ably by Councillor Philippa Davey, about the failures of probation to monitor Donald Pemberton at the time when he and Ryan Williams murdered the Plymouth builder, Tanis. Tanis was an incredibly popular figure within Plymouth, and the failure of the probation system to monitor the offenders probably directly led to that murder, because a better managed system would reduce reoffending. A poor probation system has real-world consequences, and Tanis’s family is one of the many families across the country that are being let down by a system that is not working and is clearly failing. How many more families need to be let down for Ministers to act?

    The CRC system is not working. It needs to be brought back in house. I ask the Minister not to do the three things that we frequently hear from Ministers on broken prioritisation systems. Please do not defend the failure of the system or reward it any further. Please tackle the root cause: a broken and fragmented prioritisation system that is not working. Our public and the staff who do such an amazing job in our probation service deserve much better.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I apologise to the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), who I thought would have been called before me. We will hear her comments later on.

    We do not have private probation services in Northern Ireland, but I have been sent some information and I want to add constructively to the debate if I can. I will focus on the individuals and how they can be rehabilitated in prison, as well as the family units. It is important that we focus on the effects on all the people.

    I thank the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) for securing this debate and for setting the scene so well, as she always does. The issue does not directly affect Northern Ireland, yet there are lessons to be learned for all the regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have a prison system groaning under the weight of the pressures on it. We have a judicial system that is extremely aware that it can imprison only if it is essential, because there is no room. We have a probation system that is still failing to rehabilitate prisoners, to the detriment of every member of society. I am not here to point the finger at the Department or the Minister. That is not my form; but neither is it my form to ignore issues that have been raised. That is why we are all here today, and Members have put forward pertinent points in their contributions and interventions.

    There is an issue with the new system that needs to be addressed. I say that not to score political points or to demonstrate that my ideas are better than those of others; we simply have to do the best we can by offenders. We need to put in place structures that support them. Through that, we can help to prevent reoffending. The issues with reoffending are important.

  • Would the hon. Gentleman accept that one of the fundamental failings is the lack of continuity between what happens in prison, where there is a need for people to be properly rehabilitated and prepared for release, and what happens afterwards? If my area is anything to go by, there is no overlap; things have to start again as soon as people are released. That means that offenders and ex-offenders feel completely let down.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will touch on that issue, because it is important that we have that follow on. What happens next after someone gets out of prison is a clear issue.

    It is sometimes easy to fall into a mentality of seeing those in prison as lost causes, but that is not something I believe at all. I believe that all people can make mistakes and that they can put right those mistakes and become contributors to their communities again. The hon. Gentleman and others have referred to that. I know a few good men who society washed their hands of during the troubles in Northern Ireland, yet they were given the opportunity by one tender-hearted person and are now upstanding pillars of the community. People can change, and we have a responsibility to enable that change to take place. It may not work for every individual, but it can work for a great many. I know people who have changed. That is the reality. We need to focus on what can be achieved and how we can achieve it. That has to be our goal and purpose.

    I was surprised to learn that one in 10 people in England and Wales are released back to their community without a roof over their head. That simply should not be. They should not be released with a metaphorical boot to the backside, without so much as a by-your-leave. In some cases, that seems to be the way it is, and it is hard to understand why. We must ensure that they not only have somewhere to sleep the day they come home, but that they have something meaningful to achieve the next morning. We have a rehabilitation process for people to go through when they are in prison and when they get out. If they are going home to nothing, it is little wonder that it is so easy to get into the same routine. We must ask how we can do things differently. How can we get these men and women involved in our society in a meaningful and helpful way?

    Thus far, the private probation services have been unable to make a difference. I do not want to be unduly critical, but that is what the evidential base indicates. Indeed, some reports indicate that incidences of reoccurrence have intensified. If they are intensifying, as was referred to in an intervention, that may be because a phone call does not achieve what a meeting or appointment can. I suggest to the Minister that it should be a meeting or appointment. That is more constructive and face-to-face, and it can make changes. Printing off a housing form does not achieve the results that attending the housing executive—in England, it is the local council—does. We should not mollycoddle these people, but if we believe in the justice system at all, we believe they have paid their debt to society and deserve help to find their way in a different world. We should encourage them to do so.

    I also think of the children and families of offenders. It is essential that follow-up services are provided for the sake of those nearest and dearest to them. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted that prisoners’ families were vulnerable to financial instability, poverty, debt and potential housing disruption following the imprisonment of a family member. It can be easy to forget that these issues affect not just the individual, but the whole family unit. The report found that families subsidised imprisonment by sending prisoners money, clothing and electronic goods. The responsibility to help those in prison financially often falls to a great extent on families. Disadvantage associated with imprisonment includes high rates of depression—sometimes the health spin-offs are not taken on board—physical illness, housing disruption and, for families of foreign national prisoners, permanent separation after deportation. Again, that is perhaps not an issue for this debate, but it is certainly something that the system should address.

    The report also highlighted how prisoners’ partners and mothers prioritised the care needs of children above household income, and there is an impact on children at school, where we know that peer pressure can be difficult. Barriers to employment were magnified for those caring for prisoners’ children. The complications are enormous. When someone comes out of prison to a family under such strain and pressure, it is easy to see how they could go back to their old ways, not understanding that breaking the cycle will help to heal the hurt that their family is going through. That should be taken into consideration and should be a priority for the Government when discussing how to rehabilitate prisoners successfully. That should be our goal. I know the Minister wants that, as we all do in this House.

    To conclude, I cannot say how the shortfall has come about, but we must all acknowledge—as Members who have contributed so far have indicated—that there is a definite shortfall that we must address for our communities. I hope the Minister, whom we all respect highly, will tell us how he intends to do that, either in the new private system or by taking back the reins, which is what I think the Members here want. Decisions need to be made, and for the sake of our family units we must ensure that changes are made as a matter of urgency.

  • It is good to see you in the Chair, Ms McDonagh, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made interesting points. I welcome his comment about taking back the reins, because that gets to the heart of the matter. Because of the fragmentation of the system, nobody is holding the reins in the way that they once did when looking at the rehabilitation of offenders outside of prison. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate. This area of justice policy has never had the scrutiny and interest that it deserves from Members or the media, or from anywhere. It is good to see Members in this place taking a lead and putting the spotlight on this issue, because it is so important.

    Sadly, the situation today was entirely predictable. It has been a disaster and it was avoidable, but it could be remedied. I know that the Minister was not in the Ministry of Justice when the decisions were taken, so we do not blame him, but he now has the opportunity to reverse some of the decisions that have led to the catastrophe in the service. If he does not take that opportunity, he will be responsible for that and we will hold him to it. If he were to indicate that he might review the system or look at reunifying probation services, I am sure—although I cannot speak for my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain)—that he would have the wholehearted support of Opposition parties across the House.

    The warnings about the Government’s mistake came not only from the Labour party, but from staff, the unions and academics, and from people from other jurisdictions where similar things had been attempted. Nobody that I could find thought the Government were taking the right approach.

    There was not much scrutiny at the time of how the changes would affect probation staff—the professionals who had decided to dedicate their working lives to working with some of the most incredibly difficult people in society. I have had limited experience of working with offenders, and they are flippin’ difficult. They do not always tell you the truth, so the idea of assessing what they are doing with their lives, what they intend to do next or what control they have over their own decision making, all on the basis of a phone call, is completely implausible to most people with any experience of working with such individuals. We have separated not only offenders, but a group of professionals who were very good at sharing knowledge, supporting one another and working with a mix of offenders. Working with serious offenders all the time is difficult, stressful and emotionally hard work.

    The Minister needs to read some of the court reports that detail some of the offences committed by offenders to see how that affects him. I do not think the supervision needed when working with such groups of offenders has ever really been properly provided, but it is even more difficult now, when individuals work with those types of offenders all the time. It is incredibly difficult work. Previously, someone might go into probation and work with some low or medium-risk offenders for a while and gradually take on higher-risk individuals under supervision. That progression and development in practice and that knowledge and understanding have been lost. That is a real loss to the service. We might not be seeing the impact just yet, but we will increasingly see it over time.

  • The Government have argued in the past that we had not allowed enough time to review the performance of CRCs, but we are now more than two years after payment by results was brought in, so it is time to review whether it is working effectively or not.

  • I agree: now is the moment. It would have been better to run a pilot, but the Government were determined to embark on a mission that was so fundamentally flawed it was never going to work. Had they been so minded, they could have piloted the approach and gathered evidence of the problems. That would have caused far less damage than selling off half the service in 35 different trust areas in one go and thinking that everything would go smoothly. They removed any opportunity for learning in the process, and that was reckless. It is something that the Government, even if they will not say so publicly, really ought to reflect on and probably should regret.

    Selling off all the areas at once was incredibly high risk. The then Secretary of State, the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), was asked at the time why he was so determined to do it. I remember this clearly and was quite shocked. He was asked for any evidence from anywhere to justify such a reckless move, and he simply said that he had inner belief that it would work. He was determined to prove it, and then he went off to run the trains. What the Government did was a mistake. It was stupid and is not something that this Minister would want to repeat. I am sure he is somebody who will look at evidence and take into account the track record of CRCs. He needs to make decisions that will change the current structures.

    The whole thing has been based on the flawed premise that offenders fall neatly into two separate groups, but they do not. Risk fluctuates constantly. It takes experienced probation officers to assess that—to notice it, to know what they are supposed to look for and then to know what to do when they suspect the risk might be about to change.

    We are talking about an incredibly difficult group of people. Probably everybody here has heard this, but I want to get some characteristics of offenders on the record—27% having been taken into care, compared with 2% of the general population; 49% having been excluded from school, compared with 2%; numeracy and literary levels of an 11-year-old or below at 65% and 48% respectively; 72% of men and 70% of women with two or more mental disorders; 83% of men with a history of hazardous drinking; drug misuse at 66%. We are not talking about people who have just got themselves on the earliest steps to a life of criminality. These are chaotic, confused people, with very little control over what they do. In the sector, they would probably say they are bang at it and are only getting lifted for a proportion of what they are up to. Probation work is incredibly difficult and it relies on the good will, professionalism and experience of an outstanding workforce. To be successful, we need to harness the very best practice in the profession and make that available to all offenders.

    The trusts could have delivered that. They were doing a good job and met all the targets they were set by successive Governments. They were independently assessed at the time as excellent. Had the Government wanted them to behave in a different way, such as to work more collaboratively with voluntary and community sector organisations, they should have made that clear to trusts and made that a target. I am confident that the trusts would have been able to deliver on the objectives set them by the Government, even the ambition of wanting to supervise those being released from a prison sentence of less than 12 months. That was one of the objectives the Government set at the time. I do not deny that it was a good objective, but there was no attempt at all to try to achieve it within the existing arrangements. That was negligent and arrogant. It was a bullish approach from Ministers at the time, and it was a real mistake.

    This is a complex issue, but it is incredibly high stakes. Splitting the service has been an error. I urge Ministers to listen now in a way that they did not at that time, and to take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the decision and keep the public safe.

  • There being no other Back-Bench Members wishing to speak, I call the shadow Minister.

  • It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I begin by joining other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate. Hon. Members are absolutely right that this issue does not get the airtime that it deserves. It needs discussion. My hon. Friend made a powerful speech, comprehensively setting out the factual background to the formation of the community rehabilitation companies and setting out the failures with great clarity, as did many other hon. Members. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this important debate.

    It is clear from listening to the contributions that—let us be clear and frank—the state of probation is dire. Although there were problems back in 2015, probation never used to look like this. The Government’s ill-fated reform agenda, “Transforming Rehabilitation”, has been nothing short of a failure. It has failed offender rehabilitation, with many left ill-equipped for life on the outside. It has failed prison officers and governors, who are seeing their prisons pushed to breaking point by overcrowding, and it has failed the public, who are bearing the financial and safety brunt of the failures. The only group that it has not failed, as has quite rightly been pointed out, are the private companies that are lining their pockets.

    When reforming probation, the Government had the opportunity to make things better, transform rehabilitation, improve the prospects of offenders and slash reoffending, which is costing the country £15 billion a year. What they delivered was not so much transforming rehabilitation as privatising rehabilitation, weakening rehabilitation and ultimately destroying rehabilitation. By almost every metric and every means by which to measure its effectiveness and its success, it has failed, and some aspects have failed spectacularly.

    Hon. Members have quite rightly mentioned the failures of the Through the Gate services, which have been a complete disaster. In 2015, the then Prisons Minister stated that those services would provide

    “support to offenders for accommodation needs, employment brokerage and retention, finance and debt advice”.

    I have seen very little evidence that that support is being provided and no sign of real, joined-up services to support offender rehabilitation.

    The HMIP report and its conclusions on Through the Gate services have been referred to. What it found was startling, particularly in the areas of support the Ministry of Justice identified. Of its sample of short-term prisoners, just 31% had sufficient work done with them to meet their accommodation needs, just 33% their education and training needs, and just 12% their finance, benefit and debt advice needs. Some 10% of the sample found themselves homeless on release. Another report by HMIP found, quite worryingly, that not one offender had been helped by Through the Gate services to enter education, training or employment after release.

  • Order. For the benefit of the Chair and for Hansard, it might be better if the shadow Minister swivelled round a little and spoke into the microphone.

  • My apologies, Ms McDonagh. End-to-end offender management is vital to stop reoffending, and HMIP has set out a minimum level of requirements for resettlement. However, it is clear that Through the Gate services, when provided by private probation companies, cannot deliver. They cannot support offender rehabilitation and they cannot prepare them for life on the outside after release. It is that inability to support offenders that ensures that a privatised probation system can do nothing to stop reoffending.

    Currently, around two in three prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months reoffend. One in three prisoners on longer sentences reoffend. Stopping reoffending is the very core of a probation company’s goal. It is its purpose, yet 19 out of 21 private probation companies have seen an increase in reoffending because they are treating probation not as an important service but as a box-ticking exercise. There is little to no meaningful engagement, with supervision of offenders taking place over the phone, as has been pointed out. If they do meet face-to-face, it is sometimes in a very public space with no privacy, such as in a library.

    The MOJ stated that the “Transforming Rehabilitation” programme would allow providers to focus relentlessly on driving down reoffending, but that has clearly not happened, as if they are not properly supported, offenders cannot be helped in not reoffending. That does not just impact on offender rehabilitation. It has knock-on effects for prisons, as those reoffending are sent back to an overcrowded prison system, which in 2015-16 saw, on average, almost 21,000 prisoners held in overcrowded accommodation. That in turn affects prison safety, as fewer prison officers are dealing with more prisoners. The rampant and increasing violence we are seeing in prisons is just one by-product of overcrowding, putting prison officers and prisoner safety at risk.

    Probation failures are not just failing those criminal justice professionals by putting their safety at risk; they are failing the judicial system, which finds itself with fewer options for sentencing. An independent judiciary that can use its discretion to a degree is an important pillar of justice, but as there is increasing distrust of CRCs to deliver community sentences, it finds itself with fewer options.

    However far removed all this might be perceived to be from many people’s lives, with many of them never having an interaction with prison and probation services, the Government’s changes to probation have also failed the public. People expect safety and security in the knowledge that we have a criminal justice system that works; they expect judges to have a range of options open to them; they expect offenders to be punished when they go to prison; to be rehabilitated while there; and to be released back into the community as changed persons ready to contribute to society. But prison is not working, with increasing violence and persistent overcrowding, and neither is probation. Offenders are released back into communities without proper reform, as we see from the failure of Through the Gate services, and without proper supervision, as we see with private probation companies supervising them by phone.

    The decision to privatise night-waking watch staff and replace them with minimum-wage staff at probation hostels, which house the most dangerous ex-offenders, further threatens safety and shows that the Government have not learned the lessons from privatising justice. Two people have been killed at probation hostels in the past year. The cost of reoffending totals about £15 billion a year, according to the Work and Pensions Committee. The public are footing the bill for overcrowding and reoffending, and their safety is being compromised.

    The Government’s probation privatisation is failing offender rehabilitation, criminal justice professionals and the public, but not private companies, which, in fact, have quite a comfortable life. They have taken on contracts over which the MOJ has little oversight. They have failed in their goal of reducing reoffending, and there have been numerous critical reports from the probation inspector, yet no sanctions have been applied to them. If any other organisation failed in its objectives, its contracts would be wound up, so why not probation companies? They have not received the financial benefits they expected, but all they have to do is cry about falling profits and the Government bail them out. Some £22 million was handed over before any changes were made. No questions were asked, and there was no scrutiny of the private probation companies to prevent future failings. Instead, the Government changed the contracts afterwards to make things easier. The private probation companies are getting away with failure and are frankly being rewarded for it.

    The creation of private probation companies has been a disaster, and the reform of probation has been an extraordinary failure. The companies have let down everyone they have come across and are not fit for purpose. I have a number of questions for the Minister. He and I have worked together on other policy areas, and I know that he is quite an amiable, reasonable chap. He has the opportunity today to really listen, to address this issue and to start afresh. Nobody will accept that the privatisation of probation has not been a failure.

    My asks of the Minister are these. Will he accept that Through the Gate services have failed, and will he put in place changes in conjunction with other Departments to deliver joined-up services so that offenders are given every opportunity to be rehabilitated on release? What is the contingency plan in the event of the collapse of Interserve, which, as I am sure he will agree, is increasingly likely? Has his Department learned lessons from this disaster, and will it keep people safe by abandoning its plans to privatise the night-waking watch in probation hostels? Finally, will he accept that transforming rehabilitation has been a failure, and will he commit to take probation back in-house to deliver a probation service that works for offender rehabilitation, the criminal justice system and the public, not for private, profit-making companies?

  • It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McDonagh. I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) on securing this debate, which is hugely important, given the risk that criminals can pose to the public, as the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) eloquently put it. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) expressed the very important idea that people can change and improve, and that the public can be protected through that individual journey.

    We have always faced fundamental challenges, but the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge is absolutely right that there have been very significant challenges since 2014. However, let me briefly take it back to before 2014. As the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) pointed out, the reality is that it is and has always been extremely difficult to do this kind of work. Before the privatisation of 2014, for nearly 30 or 40 years, probation services worked extremely hard under different Governments to reduce reoffending, and over a 40-year period the reoffending rate barely moved. It hovered around 50% within one year and 70% within nine years. It did not matter whether people were involved with innovative housing, mental health or employment projects. It was stubbornly difficult to reduce reoffending.

    Despite all the problems with Through the Gate services that the hon. Member for Bradford East talked about, those services effectively did not exist before 2014. I was at Nottingham prison yesterday. Before 2014, nobody in the prison would have been working on the initial five-day assessment and the pre-12-week assessment to ensure that prisoners are properly co-ordinated Through the Gate. The CRC is now embedded in the building. It is also true that, even before 2014, there were sadly a number of issues with people coming out of prison, reoffending and harming the public.

    I take very seriously the complaints that have been made. Those are serious observations by Members of Parliament and the chief inspector, who found and raised powerfully significant problems relating to morale—in particular, staff morale—case load, which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) raised, and the tragedy when things go wrong. The hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) described the horrifying situation that happened to her constituent, Conner, when somebody who was supervised under a CRC contract reoffended.

    All those things need to be gripped and dealt with. The disagreement between the Government and the Opposition is that, for a number of reasons, I do not believe the question is only whether the service should be provided by the public sector or the private sector. Many of these issues predate the privatisation. There were very significant problems with probation in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It made sense—on this, I defend my predecessors—to try to work out how to deal with some of those stubborn problems, including, first, the absence of any proper Through the Gate services; secondly, the fact that before 2014, 40,000 prolific reoffenders were not supervised at all; and, thirdly, how on earth to deal with the stubborn reoffending rate of 50%. It seemed perfectly justifiable that people would try to think about how we could focus relentlessly on dropping the reoffending rate and on encouraging innovation. Why innovation? Because an enormous number of voluntary-sector organisations and charities around the country have proved that the reoffending rates can be reduced. I was looking at a recent example in Stafford, where a chaplaincy housing project has managed to reduce the reoffending of persistent reoffenders—a very tough group to work with—from 50% to what appears to be about 17%. There are similar examples, such as the Clink restaurant in Brixton Prison. Meeting people at the gate, finding them a job and putting them into the catering industry reduces reoffending dramatically. The idea of the reform was to try to bring some of those new ideas into the system.

  • The Minister is trying to be helpful in acknowledging our points, but I want to challenge him. He is arguing that trusts were not innovative, but they absolutely were. He talks about the Clink and other examples. There are always pockets of absolutely excellent practice that have amazing successes, but the challenge is mainstreaming that, and getting it out so that it is the norm and not the exception. This reform has made that more difficult. Rather than analysing where we are, I hope the Minister will move on to tell us where he intends to take us next.

  • That is a very good challenge, and I will move on to the question of the voluntary sector and how to take good small examples to a bigger scale.

    The challenge is what on earth to do about that. How do we address the problems? The fundamental thing is to get back to the basics, which are exactly what hon. Members in the Chamber have discussed. Basics include ensuring that people have a manageable case load, which means not going beyond 50 to 55 cases. They must meet the people in the cases regularly; they must ensure that they not only meet them but put in place a good assessment of the needs of the individual and of public protection; and they must come up with a plan linking that assessment to action. That is before we go on to the other things that we have been discussing, which is how we work with the voluntary sector and wider society. The basics need to happen first.

    Around the country we can see that some people are delivering those basics well. Cumbria, for example, which has a CRC, has a good report from the inspectors for doing that. London, as the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge knows well, got a negative report from the inspectors exactly about some of those areas. We will not go into the details and explanations for some of that today. Some are about transition and inheriting a difficult situation, and London has always been difficult for probation services and has more than 30 different boroughs. There are complexities with IT systems and so on. However, we do not want to make excuses. The fundamental question is: can we sort those things out? I believe we can.

    I am very confident that we can get to a situation, even in London, which is probably the most difficult area in the country, where we can have manageable case loads, where people can be met regularly, where there is good tracking of offenders—we know where they are and take good enforcement action if they do not turn up to appointments—and where the assessment and the plan are in place. I am very hopeful that, when the next inspection report comes out from the probation inspectorate, we will see those improvements even in London. I expect to be held accountable if those improvements are not recorded in the next report.

  • I am interested in what the Minister is saying. Will he commit to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny of how those organisations operate, whatever their name in future? That is not the case at present.

  • It would be interesting to know what kind of parliamentary scrutiny the hon. Lady means. There are some pretty good examples of scrutiny—the Justice Committee is doing a report on the probation service and we have an incredibly active, energetic and highly critical chief inspector of probation who is doing an enormously good job which is drawn on by everyone around the Chamber—but I am open to more. Debates such as this one are very powerful ways to hold us to account.

    The next issue, as we move on from addressing the basics, is to look at some of the questions the hon. Member for Darlington talked about, in particular how we scale up pockets of really good small practice in individual local areas. That seems to be a huge challenge for everything—not just probation but everything we do with the voluntary sector. It is infuriating to find in most of our constituencies good local providers being pushed out either by contractors coming in from elsewhere or by large charities and voluntary sector organisations. In my case, in Cumbria, they appear to come up from London with hundreds of proposal writers to take over a local council contract, but lack the local skills and knowledge to deliver.

    We need to find ways to encourage CRCs to provide both the money that could go to those voluntary organisations—for example, in housing—and the cultural change, as the hon. Member for Darlington is aware, which is to encourage probation officers to let go of the cases to let specialist providers in mental health or housing take over their clients. That can be done but it must be driven through individual CRC by individual CRC. However, that is just the beginning. The big aim is to move from what happens with the individual in the probation office to what happens in broader society.

    The real reason we have faced reoffending rates stubbornly stuck at 50% for nearly 40 years is that, in the end, the behaviour of someone coming out of prison is not controlled simply by what happens in the interaction with the probation officer or, when in prison, the prison officer. That is a very individual psychological engagement. What tends to happen is that the probation officer tries to change the behaviour of the individual in the room. However, that individual exists not only in the room but in a broader society. Unless such individuals can repair their relationships with family, society and the state, we will not get into a cycle in which they offend less or, eventually, do not offend at all.

    That involves difficult things, with the individual feeling a sense of hope and agency; and that they can take control of their lives and have a sense of dignified participation, not as a labelled criminal but as a citizen in the fullest sense in society. No one in the Chamber has easy answers to how to achieve those things, but we must focus on ensuring that we get everything right, from the basics of meeting, assessment and planning, right through to the broader engagement with society to make that citizen function. We must recognise that the idea of desistance is not a linear path, but it is a path to reduce reoffending and protect the public.

    I will conclude with three remarks. First, I pay tribute to the very hard work of probation officers. They are some of our most dedicated and serious professionals. Yesterday in Nottingham Prison I was lucky enough to see the Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Rutland CRC—people who have worked in probation trusts for nearly 30 years. They are based in the prison, telling very powerful stories about the assistance they provide in housing, and they represent exactly why we should be so proud of the work that probation officers do. They have difficult work which, as hon. Members have pointed out, combines the work of a social worker with that of someone who has to implement a court order and protect the public.

    Secondly, I pay tribute to Members of Parliament. Their work in this area is often ignored by the public and, sometimes, too much ignored by Parliament. Such work matters deeply, as the hon. Member for Strangford pointed out, both for the individuals themselves on their journey towards improvement, and for the public.

    Finally, I undertake to the House that we must focus. The results that we are getting from the inspectors are simply not good enough. I wish to be judged on driving the CRCs back to the very basics of their task, and on opening up to all the innovations and new ideas shared around the Chamber, to ensure that 40 years of stubborn rates of reoffending begin to be addressed, for the sake of individual offenders and the public as a whole.

  • I again put on the record my thanks for being able to have this important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) said, this issue does not often get a lot of attention either inside or outside the House, so it is important that so many hon. Members have been in the Chamber to talk about it. We have had a good discussion about the precarious position in which our probation services find themselves.

    As I said, the Justice Committee, of which I am a member, is considering all the issues. I look forward to speaking in Committee after this debate about what has been discussed and how we can take it forward.

    I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. A number of my hon. Friends raised the individual cases of their constituents, and I am aware of the tragic case of Conner Marshall, which could have been avoided had the probation service acted on missed appointments. Those were missed opportunities, as the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) rightly pointed out. That underscores why action on probation services is needed so urgently—so that nothing like that happens again.

    We have talked at length about staff, and I am glad that the Minister put on the record the tremendous work of probation staff, often in challenging circumstances under CRCs. We have heard from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) experiences of probation workers in his constituency, and of those Unison members. Probation staff do a tremendous job. They are not in the profession for the money, but because they care. They need proper resources, and they need to be valued. They need to be able to help the people that they went into the profession to help, and not just simply tick boxes to secure a profit for the CRC they work for. We will take that incredibly important point away from the debate.

    It often feels like the voluntary sector is doing great work despite CRCs. In London, we have Clinks and a great charity called Switchback that does a huge amount of work with offenders, runs a café in east London and works with prisoners at the end of their sentences. More should be done to support them and to support innovation. CRCs have not been innovative. They have not done the work they ought to have been doing because they are ticking boxes. They are not there to be innovative, but to generate a profit, because they are private companies. That is where this has gone so incredibly wrong.

    I am grateful for the Minister’s points about MTC Novo, which is clearly failing at probation in London. On his comments about its latest inspection, I hope we will see an improvement. I am grateful that he has been willing to be accountable for what is in that report, which I will want to follow up.

    It has become evident throughout the debate that CRCs in their current form are not fit for purpose. They have been part of an ideological move away from public services, which have been handed to the private sector. When they go wrong, rather than saying, “This has gone wrong. They need to come back into public ownership”, they have been bailed out by the Government. It is not acceptable and it is ideologically driven. The CRCs need to go back into public control, so that we are left with a rehabilitation system that is fit for purpose, and that can reduce reoffending and keep the public safe and reassured. That is the main thing that we will take away from today.

    Question put and agreed to.


    That this House has considered private probation services.

  • Sitting suspended.