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Privatised Probation System

Volume 655: debated on Monday 4 March 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice if he will make a statement on the future of the privatised probation system.

I am pleased to be called to address this urgent question, and fully understand why the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) has raised it. As the House will be aware, we have been looking very carefully at the future of probation services, and this gives me the opportunity briefly to set out the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms, some of the challenges, and our response.

As the House will be aware, Transforming Rehabilitation was strongly influenced by a Labour pilot—the Peterborough pilot—which demonstrated that by bringing in non-state providers, concentrating on a cohort of short-sentence prisoners who had not previously been supervised and paying providers for reducing reoffending, it was possible to achieve significant improvements. Transforming Rehabilitation was a coalition Government commitment and built on those principles by contracting the private sector and others—in Durham Tees Valley, for example, that included the local authority—and undertaking to pay the providers if they were able to reduce reoffending. The contracts were left flexible to encourage innovation. This private model was applied only to low-risk offenders—high-risk offenders continued to be supervised in the usual way by the state. The new model has delivered in some ways, but as the National Audit Office has pointed out, it has not delivered in others.

There has been a reduction in the binary rate of reoffending, although there has been an increase in the separate frequency measure. Some 40,000 additional offenders are currently being supervised who were not supervised under the old system. Some innovation has come into the system, and it has saved the taxpayer money. Even though the hon. Gentleman would point out that through changes to the contracts, more money has gone in, we are forecast to spend significantly less than we originally anticipated—perhaps as much as £700 million less.

The programme was challenged by external factors, some of which were difficult to model and predict. For example, societal changes and different sentencing decisions by judges meant that the case load given to community rehabilitation companies shifted, and the accredited programmes that were allocated were fewer than expected. That meant that the income streams of those companies was less than anticipated. Broader issues such as drugs, housing and treatment programmes also made it difficult for providers to control all the factors in reoffending, which led to the companies losing significant sums of money. We have therefore taken a new approach that seeks to address all those problems.

We have just conducted a consultation and are carefully studying the responses. Our intention, first, is to remove the dependence in the new probation system on unpredictable case loads and to improve co-ordination with the national probation service. We are emphasising overall quality of service in future, not just the reoffending rate. We will be ending the existing contracts two years early. We will be setting minimum conditions for offender supervision, and we have invested over £20 million in through-the-gate services. Our objective, while retaining the benefits of flexibility and innovation, is to create a much higher-quality probation service that focuses on good-quality delivery and protects the public.

The National Audit Office report on probation privatisation is another damning indictment of the current Transport Secretary. Once again the Conservatives’ part-privatisation of probation has been exposed as a dangerous experiment that left the public less safe and out of pocket. The NAO highlights a 22% increase in reoffending. Will the Minister now admit that this privatisation has put public safety at risk in a reckless pursuit of running justice for private profit?

The NAO says the Ministry of Justice will pay at least £467 million more to failing private probation companies than was originally required. Does the Minister believe that rewarding failure in that way is the best use of much-reduced Ministry of Justice resources? Despite such failings, the Conservatives are recklessly planning to sign new private probation contracts. Will the Minister halt the current tendering plans to allow an independent review into whether probation should be returned to the public sector, or are they just ideologically driven?

Last month, Working Links, one of the largest probation providers, collapsed. Will the Minister explain the tendering process by which it was quietly handed to another private company? Will he guarantee that there will be no further staff losses under this new arrangement? Another private provider, Interserve, is in deep financial difficulties. Does the Minister have an emergency probation plan ready for if or when Interserve goes under?

Finally, private shareholders should be left in no doubt: Labour will return probation to the public sector. Will the Minister guarantee today that new probation contracts will include break clauses, so that a future Labour Government can put an end to this disastrous privatisation if his Government will not?

As you would anticipate, Mr Speaker, we do not feel that this is simply an ideological choice between the private and the public sector. There are things that we can learn from the private sector. There have been some significant improvements in the way that services are delivered and in IT. We must also remember that this is not just a question of the private sector. In certain areas, we are working with local authorities and the voluntary sector.

To address the specific challenges that the hon. Gentleman raised, he pointed out that the frequency rate of reoffending has gone up, but the binary rate of reoffending has in fact gone down through the course of these programmes. On the question of cost, it is true that more money has gone in, but it is still much less money than anticipated. Broadly speaking, we were anticipating that we would spend about £3 billion over the course of the contract. The companies committed to spend about £1.8 billion and the Government put in an additional £400 million. That still leaves us spending perhaps £700 million—something of that sort—less than we anticipated. So the public have spent less money than they expected to over the course of this programme.

The Kent, Surrey and Sussex Community Rehabilitation Company is a good provider and we are confident it can step in successfully, but we also have the national probation service working with it to ensure that it operates well in the Working Links areas.

On the broader issue that the hon. Gentleman raised about whether we have looked carefully at the lessons, we absolutely have. As I explained, we will make absolutely sure that we look very carefully at the consultation requirements and that anything we do in the future carefully learns those lessons, de-risks, focuses on quality, improves performance and protects the public.

In the field of justice policy, as in the field of health policy, arguments are being reduced to a notion that if the public sector provides a service it is automatically better than if the private sector does so. That is completely irrelevant and just a lazy substitute for producing any real ideas on what can be done to improve rehabilitation. I am very attracted by the Department’s idea that we might replace prison sentences of six months and less, because prison tends to toughen up the inadequate and unpleasant people who get those short sentences and need to be punished. It is essential that we strengthen the effectiveness of our probation-based rehabilitation services alongside that. I welcome what the Minister has announced, but does he accept that we need more trials of what can be done in various parts of the country so that we can carry public confidence, if we change the sentencing system, that people can be punished, but punished in a way that might more effectively stop them committing more crimes against the public when they are released?

Absolutely. As my right hon. and learned Friend points out, if we are to reduce the number of people serving ineffective short prison sentences, we must improve the quality of community sentences. That means that we need better supervision of offenders, better sentence planning and more use of technology, including electronic monitoring. One of the key objectives of the reforms that we will be bringing into probation is to reassure not just the public but the sentencers that good community protection exists.

In Scotland, the probation service role is carried out by criminal justice social workers, who are part of local authorities’ social work departments—in other words, it is a public service, and I believe that that is as it should be. Effective reintegration and rehabilitation of offenders is at the heart of the Scottish system—rather than profit and hitting targets—and lately in Scotland, of course, we have had great success with getting rid of short-term sentences, which has led to a fall in the rate of reoffending. Does the Minister accept that probation should never be run for private profit and that reunifying the probation service under public control is the only way to properly protect the public across England and Wales?

Finally, this fiasco is part of a long list of scandalous wastes of public money for which the Minister’s colleague the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has been responsible in his roles as Secretary of State for Justice and Secretary of State for Transport. This is one of two such scandals that have come to light over the weekend. We are hearing rumours that he is not coming to the House later today to answer the urgent question about the ferry tendering disaster, so I ask the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect—I realise that none of this is his fault—to tell us when the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is going to be held to account for his shocking irresponsibility with taxpayers’ money.

As hon. Members would expect me to say, these things have more nuances and complexities. The basic idea that it is impossible for anybody except the Government to deliver good probation services was disproved, in fact, by the Labour pilot—the Peterborough pilot—which by bringing in the voluntary sector and social investors was able to reduce reoffending by a staggering 9%, particularly by providing something that we are developing at the moment and that does not fully exist yet in Scotland: a fully integrated through-the-gate service linking the prison officer in the prison with probation in the community. We need to take into account that this is not a binary choice.

I am very slightly disappointed that my hon. Friend referred only to the Peterborough pilot, which we inherited when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and I arrived in the Ministry of Justice in 2010. By the time that we were moved from the Ministry of Justice—for me, that was to spend more time with the Kaleidoscope Trust and with you, Mr Speaker—we had at least 20 different pilots, putting responsibility for the rehabilitation of offenders on the probation service in Wales and Staffordshire, three police services, three local authorities and eight health authorities dealing with issues such as drug addiction. We were waiting to see what was going to work best when all these pilots were swept away and the probation service was broken up. Will the Minister look at trying to make the system more coherent by establishing a link between the probation service and police and crime commissioners in the community to make the justice system rather better joined up across the community?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for the work he did on piloting many of these ideas. We can learn a great deal from those pilots. Central to our reforms will have to be co-ordination—having the right relationship between the national probation service and the community rehabilitation companies, and thinking about the geography—and part of that will be thinking about how the CRCs work with the police and crime commissioners.

I know that the Minister has done a lot of work on brain injury in prisons. Is it not vital, where prisoners with a brain injury have started some form of rehabilitation in prison and have been receiving advice and support, that that is carried through into their experience in the outside world? Otherwise, there is a strong likelihood that they will simply go back inside.

First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he has done on acquired brain injury. As the House will be aware, he has argued very strongly that brain injury frequently suffered as early as childhood can have a long-lasting effect, particularly on behaviour, and contribute to reoffending. The major question is about getting the right relationship with the NHS. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), is leading some interesting work, drawing on some of the extra funding now available to the NHS, to make sure we have the right programmes in the community, not just on acquired brain injury but on everything stretching from mental health issues to addiction services provided by the local authority.

Does the Minister agree that, although CRCs need to improve and perform better, we need to focus on reducing the rate of reoffending, which is what we are seeing, and not on ideological concerns about how a service is provided?

That is absolutely right. The key thing is learning what works and how to do it in a way that works for the Government budget. We are increasingly learning that although it is about treatment programmes, it is also about housing, getting people into employment and dealing with addiction issues. Getting all of this properly integrated from within the prison out into the community will be the key. That is how we will protect the public.

The problems with Transforming Rehabilitation were entirely predicted in 2014, so the NAO report should come as no surprise to Ministers.

I want to ask the Minister about women. There is a great deal of evidence that many CRCs are not offering good-quality tailored provision to women. As he and his ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), know, women’s centres do a much better job. Will he now consider removing women wholly from the remit of the CRCs and making full use of the provision in women’s centres to address the causes of their offending behaviour?

That is a very interesting proposal. The London CRC attempted to do it by setting up a programme designed for women entirely separate from the male programme. There were challenges, however, that were then criticised by the independent inspector of probation. I am happy to sit down with the hon. Lady and talk through some of the complexities of doing that.

No less celebrated a denizen of the House than the Chair of the Justice Select Committee is among our number. We are deeply appreciative of that fact. Let us hear him.

I am very grateful, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the Minister’s frank and honest response to the findings of this report, which, as he knows, mirror almost entirely the conclusions of the Select Committee’s report last June. As well as confirming, as I am sure he will, that the Government accept the three principal recommendations in paragraph 21 of the NAO report, will he reflect particularly on the division between CRCs and the national probation service in two respects? First, the division by categorisation of risk has been much criticised, because risk levels vary and change during the process of supervision and the current categorisation does not reflect that. Secondly, the separation and distancing of the CRCs, which deliver the programmes, from the sentencers in court has undoubtedly undermined sentencer confidence in community sentences and alternatives to custody.

Of the two arguments, I think that the second is the stronger. The fact that CRCs are not involved in the pre-sentence reports, in particular, is a real issue. Shifting case loads is also an issue. We have seen a 48% variation in case loads, with more focus on serious crime, and we need a way of responding to that, such as better integration between the NPS and CRCs.

The reckless fragmentation of the probation service back in 2014 has predictably led to this sorry end. I appreciate what the Minister is saying—it did not happen on his watch, and he has been put there to put it right—but I want to reinforce what was said by the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill): what we need is a coherent system with no gaps through which people can fall. Will he achieve that?

I absolutely agree. I could not have put it better. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve; that is exactly what the consultation is about; and its delivery is exactly what I expect people to judge me on over the next few months.

The Minister has engaged fully with the Justice Committee’s report, which our Chair mentioned a moment ago, but I should be grateful for further clarification of what he intends to do about the increasing number of people who are recalled to prison. Specifically, I should like to know whether a way can be found to monitor that number. Transforming Rehabilitation increased the number of people who were included in work on reoffending, so it is difficult to establish whether or not the number of those recalled is in fact increasing.

One of the key measures in Transforming Rehabilitation was the supervision of 40,000 people who had not previously been supervised and whose sentences were shorter than 12 months. Previously, we had no idea what they were doing, because they were not being supervised by any probation officer. By supervising those 40,000 people—they tend to be a cohort of prolific reoffenders—we end up with many more recalls than happened previously. The answer must be to consider on a case-by-case basis whether the recalls are justified, but we must also acknowledge that it is a good thing to supervise 40,000 more people. When they were not supervised, the public were more endangered.

Order. Speaking to school students in Twickenham on Friday, and subsequently giving a talk at Royal Holloway College, London University, in Egham, I referenced the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), not least for his tendency to yell “Shocking!” “It’s a disgrace,” or, alternatively, “Be’ave!” at the Treasury Bench. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s profile is now substantially higher at both those institutions, and I am sure that, if they are listening, they will listen to him with great interest.

This situation is indeed shocking. [Laughter.] I do wonder: either very senior civil servants follow the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) around giving him really bad advice, or he is in fact just incredibly incompetent. Which is it?

Yes, it is. Big lessons need to be drawn from it, not just for the purpose of probation reforms but for the purpose of any other reforms that we make in government. One of the big issues concerned is our ability to predict the consequences of large-scale system change, and in particular to predict the shifts in caseload. As the National Audit Office points out, there was a modelling of a 2% shift, and the reality was a 48% shift. Drilling down into how that advice was given and responded to is one of the ways in which we can draw those lessons.

In Chelmsford, we have a very busy prison and people want to know that when people leave prison they do not reoffend. Can the Minister confirm that although some people have gone on to reoffend more, the number of people reoffending has reduced?

First, may I pay tribute as always to my hon. Friend, who has been a real supporter of the prison officers in her prison and the turning around of Chelmsford prison? It is true that the frequency rate of reoffending has gone up, which means that very prolific offenders continue to offend more, but the absolute number and proportion of people reoffending has decreased—the binary rate has come down—and that is a good thing and worth celebrating.

The National Audit Office says there is limited time to procure the new contracts, that persisting with the split between the National Probation Service and the community rehabilitation companies still poses risks and that the transition to new contracts threatens service quality. Having wasted millions of pounds and failed miserably to reduce reoffending, why is the Minister intent on pursuing this two-tier system?

First, wherever we go with this new system, we will have a much more integrated system: it will continue to be a mixed market, but it will be a much more integrated system. Secondly, whatever we do now will involve some transition costs and risks, and we do not want to minimise what they will be, but we have learned the lessons and the most important one is that, instead of focusing on just paying people in terms of reducing reoffending, we will pay people for the overall quality of the services they deliver.

The Minister will probably be aware that the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke very much wanted tendering for probation to be, as he described it, the norm. Why does the Minister think there has been a sudden change among some Members in the Chamber today?

That is a good reminder. The former Home Secretary Charles Clarke and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) are articulating the same point, which is that there is an enormous amount that non-Government actors—not just the private sector, but the voluntary sector—can bring in terms of innovation, efficiency and delivering very good services.

Volumes for offences were 48% lower than expected; community rehabilitation companies had losses of £294 million when they were expected to have profits of £269 million; and the figures relating to the reoffending of individuals were 22% up: who signed off these projections and who is accountable for this delivery failure?

These questions of accountability are quite difficult for me to answer. Normally, I answer by offering to resign; I am not about to do that again, but I would say that these things are related. On the question the right hon. Gentleman raised about the caseload shift, as the NAO pointed out, a 2% case load shift was predicted, but a 48% case load shift happened, directly impacting the second issue of the income coming to the companies. That prediction is a question we are really trying to look into and understand. This is to do with the fact that more violent and sexual offences were committed than previously, and the Crown courts managed to make different decisions in terms of sentence length and not giving accredited programmes. The question is, how do we predict that type of social change? Could we have predicted it; was it predicted; and how do we act on it?

Does the Minister agree that the task of rehabilitation can be helped enormously by looking at the experience in Denmark and Germany, where prisoners are encouraged at an early stage to cook for themselves and undertake work that provides valuable training?

Yes, we can learn a great deal from Germany and Denmark, and indeed in some of our most successful prisons, as prisoners develop in their sentence—as they develop more skills—they are given opportunities to cook for themselves and look after themselves, and of course through the use of release on temporary licence, we can get prisoners into work while they are still in prison. This means, when they leave, they are more likely to have a job. One of the key things about reducing reoffending is making sure there is not a cliff edge at the prison door, but that for at least 10 weeks before people leave a lot of preparation goes into setting up the life they will have outside prison.

I genuinely have sympathy for the Minister: he is the man with the shovel and brush following a horse that has been ridden by his colleague the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). We have seen an award-winning public probation service turned into an unmitigated privatised disaster. The Minister did not answer the earlier question about new contracts having break clauses, which was the same question we asked in 2014, so will he confirm that any new contracts issued will have break clauses?

We will look very carefully at the contracts. Along with the issues that we will be examining, there is the issue of break clauses, but there are other issues, too. One issue that we have learned from is what happens in procurement legislation to allow us to put more money into a service if something unpredictable such as the caseload shift happens and what it takes to bring it back into the public sector. Contracts are the key to this.

I hope that my hon. Friend does not resign, because he is doing a very good job in his post and I hope that he continues to do so. Dickson House is a probation service bail hostel in Fareham, which I have visited. The team there delivers a vital service in supporting former serious offenders and integrating them back into the community. Does my hon. Friend agree that work such as that being done at Dickson House is helping to improve reoffending rates and keep our citizens safe?

It is great to have an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of our probation hostels. Some of the people who work in them are incredibly dedicated public servants, and they often have to work with very challenged individuals. They often have enormous success in changing lives and protecting the public.

I have three prisons in my constituency, and it is really tragic to see what has happened to the probation service in recent years. It is now fragmented and under-resourced, and, critically, it is not reducing reoffending. Given the indictment of the service by the National Audit Office report, is it not now time to call a halt to this privatisation experiment, return the service to the public sector and resource it properly so that it can really bring about the genuine rehabilitation of prisoners and others?

I absolutely agree that we need to resource the service properly, and I absolutely agree that we need to focus this mixed market on getting the quality of delivery, but respectfully, I disagree with the idea that the answer is simply to bring it back into the public sector. I think it needs to be a mixed market, but it needs to be a mixed market that is unified and that really focuses on reducing reoffending.

The longer a prisoner serves in jail, the less likely he or she is to reoffend. That is simply a fact. If, under the this new system, repeat prolific offenders are more likely to reoffend—which is what the Minister has just said—why are those repeat prolific offenders being released early from their sentences in the first place?

There is an issue here of correlation and causation. It is true that people who serve 40 or 50-year sentences are less likely to reoffend, for two reasons. The first relates to the offence type. For example, murderers are generally less likely to reoffend than shoplifters. Secondly, the mere fact that they are locked away for 40 or 50 years makes it difficult for them to reoffend. Generally, short-sentence prisoners who are in for under 12 months are overwhelmingly dominated by chaotic individuals who often have drug or alcohol problems and who often commit offences such as shoplifting. They are a much more difficult target group to deal with than the people who are locked away for 40 or 50 years.

After the failure of Working Links and in the light of the National Audit Office’s damning report into the implementation of Transforming Rehabilitation the first time round by the former Secretary of State—who was then promoted to the Department for Transport, proving that Conservative rehabilitation does not work—as well as continual criticism by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons proving that the mixed system is not beneficial to the taxpayer, why is the Minister continuing with the TR2 programme?

The first thing is to absolutely reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking very carefully at the responses to the consultation and listening carefully to what is being said around the House. Our response will address many of his fundamental concerns. We should see a better resourced, more unified and higherquality probation system at the end of this.

The Minister’s reply seemed to mention a £700 million underspend in the system. Will he redirect just a small part of that to Care after Combat, whose work in prisons is working and is reducing reoffending?

I pay tribute to Care after Combat’s work, and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), and I have met the organisation on several occasions. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) will know, when we have a £700 million underspend in the Department, that does not necessarily mean that we have £700 million available to spend on anything we like.

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), is not the real lesson from all this that the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) should not be allowed anywhere near any large-scale, transformative Government projects or, indeed, near any projects, as the House will hear during the next urgent question?

No. Respectfully, that is not the fundamental lesson here. The lesson is that reducing reoffending is very complicated. The reoffending rate has been static across the developed world for nearly 50 years, and addressing that involves changing the lives of some of the most challenged individuals in society, dealing with their housing, their education and their early childhoods. Fundamentally, we need to be serious about the scale of the task.

I rise as the co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. Friday’s NAO report identifies an inherent risk that offender managers may avoid breaching offenders when that would affect CRC performance against contract targets, and that is the unacceptable face of the profit motive undermining justice for victims and communities. Given that the Justice Secretary has admitted as much and with probation in Wales set to come back into public management by the end of this year, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the future Wales probation model is properly resourced to succeed?

I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes the decision in Wales, where it was right to bring things under a single, state-run probation system. I know that she has had the opportunity to meet Amy Rees, who is now the executive director of both prisons and probation in Wales. We will be putting in extra resources; but above all, we are relying on the fact that bringing the two things together will deliver significant efficiencies, and if we can get the through-the-gate investment right, I think the hon. Lady will be pleasantly surprised.

My constituent Sam Cook was stabbed to death last year. His killer was on licence having been released after being convicted of a similar knife offence, but the probation officer did not know how to use the IT system, so the monitoring of the killer was not appropriate to the concerns of the probation service. I have no idea how that could possibly happen, and I am sure that the Minister is the same. Will he therefore tell us what processes are in place to ensure that processes are properly carried out, that every member of staff is trained to use the system and that we never again see another young man like Sam Cook killed due to inadequate supervision?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for raising that tragic case, and I am happy to sit down with him and, indeed, the family to talk through the details. The way that we learn the lessons of every serious further offence—this happens in about 0.1% of the cases that we supervise under probation—is to conduct a comprehensive SFO review, and those lessons may be about IT, training, support or how a probation manager raises a matter with a senior probation officer. We are happy to sit down with the hon. Gentleman and the family to learn the lessons from that case and ensure that it does not happen again.

I thank the Minister for his responses. Some 69% of females in the judicial system have mental health problems, so how will the current probationary regulations take that disturbing figure into consideration and address it in the privatised probation system?

I am pleased to have my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care alongside me on the Treasury Bench at this point, because the question of addressing mental health needs goes to the core of the kind of collaboration that we have with the national health service. In the end, our offenders are among the biggest public health risks in the country. Their average life expectancy is 50; their suicide rate is seven times the national average; and as the hon. Gentleman says, their addiction and mental health condition rates are far higher than those of anyone else. We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, because getting things right will be good for society and for individuals and, ultimately, will protect the public.