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Probation Reform

Volume 660: debated on Thursday 16 May 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Government’s response to the “Strengthening Probation, Building Confidence” consultation. Earlier today, I laid this Government response for consideration by both Houses. The response sets out our proposals for the future of the probation service. Across England and Wales, the probation service has more than a quarter of a million people under its supervision at any one time. An effective service is key to protecting the public, punishing those who have broken the law and reducing reoffending. I pay tribute to the hard work and professionalism of staff in both our national probation service and in the community rehabilitation companies who deliver this vital work.

The Transforming Rehabilitation reforms from 2014 aimed to encourage innovation and more modern ways of working. We introduced a payment-by-results system, creating incentives for providers to achieve reductions in reoffending; and we extended statutory supervision and resettlement to all offenders released from prison, supporting an extra 40,000 offenders for the first time. Since those reforms, we have seen a reduction in reoffending and other positive developments. However, there are challenges in the system. The changes I am setting out today are designed to make the system work as effectively as possible and meet our aims of a probation system that commands the confidence of the courts and the public.

Last summer, we took action to stabilise current delivery, and as a result, there are now about 500 additional staff in place to focus on resettlement services for offenders. At the same time, we announced a consultation on our plans for the future; I am grateful to the individuals and organisations who engaged and provided valuable feedback. We have reflected carefully and considered how to most effectively use the innovation and expertise of both the private and public sector to continue to drive down reoffending. I am today setting out plans that will see responsibility for the management of all offenders transferred to the national probation service. These arrangements are different from those set out for England in the consultation last summer. However, I believe that bringing responsibility for the delivery of all offender management within the NPS will remove some of the complexities that have caused challenges in the current model of delivery and make it more likely that an offender will have continuity of supervision throughout their sentence, while strengthening processes for managing risk. Alongside those changes, we will develop a more clearly defined role for the private and voluntary sector in delivering core interventions to offenders and securing innovation in the provision of those services.

Each NPS region will continue to have a private or voluntary sector partner—an innovation partner—directly responsible for providing unpaid work and accredited programmes. The NPS will be expressly required to buy all interventions from the market, spending up to an estimated £280 million a year. Contracts will be designed flexibly, so that innovative approaches that show results can be quickly identified and spread across the wider system. Those interventions, such as unpaid work, accredited programmes, and resettlement and rehabilitative services are central to delivering the sentences of the courts. Subject to market engagement, I look ahead to launching procurement for those services later in the year with competitions for unpaid work and accredited programmes.

We want to make sure that services are responsive to local needs, and for resettlement and rehabilitative services we will create a national dynamic framework. It will be accessible to all providers, including specialist smaller scale and voluntary sector providers with the expertise to support the most complex offenders back into society. That direct relationship will create a greater role for providers in delivering probation services and ensure that innovation can be identified and replicated across the system effectively. I am confident that this model, based on the arrangements we consulted on in Wales, offers the most sustainable approach for probation and is the best option to build on the positive changes made under transforming rehabilitation, strengthen the system and sentencers’ confidence in it, and continue to break the cycle of reoffending. We have no intention of reverting to the former probation trust model.

Since the consultation we have established a director general post in Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, responsible for overseeing probation delivery, and we will appoint probation directors across each new probation region. Probation works best when local partners work together, and those directors will be accountable for the quality, delivery and commissioning of services in each area, alongside building stronger relationships with local partners to ensure real joint working, including through co-commissioning opportunities, where possible.

Alongside those organisational changes in the NPS, we will overhaul NPS capability in commissioning and innovation, and deploy cutting-edge technology. CRCs have taken some steps to demonstrate how digital tools can improve practice. We will transform the use of technology in probation, investing in a digital and data strategy that will replace all our core systems and better utilise data to inform professional judgment. We will complement that with a new targeted innovation fund. We will ring-fence an initial £20 million a year in a regional outcome fund to attract match funding from other Departments or commissioning bodies, including social finance providers and social impact bonds. The fund will be reserved for innovative, cross-cutting approaches and will enable us to test proof of concept services before scaling them up.

I want to go further than what was set out in the consultation: when parliamentary time allows, we will look to introduce legislation to implement a statutory professional regulatory framework that puts probation on a par with teaching or social work. It will set ethical and training standards for different roles, to recognise the skills and expertise of probation staff and to support their ongoing professional development and expertise in providing a critical public service.

The changes I have set out will mean that in future it will be easier to respond to the changing profiles of offenders and to drive improvements across the probation system. We will continue to leverage the innovation of the private and voluntary sector and to ensure that probation is working with partners across the criminal justice system to reduce reoffending. It is essential that we take the time to get the changes right. We have put in place arrangements to allow us to extend CRC contracts to ensure that we have the necessary time to get the transition to the new system right. We intend to use the arrangements to end contracts in spring 2021. My officials will now engage with prospective providers and wider stakeholders and finalise our proposals ahead of seeking to launch procurement exercises later this year.

The changes I have outlined will help to deliver a stronger, more stable probation system that will reduce reoffending, support victims of crime and keep the public safe and that will merit the confidence of the courts and the public. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.

The Government have been forced to face reality and accept that their probation model is irredeemably broken; unfortunately, though, this U-turn comes only after they have put public safety at risk and squandered hundreds of millions of pounds trying to shore up failing private probation firms. The Opposition are clear that today’s announcement is a necessary first step in cleaning up the probation mess, but the question is whether it goes far enough.

Have the Conservatives really learned the lesson about the limitations of the role of the private sector in delivering probation? The Tories did not want to make this U-turn and had been trying desperately to re-tender private probation contracts; in fact, the House may remember that that was the Secretary of State’s big probation announcement last summer. Was it the flood of recent scathing reports from experts such as the chief inspector and the excellent work of the Public Accounts Committee and the Justice Committee that forced the Government’s hand? Or was it the collapse of Working Links, one of the largest private probation providers in the country, and the severe financial difficulties faced by another, Interserve? This is an important matter, because I am concerned that if lessons have not been learned, the changes announced today could be a smokescreen to give failing outsourcing giants—the likes of G4S and Sodexo—a route back into probation.

Labour is clear that there is an important role for the voluntary sector and small social enterprises in a future justice system. Voluntary sector organisations have held much of the justice system together in the face of Government cuts. We have heard promises before from the Secretary of State’s Government that the voluntary sector will play a major role, only for that to have been an excuse for big corporations to profit from probation, so what is the overall proportion of all probation budgets that the Secretary of State expects to be delivered by the private sector in future? A figure of £280 million has been suggested; what proportion of that will go to the voluntary sector? Each probation area will be allocated a private company or voluntary body; will private companies be able to act in more than one probation area—which would favour outsourcing giants—or will they be specific local social enterprises? Will any of the major companies that have failed in probation be able to access the contracts?

On oversight and accountability, does the Secretary of State have concerns that the 11 probation areas will remain too distant from local communities? How will they interact with local criminal justice boards and health and policing services?

Privatisation failed to reduce reoffending, with a 22% overall increase in the average number of offences per reoffender. Separate figures suggest that serious further offences such as murder and rape soared by 50%. What is the Secretary of State’s target for reducing reoffending under the new model?

Labour has long called for the Conservatives to drop their dangerous obsession with running probation for profit, but we have also been outlining the alternative, with the well-respected Lord Ramsbotham overseeing Labour’s review of what a publicly-owned probation service would look like under a Labour Government. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the vision outlined in Lord Ramsbotham’s important report?

The new probation model will start from spring 2021. Given the likelihood of a change of Government before then, will the Secretary of State commit today to setting up a special committee to reach a broad consensus on probation reforms? That would rule out the need for a future Labour Government to make further changes.

As a result of chaotic privatisation, many experienced staff left. What action will the Secretary of State take to rehire experienced former probation staff?

In conclusion, the changes announced today should just be a start. The Government must demonstrate a commitment to the true function of probation, properly invest in it and ensure that it can once again be the award-winning public service that it was before the disastrous Conservative privatisation.

To be fair, by the hon. Gentleman’s standards that was quite a warm welcome for this policy announcement. I thank him for that.

Let me pick up some of the points he made. He talked about the costs and about the squandering of vast sums of money; the House should be aware that we have spent considerably less with the community rehabilitation companies than was anticipated when the business plan for the transforming rehabilitation programme was put together. The issue is not the squandering of billions of pounds; it is about how we improve the service, and that is the intention behind my announcement.

On returning to the past, which was a sort of theme in the hon. Gentleman’s comments, we do not want to do that. I do not think that simply to return to the days of 35 probation trusts is the right course of action. There are things that we can learn from what was done well with them, as well as what was not done so well, just as we can learn from what has happened over the past four years or so, post the transforming rehabilitation programme.

On the £280 million and how it will be spent, as I said there will be regional directors for each of the 11 regions, and they will make decisions based on commercial considerations in terms of the nature of the bids. I am keen to do more to ensure that the voluntary sector can get in and play an important role.

I want to encourage work at a devolved level. For example, I want to do everything that we can to ensure that police and crime commissioners can play an active role.

We are already recruiting staff. Probation has an absolutely key role to play in how we tackle crime and reduce reoffending, and I want to make sure that it is properly resourced.

Finally, there was a lot of criticism about the role of the private sector in probation. The hon. Gentleman highlighted Lord Ramsbotham’s report, which was produced yesterday. I have looked at his report, and it says that when it comes to probation, the private sector has “a part to play”. I am not sure that I quite picked up that tone from the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he had not read that bit, or if he had, whether he had forgotten it—that is also perfectly possible—but the fact is that even his own party’s report recognises that the private sector has a part to play. I will of course happily meet the hon. Gentleman, and if he wants to bring along Lord Ramsbotham, that will make the occasion all the more convivial. I thank him for his comments.

Order. This is an important statement and I am keen to accommodate all would-be questioners on it, but I remind the House that there are two debates to follow, the protection of time for which is also a priority for the Chair. Therefore, notwithstanding the insatiable enthusiasm of colleagues for putting full inquiries on this matter, I appeal for brevity.

I will do my best, Mr Speaker.

I welcome this statement and I hope that anyone who cares about the criminal justice system will also welcome it. It is a good thing for Governments to reflect on experience and adjust policy and that is what the Secretary of State should be commended for doing. Does he agree that a critical part of the new arrangements must be to ensure sentencer confidence and that, therefore, not only must there be continuity of supervision, but an assurance to sentencers of the quality of supervision? Will he perhaps look at means by which the judiciary can be better involved in the follow-up to sentencing to ensure that that is the case?

That is a very interesting point and certainly something that I am keen to explore. The Chairman of the Justice Committee has hit the nail on the head: sentencer confidence is key. It is well known that there is support across the House for trying to move away from short custodial sentences that appear to be ineffective when it comes to rehabilitation. If we are to move away from that, we need to ensure that we have robust alternatives—robust community sentences—available, and we need to build the confidence for that and this plays a part in achieving exactly that.

I welcome the statement today. Dame Glenys Stacey’s annual report was absolutely damning in relation to the state of our probation services as a result of failed privatisation. I am glad that the Secretary of State has conceded that this does not work and that payment by results does not work in probation. I have long called for a holistic probation service that centres on the needs of individuals. What support will the Secretary of State give to the national probation service to ensure that we move away from this tick-box exercise that exists at present and instead have a tailored support model that delivers meaningful and long-lasting results?

Clearly, there have been difficulties about the payment-by-results model in this context, and Dame Glenys Stacey has been very clear about that. She described herself as being delighted by the announcement today. I am delighted that she is delighted.

The attempt to bring in transforming rehabilitation failed partly because it failed to take into account and wait for the end of the pilots at Doncaster and Peterborough prisons. Does the Secretary of State agree that that has been part of the failure? Will he tell me what effect his reforms will have on those who want to introduce new services, such as a much better rehabilitation process through paid work?

With regard to previous experience, there is always a balance to be struck between trying to deliver something in good time and waiting to see all the evidence emerge. On where we are now, we should move to a different model. We will lead with Wales, and by the end of this year, we should have moved to a unified model. England will follow in 2021. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of work. He knows that that is a key issue for me in terms of rehabilitation. Both paid and unpaid work have important roles to play. I do want to encourage innovation; I want to make sure that, in such areas, we have innovation and a diversity of suppliers who can play a role in ensuring that we try new things, learn from experiences and get things improving.

This failed experiment was set to cost the taxpayer £467 million because of the early termination of contracts at the end of next year. It would be helpful to know what the total bill will be. My biggest concern as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is that the Secretary of State has just laid out that there will be major local procurement processes over the next two years. It seems like a long time now, but that time will go very fast. How will he make sure that that procurement is done thoughtfully and sensitively and really reaches those small voluntary groups that were so cut out of the previous system?

First, let me make the point about costs. I come back to the point that I made earlier, which is that our expenditure with community rehabilitation companies has been considerably lower than had been forecast—£1.4 billion lower. That takes into account the £467 million to which the hon. Lady referred, which was there to ensure that we had operational stability. As we move on to the new system, she is right to say that 2021 will soon be upon us. We do need to focus very heavily on ensuring that procurement works well, that we make use of the voluntary sector and that there is proper competition so that those who can contribute to this process can do so properly, and we are very much focused on that.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to have done what he has done. There is no doubt that, in many cases, the CRC contract did not achieve the intended aims. I was glad to hear that he still envisages a significant role for the voluntary sector and even, in some cases, for the private sector. I hope that he can assure us that the basic principle of the organisation that is employed to engage in rehabilitation, which is what we so sorely lacked under the previous regime, is fulfilled and that evidence is garnered of whether a particular voluntary or private operator is producing results and that, where they are, that model is replicated.

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I am keen to ensure that we have the innovation that we need, and I have talked about the innovation fund. It is very important that we are led by the data and that where good practice is identified it is disseminated so that it can be taken up elsewhere in the system. That is why it is helpful to have a diversity of supply. Under the old probation trust system, there was a reluctance on the part of many probation trusts to make use of the voluntary and private sectors. We do not want to go back to such a system. None the less, a unified model for offender management is a sensible way forward.

Despite the Secretary of State’s characteristically emollient and reasonable tone, the announcement he has made today covers up one of the most catastrophic pieces of public policy and waste of public money that we have seen in many a long year. It has let down communities that suffer from crime; it has let down victims of crime; and it has let down those people who commit crimes who have a right to try at least to change their ways. Will the Minister say something about the Secretary of State—one of his predecessors—who actually thought that this would work and talk to us about ministerial accountability, because there seems to be absolutely none of it left in this flailing Government?

I shall try to be emollient again. The fact is that the reoffending rate has fallen since Transforming Rehabilitation was brought in. There are areas of very good practice within the private sector. A number of parliamentary colleagues have highlighted good practice in their own areas. That tends to be more in the accredited programmes and in the unpaid work areas than in offender management. The fact that we have a larger private sector in this area enables us to move now to a system that is sustainable, that strikes the right balance and that ensures that we have diversity of supply and consistency in the offender management function.

I welcome the statement from the Secretary of State. With a significant category D prison in my constituency, I have seen at first hand some of the positive work that social enterprises play as part of prisoner rehabilitation alongside the probation service. May I urge him to make sure that those with complex needs, particularly drug and alcohol addictions, are given the necessary support in any reform?

Yes. That is a very important point and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. When it comes to bringing down reoffending, making sure that we address issues of mental health and substance abuse will be key. This is not just about probation, but probation has a vital role to play.

Across the country, voluntary sector organisations do a high volume of extremely impressive and successful work with ex-offenders, much of which was undermined by the part privatisation of the probation service. Now that services are going to be tendered under the core interventions programme, can the Minister give me some assurances that he will prioritise voluntary sector organisations, as they provide the best results when it comes to issues such as housing and substance abuse, and that he will not award these contracts to private organisations that exist just to make a profit and deliver services that are not as good?

We will certainly want to prioritise organisations that deliver the best results; that is the key task. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is often the smaller voluntary services that are able to do that. At this point, it is not a question of providing specific targets as such. We want to ensure that the organisations that are best placed to deliver high-quality services—often from the voluntary sector—are in a strong position to be able to do that work.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I am a member of the Criminal Bar Association.

This is a good example of policy based on ideology, as opposed to policy based on evidence and, frankly, good sound common sense. Probation officers need to be qualified, properly paid, trained and respected because of the important work they do. They advise judges in the sentencing process, in which they play a critical part. They also play a critical part in rehabilitation, and of course they keep people safe, including offenders. Will the Secretary of State please assure us that he will ensure that his Department is run not on ideological grounds, but on evidence-based grounds? To that end, will he also assure us that this new system, which I welcome, will not overly rely on digitisation alone, but will remember that we need people to deal with what is basically a people service?

I thank the right hon. Lady for welcoming the reforms. She asks whether I can guarantee that the Ministry of Justice will not be run along ideological lines but when I look across the Chamber, I am really not sure that I can provide that guarantee; it may be up to the electorate. The right hon. Lady made a crucial point about the value of probation officers. We should do everything we can to value their work. As I mentioned in my statement, we intend to bring forward a statutory professional regulatory framework, part of which is about ensuring that the status of probation officers is properly valued because they have a crucial role in reducing crime.

I welcome the news that the Government have finally recognised what I and many others have been telling them for too long—that their decision to part privatise the probation service has failed. We know from reports that this outsourcing error has wasted nearly half a billion pounds, but can the Secretary of State tell me what assessment he has made of the human cost of privatisation, including those badly injured or even killed by people under probation supervision, such as my constituent Jacqueline Wileman?

Every individual case such as the one mentioned by the hon. Lady is a tragedy. We want to do everything we can to ensure that such cases are kept to a minimum, but there will always be individual decisions made by probation officers in the NPS or CRCs, and such tragedies can indeed occur. My focus is on ensuring that we have a sustainable system for the future, and what I have outlined to the House today provides exactly that.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the failed privatisation of the probation service and the waste of money, but I wondered if he could help me with something that I am intrigued about. Would he tell us what arrangements are being put in place to supervise the serial offender in the Cabinet who causes criminal damage in every Department that he is sent to? Is he being considered for early release?

I can see that the hon. Lady has been working hard on her question. In 2014, the probation system was by no means perfect. There was a need for more innovation, and to ensure that we dealt with some of the inefficiencies in the system. Five years on, there are elements of those reforms where we can see real benefits, but I accept that there are also elements that have not worked as intended. It is right that we look at reforming those elements and that we make changes where we need to, and that is precisely what I have done.

Good choice, Mr Speaker.

This situation is a disgrace: reoffending rates are up 22%; there has been a 47% increase in offenders who have been recalled to prison for breaching their licence; the service is rated inadequate in 80% of areas; and tens of thousands of offenders are being monitored by phone. Dame Glenys Stacey calls the whole thing “irredeemably flawed”. When are we going to know the impact that the Secretary of State for Transport has had on crime levels, which all our constituents are concerned about? This increase in crime, which he must have caused through this flawed probation service, is something that only a mafia don could be proud of. When are we going to assess his impact on crime?

To be candid, one of the problems that we have faced with the current system is that the case load of low and medium-risk offenders has been significantly lower than was anticipated when the system was set up. As a consequence, the CRCs have not had the work that they expected. We have therefore been in something of a vicious circle; as there has been less work, the CRCs have been under financial strain and have invested less, and that is why in some cases the service has not been what we need it to be. That is the context of this situation.

I have had terrible problems getting hold of local probation service data in Blaenau Gwent, so I hope the Secretary of State’s promise about improving digital management comes to something. I will certainly be watching out for that in the future. May I ask him whether a recreated or new probation model will be based on county boundaries, which would be much better than it being based on larger regions, as is the case at present? Probation services need to be closer to employers, local prisons and local police services.

We are working on the basis of 11 regions, and one of those regions—Wales—is a nation. I recognise that much could be done to ensure that the system is as localised as possible. I have been talking to police and crime commissioners to see if there is more that could be done that is relevant at their level. To the extent that we can devolve below those regions in an effective and efficient way, I would certainly be keen to do so.