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Probation Services: Outsourcing

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 21 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements will be made for the recall of those on licence who breach the conditions of that licence, in the event of the outsourcing of probation services.

My Lords, the Government are committed to tackling rates of reoffending, which remain too high. The Transforming Rehabilitation consultation, which closed on 22 February, sets out our proposals for revolutionising the way we rehabilitate offenders and we are currently considering the responses. We have proposed that providers will be obliged to report material breaches of community orders, suspended sentence requirements and licence conditions to the public sector, which will then advise the court or the Secretary of State. We are absolutely clear that relationships between the public sector and contracted providers are vital to make the reformed system work effectively.

I thank the Minister for that interesting Answer. As the Government are currently saying that the probation service would recall, but the private sector will supervise on a day-to-day basis, how would the service get the proper information to decide whether a recall to custody is justified? Would not such a system be open to legal challenge on the ground that the probation service was not involved in the day-to-day supervision and was therefore not in a position to recall?

My Lords, the public sector will continue to play a vital role in probation. This is about bringing together the voluntary community sector, the public sector and the private sector to ensure that rehabilitation works. While money has been spent on probation, a total of £800 million of the £3 billion budget, the results in terms of the effectiveness of probation have not been what we had hoped. I believe that this revolutionising agenda provides the right pathway for bringing together the three different sectors. However, the public sector will retain overall responsibility.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what the legal situation will be if a person who is recalled then challenges that on the basis that it was a private sector decision?

At the moment the situation is that all recalls which are received through the probation service are considered. I believe that the current figure is around 16,000 a year, of which some 5,000 sit within the prison population. The appeal processes are clear to prisoners. However, this is not the private sector taking responsibility away from the public sector or from the Government. Ultimately, the private and the public sector will work together on reoffending, as I have said. Moreover, we are seeing some great results. Peterborough provides a practical example of the three areas working together and showing positive results.

My Lords, is the Minister happy that the licence arrangements generally that we have in place in this country are effective and appropriate, in particular given the large number of recalls to prison from licence? This must add to the strain on prison places. Yesterday, I heard a criminologist from Finland describe the number of recalls in England and Wales as astonishing.

My noble friend raises a very important point. If we look at reoffending generally, 50% of offenders who serve a 12-month sentence still go on to reoffend. Currently, as I have already alluded to, the recall figure is in excess of 16,000, of whom 5,000 represent the 85,000 or so of the prison population, which is about 5%. No, it is not good enough, but we believe that the Transforming Rehabilitation programme that we have put forward, the consultation on which, as I said, closed on 22 February, will provide a practical way of addressing reoffending. It costs us, as an economy and as a society, very heavily.

Does the Minister appreciate that the recall of a prisoner is a quasi-judicial act, at the moment vested by law in the probation service? Henceforth, when this scheme operates, who will be exercising that power of recall, by what authority will it be exercised and what training will be given to that person to discharge that not uncomplicated task?

First and foremost, public safety will not be compromised in any sense. What we are putting forward in no way jeopardises that. As far as recall is concerned, once we have completed this particular consultation exercise, we will look at the concerns which have been raised. I will write to the noble Lord, detailing some of the specific proposals on that point.

Can the Minister assure me that no woman will be recalled to prison for a breach constituting mere failure to keep a probation appointment, sometimes for very good family or transport reasons?

The noble Baroness raises an important point. We need to ensure that when there are breaches of sentences, they are looked at effectively and in a structured way if recalls are issued. I have already alluded to two facts: circa 16,000 recalls are issued annually and, once they are assessed, the prison population currently represent only 5,000 of that figure. I believe that we have robust procedures in place to ensure that any recalls issued are reviewed and that the people who then are sent back to prison are sent back because they have reoffended. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree about the reoffending rates we see across the country. I was startled, in my own experience in local government, to see the level of youth offending, which was in excess of 70%. If you bear in mind that close to 50% of people go on to reoffend, we really need to take some drastic action to address this issue.

Is the Minister aware of the very low reoffending rate in cases such as the scheme operated by National Grid, where young offenders are trained to become very useful people? Does he know whether that scheme, or any similar schemes, operate with people who are on licence or is it only when people are completely finished?

Again, my noble friend raises a very important issue. I am aware of the scheme with National Grid, which addresses prisons and reoffending. To put this into context, when I visited Peterborough, I saw something very effective for prisoners coming in. If prisoners have committed the crime they have to serve that time, but it is not about leaving them at the prison gate. It is about identifying what skills and needs they have and then, by the time they leave prison, ensuring that they become productive, constructive members of society. That is what Transforming Rehabilitation is all about.

The noble Lord gave an interesting response to my noble friend Lady Corston but he did not actually answer the question. The question was specifically about the circumstances in which women might be recalled for relatively minor offences in situations where they might have been exercising their duty as a parent or carer. Will that be the case or not?

I fully understand and respect the sensitivity around the issue of female offending. Currently all probation trusts are required by NOMS Commissioning Intentions to make appropriate provision for women. I am also pleased to say that my honourable friend in another place, Helen Grant, the Minister who is looking at this issue, will be making an announcement in this regard. She has recently visited centres in Gloucester, Reading and London where this issue is being looked at sensitively. The announcements we will be making shortly as part of the consultation exercise will address many of the specific concerns that have been raised.