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Probation Service

Volume 747: debated on Thursday 18 July 2013

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why they have halted the triennial review of probation trusts in the face of a House of Lords amendment to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill which would require the approval of both Houses to any changes to the probation service, and which the House of Commons has yet to consider.

My Lords, the triennial review of probation trusts has been formally closed, because as part of the development of the Transforming Rehabilitation strategy, the Ministry of Justice conducted a detailed options assessment of how we could organise the public sector probation service in the most efficient manner to discharge its new responsibilities as detailed in the strategy. This is in line with the requirement of the triennial review to look at the function and form of a non-departmental public body and to consider the best delivery model.

My Lords, yesterday’s Written Ministerial Statement, expressing the Government’s determination to press on with the abolition of probation trusts and make other changes to the probation service, is another example of the Government pre-empting the parliamentary process, recently criticised by your Lordships’ Constitution Committee. Does this not constitute contempt for the expressed opinion of this House and raise the question of why we are here at all?

I cannot agree with the noble Lord. Your Lordships’ House has discussed a particular Bill, and as he has pointed out, amendments have been made. There will be further parliamentary debate on these issues as the Bill moves through the Commons after the Recess. At the current time, in line with current powers as set out in the Offender Management Act 2007, any ultimate dissolution of probation trusts will be subject to the negative resolution procedure.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, during the passage of the Bill many questions were asked about the way in which it was to be processed and how the structures needed to process it would be produced. Many of those questions remain unanswered, particularly as regards the future of the probation service and how individuals joining that service will have a career which is properly structured to enable them to gain the expertise to carry out their tasks. Last week, on the same day that it was announced that G4S and Serco had performed tremendously badly in relation to the tagging contracts, which had been poorly overseen by the Ministry of Justice, I attended a conference at which probation service staff told me how little they knew about the plans being made for them. What this House is deeply concerned about is that a major change to the protection of the public and the community is being proposed at vast speed without us knowing the details. When will we be told exactly what these details are if, indeed, they have been worked out?

As regards G4S and Serco, I assure your Lordships’ House that that is something which the Government are taking very seriously. An internal audit has been initiated by the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State, the outcome of which will be with us around the autumn. I can reassure your Lordships that no further contracts will be awarded to either company until we have the findings of that audit and they are satisfactory in terms of awarding future contracts. As regards the probation trusts, the noble Lord comes to this matter with great expertise and is fully aware that the Government are proposing not to abolish the disparate probation trusts up and down the country but to create a new national probation trust and open up the market to the private and voluntary sectors to enable experts to come together to address the issue of probation, which, I am sure all noble Lords agree, costs too much and has been inefficient for far too long.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that these changes seem to be very controversial and therefore full discussion of them in Parliament is vital, as my noble friend Lord Beecham pointed out? Does he also accept that there is great fear that, as a result of these changes, the service will become less professional and that therefore public safety will be at risk? It seems that some excellent probation services, such as the one in Northumbria, are going to be reorganised when they are working very successfully.

On the noble Baroness’s first point, Parliament is sovereign and your Lordships’ House has had a very detailed discussion on this issue. Indeed, various amendments were tabled on the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and were passed to the other place. I cannot agree with the noble Baroness’s second assertion. As I have said in a previous answer, I believe that the proposed reforms are about creating a national probation trust that brings together the best expertise. The expertise of existing staff will be taken up in the new probation service. Indeed, private providers will look to recruit staff from the current probation service. So I do think that there is perhaps an alarmist attitude that is not really necessary.

My Lords, the newly constructed probation service plans to operate at about 20% of current capacity and deal with very specialised groups. Meanwhile, the Government plan to give subsequent support in the community to 50,000 or so short-term prisoners. The only body with the skill and the experience to deal with this kind of thing is the probation service, which dates back 100 years. What is the rationale for destroying a probation service that is greatly admired, loved and respected the length and breadth of the land in favour of completely unknown, inexperienced and unhelpful private sector providers whose reputation is rock bottom?

While I accept that there are many positives in the existing probation service, I cannot agree with my noble friend that the Government are seeking to destroy it. I reiterate that the initiative will bring together the best of what is available in the public sector, the private sector, the voluntary sector and, indeed, the market as a whole. We need to acknowledge that. Why are we doing it? The MoJ currently spends £3 billion on prisons, of which £800 million is on probation. The reoffending figures show that 57.6% of prisoners sentenced to 12 months or less go on to reoffend on release. That, frankly, is not good enough. We need to address the issues. Of course, we learn from history but we plan for the future.

Does the Minister agree that we are indebted to members of the probation trusts for all they contribute to the well-being of our society? That being so, what are the Government doing to ensure that, as they embark on a massive change, those who are going to be affected by that change will be engaged in it, will understand it and be helped to come to terms with the change in a way that makes sure that we continue to value their contribution?

I agree with the noble Lord that the country owes a huge debt to people such as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who brings great expertise to the subject. I have fully acknowledged that in debates on the Bill and again today. We need to harness that expertise and ensure that the probation service learns from the lessons of history but is also fit for purpose in the future. We pay tribute to the people who work terrifically hard up and down the country to ensure that the people we are there to help—the prisoners—are helped to become productive citizens when they come out after serving their sentences. I am sure all noble Lords will agree that that should be our ultimate aim.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the Government’s intention, the perception is that there is an ideological commitment to downgrade public service and to refuse to recognise the priceless value of commitment and experience which exists in so many of our public services? The probation service has been exemplary in that respect. As so much of the community is to be involved if the Government’s hare-brained scheme is to succeed, is it not all the more imperative to make sure there is no further impression that, whatever may come, the Government are determined to drive through their ideological objectives?

It is certainly true that the Government believe in ensuring that in all projects—in this case it is probation—we harness all expertise. If that expertise is in the public sector we will harness it; if it is in the private sector we will also harness that; if it is in the voluntary sector we will harness it. I can assure noble Lords that the proposals will ensure that the number of offenders who go through rehabilitation is increased—as my noble friend Lady Linklater acknowledged, an additional 50,000. They will increase the number of providers that are part of through-the-prison-gate projects which combine the expertise of the public, private and voluntary sectors. Finally, they will create a new, public sector body, the probation service nationally, the ultimate aim of which is to protect the public.