Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the probation service is facing fundamental changes, yet during the passage of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill through this House, there was very little chance to debate these changes in any depth. The central issue I wish to explore in this debate is how far, when these changes are made, can we maintain and even improve the quality of probation services for the rehabilitation of offenders?
That issue raises a number of questions. First, can we retain our existing probation officers within the new structure when the bulk of the service is in private ownership? Secondly, how do we maintain the standards, morale and ethos of the probation service? Thirdly, how can we maintain the high quality recruitment and training in the future? Fourthly, will the new structure deliver the promised new services we all want to see: the through-the-gate supervision, and supervision for offenders on release from short sentences? Fifthly, will the reorganisation genuinely lead to more diversity, more innovation, and better results or are we heading, as some fear, for low-cost uniformity, led by commercial organisations with bad records of failure which will be of no long-term benefit? Finally, will payment by results actually deliver results or will the targets be either too hard to reach to make them worth aiming for or insufficiently challenging so that they make no difference?
It might help if I set out my understanding of how the proposals stand now. On 1 April next year the probation service is to be split. The existing 35 probation trusts will be wound up, the new National Probation Service will be charged with looking after offenders classified as high risk, with providing advice to courts, with conducting the risk assessment of new clients and with handling cases of breach. They will have a clear responsibility for public protection. The NPS will look after 20% of the probation trusts’ current case load, while 21 new community rehabilitation companies will take over the remaining case load. It is intended that existing staff will be reassigned between the NPS and the CRCs.
Initially, each of the CRCs will be wholly owned by the Ministry of Justice. They will cover England and Wales split into areas and each will be charged with delivering the relevant orders of the court in its own area, including community payback, unpaid work, curfews and drug rehabilitation. The CRCs will generally be located in the same premises as the NPS and, initially at least, those will be the existing probation trust buildings.
Starting in late 2014, the intention is that the CRCs will be taken over by the successful bidders in the competition which is being organised. The bids will be judged on which provide the best package within what the department calls an affordability envelope. So there is a slightly uncomfortable compromise between competition on price, which risks reducing quality, and competition on quality. However, in this area, of course, an objective comparison of quality is very difficult because bidders are expected to propose a range of different ways of delivering the orders of the court.
In the first stage, following 1 April, the probation services will look to their clients and to the public much like the services provided by the existing probation trusts; the same staff doing much the same work in the same premises, though with some change in the allocation of work. However, after the new contracts are let, the shape of the probation services is going to be much more difficult to predict. The new through-the-gate resettlement and supervision following short sentences will only be implemented at this second stage, so the CRCs’ contractual obligations will then have to change. What other changes will there be in the obligations of the CRCs under their new ownership and will they vary from one CRC to the next?
These substantial changes take place against a background of considerable success for the probation trusts. Reoffending rates have been steadily falling for all offenders apart from those serving short prison sentences and they, to date, have had no contact with the probation service anyway. The trusts’ performance has generally been rated by the Ministry of Justice as good or excellent. The Merseyside Trust was last year the first public sector winner of the British Quality Foundation’s UK Excellence Award. All this has been achieved within a falling budget. It is therefore unsurprising that there is some bewilderment among the probation services as to why they need such reorganisation at all.
Against that background, I turn to my first question on the retention of existing probation officers. We currently have a highly professional, skilled and committed body of probation officers who are an asset of great value, impossible to price but once lost very difficult to replace. My concern is how far the new owners of the CRCs will in the medium and long term retain the staff they take over. Will they be required by their contracts to involve qualified probation officers in the delivery of their services?
My second question concerning the standards, morale and ethos of the probation service is closely linked. My concern is not for the new NPS. Indeed, as a national service, the NPS may develop more influence within the criminal justice system than could the individual probation trusts. However, how far will standards be safe under the umbrella of the new providers? Who are they likely to be? What mix will there be between commercial and voluntary sectors? What role will there be for mutuals? How will performance be monitored, and will that monitoring be effective?
My third question concerned recruitment and training. In relation to all these questions so far, one hopeful development is the proposed establishment by the Probation Association and the Probation Chiefs Association, with government approval, of an institute to be known as the “Probation Institute”. Such an institute could offer accreditation of courses and qualifications. It could maintain a register of qualified probation officers, and could ultimately take on the role of monitoring and enforcing professional performance standards. That would assist providers when recruiting, and probation officers when seeking new employment. The institute could also act as an information exchange on innovation and best practice and would be a valuable resource if it did so. The proposed institute might one day apply for charter status, and would establish probation officers as a strong and independent profession. In a world of diverse new providers, this would be a significant benefit.
My fourth question concerned the delivery of the new services. How confident are the Government that satisfactory bidders will commit to supplying through-the-gate resettlement and the extra supervision, within the same overall price package as we pay for current services? If the bidders do not emerge, the CRCs will stay with the Ministry of Justice and the reorganisation will have failed to achieve its object.
My fifth question was on diversity of provision. Will we genuinely secure more voluntary sector involvement—more local partnerships between smaller local organisations and the main contractors? Will we secure the special arrangements we need and which have been promised for women and young offenders? Finally, will payment by results lead to improved reoffending rates? Was the Social Market Foundation right or wrong to conclude, as it did in its report this summer, that the extra payments would not make it worth while for providers to pay the extra money to improve the service? Will the payment by results provisions affect the prospect of more partnerships, even if main contractors cannot pass on the risk—as they should not be able to do—to their smaller providers?
I am not opposed to these reforms in principle. If they go well, they could lead to more diversity, to more imaginative and effective rehabilitation, to the provision of the new services, to lower reoffending rates, and to the prospect of fewer people in prison, with improved lives and substantial savings of public funds. However, I am concerned that there are many pitfalls on the road to these desirable outcomes. Perhaps some further time might be desirable for the transfer to private ownership. I look forward to hearing other contributions to this debate and to the response from my noble friend the Minister.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames, deserves to be congratulated, not only on having secured the debate this evening but on the masterful way in which he introduced the subject. I found myself in great sympathy with the points he made.
I confess to the House that I feel very sad. If I was asked to pick an exemplary area of effective public service in British social history, I would pick the probation service. It has dedicated people of quality; people of education, training and practical experience. They do not just run a system or prove themselves as efficient in economic terms, but they have a mission to relate to the individuals, the young men, women and children —and not only young—who are their responsibility, and to work with them as individuals, trying to enable them to become productive. Rehabilitation is a sort of artificial word—it does not get to the human centre of all this. They enable these people to become constructive members of society, to feel that they belong to society, and to grow in confidence. I see that all that is in jeopardy because of a preoccupation with change—as far as I can see, almost for the sake of change.
Look at what has happened in recent years. We have seen reoffending down and the 35 probation trusts in England and Wales have been described as being good or exceptional. Why change a situation that is going so well? We have also seen—this is crucial—that reoffending has been coming down. The latest set of statistics published by the Ministry of Justice shows that for everyone under probation supervision, the probation service will reduce reoffending by 5%. The fall in reoffending has been even higher: when the figures for those serving community sentences are separated from those released from custody, there has been a 6% reduction for those serving community sentences. This is positive; it is not dramatic but is steady progress, which matters in this area. It is about working with people as people, not dramatic schemes against artificial targets.
I am sure that all of us commend the work of the Howard League. I was very struck by a paper it prepared for this debate which posed certain questions that we ought to take very seriously. The league says that in the context of this being a huge change to our justice system:
“Risk is key to the Transforming Rehabilitation proposals—who will supervise people under sentence will be determined by their risk level, with high risk cases remaining in the public sector and all low and medium risk cases (the vast majority) being transferred to private providers. Despite the central importance of risk levels to the proposals a risk assessment … is yet to be published, or possibly even developed. Furthermore”—
and the noble Lord referred to this—
“probation officers are currently being asked whether they would prefer to stay in the public sector or move to one of the 21 ‘Crime reduction companies’ … but they are not being provided with any information with which to make this decision. Probation officers do not know who their employers will be … what they will carry out or what the terms and conditions … will be. It is unacceptable to put forward radical plans that are central to public safety with so little detail about how it will work and how it will affect the people involved”.
I have another concern which I will share with the House. I have spent a great deal of my life in the voluntary sector. I was a director of Oxfam, which is quite a significant organisation. I am sure that if these proposals go ahead, a lot of voluntary organisations will have a great contribution to make. They will bring a great deal of sensitivity and commitment. However, I am anxious. Why? The real centre of purpose in the voluntary sector should be experimentation. It should be about becoming a catalyst for society as a whole, about vision and new approaches. Increasingly, the voluntary sector is being asked to become an extension of the public sector—subcontracting to get the work done more cheaply than it would be done under existing arrangements is usually a governing factor. That is the objective; rather like privatisation, we shall have to wait and see whether it will work out like that.
I am concerned that all this may be affecting the historical culture and ethos of the voluntary sector. It may be becoming a subcontracting culture as distinct from an innovative, imaginative, visionary, sensitive, dynamic purpose-challenging society with new experiences. I think of a very practical example. I have referred to my experience at Oxfam and other organisations in the voluntary sector, and I had for nine years the joy of being national president of YMCA England and Wales. I became particularly struck by the work the YMCA was doing with young offenders. I remember going to a young offender institution where it had won a contract to work. This, of course, was under the previous Government; I am not disguising that reality—it is a fact. The contract was to get young people into jobs—into work. It was judged by the Home Office in terms of how successful it was in getting those results against targets. What the team was discovering, as sensitive, imaginative people, was that some of those with whom it worked were not ready to go into a job straight away. They needed a lot more support and preparation for making a success of their life. To get them into a job straight away might be a recipe for disaster.
The YMCA therefore began to do more work on this area because it thought that it was its responsibility. It was told in no uncertain terms to stop doing that because, if it did not meet the targets on getting people into jobs, it would lose the contract to somebody else. This is the sort of problem I see ahead. These are the practical problems of the front line. I would like to hear much more reassurance from the Government on this.
I finish as I started: I think it is a word that can be used too loosely, but I genuinely feel we are at a tragic stage. We are about to tear up and remove something with a tremendous sense of purpose, of loyalty and of contribution to society, but above all of contribution to the individuals with whom they are working, for a system unproven with so many questions still unresolved. I do not understand why we are making this leap into something which is far from proven as a sensible way forward.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity this debate gives us to look at the work of the probation service today and examine its value in the context of the changes the Government want to make, the implications for its future and, equally important, the future of its clients.
I declare an interest that I was a patron of the Probation Boards Association in 2005, when I joined the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and I have had connections with the service for many years.
Since its origins more than 100 years ago, the probation service has developed into the national provision for people in trouble with the law at the interface between offenders and the courts, prison, community provision and the public. It represents the bedrock of the system by which we manage offenders in this country in conjunction with the myriad agencies—statutory, voluntary and private—which work to keep our society safe. It is a highly professional service with a hinterland of skills, knowledge and experience which is second to none and on which we all depend when dealing with offender management.
All the performance indicators show that the service is doing well. The MoJ rating system shows that targets have been reached with performance ratings of “good” or “excellent”, and just two years ago the service became the first public sector organisation to be awarded the British Quality Foundation’s Gold Medal for Excellence in recognition of
“outstanding and continued commitment to sustained excellence over a number of years”,
an achievement of which they—and we—should be proud.
We know that the cost of the service is considerable, as one would expect of a national public service. Indeed, the MoJ budget is second only to the costs of the Prison Service, and cuts are inevitably constantly sought by the Government, particularly in these times of recession. Savings of 20% have been found between 2008-9 and 2012-13, while the budget also fell by 19%, but costs are a persistent issue as they are in all the social services. What also matters, however, is the quality and professionalism of the service, which is dealing, in the community, with some of the most damaged, difficult, vulnerable and often dangerous members of our society. This requires skill and experience that comes only with time. It also depends on relationships with the police and on “integrated offender management” with a host of other colleagues in the social services world, health, education, employment and so on.
It is worth reminding the House that, in the recent past, prison numbers have been dropping. Last year there was a 5% decrease in those being sentenced on the year before, and the prison population itself fell in the past 12 months for the first time since 1999. Recorded levels of crime are at their lowest for 30 years, and youth crime is down 47%. This illustrates the effectiveness and significance of probation in helping to keep people out of prison, by managing them in the community, where they are less likely to reoffend, at a fraction of the cost of imprisonment. Where the figures go the other way relates to those 50,000 minor, persistent offenders, of whom 57% reoffend, serving a year or less in prison. Until now this group has never had any statutory probation support; hence the high reoffending rate which the Minister now wants to include.
In the light of the probation service’s performance and background, it beggars belief that the Minister, Chris Grayling, should be contemplating handing over 80% of the probation service’s work to an almost untried and untested system of payment by results, which is still being assessed, to be administered by 21 crime reduction companies (CRCs) with no earthly idea of what the outcomes are likely to be. Probation officers will still have a guaranteed job for the first year up to 1 April 2015, when the scheme goes live, when their jobs will be “sold to the market”. There is no indication of what the workforce will consist of, except possibly most of those redundant probation officers. Their task will be to manage the 150,000 offenders that probation currently manages in the community each year—excluding the high-risk offenders —and at the same time to provide a year’s support to the 50,000 additional group of low-level offenders that the Minister now wants to be supervised for the first time. It is of course an admirable aim to have additional support for this group, and it could be of great benefit to offenders and public alike, but only if there is the skilled supervision available in appropriate numbers. The Minister’s solution of handing over the whole task to the new private sector, divided into 21 community rehabilitation companies, in contract package areas and overseen by six divisional heads, is what is being announced. Beyond this there is absolutely no indication where the staff on the ground are going to come from, who they will be, let alone what experience and skill sets these newcomers will have. I understand that this information comes under the heading of “commercial confidentiality”.
We know, however, that the 20% of current probation service staff who will be left will be required to manage all the high-risk, most challenging offenders, who will be assigned to them. Here their skills are recognised. This is very important and welcome. They will also have responsibility for bringing back all breach cases to the courts for review and sentence.
Risk management is part of probation’s professional work. It is a delicate skill, and the assessment and allocation of risk is inevitably subject to change. Of course, with professional help, people come off the risk register, but they can also fluctuate, which raises the question of whether each time offenders become low risk they will be transferred to a CRC and will then have to be reassigned again if circumstances change once more—as well they might. This is another “detail” of some significance, because continuity of offender management, as anybody in the business knows, is of extreme importance. However, how these issues will be expected to be dealt with remains unclear—as does whether people will be shifted between CRCs and probation depending on their assessed level of risk. What is clear is that the division of management between low and medium-risk, and high-risk, offenders means that the service will inevitably be fragmented, thus compromising accountability and effective community support. 1 would be grateful for the Minister’s comments on this.
The additional cohort of 50,000 offenders will be required to remain on supervision for a whole year, regardless of the length of the short sentence served or the nature of the offence. For example, it could be a two or three-month sentence for a driving offence. How appropriate is a year’s supervision for that?
Apart from issues of staff training and experience, there are considerable risks in the management of a whole year’s supervision. Offenders and professionals are likely to find a year disproportionate, which will make compliance very difficult and almost inevitably will increase the risk of breach by this group.
It is estimated by the Government that around 13,000 offenders each year will be recalled or will breach their conditions and end up in prison again, because for many a year is inappropriate and too long. It is not clear how the CRCs will manage this potentially enormous addition to their workload, and it will increase the prison population by an estimated 600 people. This in turn will impact on current prison management, which is simultaneously dealing with unprecedented cuts on the one hand and the reorganisation of resettlement prisons on the other. Resettlement is another big issue because it has already resulted, inevitably, in the mixing of young people, who are often vulnerable, with adults. This is highly undesirable and destabilising to the normal allocation of prisoners, which is an important part of prison life. It has already led to increased violence and drug use in HMP/YOI Portland, as reported by the IMB, and to a 50% increase in self-harm among young people within a year of mixing with adult prisoners.
I regret that the Government have not wanted to take more time and have not tried out the ideas in some pilot areas, for example. Instead, everyone in the service is now working to ever-tighter deadlines as the goal posts shift. Probation trust chairs are finding the time for transition impossibly short to plan for proper delivery of services, which will be damaging to both future performance and public protection.
I am sorry; I will wind up. I have had letters from professionals who are really worried about this. There is a blank wall of information about how they are to plan and budget beyond next April.
It is surely important to get this right and to reach greater levels of clarity. It is too big a project to be allowed to fail, when excellence should be the goal. The focus of our exercise should be the most vulnerable and difficult in our community.
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap. I will make one central point and ask the Minister two questions.
When we were dealing with the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, I visited a number of very senior professionals in the probation service. From a management point of view, they made one central point to me. It is a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, made, but I think that it is worth expanding on it after what they said to me. Currently, the probation trusts arrange their management in multi-expert groups of different levels of experience and expertise. The reason is that they can provide continuity of access to, and supervision of, the offenders they are now looking after. The point that was made very forcefully to me by senior probation trust managers was that they experience problems when offenders move between different institutions. Whether the move is from prison into the community or from one place in the community to a different address that is under the supervision of a different probation trust, there is always a dropout of people breaching conditions or not maintaining contact with probation officers.
The point that was made to me—which the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, made—is that built into the proposed new system is the certainty that there will be more changes between institutions. You will be moving from the National Probation Service, which will make the initial assessment, to a private provider that will then run the supervision for whatever the period is. Then, if there is a breach or a change in circumstances—for example, if the offender starts taking drugs again—they will go back to the National Probation Service for a reassessment. Perhaps there will be a reassignment or perhaps they will go back to court. The point that the managers made to me was that with every transfer you get dropout, which builds inefficiency into the system. Therefore, my first question to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is: has this point been addressed in the contracts that are being bid for? It is the central point that was made to me by senior probation trust managers.
My second question is about the Through the Gates pilots that I understand are currently being run. When will the results of these pilots be available? From what I have heard in unofficial gossip, if one may put it like that, a number of these pilots have been inadequately resourced and inadequately managed. Therefore, the results may be worse than the Government had hoped for. If this is the case, it would be a shame, because I for one think that the model of providing through-the-gate provision, perhaps with somebody who has experience of coming out of prison helping with supervision, is a good one. However, it needs to be properly supported and funded for it to work.
I close by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Marks, for tabling this debate. It is an important one. I cannot resist saying to both noble Lords opposite that there were plenty of opportunities to vote against the provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill, and I am only sorry that they did not take advantage of them.
My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships would wish to join me in wishing the Minister a happy Eid. I daresay that it would be happier if he did not have to take his place in the Chamber tonight and answer for the Government in this debate.
It is customary to thank the Member who secured a debate of this kind, and I do so willingly. The noble Lord, Lord Marks, followed me to my Oxford college some eight years after I graduated. Unfortunately, as my noble friend has pointed out, he did not follow me into the Lobbies when we debated the future of the probation service and voted on the amendments to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill tabled and moved by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who cannot be in his place tonight, and by me. Had we not taken that step this would have been the first time that the House had an opportunity to discuss the massive changes that the Government seek to impose on a crucial and, as we have heard, high-performing public service. Members will recall that the Bill contained no reference to probation, and that the leaked risk assessment on the Bill disgracefully declared it had been,
“kept slim to minimise the dependence of the reforms on the passing of the legislation”.
Your Lordships’ House passed a crucial amendment to the Bill requiring proposals to reorganise the probation service to be subject to parliamentary approval. The Government have yet to indicate even when the Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Commons. Perhaps the Minister could enlighten us as to when that is likely to occur. In the mean time, the Government have displayed their contempt for the views of this House by embarking on yet another bout of pre-emption, or as I have described it in respect of other matters, pre-legislative implementation of the kind roundly criticised by the Constitution Committee, by pressing ahead with arrangements to dismember the service and put 70% of its work out to contract, for which incidentally the existing service will not be allowed to tender. OJEC procedures have been initiated and a strange document entitled, Target Operating Manual—its initials presumably being derived from the noble Lord, Lord McNally—has been published.
This document sets out a complex structure analogous to the confusing and expensive shambles that was imposed on the National Health Service. Local probation trusts disappear to be replaced by a national service responsible for high-risk offenders while private companies supervise medium and low-risk offenders, including those released after serving sentences of 12 months or less. Yet the paper continues to be vague about the system of payment by results saying only that,
“a proportion of their payment will be at risk and dependent on their performance”,
while failing to establish the basis on which that will be measured, or indeed what proportion might be involved.
There are serious concerns about the largely undefined categories of risk between which some 25% to 30% of offenders move. The National Probation Service is supposed to assume responsibility for those moving from the lower categories to high risk. The document states this will follow the deployment of an “actuarial tool” combined with a “clinical judgment of risk”. Can the Minister explain what those terms actually mean? It goes on to establish a hierarchy of officers—a responsible officer, a supervising officer and a supervisor, all with different roles, piling complexity upon confusion and fragmentation. The model refers to the involvement of police and crime commissioners in the new arrangements, but not local authorities, clinical commissioning groups or NHS England, which has responsibility for commissioning primary care and mental health services, both highly relevant to the issue.
There will be £450 million worth of contracts offered to, among others, the likes of Group 4 and Serco, who gave us the Olympics fiasco, the tagging scandal, Oakwood prison and, as we have heard in the past few days, the transport to prison of male and female prisoners in the same van—but then this is the Secretary of State responsible for the lamentable failure of the Work Programme. No doubt he would be happy to see such organisations take over the entire system from policing to the court service, and from probation to prisons. As Caliban might have said:
“Oh brave new world that has such providers in it”.
The Government claim that the programmes will involve no extra expenditure despite estimating that it will result in some 200,000 coming under its auspices, 60,000 of whom are likely to be recalled into custody and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, pointed out, on the Government’s own figures 13,000 will receive short sentences as a result of the reforms who would not otherwise have done so. What is the basis for this improbable assertion in relation to overall costs? Payment by results has not been piloted—or at least not properly piloted, since the Government terminated the relevant pilots prematurely. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, admitted in debate on Report that formal evaluations were not available because the pilots were discontinued, but claimed that the Government had,
“learnt from the process of designing the pilots”—
I emphasise the word “designing” and were,
“applying that learning process to the design of the new system”.—[Official Report, 25/6/13; col.681.]
Can the Minister tell us precisely what was learnt from the process of designing, but also, importantly, how the Government propose to implement the design that emerged from the short-lived pilots? For that matter can he explain the logic of including in the new regime offenders who may have served as little as one day of a custodial sentence? I repeat some of the questions that I raised on Report, to which no answer was given. In relation to payment by results, what performance indicators will be used to measure service delivery? How will the Ministry of Justice decide to deduct—and on what basis—a proportion of the fee for underperformance? What weight will be given to the nature of any reoffending? Will a motoring offence count the same as a burglary or crime of violence? How long is the period in which reoffending occurs to be measured? The Minister’s letter on the subject suggested 12 months—surely too short.
What of the questions raised by the Chief Inspector of Probation, which also went unanswered in the debate? Was she right to suggest that,
“only a small part of the contract price can be genuinely dependent on a reoffending measure”,
“victim contact services should remain within the public sector probation service”?
What does the Minister say to her charge that the,
“current proposals for the management of risk cannot be judged as workable”?
Have they been modified; if so how, and with whom have they been discussed?
How do the Government respond to the chief inspector’s concerns that more full pre-sentence reports will be needed where cases are to be referred to contractors, that small local voluntary organisations will be squeezed out once they have been discarded as bid candy, and that national commissioning,
“could be at the expense of the local perspective and the good working relations at the moment between probation trusts and local partners”?
Does the Minister stand by the airy dismissal of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, of the leaked risk assessment which estimates a 51% to 80% risk that predicted cost savings will not be met? Finally, what is the Minister’s estimate of the number of probation officers who will lose their jobs as 70% of their work is transferred? Does he agree that the figure of 18,000 which has been mentioned is about right? If staff do transfer to contractors, will TUPE provisions apply?
The Government’s objective—the reduction of reoffending—is right. Their proposals, however, are complex, confusing, uncosted and potentially risky. They should be properly piloted with probation trusts being allowed to tender for the work for which they have a deservedly high reputation, as we have heard tonight. I thank all those who have contributed to this debate. If the Government railroad through their ill thought-out plans—in a sort of HS2 of the criminal justice world—it will be because they put ideology before criminology in an area where public safety should be paramount.
My Lords, first, I return the greeting from the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who wished me a happy Eid. It is traditional to say khair mubarak to all. Indeed, my Eid celebrations are, of course, reaching a culmination in being with your Lordships this evening.
I take this opportunity to thank my noble friend Lord Marks for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important subject. I know that both he and my noble friend Lady Linklater recently discussed the reforms with senior officials responsible for the rehabilitation programme, and I am grateful for their continued interest in the reforms. I also take this opportunity to thank all other noble Lords who have contributed, including the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Beecham. I was somewhat surprised when I saw the initial list and the omission of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby. I am glad that he resumed his place here. His thoughtful contributions are always welcome to a debate of this importance. The debate is of course a timely opportunity for your Lordships to reflect again on the Government’s reforms.
On 19 September, we published details of how the new model for supervision of offenders will work, alongside the launch of the competition to find future providers of rehabilitation services. Questions have been raised, and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked the obvious question of “why?”. The Government’s position is that these reforms are vital if we are to break the depressing cycle of reoffending. At the moment, nearly half of all offenders released from our prisons offend again within a year. I will look at a couple of reoffending figures—my noble friend Lady Linklater referred to one of them—almost 60% of prisoners released from under 12 months of custody go on to reoffend. That is a statistic that we cannot ignore. Equally, there is the cost of reoffending. The National Audit Office, back in 2010, estimated that the crimes committed by recent ex-prisoners cost anything between £9.5 billion and £13 billion to the economy. Notwithstanding some of the information about the probation service and its success, which I will come to in a moment or two, these provide valid reasons why it is important we also address the issue of reoffending, particularly among those serving sentences of under a year, which has not yet been addressed.
Legislating to provide that virtually all offenders released from custody will be subject to supervision is just one important aspect and benefit of our overall package of Transforming Rehabilitation reforms. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked why we need to change when probation trusts are performing so well. Under the current system, the most prolific group of reoffenders are those released form short custodial sentences. They receive no statutory rehabilitation support. Trusts currently do not have the opportunity to work with them, and we believe that our reforms will go towards addressing that particular issue. We need to stop offenders passing through the system again and again, creating more victims and damaging communities, and we need to have a system that is sustainable given our current financial constraints. That is, in essence, what is behind our reforms.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, mentioned Through the Gate. In response, I will start with the impact of the reforms. First, there is the support that prisoners will get through the gate from custody into the community. This is an important reform. Providers will offer a resettlement service for all offenders in custody before their release. That may include support in finding accommodation, family support, mentoring and financial advice. I share the sentiment expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. We want to ensure that every citizen of this country, if they commit a crime, is given an opportunity to reform but also to then become a productive citizen and contribute to the economy of our country. The services in custody will be underpinned by changes to the way the prison estate is organised. Through new resettlement prisons, in most cases, the same offender manager will work with offenders in custody and continue their rehabilitation work in the community. That continuity is very important.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, talked about particular pilots and issues that have been raised about them. I suggest that we could have a further discussion, either through a meeting, or by correspondence, which I will of course share with other noble Lords.
I turn to the voluntary sector. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised this particularly important point. Its expertise is part and parcel of what we are seeking to integrate into the reforms. We are creating a much greater level of opportunity for voluntary and community sector organisations to play a role in rehabilitating offenders. I do not quite share the sentiment that they are there just for experimentation—they are there for their expertise. They are often best placed to tackle the issues that lead offenders back to crime, whether that is substance misuse, homelessness or a lack of training and education. They are often best placed to work with particular groups with complex needs; for example, many female offenders. I have seen during visits to different prisons—I have often cited Peterborough prison —where voluntary organisations such as the St Giles Trust play a vital role in the rehabilitation of prisoners.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the market is not simply cornered by the big players. In July, the Ministry of Justice awarded £150,000 to ACEVO to deliver a series of skills and information workshops aimed at supporting the voluntary sector and mutuals to compete for contracts and deliver services to cut reoffending. As part of the rehabilitation competition, we are also running a registration process for smaller providers in order to maximise, as far as possible, the opportunities for them to be involved. We want to draw on the best services that can be offered by practitioners across the public, private and voluntary sectors. I say that to underline the driving force behind these reforms. They are about improving the support we give to offenders to turn away from crime. We will be judging potential bidders on the quality of the service they offer, not just on price.
I turn to probation professionals and staff. All noble Lords, I believe, referred to this, including my noble friend Lord Marks in his opening remarks. The Government’s position remains that we cannot deliver these improvements unless we retain the skills and expertise of probation professionals as we move into the new system. Their excellence is not something to be ignored. I have the very greatest respect and admiration for the work that our probation officers do and am sure that the sentiment echoes across the Chamber. They play a fundamental role in protecting the public and helping offenders reintegrate into society. We do not want to lose their expertise. That is why the national framework for the transfer of staff to the new system gives an absolute commitment to fair processes and protection for staff within the system, including: a guarantee of employment for all probation staff employed by a probation trust on 31 March 2014, in either the appropriate community rehabilitation company or the National Probation Service; protection of current terms and conditions at the point of transfer; and no compulsory redundancies.
My noble friend Lady Linklater talked about 20% of probation staff going to the NPS. The proportion of staff who will actually move to the National Probation Service, or community rehabilitation companies, is still being finalised. There is certainly no set target of 20%. It will be the proportion needed to effectively manage the appropriate service. Alongside that, we will place contractual requirements on community rehabilitation companies to have and maintain a workforce with appropriate levels of training and competence throughout the life of their contracts.
I turn to some of the other questions. The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked about the disruption caused by offenders moving. There will be 21 CRCs, which will cover larger areas. The Bill also makes sure that offenders subject to community orders do not move residence where such a move will hinder the offender’s rehabilitation. That is a very important point.
My noble friend Lord Marks also mentioned the idea of some kind of chartered institute of probation officers. I assure all noble Lords that this is an idea that the Government are taking forward and looking at seriously. We are working with interested parties across the board to develop a proposal for a Probation Institute that would promote the development of innovation and the sharing of good practice in the new system.
Payment by results and performance management were mentioned by several noble Lords. Community rehabilitation companies will be incentivised, through payment by results, to strive to reduce reoffending. In May this year, we published a detailed “straw man” proposal for the payment mechanism. We want to ensure that providers are incentivised to work with all offenders, including the most prolific, and have proposed important safeguards. We continue to test and refine this particular model. We will also put in place a clear performance framework to ensure that community rehabilitation companies meet the standards required of them in managing their cases and delivering the sentences of the courts. The system will be regulated through a combination of robust contract management, audit and independent inspections by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation.
I turn to risk and public protection, which were raised by the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Beecham, and by my noble friend Lady Linklater. Public protection is absolutely at the heart of these reforms, and the National Probation Service will have a crucial role to play in this. It will risk assess every offender at the outset and retain the management of offenders who pose a high risk of serious harm to the public and who have committed more serious offences. Community rehabilitation companies will be contractually obliged to work with the National Probation Service to manage those offenders at risk of causing serious harm. Any offender whose risk level escalates to “high” during their sentence will be transferred back to the National Probation Service.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, asked various questions about the ultimate responsibility for managing the risk of harm posed by offenders. The public sector has overall responsibility for public protection and the MoJ will ensure the effective management of risk of serious harms.
I draw noble Lords’ attention to the much greater influence the National Probation Service will give probation within government. The directors of probation for England and for Wales will both sit on the NOMS board and will be able to advise Ministers directly on policy and operational matters. That is a significant improvement on the current system, in which probation is very much the junior partner to the Prison Service.
My noble friend Lady Linklater talked about transfer from the National Probation Service back to the CRC if the risk decreases. This will not happen: if an offender is transferred to the NPS they will remain with the NPS for the duration of their supervision.
The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said that continuity of management and supervision is essential. He comes at this subject with great expertise and I agree with him. Each offender will continue to be managed by the same organisation—NPS or CRC—unless his or her risk escalates to high. For someone managed by the CRC, the NPS will have a role in dealing with a breach and in the risk assessment at the outset but the offender manager itself will not change.
To conclude, as I said at the start of my speech, we have now launched the competition to find providers of rehabilitation services. The Ministry of Justice is working closely with probation trusts to prepare for the implementation. We have also published detailed plans of how we see the new system working and we continue to seek views on key aspects such as the payment mechanism. I welcome the opportunity that this debate has given the House to discuss these details. I assure all noble Lords that the Government are committed to continuing to engage with noble Lords in these reforms as they progress.
I will end with what is at stake here: the extension of support and supervision through the gate for short-sentence offenders and the possibility of a sustained reduction in reoffending rates. In respect of what has been said today, I know that that is a global aim shared by all noble Lords across the House. These reforms will allow us to do just that and will bring significant benefits, most importantly, for both victims and communities.