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Volume 759: debated on Thursday 12 February 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether any emerging risks to the programme to transform the delivery of probation services have been reported to Ministers, and what action is being taken to mitigate any such risks.

My Lords, on 1 February, new providers began delivering probation services for low and medium-risk offenders, working alongside the National Probation Service. We conducted comprehensive testing at each key stage of the reforms, reporting and managing risks as appropriate and proceeding to the next stage only when we considered it safe. With the new system established, the National Offender Management Service is providing robust oversight and management of providers to ensure that the public are kept safe.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. When I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, I used to tell Ministers that they could accept either observed facts from me or unobserved fudge from officials, but that improvements could follow only on facts. Since the Secretary of State denied parliamentary approval of the rushed Transforming Rehabilitation timetable, it has slipped. Among many other problems, community rehabilitation companies have been given only a bare five weeks to mobilise when they say that they need six months, and community probation service officers, for example, are having to perform tasks with high-risk offenders for which they are not qualified. Clearly, all is not well. Will the Minister please tell the House when the Government will give the public the facts rather than fudge about the delivery of probation services?

My Lords, I do not accept the characterisation given by the noble Lord. The suggestion that Parliament has not had the opportunity to consider this is not borne out by the fact that there were 50 hours of debate in Parliament, including debates on the Bill and a Westminster Hall debate. We have given information to Parliament and the public at every stage of the process, placing key documents in the Libraries of both Houses, including draft contracts, the staff transfer scheme and details of successful bidders. The matter has also been considered by the Justice Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. I also do not accept the noble Lord’s characterisation that there are problems. The issue has been carefully monitored. Of course, there may be some difficulties, and we are happy to hear any representations from anybody about how we can respond to these.

My Lords, it is understood that in the course of court hearings over a challenge to the legality of the Government’s proceeding with the contracts for the 21 community rehabilitation companies, a number of concerns were raised. These related to problems with IT, the management of sensitive victim information, lost records of offender contacts, staff shortages, delays in pre-sentence and standard reports, and more besides. To what extent have these issues been resolved and what arrangements are in place to ensure regular monitoring of the situation?

I presume that the noble Lord is referring to the judicial review instituted by NAPO that was withdrawn by NAPO, which was ordered to pay the substantive costs of that judicial review. As to pre-sentence reports, there is a 97% response rate of timely reports. As all those who have had to sentence offenders will appreciate, from time to time before this transformation there were delays in these reports. It is greatly to the credit of the probation service that it has maintained this standard. It is to be congratulated on the hard work that it is doing in coping with this transformation.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House what progress is being made by the Probation Institute—the professional body for which many of us argued and which was established last year by the Probation Chiefs Association, the Probation Association and the two trade unions NAPO and UNISON? What role do the Government believe this institution might have in ensuring the continuing delivery of effective probation services?

My noble friend is quite right to draw the House’s attention to the Probation Institute, which, as well as providing assurance that existing standards are to be maintained when the various bodies to which he referred are combining, is also there to capture the innovation that we hope will follow the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. It has been going for a year, involves all those concerned with probation, and will help with training, research and the establishment of good practice.

My Lords, has an assessment been made of the impact of the reforms on the continuity of relationship between probationer and probation officer? In particular, there has been concern that higher-risk individuals moving to a lower risk might suffer from some discontinuity of relationship. Has there been an assessment of this important issue?

This is an important issue and there are no absolute answers to particular problems. However, all those involved, by their contractual obligations and their general responsibility to adhere to good practice, will try to maintain continuity where possible and ensure that there is not inappropriate transfer between the various categories.

My Lords, the noble Lord has emphasised that robust measures will be in place to ensure the safety of the public. However, does he not agree that the ultimate objective of the probation service is to enable people to become rehabilitated, good citizens? Will robust measures be put in place to make sure that the deliverers of service have got their eye on this, and not just on the profit?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. What this transformation is achieving for the first time is the ability for offenders who have received sentences of imprisonment of less than 12 months to receive through-the-gate support for a period of 12 months and assistance before their release from prison, as opposed to being released with a mere £46 in their pocket and no support. This should be celebrated on all sides of the House and provide genuine rehabilitation, reduce reoffending and enable offenders to take their full part in society.

My Lords, because the Minister used the word “transformation”—which it really is to the probation service as it entails enormous change—it is in the interests of us all that the service is effective and does its job well. Will the noble Lord assure the House that the Government will continue to monitor carefully how these changes are implemented so that we know that they are working at the grass roots?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord about the importance of maintaining proper oversight in the way in which this transformation is effected. The Government are committed to doing that, and whatever the shape of the Government after May, I am sure that that commitment will be maintained.