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Probation Contracts

Volume 785: debated on Tuesday 31 October 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the review of probation contracts, due for completion in April this year, will be published.

My Lords, we undertook an internal review of the probation system and, as a result, made changes to community rehabilitation company contracts in the summer. Details of these changes were contained in a Written Ministerial Statement from Minister Gyimah on 19 July. We are continuing to explore further improvements that could be made to the delivery of probation services and will set out at a later stage any changes that are made as a result of this work.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Clearly, all is not well with probation. Following a whole series of disappointingly and devastatingly bad reports by the chief inspector, the Justice Select Committee launched an inquiry. Following the bad contracting, during the summer the Ministry of Justice had to bail out community rehabilitation companies to the tune of £277 million, which it can ill afford. Many of the warnings in the official impact assessment that the rushed Transforming Rehabilitation agenda had a higher than average risk of failure have been proved correct. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are going to do about probation? Will they make time for a debate on the subject before the end of the year?

On that last point, I cannot say that the Government will be able to make time for a debate on the subject before the end of the year. On the suggestion of bad contracting, I would point out that contracts were entered into with 21 CRCs, and that those contracts encountered some financial difficulty for one particular reason—namely, it was originally anticipated that some 80% of those undertaking probation would be referred to the 21 community rehabilitation companies. In the event, only about 60% of those subject to probation supervision were referred to the companies, and that impacted directly upon their financial model as determined under the original contracts. For that reason, interim arrangements were made with the CRCs in the year 2016-17, and in the current year. However, the figure of £277 million referred to by the noble Lord is not a fixed figure: it may have to be met, depending on the performance of the CRCs.

My Lords, morale in Northumbria’s probation service and CRC is at a low level because of understaffing, with 50% of officers leaving the service, excessive workloads, less supervision and the need to concentrate on high-risk cases at the expense of other cases. This is exemplified by case loads of 40, including four to five high-risk cases, now being replaced by much higher case loads, with a greater proportion of high-risk cases and problems with escalating cases from the CRCs to the National Probation Service. What do the Government regard as a satisfactory case load for officers to manage in terms of overall numbers and the balance between high-risk and other cases?

There is no fixed proportion as between officers and the number of persons being supervised. That will depend upon the particular CRC and the circumstances in which it is engaged with the individual. The National Probation Service is in the course of recruiting 1,400 additional staff. In addition, the CRC contracts require providers to ensure that they have sufficient adequately trained staff in place. Indeed, results tend to bear that out. Nearly two-thirds of CRCs have reduced the number of people reoffending in the past year, according to statistics up to June 2017.

My Lords, is it not the case that the probation arrangements relating to those prisoners serving indeterminate sentences need to be brought up to date as a matter of urgency, since many of those prisoners should have been released long ago?

Clearly, there is an issue over the supervision of those subject to IPP sentences. The circumstances in which they come before the Parole Board are determined under existing rules. Those are always under consideration.

My Lords, just last month, the Chief Inspector of Probation laid out two conditions that she thought ought to be in the review: first, the community rehabilitation companies should have their finances put on a stable basis; secondly, these companies should be incentivised for success. Will the Minister heed the advice of his chief inspector, and will the Government meet this requirement as urgently as possible so that these companies can get on with the job of reducing reoffending, getting people into work and making sure that our prisons are not so overcrowded?

We are of course conscious of the recommendations made by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation, which is why we undertook the task in the summer of ensuring that the CRCs were properly financed. As a consequence of that, during the year 2016-17 an additional £37 million was made available, and in contract year four—that is, the first three months of this year—a further £22 million has been made available for the CRCs so that they can meet their commitments. Over and above that, I can confirm that the CRCs are incentivised under the terms of their present contracts to achieve results, and that will remain the position.

My Lords, the prison population has never been as great as it is today. Is it not therefore a serious matter that the Government should ensure that courts have available to them a robust, rigorous and serious range of non-custodial penalties? The probation service is central to that.

I agree with the noble Lord’s observations. In that connection, I would observe that, since February 2015, statutory supervision has been extended to a further 40,000 offenders who are otherwise sentenced to a period of imprisonment of less than 12 months—so that has increased the numbers subject to supervision. But clearly, we have regard to the extent to which community sentences and suspended sentence orders operate effectively. It is noted in the statistics published—

I am obliged to the noble Lord.

It is noted in the statistics published on 26 October 2017 that the extent of further offending is lower in the case of community sentences.